As they have every Sunday for the last 70 years, members of the Davis Chapel filed into church on a recent weekend and took their seats in the red-cushioned pews. The first sunlight of the day streamed in through the stained-glass windows and members of the choir took their positions behind the altar. Clapping their hands and stepping side-to-side in rhythm, the white-robed choir raised its voice in harmony and sang: “Oh to the blood of Jeee—sus. To the blood of Jeee—sus.”
It was First Fruit Sunday and when it came to tithes and offerings Lloyd Madden, who sits on the church’s board of stewards, asked the congregation to talk to God about signing a pledge to give more than the usual 10 percent. Forty-nine people signed the commitment cards on little white pieces of paper.
Then Pastor Cassandry Keys stood up at the altar. Black stiletto heels peeked out underneath her white robe, which had two long red crosses down the front.
“One thing we can say with certainty, ‘God is Real,’” Keys said. Her voice, coming from somewhere deep inside her gut, rang as if in song. The piano fluttered around her sermon.
“Say yes!” Keys sang, palms upraised, hands in constant motion as she called to the congregation.
“God is real,” Keys said.
Members of the congregation bowed their heads in prayer.
“You’ve never left us,” Keys said. “Our hope is in You. Thank You for being real.”
God never left the Davis Chapel when its church in North Richmond burned down nine years ago. Despite a history of poor money management and nearly a decade of homelessness since the fire, the congregation has maintained its faith and continues to give. They have hope that the skeleton of a building in North Richmond will resurrect into the church it once was. They believe that when they move home, their ministry will grow.
“We have no place to call home,” Pastor Keys said in her office the week before the service. “We’re in somebody else’s house and at any given moment they can tell us to get out.”
Despite the trials and tribulations, members of the Davis Chapel have only grown stronger in their faith that God will find a way to bring them home to North Richmond.
“That’s been the thing that’s brought us together,” she said. “That’s unified us.”
The fire burned on Thanksgiving of 2003. While families across Richmond were sitting down to eat a turkey dinner, many of the parishioners at Davis Chapel got a phone call that interrupted their feast.
The church is on fire!
LaSonda Robinson ran out the front door, following her husband. When she got to 369 Chesley Avenue, flames were swallowing the building and spitting out from the windows. Fire crews were already at work trying to put out the inferno. But it was too late. Articles from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Contra Costa Times say the fire started slow and then erupted after a backdraft fueled the heat. Firefighters had the blaze under control within an hour, but the roof had already fallen in and the walls were collapsing
“You didn’t know what to say,” Robinson said, “but just look and gaze.”
Robinson and the other parishioners who arrived to watch the fire couldn’t get any closer to their church than across the street. For Robinson, this was the place where she grew up, attending Sunday School since the age of six, and then becoming an associate minister. For Fred Turner, this church housed six generations of his family. For Carnel Rogers, who at 97 is one of the oldest members of the Davis Chapel, this was the building she was married in. Rogers remembered her first day at the Davis Chapel, when she walked to church with her twin daughters. But together they stood, watching until the building that housed so many memories became a pile of smoldering ash.
The Davis Chapel held a meeting at the Senior Center in North Richmond the next day. The fire destroyed a building, but it would not destroy their church. As Robinson told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Why should I cry for the church? The structure? My faith is not in the structure.”
Talk of rebuilding started immediately.
“We will rebuild. There’s no question about it,” William Larkin, who was the pastor of Davis Chapel at the time, told the Chronicle in 2003. “We should be able to rebuild very easily.”
The Davis Chapel has not missed one Sunday service. Three days after the fire, the parishioners met to worship at their sister church, St Peter Christian Methodist Episcopal in El Cerrito. They’ve been there ever since. St. Peter was founded through the congregation of the Davis Chapel and they graciously helped their sister church in a time of need. The Davis Chapel service is at 8 a.m. and they are out of the building before the St. Peter service at 11 a.m. The Davis Bible study is on Tuesday and the St. Peter study is on Wednesday.
But St. Peter charges rent, and recently, the Davis Chapel has been paying late, Keys said. Despite money that has come in from insurance, loans and donations, Davis struggles to pay its bills.
Rent is a reminder that this is a temporary situation, until the Davis church is rebuilt and its congregation can move home. Late rent is a reminder that, for this church, things beneath the surface aren’t quite what they seem.
“It’s kind of like your cousin is coming to visit,” Pastor Keys said. “You think they’re going to be there a few months. And they’re there nine years.”
