More than protests may be needed to save the historic Charles Street AME Church, whose leaders are now locked in a painfully public battle with OneUnited, the bank that has threatened to seize it.
Thus far, pressure from public officials has not had any visible effect on the planned foreclosure. Neither has a public relations flogging that makes frequent mention of the bank’s ready acceptance of $12 million in federal money with little corresponding sense of public responsibility.
Though Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree has offered his services as a mediator, no mediation is taking place at this point. The only word bank officials seem capable of uttering at this point is no.
While drama takes place outside its walls, the crisis has prompted significant soul-searching inside the 194-year-old church, as well. The question is not only how the church could have gotten into such a deep mess, but how to avoid another one if this can be resolved.
No one connected to Charles Street AME has suggested that the church should be exempt from paying its bills. But while anyone can understand that the bank wants to get paid, church leaders are frustrated by its reluctance to negotiate.
The foreclosure has revealed obvious shortcomings in church management. Two prominent members of the congregation with legal and financial experience quietly approached the Rev. Gregory Groover earlier this week, urging specific reforms. They told him he needs more help with the finances and should consider setting up a financial oversight committee, using parishioners with financial and real estate expertise to provide guidance. Church members clearly believe that Groover needs help managing the books.
Let’s put it right on the table: part of the ugliness of this situation is that it pits a revered black church against a black-owned bank. The awkwardness of going to battle against a perceived natural ally isn’t lost on the church’s members.
“It’s unfortunate that this is a struggle between these two institutions,’’ one of them said Friday. “The reality is that the numbers involved are so big that we have to work it out. We need each other.’’
Groover told me he is planning to take them up on their advice. “We’re planning on pulling a team together,’’ he said. “That’s the direction we’re quickly moving in.’’
Groover expressed frustration at being unable to deal directly with the bank, which has forced him to negotiate in the press. “All we want to do is sit down with them and try to work this out,’’ he said. “We’re convinced that this can be a win-win.’’
Charles Street AME has a special place in Boston history. It was founded on the backside of Beacon Hill when that was the center of Boston’s black community; many of its original members were domestic workers employed by white families on Beacon Street. It was, at the time, just one of many black churches in the neighborhood.
Shortly after the Civil War they all left, following their parishioners, who were moving to lower Roxbury and the South End. Charles Street was the last one out of the neighborhood, in 1939. Parishioners so cherished the historical connection to Beacon Hill that they refused to change the name when they moved to Warren Street. Ripping this institution out of Roxbury would leave a void.
At their best, churches are all about introspection, and for Charles Street AME, this is clearly a time to look within. Supporters have marshaled their voices to try to bring the bank to the table, an effort I’m guessing will eventually succeed. And the church is left wondering how - after all it has survived - it has come to this point.
“This is our loan, and we own it,’’ Groover said. “We want to pay it back, and we think there is a reasonable way to do that. This will be wonderful news for the city, that these institutions can work it out. That will be the teachable moment.’’