KEY WEST – The Sunday after the Rev. John McKenzie’s arrest for allegedly stealing $54,000 from St. James First Missionary Baptist Church, he walked up to the lectern to deliver his sermon. The usual number of worshipers – about 20 – were in attendance on that morning of June 23.
McKenzie began quietly, wiping his eyeglasses with a white handkerchief, but soon built to a crescendo as he urged his congregation to remember that God tests everyone. His message was one of defiance in the wake of his public arrest.
He spoke of Joseph of the Old Testament, whose brothers sold him into slavery because their father favored the son with the many-colored coat.
“Jealousy … can cause you to tell a lie about somebody,” McKenzie preached. “His own brothers conspired to get rid of him. But all things work out” for the faithful.
He urged parishioners to be strong. “Today you can be on a mountain, the next day, down in the valley,” he preached. “We can learn lessons from setbacks. Setbacks are common to all of us. I have had several setbacks in my life.”
Last week, the church’s board of trustees voted to dismiss McKenzie from his job. Trustee member Peggy Ward Grant said the board sent him a certified letter terminating his appointment
McKenzie, who pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on June 28, would not comment for this story. His attorney, Merrell Sands, told the South Florida Times that he was preparing a strong defense based on the church‘s financial records.
“I’m still sorting all that out,” Sands said. “I’m also waiting to obtain discovery documents from prosecutors.”
It has been a rough few years for parishioners of the tiny, historically black church on Terry Lane. The concrete-and-wood edifice was built shortly after the Civil War for African Americans who were unable to find seats in the pews of white churches in the city. It closed for repairs for more than a year, forcing the congregation to hold services in a modern and comfortable room at the Frederick Douglass Gym a few blocks away.
Long cracks run through the outside walls of the church building. Timber and joists inside are aging and must be replaced. Interior walls and floors are warped and worn.
Renovations were underway until the fall, when workers realized the church’s 1,500-pound iron bell was in danger of falling into the sanctuary. It still hangs by a rope tied to a beam of Dade County pine, a former city inspector said.
A Key West city inspector halted work on the church until the bell could be brought down or secured. The large, weather-stained bell is visible from the street because the steeple framing has been partially removed.
It was the condition of the bell that may have brought to the forefront what some parishioners said they suspected for some time: that money marked for the church’s renovation had been spent elsewhere.
Former Key West Building Inspector John Woodson said McKenzie told him the church couldn’t afford to secure the bell.
The church needed another $200,000 to fix the bell’s harness and to complete the building renovation, McKenzie told the South Florida Times for a story in January.
The church already had spent $87,000 in Temporary Increment Financing (TIF) provided by the city of Key West in 2012. TIF money is awarded for renewal projects in financially stressed communities. The city pays it directly to construction companies after work is completed.
Woodson said he told McKenzie the work had to be completed before parishioners could return to the building.
“I told him he could get another construction company who could do it cheaper but there was no way to sidestep the city’s concerns that it had to be safe,” Woodson said.
McKenzie said in January that the church would seek a loan to secure the bell and finish the renovations so parishioners could once again worship in their church home.
“We haven’t got the money yet,” he said. “We are going to borrow the money to finish the work.”
He said he could give no more details.
By then, there was rumbling in the community that the church had either backed out of its construction contract or that the construction company, Concrete Solutions of the Florida Keys, had walked off the job for nonpayment.
Both McKenzie and Justin Robillard, company administrator for Concrete Solutions, said in January that the rumors were untrue.
“It’s a matter of coming up with the money, which we’ll do,” McKenzie said then.
“There’s no bad blood,” Robillard said. “It’s not the pastor’s fault. No one needs to be thrown under the bus by anyone else.”
Monroe County State Attorney investigator Chris Weber alleges that the pastor or his assistant, Jacqueline Williams, wrote checks worth $121,857 payable to McKenzie over the past two years. After subtracting two years of McKenzie’s salary of $67,200 from that amount, Weber alleges, McKenzie received $54,657 that he was not entitled to.
In his charging document, Weber wrote: “During the period of July 2011 through June 2013, John McKenzie, acting in the capacity of the pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church, breached his fiduciary responsibility to the church, and committed the act of theft enriching himself with church monies.”
McKenzie has been charged with a second-degree felony and could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.