No one thought it would be nine years. Construction started on the new church more than five years ago. But the money ran out, and no one is quite sure where it went.
Pastor Keys speaks softly. It’s a wonder how she roars on Sundays up at the altar. But today, in her temporary office inside the dilapidated North Richmond Neighborhood House, her voice is light and casual.
“You feel it now,” Keys said of the pain that remains of losing the church. “We just want to go home.”
Keys is the third pastor to lead the Davis Chapel since the fire. Prior moving to Richmond in July to sit at the helm of the Davis Chapel CME, Keys pastored ten other Methodist churches in Alabama and Mississippi.
In the South, the Methodist church sent Keys to churches that were in trouble and needed revival and leadership. This is her first time to Northern California. She took a $15,000 pay cut to move here, and it wasn’t because her new job would be easier.
Over the last few years, younger members started to leave Davis Chapel because it lost its relevance to them. So Keys started a youth ministry. During the Christmas holidays, several of the oldest members, people who had been leaders for all of the church’s 70 years, passed away. To honor its elderly members, Keys has been recognizing each of them individually in her Sunday services. During her first days in Richmond, a handful of church leaders took her out to dinner and told their stories of becoming involved with the Davis Chapel. And they each continued to say how they just want to go back to North Richmond.
“It becomes my challenge to keep them motivated, keep them inspired and not to be discouraged,” Keys said. “We can do this. It’s hard. And in some areas, it seems impossible because of the level of debt we have.”
When Keys took the reins of the Davis Chapel, she also inherited a financial mystery. Davis Chapel is behind on the mortgage for its half-built building. They continue to struggle to come up with rent for St. Peter on time. And they are pressed to find $70,000 to pay off the mortgage for their parsonage residence by next month — a loan that already had its deadline extended by one year. The church is drowning in its finances, but Keys has yet to find the accounting records to show exactly where the money was spent.
“We’re talking almost $3 million that’s gone,” Keys said. “There are no records.”
After the building burned, insurance paid somewhere between $800,000 and $1 million, according to church officials. Out of that money, the only thing Keys can find a record for is a check for $30,000 that was spent to clean up the site after the fire. She doesn’t know where the remaining $970,000 was spent.
Church members and charity groups donated further thousands; that’s gone, too, Keys said.
“There’s a lot of mistrust because nobody knew what went wrong,” Keys said. “All they knew is they gave money. We got insurance money. We were told we’d get a church. And they don’t have a church.”
Lloyd Madden, who is the chair of the church’s executive budget committee, says that the church came across unplanned expenses that set it behind. And those date back to before the church even burned down, when preliminary plans were drawn up to build a new facility in the late-1990s.
“The disaster was untimely,” Madden said. “It forced us to accelerate our planning and development efforts.”
The initial plans were drawn up for a wood structure. But after the fire, a decision was made to build a steel building – and the plans were sent back to the architect. But then after development started to move forward, the plans changed again, to go back to wood. The flip-flop cost the Davis Chapel precious dollars, Madden said.
Madden also attributes the church being broke to a decline in membership.
“The number of members attending and giving was not at a level that we were used to receiving to cover the operational expenses of the church,” he said.
The only thing the Davis Chapel has to show for the missing money is a half-built and severely flawed frame of a church. It’s located a block away from the Neighborhood House on Chesley Avenue in North Richmond. Surrounded by a chain link fence and green weeds, piles of debris stacked up in the yard, the gray adobe building looms over the street. It’s only a shadow of what the church once was and what it could be.
Walking from her North Richmond office, Keys arrived at the construction site. She pushed open a gate in the chain link fence and walked to the back door. She passed a series of holes on the outside wall with cut electrical wires dangling out. Those are electrical outlets, Keys said, and they should be inside the building.
Keys unlocked a heavy chain on the back door and stepped inside. She walked down a narrow hall and past what will be several rooms. This will be the Sunday School and those will be offices, she said. The framing is up. The floor is concrete. Keys turned a corner to what will be a door to a back patio. Windows allow natural light to stream in. But the floor is actually built on a downward angle. And when it rains, this part of the building floods, Keys said.
She continued her tour of the defective building and entered the main hall. The room, with vaulted ceilings, is so wide open that her voice echoes. Huge windows face the sky. But they leak too, Keys said.
