The Fight Over Who Should Own an Old Church Is Really a Battle Over the Soul of Old East Durham | Durham County | Indy Week
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The Fight Over Who Should Own an Old Church Is Really a Battle Over the Soul of Old East Durham 

The Reverend John Gumbo

Photo by Caitlin Penna

The Reverend John Gumbo

On a recent rainy afternoon, construction crews are taking shelter under the porches of the Driver Street bungalows on which they're working. The street is dotted with homes under renovation, sandwiched between understated Victorians, duplexes with peeling paint, and the occasional new construction.

Towering above them all is Shepherd's House United Methodist Church, a red brick Gothic at the corner of Main Street.

Since being gifted this property in 2008 by another, dwindling Methodist congregation, Shepherd's House has opened the eighteen-thousand-square-foot property to other organizations in line with its mission of helping the neighborhood and the immigrant community. There's the Life Changers International Ministry, which runs a GED program, and a Latino ministry. The church hosts the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham for vigils and roundtables. A food pantry feeds as many as eighty people twice each month.

But with the local district of the United Methodist Church considering selling the property to the North Carolina Council of Churches, church and community leaders worry all that is at risk. In a neighborhood where residents have been displaced as their affordable rentals were sold or rebuilt, this sale feels to them like yet another example of white people taking something good out of black and brown hands.

"This is a desperate situation where we are trying to protect the place we call home," says the Reverend John Gumbo, senior pastor at Shepherd's House.

The Council of Churches, a statewide ecumenical organization with members across eighteen denominations, says it doesn't intend to displace Shepherd's House and hopes the arrangement would benefit the building's tenants and its own mission of advancing racial, social, and economic justice. But congregants, who say they've been kept out of the process, aren't buying it.

Instead, they're trying to buy the church themselves.

Originally a fellowship of immigrants from Zimbabwe, Shepherd's House now has about 120 members from sixteen countries, says Gumbo, who's from Zimbabwe.

About thirteen years ago, Shepherd's House began worshipping in the Driver Street building, which had been home to Carr United Methodist Church since the late 1940s. As Carr's membership waned and Shepherd's House's grew, it became clear whose church it should be, Carr's then-pastor, wrote in Faith & Leadership, an online publication of Duke Divinity.

So, in 2008, Carr members voted to give the property, including the sanctuary, parsonage, and playground, to Shepherd's House. But, because Shepherd's House isn't chartered with the United Methodist Church, the deed was transferred to the board of trustees for the church's local district, now known as the Corridor District. The district was to be the custodian of the property. Shepherd's House leaders didn't realize that meant the district might sell the property to an outside institution.

"Is it because we are immigrants? Is that what this is?" says Elspeth Walker, an apostle at Shepherd's House and chair of the trustees committee. "Are they thinking we don't know better, that they can pull the wool over our faces? It was not theirs to sell and especially, to me, in the disrespectful way it was done."

Discussion about the Council renting space in Shepherd's House began about two years ago. But the Council never moved in, and talk of renting turned to collaborating on grants, and then to buying the place.

Jennifer Copeland, the Council's executive director, says the building just needed too much work, and that Gumbo last fall had been on board with the potential sale. Gumbo denies that, saying he doesn't see this becoming a mutually beneficial arrangement.

"This isn't a partnership," he says. "It's a takeover."

The Council and the trustees for the UMC district signed an offer to purchase the property in June, with an addendum saying Shepherd's House should "have a place of privilege," Copeland says.

After a 120-day due-diligence period, the Council's board will decide if it wants to move ahead with the sale. A contractor has estimated that the church needs $700,000 in work, including asbestos removal.

"What they have had in the use of that building was the gift of being allowed to use a building they did not own," Copeland says. "It's not that anybody is trying to take a building away from Shepherd's House. What I'm saying is we want Shepherd's House to be able to continue to use the building they have been using."

Church members say they only found out about the offer about three weeks ago. They formed an LLC and, two weeks ago, submitted their own offer for $355,000, a shade over the $350,000 the Council is offering. As of 2016, the property was valued at about $1.2 million.

The Reverend Carol Goehring, the UMC Corridor District's superintendent, says she hopes the sale will yield a partnership between "two Christian ministries that faithfully heed the call for justice and peace."

But community leaders say it's the way the sale has come together, rather than the prospect of coexisting with the Council—or even moving—that they find most upsetting. To Camryn Smith, executive director of Communities in Partnership, an Old East Durham-based grassroots organization, it's organizational white supremacy that disregards the ability of a community of color to decide what's best for itself.

"The foundation of this nation is white people who were called by God to be here, bought, transported, raped, pillaged, and owned human people for hundreds of years, and justified it and sanctioned it and thought it was OK theologically, ethically, and morally," she says. "These actions are a direct result of that type of history."

This dispute is wrapped up in emotions about the way the neighborhood is changing. Smack in the middle of Old East Durham, Shepherd's House is part of a census tract surrounded by new development, both downtown and in transit projects like the East End Connector and the proposed Durham Orange Light Rail Transit line.

In the smaller census block group immediately around the church, the black population has declined from about 69 percent in 2010 to 50 percent in 2016, with both the Hispanic population and smaller white population growing. Although median rents in the area have declined, there are fewer renter-occupied households. At the same time, the median income of homebuyers has increased from about $45,000 in 2012 to $72,000 last year, according to census data.

"My feeling is there's just no way this ever could be a beneficial relationship as far as we're concerned because the more properties that turn over into white ownership, into white hands, the more gentrification just speeds up even quicker," says Smith.

But Copeland says the Council wants to locate in East Durham specifically in order to surround itself with and lift up diverse voices. The organization, founded in 1935 by white and black clergy with a racial equity mission, facilitates a program that helps congregations that have taken in immigrants facing deportation and has passed resolutions opposing the resegregation of public schools, supporting efforts to combat climate change, and calling for a reexamination of Confederate monuments.

"We think of ourselves of a black and brown and white community—always have been," Copeland says. "Recognizing the perils of what's going on in East Durham, we might be a really good organization to come alongside folks who are fearful, and allay some of those fears or join arms with them and help them hold at bay some of the things they are afraid of."

If the sale goes through, the Council would bring a staff of nine. Without knowing the current arrangements between tenants and their respective costs, Copeland can't say what rental agreements would look like. There's even the possibility that the Council could charge Shepherd's House rent. But "nobody is looking to gouge a tenant," Copeland says, and she hopes the existing organizations stay.

"We're a nonprofit. We don't have to make money. We just need to break even," she says.

Apostle Roy Dunkins, pastor of Life Changers International Ministry, fights back emotion as he speaks about what the space at Shepherd's House has meant to his congregation. Members with no college graduates in their families earned their GED certificates, he says, and others turned away from thoughts of suicide.

For Feed My Sheep, a food pantry that has operated out of the building for five years, the possibility of having to pay rent—rather than contributing to utilities, as it does now—is daunting. And moving, if it can find a space big and cheap enough, would take the organization away from the people it serves, says executive director Jackie Blackwell.

This isn't a position Gumbo is happy to find himself in—stuck between his church and other Methodists.

"I lose sleep over this," he says. "Where I am, I have to balance—to understand that we have an obligation to make sure we don't end up throwing mud onto the gospel."

swillets@indyweek.com

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