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HEADLINE NEWS..:
Kenyan pastor in Boston sued by parishioners for alleged corrupt practices, judge orders urgent final talks
Rev. Fredrick Thanji
PHOTO:Rev. Fredrick Thanji, founder and now retiring pastor of the All Saints Community church in Quincy, MA. Ajabu Photo/H.Maina
 

By:
HARRISON MAINA

Posted:
Mar,24-2016 15:08:57
 
BOSTON--A judge at the Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham near Boston declined to immediately dismiss a lawsuit by a large group of members of the All Saints Anglican church, an independent Kenyan community church in Quincy, who have accused their founding pastor, Rev. Fredrick Thanji for various "corrupt practices" that threaten the future of the congregation.

Members are fearful that the pastor is seeking to strip the church ownership and control from the congregation upon his upcoming retirement, only to hand it over to family and close friends.

This, they alleged, is putting into jeopardy church property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars painfully acquired over a decade, as well as funds held in various bank accounts.

Church members alleged that the soon to retire pastor used "back door tactics" to edit a church constitution put together by various select church committees over a period of two years that gave the church council power to decide important matters related to governance.

The motion to dismiss was lodged by attorney Stephen J. Mc Laughlin on behalf of defendant, before Judge Beverly J. Cannone, who after more than an hour of listening to oral arguments from both sides, ordered them to convene a last minute meeting this Saturday, March 19 at 10am in a last minute effort to seek a peaceful compromise.

Failure to come up with an agreement, the judge ordered, would require the parties back to court on March 28 where she will make a ruling on the way forwards.

According to attorney Corrina Hale, for the suing group, tensions have been building at the Kenyan church for a long time since a new draft constitution was presented to the pastor for review, only to be met with total silence. However, the tensions picked up steam in September last year when a big group of parishioners disputed Rev. Thanji's attempts to install a new pastor of his choice, who was sourced from Kenya to as a successor.


A litigious group of Kenyans from the All Saints Community church in Quincy MA, leave the Norfolk Superior court in Dedham, near Boston after a hearing against their pastor, Rev. Fredrick Thanji. AJABU PHOTO/H. MAINA

Instead of adopting the said constitution as presented to him for review and eventual adoption, the pastor is said to have presented for ratification a competing constitution that gave him, as the rector of the church, all the power in order to maintain control from a distance when he finally retires in a few months--for selfish goals.

To make the plan happen, the pastor was accused of seeking to hand over the running of the church to his handpicked clergyman with instructions to work with a small clique of family and supportive friends, against the wishes of the majority.

Efforts to have the pastor address their concerns, the members alleged have been met with total silence, delaying tactics and demonizing of the members agitating for accountability within the wider Kenyan community in Boston.

"I represent a large majority of the church members who have never seen the constitution that the defendant claims was in existence in 2002. In-fact, one founding members of the church is here today and has testified through an affidavit that there was no constitution when they founded the church in 2002," attorney Hale submitted to the judge.

She said that the founding members had formulated by-laws that were presented to the Secretary of state for registration and that they have no idea who drafted a constitution for the same purpose.

However, since there were not problems at the time, and that the church was small, no one raised an issue about it until 2008 when membership increased and there was a need to revisit the constitution in order to put measure to resolve disputes.


Attorney Corrina Hale from the Todd & Weld LLP Lawgroup representing the Kenyans suing their pastor in Boston. Ajabu Photo/H.Maina

She added that with the pastor's blessings, several church groups met over a period of 2 years from 2007 to 2009 when they came up with a draft constitution that vested most of the power for running the church affairs and dispute resolution into the church council. We gave the pastor for review and he did not say anything.

Then all of a sudden in 2012, the attorney said, the pastor presented to the church a completely different constitution in which he had replaced the role of the church council and put the power to the Rector of the church, who happened to be the pastor who operates through a group of a few royalists.

Members feared that the pastor was using back door tactics to maintain control of the church through his choice of handpicked leaders, which put the finance and property of the church at an increased risk of misappropriation.

In an effort to resolve the succession stalemate, members insisted that the pastor produce the newly developed but yet to be adopted constitution which contained new dispute resolution procedures.

Unfortunately, Hale charged, the pastor ignored the demands of the people and refused to address the issues until matter went out of hand and tempers flared in September 2015.

"The congregation did not get any feedback. Every time they demanded and answer, they were told that the pastor is working on it. This went on for weeks and weeks and weeks. It put a lot of things in disarray and tensions started rising.Tax forms for itemized deductions were not issued to members, membership certificates were delayed and have never to members," she said.