Construction has been halted on the building. The Davis Chapel filed a lawsuit for malpractice against the construction company and the property manager. The chapel alleges that the contractors “performed defective and deficient work,” according to legal documents filed at the Contra Costa County Superior Court in September. A list of structural, electrical, mechanical and architectural issues — structural steel installed incorrectly, bolts that couldn’t fit into the frame posts, no piping for TV or phone wires — is included in the document.
“This should be a very clear-cut case,” Keys said.
Leonard Johnson, who oversaw construction at the Davis Chapel and is the project manager named in the lawsuit, has a different story.
“We did everything right,” Johnson said, noting that he was never formally dismissed. Johnson did not acknowledge being involved in a lawsuit. “I don’t really have a whole bunch to say about Davis,” he said. “They owe me money. I don’t think they’ll give it to me.”
Johnson filed a mechanic’s lien, which allows contractors to force foreclosure so they can receive payment, for $75,000 in July 2009. Court documents state that Johnson’s lien was released from the Davis Chapel’s mortgage — although the court decision does not free the church from its debt — in December 2009. In the same month, Johnson filed another lien for $25,000.
Reynolds Construction Services also filed liens for work done on the Davis Chapel, for more than $800,000 in January 2009 and then for $682,012 in 2010. The Contra Costa Superior Court released those liens as well from the Davis mortgage. But then Reynolds filed a third lien for $682,012 in June 2010. No action has been filed on Johnson’s or Reynolds’s remaining liens.
“The fire was genuine,” Johnson said. “The administration of the money was suspect.”
According to legal documents filed last year by Davis Chapel’s lawyer as part of the lawsuit against Johnson and Reynolds, as of 2010 Davis Chapel had paid Johnson a total of $164,087 and Reynolds a total of $800,430. Phone calls to Reynolds Construction and the two previous pastors of the Davis Chapel were not returned.
“It does seem hopeless,” Keys said. “But I’ve been in this situation before when it seems like everything is coming against us. And it seems like things just work out.”
Keys says she’s going to go after the lost money later. Right now, she is focused on just getting nails hammered into the building and finding new money the old fashioned way — grassroots giving.
“That’s where it is,” she said.
Davis Chapel is also looking into another loan, enough to consolidate its existing debt and finish construction.
To rebuild trust, Keys is making an effort to be more transparent with her accounting, making sure people get documentation of their giving. The church paperwork is stuffed inside a cell that you could call an office at the Neighborhood House. Keys works in cramped quarters with her assistant Stella Valentine, who started attending Davis Chapel in August 1982. Valentine says she found herself at Davis Chapel. It was a home away from home. Talking about the fire and how it was “so intense and burning so fast and so hard,” Valentine’s voice started to crack and she squinted to hold back tears.
“I don’t want to cry about this, but we just want to come home,” she said, then looking up at Keys, “I think we have somebody who will bring us home.”
Keys went to a conference in Atlanta last fall and brought back $2,000 in donations from other ministers. A sister church in Africa sent them a check.
Even President Obama has recognized the Davis Chapel. Keys said she received a signed — not stamped — letter of congratulations from the president for the church’s 70 years of service.
“There are people all over this world that are helping us,” Keys said.
Keys says that church is where you receive moral and ethical training. It’s a place where family comes together. Being homeless, the Davis Chapel has only grown stronger and more unified. And when they move home, they’ll find a place “where they feel welcome and loved,” Keys said.
“Whenever we come together, everything is done in the spirit,” Keys said.
On Sunday, in her sermon, Keys spoke about a weight — an emotional burden — that you carry on your shoulders. Her voice climbed and dipped between octaves.
“Jesus is a rock in a weary land,” Keys said. “Shelter in a time of storm.”
The quotes came from a song the congregation had just sung: “God is great — and greatly to be praised!” The choir clapped, voices wavering with vibrato. Shouts of “Lord!” “Glory!” and “Hallelujah” popped through the chorus.
Carnel Rogers, who watched the Davis Chapel burn nine years ago, sat in the front row on Sunday. She was wearing a white dress and her hair was pinned up under a lace bonnet. She’s been a member of the Davis Chapel since 1947.
“I miss the old church a lot,” Rogers said after the service. “I say it’s like home.”
In 2003, Rogers told the San Francisco Chronicle that she hoped the new church would be completed within her lifetime. She was 88 when it burned.
Pastor Keys continued to preach about letting go of that weight and letting yourself be free to be who you really are. After the sermon, she led her congregation in communion. And then closed the service with a final Amen.