An Arkansas congregation is trying to fight back after it says its historic church was stolen from them by a “squatter bishop.”
A more than 100 year-old-church building in Crossett, Arkansas, is at the center of a bitter battle between two different congregations, with one saying the building was stolen from them by a preacher who took advantage of an elderly secretary, according to a report from KATV.
The church, which was built in 1915 and since the 1970s has been known as Allen Temple CME Church, has a new leader and a new name under Bishop Earnest Smith, though not everyone is happy about his arrival.
The dispute originated in 2019, when leaders of Allen Temple CME say the church was forced to close its doors for about a year while waiting for another minister. That’s when Smith, who had just started his own ministry the year prior, asked if he could rent out the building, according to Allen Temple CME leaders.
But Bishop Smith has since refused to give up the building despite the pleas of its former congregants, even going so far as to change the locks.
“This is what you call a mortgage burning,” Claudelle Smith, a trustee from Allen Temple CME Church, told KATV. “Right now, we don’t even have a key to get into it.”
The church, which once belonged to Allen Temple CME, now has a new sign out front and a new name, Temple of Faith Ministries, while the former congregants are left fighting for the building they believe is rightfully their own.
“It’s been going on too long. It’s time for him to go. We have had our locks changed a lot of times, and he [comes] right back in and just [takes] over. He said he will not leave. But you will go, Earnest Smith,” Rekandria Leach, another Allen Temple CME member, told KATV.
Leach said the arrangement between Bishop Smith and Allen Temple CME started well enough. However, when it came time for Smith to sign a new lease with the church, Leach said he refused.
“He rented it for $200 for a year, and after that year went by, we agreed, and he was supposed to pay $400 rent. He didn’t want to sign another lease agreement or anything,” Leach said.
Reached for comment by Fox News Digital on Temple of Faith Ministries’ Facebook page, a representative of the church said the claims made by Allen Temple CME members are “a lie.” Asked to elaborate on the situation, the church declined to comment further.
But speaking to KATV, Bishop Smith detailed a different version of events, telling the station that he would “never do that” and that he paid Allen Temple CME $200 a month for about three years. He said the Allen Tempe CME Church secretary, Faye Pam, game him the impression that the lease arrangement was temporary and that the building would eventually be given to his ministry.
“She said, ‘We are probably going to give you the building because we’re not going to use the building.’ She said, ‘Because I know you.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I said, ‘Thank you’ – really got excited. We paid. We’ve never been squatters. We’ve been paying all this money to her, and we’ve got proof that we paid the money to her,” Bishop Smith said. “She said, ‘You all can have it but let me talk to my people in Little Rock.’ She kept telling us about people in Little Rock. I was thinking the people in Little Rock was the CME. She came to service one Sunday. She came back to service another Sunday, so I asked her, ‘Hey, Sister Pam, have you talked to your people?’ [and she said,] ‘Oh yeah, we going to, Pastor, don’t worry about it. We going to take care of you.’ That’s what she said.”
Bishop Smith also disputed that the payments made to Allen Temple CME amounted to rent, instead arguing that they were made for an insurance policy to cover the building. It was only last year that Pam approached him about a lease agreement.
“I called her. I said, ‘We need a commercial lease with the correct [people’s] name on the lease; not just you, not just you,'” Bishop Smith said.
The bishop said the building actually has no owner now, a position that Claudelle Smith disputes.
“What I hold in my hand here is the deeds. Allen Temple CME Church, that’s who it belongs to,” Smith said. “Squatters come in and take over, and they’ll get something for nothing where they’re not paying for it.”
Smith argued that the building was never abandoned but instead was always owned by Allen Temple CME and that it would have reopened when the church received another pastor.
“This has not been an abandoned church. Again, if the church was abandoned, how did you attain entrance into the church? How did you do that? Did you just one day open the door and go in? If that’s the case, I can go over there to that house, force entrance, and go in and nobody can do nothing about it,” Smith said.
“You had to obtain a way to get into this church, and he [knows] how it was attained,” Smith continued. “He [knows] what he signed, and he has not paid a penny to be in this church in two years. And all we want is for him to get out of our church, just get out.”
Meanwhile, Leach argued that Bishop Smith took advantage of her elderly mother, who was trying to help him with his ministry.
“My mother and them, they was very nice to him. They bought him robes. They bought him suits, you know, thinking they was doing the right thing. But nowadays, my opinion, [the] pastor is into the ministry just for the money,” Leach said. “We’re not causing trouble. We just want our church back.”
But Bishop Smith has no plans to vacate the building, telling KATV that his attorney has advised him against it.
“The attorney told me since you’re there and you [are] established, you can go in there,” Bishop Smith said. “Do I want to move? The flesh does because I’m tired. But the spirit [keeps] telling me to fight this out.”