Church asks professor to mediate in dispute with bank

Ministers and community leaders have reached out to high-profile Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree to mediate a loan dispute between the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church and OneUnited Bank.

The leaders sought Ogletree’s help on Monday, a day after the simmering fight between the two prominent black institutions drew hundreds to a two-hour protest at the church, attended by a who’s-who of Boston’s activist ministers, city councilors, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino. OneUnited, which courted the church’s business several years ago, is threatening to foreclose on the historic Roxbury church and auction off its property on March 22.

Ogletree, in an interview, confirmed that advocates for the church had approached him and that he agreed to volunteer his services. The law professor is a respected commentator on race issues and represented Harvard colleague Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose arrest in his Cambridge home sparked a scandal over race and police power.


‘‘I’ve been asked if I’d be willing to do it and the answer was yes,’’ Ogletree said. ‘‘I know both sides well and know both their important roles in the community.’’

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Ogletree said he knows both the bank’s chief executive, Kevin Cohee, and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Gregory G. Groover.

‘‘I think an opportunity to have a third person listen to both sides makes sense,’’ Ogletree said.

OneUnited Bank, in a statement, said it cannot discuss customer details without permission. The bank said it ‘‘will consider any requests put forth by its borrowers or from authorized third-party representatives on their behalf,’’ if there is written authorization. ‘‘In that event, we will respond promptly.’’

OneUnited is suing the 194-year-old congregation over a $3.7 million construction loan on a community center it was building. It is also trying to foreclose on a separate, $1.1 million loan that is backed by the church building. Ross Martin, an attorney for the church, said Charles Street owes about $4 million on the loans that have come due, and OneUnited has been unwilling to refinance them.


Meanwhile, a number of political forces, including members of Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, are working behind the scenes to broker a resolution between the two institutions. Many have cited the help the federal government gave OneUnited when it received $12 million in bailout funds amid the 2008 financial crisis.

‘‘I hope that every possible effort will be made by OneUnited bank to stand behind the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in their time of need, just like the federal government did when OneUnited Bank needed help just a few years ago,’’ Senator John F. Kerry said in a statement. ‘‘This church is critical to the community and has played an important role in the history of the City of Boston. Every effort must be made to help refinance their loans.’’

Senator Scott Brown and his aides were reaching out to encourage talks between the parties, according to two people briefed on the matter. In a statement, Brown urged OneUnited to ‘‘sit down with the church and negotiate in good faith.’’

Cohee was in Boston last Friday for a board meeting, according to Melvin B. Miller, a OneUnited director who is publisher of the Bay State Banner newspaper in Boston. Miller declined to discuss the church loan but did attend the Sunday gathering.

If the bank and the church cannot reach a resolution by March 15, the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers and members of the Boston TenPoint Coalition said they plan to boycott the bank, and will urge customers to withdraw money.


Councilor Ayanna Pressley made several attempts to reach OneUnited’s chief, Cohee, but has not heard back. In a statement, she said, ‘‘I am shocked that OneUnited, which claims to be fulfilling the civil rights dream by investing in urban areas, would treat the foreclosure of one of Boston’s most historic black churches as simply the cost of doing business.’’ She called the bank’s apparent unwillingness to restructure the loan ‘‘sadly ironic.’’

‘‘Apparently, OneUnited’s commitment to urban communities only lasted until their $12 million check from the federal government cleared,’’ Pressley said.

Beth Healy can be reached at