Many had already been to church in the morning, but they returned Sunday night, by the hundreds, to rally around the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, and to protest the owners of OneUnited Bank, who are trying to foreclose on the historic black church and auction off its property.
More than 300 people gathered at the Roxbury church, which is on Warren Street, for a two-hour meeting marked by rousing speeches and church hymns. Led by the Boston TenPoint Coalition’s chief, Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a host ofministers, politicians, and community leaders crowded onto the altar and gave impassioned sermons against greed and injustice, bringing the packed church to its feet.
The leaders called on OneUnited Bank to help the church refinance its loans, or face a national boycott.
“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 these days, 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 and with a cast on his leg, amid boisterous singing. He took a sharp stand against OneUnited and the lawmakers in Washington who gave the minority-owned bank a $12 million bailout but have not pressed it 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,” said Menino. He urged the crowd to tell Washington “enough’s enough,” and said there had been “deafening silence” from the capital over the church’s plight, despite the millions of dollars in assistance OneUnited had received from taxpayers.
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 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.”
In 2005, Cohee and his wife, Teri Williams, stood alongside the mayor proclaiming their plans to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Roxbury and Dorchester. Now the community feels the bank is attacking a prized institution, which was founded in 1818 on Beacon Hill and was an important center for abolitionists.
The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a community activist, put it bluntly Sunday night.
“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.” If there is no resolution by then, he said, the ministers would seek a nationwide boycott of OneUnited, and would march on the bank’s nearby Grove Hall branch.
“We are calling on all black people to withdraw every dime they have in OneUnited if they don’t resolve this issue,” Rivers later said in an interview.
Cohee in the past had presented 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 to build a nearby community center.
The church fell behind on payments during the recession, and OneUnited sued in 2010 when the church failed to repay a $3.7 million construction 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 has been unwilling to negotiate.
Rev. Gregory G. Groover, the head of the church and chairman of the Boston School Committee, said the church never missed a payment on the loan backed by the Charles Street AME.
Lucille Belin, a member of the church since 1959, came to the rally to show support. “I came tonight because I was interested in what’s going on, and I’ve been a member here so long.”
OneUnited has eked out profits through 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.
Several speakers said the goal was not to demonize the bank. But Councilor Tito Jackson, among the city politicians in attendance Sunday night, said foreclosing on Charles Street “is not going to happen on our watch.”
Jackson said, “Ladies and gentlemen, a miracle is going to occur - a miracle on Warren Street.”
Beth Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.