By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
After ten years of disappointments, broken promises and false optimism, the city is taking Pilgrim Baptist Church leaders to demolition court in an effort to once and for all put an end to the decade-old controversy of what to do with the burned down property at 3300 S. Indiana.
A Cook County judge is set to hear the case and make a final decision in October. The church, which is the birthplace of gospel music, burned to the ground in 2006 after workers repairing the roof accidentally started a fire.
Since its destruction, the few remaining church members have been having services across the street in another building. But the walls that survived the fire have become an eyesore to the community and residents have been fuming with church leaders’ tepid response to their questions on future plans. Steel braces that are needed to keep the walls standing have blocked sidewalks around the structure and the alley behind the grounds has been inaccessible causing even more backlash from the community.
The Crusader caught up with Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) last month during the announcement of the Obama Presidential Library Center. While she did not want to go into details, Dowell did confirm the city is taking the church to court.
Last September, Dowell confirmed the church would not be rebuilt and said the city might use the land for a park.
Pilgrim leaders Cynthia Jones, Alfonso Carrington and Robert Vaughn, widower of former Chicago Teachers Union President Jacqueline Vaughn, who for years promised the public they would rebuild and use hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through a public campaign, have gone silent the past few years. Jones, in particular, has become adversarial towards members of the media who are asking questions about church monies.
A former Pilgrim member who claims to have knowledge of the situation, tells the Crusader they have advised remaining members to urge the police to launch an investigation into Jones for a variety of alleged financial crimes.
In 2014, Tyrone Jordan, who had served as pastor for three years, was arrested for trespassing after he was fired by the Board of Trustees, but still wanted to attend the church as a visiting member. The charges against him were dismissed, but his firing was upheld.
Another outspoken church member, Isaac Whitman, has also filed suit against the church leadership in attempts to get answers regarding the church’s financial status.
Whitman and other members think the church leadership is hiding a lot from its own members about how much money is in the church’s accounts. During a lengthy post on social media earlier this year, Whitman implored other members to ask questions.
“A lawsuit was recently filed against the church for non-compliance with the church bylaws, state law for not for profit corporations and federal law,” Whitman wrote. “Deacons wearing the title as a Trustee are operating a conspiracy over the Rebuilding Fund. How much monies has the church collected for this fund since the church burned down in January 2006? Have any funds been spent by Deacons/Trustees for their own personal use? Trustees won’t share the information. They are hiding something. Using [sic] your monies for legal fees against another church member [sic] rights to see the books? Wake up church members and request to see the books in detail on money collected and checks written. Finally, an effort will be made to revoke the tax exempt status given to Pilgrim Baptist Church.”
The questions Whitman is asking are the same questions many members of the public are asking. Residents around the church are happy to hear a final resolution is forthcoming.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Mary Collins. “I blame the city for allowing it to go on this long. The church leadership showed their cards years ago when they would not tell us how much money they had and could not reveal any concrete written evidence or plans to the community. I think we were trying to be neighborly the first couple of years because we know the history of the church and what it means to the Black community. But, I don’t like liars or thieves, and my street instincts are telling me the people running Pilgrim are both.”
The Crusader will continue to follow this story as it develops. The church will turn 100 in September.