Facing eviction, church leaders stand firm
on March 16, 2011
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 2 p.m. March 17 to reflect the fact that the church continued to be occupied by protesters at that hour.
“You’re not going to jail, too, are you, Mamma?”
“I have to.”
“They got steel walls, steel floors over there. But they’ll probably put you in one with a seat in it,” speculated David Aylward as he sat in the sanctuary of Bible Way Apostolic Church in Richmond Wednesday morning. He was chatting with Mary Keys, who was prepared to go to jail in a long red coat and fuzzy pink slippers. The mother of Bible Way’s pastor, Dr. Sydney Keys, she is known as “Mamma Keys” or simply “Mamma” to just about everyone.
Mamma Keys was one of roughly two dozen people gathered in the pre-dawn darkness morning waiting to be arrested for civil disobedience. She, along with Dr. Keys and his parishioners, will refuse to leave when the sheriff’s department officials arrive to serve the church with an eviction notice on behalf of Torrey Pines Bank, which recently absorbed Alta Alliance Bank, the original owner of the mortgage.
Bible Way has fallen behind on its $6,800 monthly payments and, according to Keys, the bank will not refinance their loan—a loan that Dr. Keys calls a predatory scam. He alleges that both his and his wife’s signatures were forged and that their mortgage broker falsified income statements with the bank’s knowledge, causing the loan payments to be disproportionately higher than they otherwise might have been.
An eviction notice was posted on the door of the church last week, which came as a surprise to Dr. Keys, who said he thought the bank would continue to work with them on loan modification. According to his wife, Patrice Keys, the church tried to continue making partial payments on the property but the bank rejected their partial payments and opted for foreclosure.
Patrice Keys said that, for the last 13 months, she and her husband thought they were in negotiations to modify the loan. “I could not believe how far we’d been strung along. We’ve been in constant communication with the bank from the beginning. We were naïve, ignorant,” she said. “They never planned to work with us.”
Representatives from Torrey Pines Bank did not return requests for comment.
“The bank is refusing to sit down with us and do what is right,” said Dr. Keys in a short speech to those who gathered at 6 am for the sit-in. “At the end of the day, we just want to make sure there’s no blood on our hands, that we’ve done everything the right way. They might take our church. They might do it. But they’re going to have to drag me out of here.”
The sit-in was staged with the help of the Home Defenders League, a division of the Alliance for Californians’ Empowerment (ACCE) which, since its inception in 2010, has fought against foreclosures and predatory loan practices. It was founded to advocate for those affected by the surge in foreclosures since the housing market crashed in 2008. The league’s representative hosted a short training on civil disobedience for those who were planning on being arrested.
“I am in charge of getting everybody out of jail today,” said the representative, who asked not to be named. She advised the protestors not to resist arrest, and to follow the lead of Dr. Keys, his mother and his wife.
The league also requested that anyone who was planning on being arrested fill out a civil disobedience contract, which stipulates that protestors do not a prior criminal records, will make decisions as a group and will remain non-violent.
By 10:30 am the sheriff’s department hadn’t come, and the representative from ACCE said she believed the eviction had been postponed. She attributed this delay to the number of people still occupying the church, and the unpleasant prospect of evicting a pastor and his family with members of the media present.
A lawyer representing the church is still in conversations with the bank and district attorney, petitioning to halt the eviction until an inquiry is made into their allegations of forgery signatures and falsified earnings reports. However, the property remains in foreclosure until then and Keys expects the sheriff will execute the eviction notice shortly.
The building has remained continuously occupied since yesterday morning with anywhere from five to dozens of people, and a spokesperson for the church has confirmed that they will continue to relieve each other in shifts so the building is never left empty. If those inside refuse to vacate the premises when the sheriff serves the eviction notice, as Dr. Keys said was their intention, they will be arrested. Until then, they plan to keep the church occupied for as long as it takes to get the eviction dropped.
If law enforcement officials do execute the eviction notice for the nine year old church, Dr. Keys stressed that they would also be evicting its preschool, Life Academy and its community outreach programs that provide support for teenaged mothers and food for the neighborhood’s homeless.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin has written a letter in which she praised Dr. and Mrs. Keys’ commitment to the Iron Triangle community and said that it would be “a shame to lose such a treasured resource.”
In addition to the mayor, Patrice Keys said that the chief of police and the city manager have also petitioned the bank on their behalf.
“It’s like it means nothing,” she said.
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