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Long a pillar, church appeals for its own support

The Rev. William Dickerson preached at an interfaith unity service at the Greater Love Tabernacle Church.

YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

The Rev. William Dickerson preached at an interfaith unity service at the Greater Love Tabernacle Church.

The Rev. William Dickerson has buried many sons of this city through the years.

Wakes, funerals, grief are a refrain in his work. He ministers to families in crisis and offers his church as a haven.

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Now Dickerson and his Greater Love Tabernacle Church are fighting to stay open. Residents from across Boston turned out in force Sunday for an interfaith service to help the church raise funds to pay off its debt.

“We’ve got your back,’’ said the Rev. Liz Walker of Roxbury Presbyterian Church.

Along the church’s burgundy pews, clergy members sat near police top brass and lawmakers near families of homicide victims. In rousing speeches and songs, some said Greater Love is a bedrock in the community.

“This is a fabulous church,’’ thundered Mayor Martin J. Walsh, as worshipers rose and applauded. “The spirit they have inside this church is the same spirit they have outside.”

Belynda Skinner, whose son was killed in 2004, recalled how she turned to alcohol after the slaying to help her cope. Dickerson and his church pulled her through, she said. “He would hug me. . . . I could tell he could smell liquor . . . but he never judged me,” she told the packed church.

Greater Love Tabernacle Church, with a congregation of roughly 600, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Dec. 10 to stave off foreclosure.

The filing marks the second time recently that a prominent and once-prosperous African-American church has faced financial crisis. Just two years ago, Charles Street AME Church found itself swimming in debt and leaning on faith to survive.

The church is still finding a way to stabilize finances.

In times of prosperity, both churches had ambitions to be more than a place of worship to the struggling communities they serve. They wanted large centers for gathering, jobs creation, healing, and learning.

But both visions came to a halt after the economy stagnated and money stopped coming in.

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

The Rev. William Dickerson said the church is working with a lawyer and a specialist to restructure.

“This is one of the last black institutions in the country. They are all under threat,’’ said Lester Sabb, a member of Charles Street AME Church who attended the interfaith service.

Dickerson vows to keep the church doors open.

“It’s unfortunate, but it is something we have to deal with,’’ Dickerson said. “We are working with a lawyer, and we have a specialist trying to help us restructure and reorganize.”

Church members said they are confident in their pastor and his ability to lead them through the crisis.

“God is in control,’’ said Tashawn King, the church’s praise and worship leader. “We’re already conquering this.”

“I’m praying for our pastor,’’ added church member Heather Foster of Mattapan.

During the interfaith service Sunday, people filled out their names and addresses on strips of paper and put money in envelopes to kick off the church’s fund-raising effort. One man put $6 in an envelope. Another man said he gave $100. And Kevin Campbell, 46, of Dorchester, said he gave $300.

“Pastor Dickerson has been an icon in this community,’’ said Campbell, who attends Jubilee Christian Church in Mattapan. “He’s always been there” for us.

Dickerson founded the church at his kitchen table in 1989, and in 2000 Greater Love acquired the building of the old Chai Odom synagogue on Nightingale Street.

At the time, the church was one of several African-American religious congregations breathing new life into old synagogues in neighborhoods including Mattapan and Dorchester, according to Michael J. Goldberg of Casner & Edwards, which is doing pro bono work on behalf of the church.

Greater Love Tabernacle Church borrowed $520,000 from Citizens Bank and raised additional funds to pay for the synagogue, according to the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds.

In 2004, the church refinanced the loan and increased the mortgage to roughly $750,000, which came due in 2009. The church continued to make its $5,000 monthly mortgage payments, Goldberg said.

In 2010, the church took on another financial burden with plans for a community center, with space for training, jobs, retail establishments, and classes. It bought a former lumber yard on neighboring Talbot Avenue and signed a three-year lease with an option to purchase worth about $600,000. The lease’s monthly payment due to Franklin Field Realty Inc. was $4,800.

By 2012, the church, whose plan was to raise donations to pay the lease, was struggling to make the $10,000 it owed each month for the lease and mortgage.

“It was a strain financially,” Dickerson said. “The bills started piling up.”

Also in 2012, the mortgage was sold to Texas-based VFC Partners 18 LLC, which extended the loan for another three years. But in 2013, the church missed two or three payments, Goldberg said.

And by November, the mortgage company sought to foreclose and put the church up for sale.

“VFC is the present holder of both the note and the mortgage,’’ the company said in court documents. “VFC possesses the right to exercise the statutory power of sale.”

Greater Love Tabernacle Church sought bankruptcy relief.

“Just give us time so that we can repay our debt at some level we can afford,” Goldberg said.

Under bankruptcy protection, creditors are now prohibited from collecting money from the church, and the Dec. 11 foreclosure was halted.

The church will have to file a proposal to reorganize, and must line up funds through a combination of a new loan and donations to refinance the mortgage.

There is no deadline for raising the funds and repaying the mortgage, Goldberg said.

Goldberg said that at the time of the bankruptcy filing, VFC said the church owed some $687,000. The church is hoping to raise funds from donors and negotiate a reasonable payoff, Goldberg added.

The church’s financial troubles are similar to those of Charles Street AME Church, where the Rev. Gregory Groover’s vision for an ambitious $4 million community center in Grove Hall fell onto hard times.

Groover had imagined a sparkling facility where couples could celebrate their marriages in a ballroom, young people could study and record music, and fledgling businesses could get a start. Groover’s church borrowed heavily, counting on future fund-raising proceeds and fees the center would charge to repay loans.

But those plans were overtaken by unexpected construction delays and an economic collapse, and a lender that had serious problems of its own.

Greater Love Tabernacle Church is widely thought of as a bedrock in a section of the city plagued by some of its most severe problems — poverty, high unemployment, crime.

Through its ministries, the church connects with prisoners, feeds the homeless, and helped lead an effort to address AIDS and HIV.

During Sunday’s service, children sang and people prayed.

“This church is packed and it’s not a funeral,” exclaimed Dickerson. “Come and give the Lord praise.”

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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