The attorney further said that as the situation deteriorated, some members have been locked out of the church and the pastor held a secret meeting on January 6 where he sought to appoint new people perceived to be friendly to him to the church board and replace those perceived to be "against" him.


Supporters of Rev. Thanji leave the courtroom.

"The pastor is creating a very clear division in the church. At the end of each church service, an announcement is made that those supporting the pastor to remain behind for a meeting and others should leave immediately. He has made it very clear that those filed the lawsuit to have a valid constitution are no longer welcome in the church."

She said that on February 8, in an effort to resolve the dispute amicably, members of the church proposed to the pastor that the two competing constitutions be presented to the entire church congregation with an aim of holding a democratic vote to choose which one would prevail.

Members are also wary of the pastor's recent efforts to turn the independent congregational church to become an official affiliate to the Anglican Diocese of Thika in Kenya where he plans to bring disputes that cannot be resolved in USA to the Anglican bishop for resolution.

Unfortunately, "the pastor does not respond at all to the issues, even when they try to contact him by emails. This has forced the members to seek the court intervention since the church property is also at stake", said attorney Hale.

Arguing in defense of Rev. Thanji, attorney Stephen J. McLaughlin said the allegations against Rev. Thanji were baseless and lacked merit. He urged the judge to dismiss the lawsuit mainly because the court lacks "subject matter jurisdiction" on the case.

"The law is clear that Massachusetts courts should not engage in internal matters of the governance of hierarchical churches as per the 1st amendment of the US constitution, except if there is a legitimate property dispute--and Rev. Thanji has not done anything to suggest that," he said.

He further said that the pastor should not be blamed for the problems at the church because in September 2015, when the dispute boiled over, he cooperated,but the "issue has become overblown that they now can't move forward."

"I am distressed that those suing Rev. Thanji have stopped attending church, and when they do, they are putting their donations in a separate bin for an escrow account they opened. They are putting a gun, a financial gun, to the head of Rev. Thanji, knowing very well that the church has a lot of expenses to pay," he decried.


Pastor Dorcas, a longtime assistant to Rev. Thanji (middle), together with other suing Kenyans leave the courtroom.

He said that fears by the majority of the church members that the pastor would transfer the church property or finances to himself or his family or the Diocese of Thika are not legitimate.

"There will be no conveyance of the title to the diocese."

He also said that the pastor has no access to the checking account of the church and is not a signatory to any account.

Mc Laughlin further charged that the church bylaws and the 2012 constitution spells out how to resolve disputes, clearly saying that they won't use the judicial system, but the dissenters have failed to abide by it.

"Disputes are first to be brought to the church council. If the church council cannot resolve, then a third party mediator, such as an attorney is to be utilized. If this fails, then the dispute is to be brought to a higher level in the church hierarchy, like a Bishop of the church. They just don't want to follow this procedure," Mc Laughlin told the court.

He stressed that despite objections from the suing members, the All Saints Community church is affiliated to the Anglican diocese of Kenya.

"The Bishop came last year and appointed one of the pastors here."

He said that as a corporation, the church has its governance structure that should be followed where if a shareholder has a grievance, they bring it to the board for resolution, which in the case of the church, would be the church council.

"I actually don't even know who the members of the church are, those who bring tithes.The fact that the current church council is not challenging Rev. Thanji tells you that they don't have a problem with him. Five previous council members resigned recently to stay clear of the problems," the attorney claimed.

However, attorney Hale sharply disagreed with Mc Laughlin's argument, suggesting that that the superior court had absolute jurisdiction to intervene in the All Saints Community church dispute since the church was not a hierarchical church.

She said that in-fact, the All Saints church was a totally independent congregation of worshipers under no real specific church affiliation such as the Catholic,Presbyterian or Anglican Church.

Citing two case points in the books, attorney Hale urged the court to intervene.

"The superior court in Massachusetts has clear jurisdiction to intervene in matters involving independent congregational churches."


She added that the effort by the pastor to affiliate with the Diocese of Thika was not approved by members.

"The pastor is attempting to affiliate with the Diocese in Kenya so that he can manipulate the Anglican church of Kenya. This is not the will of the members. There is nowhere else to go for dispute resolution outside the doors of the church," she charged. 

She said that affiliating to the Anglican Church in Kenya would require members to start making required monthly financial contributions to the diocese, and open the chances of the diocese taking over the property of the church.

