Residents wary as megachurch expands outreach services

by Amy Kingsley

Ruth Warren remembers when the city turned her neighborhood into a dump.

Before then, Mount Zion was a quiet residential patch far from downtown. Warren’s parents, who moved to the area 55 years ago, were among the first residents who built the block from the ground up. Literally.

Warren pointed past the curtains on her sitting room window to the spot on Anderson Street where the asphalt abruptly turns from near black to faded gray. Her parents and other early residents poured and smoothed the original blacktop.

It was a pleasant, tight-knit African-American neighborhood, she said, until the dump arrived. Since then the neighborhood has changed, Warren said. Drug rehabilitation and youth psychiatric centers moved in; the school district shuttered Mount Zion School and, most alarmingly to Warren, ministers from the Evangel Fellowship started eyeing available property.

“Everything here is about evangelists,” Warren said. “They have come in here and they have brought in people from the jail and from out of town. They haven’t done anything for the people in this community.”

Recently Eugene Peterson, the program director at Malachi house, a drug treatment facility started by Evangel Fellowship, lobbied the city to permit him to operate a boarding house in the neighborhood. Graduates of Malachi House could live at the house until they obtained more permanent housing. Peterson emphasized the housing would be transitional, not therapeutic.

“Many of the men from Malachi House have severed relationships with spouses, loved ones, parents,” he said. “Others came from jail or were homeless.”

The boarding house is Peterson’s project and not directly affiliated with Malachi House. Despite his good intentions, both the neighbors and the Greensboro Zoning Commission have been hostile to Peterson’s proposal.

The commission voted unanimously to deny Peterson the boarding house permit, and he withdrew his application on appeal to the Greensboro City Council. Peterson said he plans to resubmit the proposal, which originally called for nine beds, as a six-bed boarding house. Four men, the maximum number of unrelated residents allowed by Greensboro housing code to live in a house, currently dwell in Peterson’s property.

Carolyn Pritchett has lived in Mount Zion all of her 56 years and attends the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church that shares its name with the neighborhood. She attended Mount Zion School for nine years and spoke against Peterson’s proposal at the zoning commission hearing. Pritchett said she is worried about the type of people, including ex-felons, Malachi House brings into her neighborhood. She admitted that none of the residents have caused any problems yet.

“We don’t know what all kinds of people are coming in here,” she said. “And there’s always a first time for something bad to happen.”

Like Warren, she is concerned with Evangel Fellowship’s interest in her neighborhood. The church, which is affiliated with the Church of God in Christ, one of the largest African American denominations in the country, first moved to their neighborhood in 1988, led by the Rev. Otis Lockett. By 1999, the congregation that had been memberless in 1984 had experienced such dramatic growth that its facilities included a fellowship hall, daycare, classrooms and fitness center split between two buildings on opposite ends of town.

In 2003 the church consolidated its operations at the Power Center, a megachurch with 1,800 seats, a bookstore and administrative offices. Soon after the Power Center opened, the church broke ground on a youth recreation center called Power Play that includes a movie theater, bowling alley, snack bar and basketball court.

Malachi House, which is now independent of Evangel Fellowship, was an early outreach program opened in 1985. The center offers 12-month residential drug rehabilitation, education and job training for 70 adult men. In 2005, Lockett won an award from the FBI for his service to youth and recovering addicts.

From Balboa Street, Malachi House resembles a ranch-style house on steroids. Warren can see the back of the facility from her backyard. The elderly Anderson Street resident laments the fact that she never had the opportunity to be more of a community leader.

She did petition the city to extend sewer and water service in the 1960s and recently attended the zoning commission meeting to oppose Peterson’s proposal. In between, she raised four children by herself.

“This is an old neighborhood,” Warren said. “If they are religious people and are doing so much, why are they only doing stuff for people on drugs?”

Warren keeps a Bible with yellowed pages propped open on her coffee table. She attends church in Caswell County most Sundays, but when she does not feel up to driving, she turns to her mother’s church – Mount Zion AME.

Both she and Pritchett said Mount Zion AME tried to buy the vacant Mount Zion School from the county, which operated it as a school for African Americans during segregation. The church did not return phone calls from YES! Weekly.

“Mount Zion wanted to do something for elderly people,” Warren said.

Pritchett said the mainline church could not afford to buy the property. Now a sign out front proclaims Mount Zion School the future home of the Evangel Fellowship Training School. Elder John Brinsfield of Evangel Fellowship did not return calls seeking comment.

Neither Pritchett nor Warren knew what would move into the deteriorated school, but both said they did not think it would benefit them or their neighbors.

“This is our community,” Pritchett said. “But it’s like the reverend is trying to make it his community.”

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