Members of a congregation in Arkansas have found themselves in a bitter dispute with a man they call a “squatter bishop,” claiming he has stolen their church and refuses to give it back.
At the center of the conflict is an old church built in 1915 in Crossett, a city of about 5,500 residents in southeastern Arkansas, just a few miles north of the Louisiana border. The church was first known as Allison Chapel. In the 1970s, it became Allen Temple CME Church, affiliated with the national Christian Methodist Episcopal church. And Allen Temple it stayed for decades until the pastor left the state in 2019.
At that point, the church remained empty for a year as members searched for a new minister. Bishop Earnest Smith, a Crossett resident who had begun a ministry a year earlier, then expressed interest in the church.
Rekandria Leach claimed that members of Allen Temple agreed to allow Smith to rent the building for one year in exchange for $200. During that time, Leach said members of Allen Temple strongly supported Smith and his burgeoning congregation. “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,” Leach stated.
After the year was up, Smith “was supposed to pay $400 rent,” Leach stated. However, Leach also said that Smith “didn’t want to sign another lease agreement or anything,” so it is believed there is not any legal documentation in the case.
Bishop Smith claimed that after the first year, he paid Allen Temple secretary Faye Pam $200 a month for almost three years, but the purpose of that monthly payment is under dispute. Smith claims it was for insurance on the building. Members of Allen Temple thought it was rent.
Smith also indicated that Pam more or less promised to give him the building someday, so he kept sending Pam payments. “She said we are probably going to give you the building because we’re not going to use the building,” Smith recalled.
“I said okay. 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.”
But Leach and other members of Allen Temple claimed that the building was always on loan and that they are now locked out of their own church. “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,” Leach said.
“How did you get in this church?” Leach continued. “Did you break in it? We allowed you to come in our church.”
Smith has recently renamed the church Temple of Faith Ministries and has posted a new sign out front to replace the one for Allen Temple. A spokesperson for the national CME church admitted that historical CME buildings that are no longer in use do not necessarily retain their CME affiliation. Leach countered that the church was never abandoned, just in search of a new minister.
When asked whether he has considered finding a different church building, Smith confessed to feeling “tired” but then added that his attorney has advised him to stay and “the Spirit” does not want him to cave in the face of unjust persecution. “I tell my people all the time. We are going to be talked about. Criticized. They did that to Jesus Christ. We are not exempt,” he said.
“But when it hits you hard, it hurts. Especially the people you thought you could trust.”
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