KEY WEST – The Bahama Village congregation whose pastor allegedly stole more than $150,000 from church coffers is asking for help from the community to return to its home.
St. James Missionary Baptist Church – which now finds itself without a permanent pastor or access to its historic church building – recently held a three-day revival to bring new energy to the body and to greet Key West neighbors who want to worship with the small but lively congregation, said church trustee Peggy Ward-Grant.
The congregation also will reach out to Keys residents to raise money to finish repairs so worshipers can once again hold services where they have been held for generations, she said.
“We will form teams for the building fund and ask for donations of $100,” she said. Ward-Grant discussed the church’s future recently with the South Florida Times at the Martin L. King Community Center in Bahama Village, the congregation’s temporary home. She would not answer questions about the former pastor or the events that led to his arrest.
“We are really appreciative of any types of donations of money or services from our friends in the community,” Ward-Grant said, as church members, including grandparents and small children, met after services ended two Sundays ago.
The congregation needs to raise at least $142,389.05 to pay for the construction that will allow members to once again sit in their own pews, Ward-Grant said.
“But we need to do something bigger than a bake sale,” she said to good-natured laughter from the congregation. “There’s no problem with the nickel; I have that.”
The company which was doing the renovating, Concrete Solutions of the Keys, is still on board to do the work, she told the congregation. She and other trustees met with company officials recently to discuss existing building permits and other details to get the job started.
The amount needed may seem large, but it’s doable, Ward-Grant said. The church has also put financial safeguards in place so donors can be assured the money will be used for its intended purpose, she added.
The congregation of St. James, founded in Key West two years after the end of the Civil War, has for many months been unable to meet in their sanctuary at the corner of Terry Lane and Olivia Street. During renovations, workers discovered that the heavy cast-iron bell in the steeple was in danger of falling into the building.
To prevent possible injury to church members, Key West city building official John Woodson in January ordered the building closed until the bell could be secured. He told the South Florida Times in a recent interview that the bell was suspended from a beam of Dade County pine by rope.
The church’s pastor at the time the bell problem was discovered, the Rev. John W. McKenzie, had already transferred $154,000 from the account that held the church’s construction money to the church operating account, the Monroe County State Attorney’s Office alleges in a criminal complaint.
He then asked that checks be written for him from the second account over a period of two years, the complaint states.
McKenzie pleaded not guilty in July and was released pending trial. He is represented by attorney Merrell Sands. A trial date has not yet been set.
Ward-Grant and other church members said the congregation is hopeful that they’ll return to their building soon. Trustees and elders have consistently called for unity in the weeks leading up to the pastor’s arrest and since.
“We want to move forward, to restart our renovations and get back into our church,” Ward-Grant said. The concrete building is cracked and its roof needs replacing. The interior is aging and in need of new floors, walls and other structural repairs.
Trustee Dorothy Sands – no relation to Merrell Sands – said St. James has not yet hired a full-time replacement for McKenzie whom trustees fired and ordered to move out of the church-provided home. Guest pastors from other churches will lead services and minister to the congregation until a permanent replacement is hired, Sands said.
The theme of the recent revival was Come Experience Fresh Fire. “We’re still here and going strong as a family,” Ward-Grant said.
*Pictured above is former pastor John McKenzie.