"When he came here last year, he was just a visiting bishop who performed similar services to other similar Kenyan churches in the area. The bishop has no authority whatsoever to intervene in the matters of this church. It is a calculation to push this matter further."

She denied that the suing members have stopped attending church, indicating that their tithes and offerings were going into an escrow account pending the dispute resolution.

Attorney Hale said that the members of the church were willing to talk but the pastor literally has been blocking the efforts.

"The idea that Rev. Thanji was cooperative is not true. There were weeks and weeks with no discussion."

After listening to submissions from both sides that lasted over one hour, judge Cannone ordered the two warring sides to hold a last ditch effort as soon as possible to seek a middle ground.

"We have two highly skilled and very capable attorneys here. There is no reason you can bring these two sides together to try and work out their differences as soon as possible. Find a schedule that fits everyone. If a compromise is not reached, I order both of these parties to come back here on March 28."

Quick consultations by both sides agreed to have a meeting this coming Saturday to be held at the church premises located at 33 Grafton Street in Quincy at 10am.


A Pastor's supporter steps out of the courtroom

Both sides will be represented by 5 members with both attorneys present.

"I hope the meeting on Sunday will result into a compromise that will satisfy the majority of the All Saints Community church members. It has been a big problem there and we hope that all will be worked out amicably or we go back to court," attorney Hale told Ajabu Africa News soon after the hearing.

According to church members who spoke to Ajabu Africa News on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak said that problems at the church started around 2011 soon after they finished paying up the mortgage for the main church.

"We started in 2002 as a church of about 20 members. Then over the years, we increased to more than 100 members. It took us many years of putting together funds through tithes, offerings and Harambees(fundraisers) by members of the public to pay off the church mortgage of about $425,000.Then we embarked on a $350,000 project to build a separate building as a children's learning center, where we even already paid off over $150,000 of the new mortgage.That is when the pastor started using madtharau(arrogant and very difficult and arrogant to deal with). He would ignore our complaints for problems, and even when we put together a new constitution to deal with the issues raised, the pastor ignored that constitution also.Then he attempted to install his own handpicked pastor, Rev. Eliud Mwangi from Kenya as his own handpicked successor without the couch council input," said the source.


"We knew there had been no constitution when the church started in 2002 as Peter Njoroge who was there at the inception can testify. In all these years, we have been operating on the trust that the pastor is a man of God with the hope that nothing can go wrong and a constitution can come soon. You know how Kenyans are God fearing people and they did not want to raise questions in case they are branded as trouble makers by the pastor," added the source.

The confidential source said that unfortunately, things started happening and they would get dismissed to a point where too much grievances piled up over the year and have now reached a climax, forcing members into litigation as a last resort.

"All we want is to have a well-functioning church, safeguard and protect the church interests for the sake of their current and future generations."

"It's unfortunate that these things keep happening in our Kenyan churches.There is too much division in our community and the divisions seem to be starting in our churches. That is why I came here to listen to what is going on hoping it will get resolved," said David Mundia, a Kenyan community leader from the Catholic church in North Quincy.

 


About 20 members of the suing group packed the court for the hearing on Tuesday.

"This is a classic example of the problems bedeviling many other Kenyan churches in USA. Majority of them are independent congregational churches where members have no avenues for dispute resolution beyond the pastor. Even when they loosely affiliate with other churches back home, it's very easy for the pastor to outdo the members by manipulating the church authorities in Kenya," said one member after the hearing.

"It's the responsibility of Kenyans in these churches to stand up and demand good governance structures and stop fearing those pastors who don't like transparency. It's the right, responsible and honorable thing to do for our children's legacy in this country. If necessary, Kenyans should seek court intervention like we have done for some of the pastors to take their grievances seriously," added the concerned Kenyan.

Reliable sources within the church indicate that before leadership crisis erupted, the All Saints Community church boasted over 100 adult members in addition to dozens of their children. However, a mass walkout in September 2015 whittled the surviving membership down to less than 40, 90 % of whom are against the pastor's moves and have resorted to litigation.

Many disgruntled members left to join other nearby churches including the newly launched Church of Good Shepherd, a Kenyan community Anglican Church based in Brockton, the renowned Jubilee Christian church, a multi-cultural, International church based in Mattapan as well as the Liberty church.

Rev. Thanji declined to comment on the developing saga when contacted by Ajabu African News.

Source:
AJABU AFRICA NEWS