By Michal Ortner
The former pastor of Zion Missionary Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Andre Harris, closed the doors of the church in June of 2014, announcing that he was retiring. The congregation soon came to find out that he intended to sell the church and house that was also located on the lot.
The Zion congregation of about 20 people filed a lawsuit against Harris at the San Mateo County Superior Court, claiming that they owned the property and its structures. They did not wish to sell.
On March 20, 2015, the case was settled, handing the church back over to the congregation members.
Arthel Coleman, a deacon and the main plaintiff in the case, says that the terms of their settlement are satisfactory to the church family.
While Harris was pastor, the church hailed under the name of Born Again Christian Center (BACC). Since they have re-opened their doors, they now use the name they had at the time of their founding in 1969. According to Coleman, the church once held about 100 members, but after Harris arrived in 1999, they began to dwindle.
In May of 2014, the faithful few members that were left discovered a real estate sign on the front lawn of their church. Records showed that Harris and his wife had taken possession of the property, calling it a “gift.” Coleman says that the congregation gathered on June 29 for an explanation and were handed notes of ex-communication from the pastor.
When the members regained the keys to the church, one congregant, Elaine Blue, immediately went to check the grounds. What she found inside was what she called a “heartbreaking mess.”
“There were people living inside, using drugs. There were people taking a bath in the baptismal pool,” Blue said, adding that she spent a full 12 hours inside the building cleaning.
Coleman’s mother-in-law, Harleen Rafiee-tari, recalls what the church used to be: “I used to walk these grounds and I would pray all over on this land. … The Lord let this church be a light on this corner, and all he asks is for you to be faithful. It doesn’t matter how small you are. Don’t look at what’s not here. When we first started, there were a few people. Then the church kept growing and growing.”
“Right here, we’re going to be putting up a big sign soon. It will say, ‘Zion Missionary Baptist Church,’” Coleman said, standing outside of the church.
According to Coleman, the congregation will take their time in selecting a new pastor and leader of their church family.
“This time, we want to make sure we have the right person,” he said.