Two African-American churches that have served their urban Texas community for decades are fighting for survival as the city of Houston has made plans to bulldoze one of the church buildings and condemn the other church's properties in order to clear space for a new urban renewal project.
The Liberty Institute, the legal group representing Christian Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church and Latter Day Deliverance Revival Center in the city's Fifth Ward, filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to prevent the city government from "stealing" the church properties through eminent domain.
The city has planned to procure four parcels of land in the Fifth Ward, which all are located on one city block, and include both the Christian Fellowship church building on New Orleans Street and three properties owned by Latter Day that are used for community gatherings and also serve as youth centers, rehabilitation ministries, food pantries and other important ministries.
As the Fifth Ward has had violent and crime-infested past, the city plans to use the churches' properties as part of a development project that reportedly includes a 63-unit affordable housing project, a new library and an urgent care facility.
Christian Fellowship and its pastor Quinton Smith along with Latter Day and its pastor Bishop Roy Lee Kossie have made it clear that they are not interested in selling the church properties because that is where God has called them to minister.
The city has not yet started the eminent domain process on the church building but has begun the process on the parcels owned by Latter Day, two of which are undeveloped but used for outdoor ministry
Liberty Institute senior counsel Jeremy Dys told The Christian Post on Wednesday that the court has granted a temporary restraining order against the Houston Housing Authority preventing it from carrying on with the eminent domain process of the Christian Fellowship church building while the court weighs the issue.
Dys added that both churches have done so much in the past 40-plus years to help rebuild the Fifth Ward from the ghetto it used to be to a place where people can comfortably live and raise a family. He added that it is wrong and illegal for the government to take their land.
"These churches have been all along the way from back when the Fifth Ward was called 'the bloody Fifth', or as Texas Monthly used to call it — 'the toughest, proudest, baddest ghetto in all of Texas.' This was back when it took the police hours instead of minutes to get to them when gunfire was a routine sound in the community," Dys explained. "These churches have been buying up properties and houses of ill repute and turning them into centers for youth, tearing down one that had to be torn down and building new places for youth centers, ministries for people coming out of drug addiction and that sort of thing."
"Now that the churches have done well to get this challenging community back on their feet, now that they have done a good job of cleaning up the properties and getting the Fifth Ward back into a good place to live in and to work in and to raise a family, the city is saying, 'Thanks a lot for the hard work, good bye. You got to get out of here,'" Dys added.
Bishop Kossie, who served as the pastor of Latter Day since 1965, said that God told him to put a church in the Fifth Ward to minister to the troubled community and that is where he plans to stay.
"When we moved in to this area, it was considered the highest crime-rate area in the city of Houston. People shot first and asked questions later," Kossie said in a statement. "But we love this community. This is where the Lord called us and this is where we want to stay. We aren't giving up without a fight."
Although the churches want to keep their property, Tory Gunsolley, president and CEO of the Houston Housing Authority, said that the church property is a vital parcel involved in the city's whole renewal project.
"And the main parcel of land that they own is essentially the alley down the center of the block that would stop - without that parcel we can't pursue redevelopment," Gunsolley told the Houston Chronicle.
Although the city claims it is in the public interest to seize the properties and and continue with the development project, Dys argued that what the city deems is in the public interest of the Fifth Ward is different from what the Fifth Ward residents deem is in the public interest of their own community.
"I'm sure they think it is in the public interest and that is what they keep on saying about it all but it's never in the public interest to steal a church property and kick them out of a community that they have invested in for a combined 80 years," Dys said. "So, they are simply ignoring and discounting the hard laboring work that these churches have done for 60-plus years."
Dys is optimistic that previous court precedents will help protect the future of the churches.
"In fact, the courts have said across the country that we can take judicial notice that churches and religious organizations promote the public welfare and support the public interest," Dys said. "It is not legal to take a church property and to move them off the property. The churches are entitled to be able to stay on their property and in their building secure in that regard, unless the city can provide a very compelling reason for stealing these church properties, then they can't take the property."