Several hundred people gathered at the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal church Sunday evening to protest OneUnited Bank’s effort to foreclose on the historic black church’s property following a dispute over a loan.
Led by Boston TenPoint Coalition chief Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a host of local ministers, politicians, and community leaders crowded onto the altar and gave a series of impassioned sermons against what they called greed and injustice. Rallying a packed church to their feet in a spirited two-hour demonstration, the leaders called on OneUnited Bank’s owners to come to the negotiating table to help church refinance its loans -- or face the wrath of the community.
“We are here this evening because there’s a battle going on,’’ Brown said to thunderous applause and shouts of “hallelujah” and “amen.” He said the community was gathered to support the Charles Street AME because, “When they are threatened, we are threatened.”
OneUnited is the nation’s largest bank owned by black executives. Kevin Cohee, the bank’s chief executive and majority owner, is spending most of his time in California, near the bank’s Los Angeles office and has not issued a personal statement throughout the escalating fight over $5 million in loans the church owes.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino walked down the center aisle on crutches, amid boisterous singing. He took a sharp stand against OneUnited and lawmakers in Washington who gave the minority-bank a $12 million federal bailout but have not pressed the institution to work with the church.
“You’ve shown the whole country we’re not going to stand for this corporate, greedy individual to take away one of the bedrocks of the city of Boston,’’ Menino said. He urged the crowd to tell Washington “enough’s enough,” and said there had been “deafening silence” from Washington over the church’s plight, despite millions of dollars taxpayers sent to bail out OneUnited.
OneUnited executives had no comment following the protest but in a statement in advance of the gathering defended its record.
“As the largest black-owned bank in the country, OneUnited Bank has loaned over $500 million to families and charitable institutions, including churches, in low-to-moderate income communities in Boston, Los Angeles and Miami,’’ the statement said.
The bank indicated that it had begun foreclosure proceedings and scheduled an auction for later this month because the Roxbury church defaulted on a $1.1 million loan. “We trust the community will not rush to judgment without full knowledge of all the facts. From its inception as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, OneUnited always sides with the community to protect our community’s assets.”
But that was not at all the view of the community leaders gathered Sunday night at a church that was founded in 1818, an important center for abolitionists in Boston, and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“Tonight, to America, to Mr. Cohee, we say, Listen brother. We’re going to give you to March 15th to get your house in order,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers.
If there is no resolution by then, he said, the ministers would seek a nationwide boycott of OneUnited, and would march on the church’s nearby Grove Hall branch.
Cohee and his wife, Teri Williams, in the past had touted customers like the Charles Street AME as shining examples of their community lending efforts. They had courted the church, and its 1,000 members, to bring deposits to its local branch, and had made loans to the church and for its nearby community center.
The church fell behind on payments during the recession, and OneUnited sued in 2010 when the church failed to repay the loan. Meanwhile, a separate $1.1 million loan, which uses the church property as collateral, came due in November. Church officials and their lawyers say they want to refinance these loans but that the bank, facing its own financial troubles, has been unwilling to negotiate.
OneUnited has been profitable throughout the financial crisis, but has been under pressure to shore up its capital and has stringently cut back its lending. It has yet to repay its government bailout and has skipped its interest payments to taxpayers.
OneUnited maintains that it has given the church many chances to make good on its loans, but that the church was looking for forgiveness on part of the debt. That request was rejected by the bank.Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.