Members of Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church unsuccessfully tried to oust its pastor. But he resigned anyway Sunday, leaving one of the most prominent churches in the city looking to regain its footing — again.
After nine often rocky years at the helm of Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Rev. Aaron Williams is stepping down.
His departure from the storied Central District church, a fixture in Seattle’s African-American life for more than 125 years, follows an attempt to oust him that faltered but seems to have been a last straw.
It leaves Mount Zion — which went through a traumatic split in 2005 — once again looking to regain its footing, at a time that is challenging for many of Seattle’s historically African-American churches.
People who attended Mount Zion on Sunday were not expecting to hear Williams announce his resignation, said the Rev. LaVerne Hall, who was there. When he did, she said, “it was just kind of an emotional time.”
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Trouble, however, had been brewing.
On July 21, some church leaders prompted a vote over the 49-year-old pastor’s leadership. Such votes had happened before, and Williams had survived. But this time, those at the church that day overwhelmingly called for Williams to go.
“I must say I am deeply hurt,” Williams wrote in an email to members afterward. He also said the vote was improper. According to the church’s constitution, such a vote is supposed to be announced well in advance, but this one was sprung on the congregation.
“I was ambushed,” Williams wrote in the email.
He urged members to attend a second meeting on the matter in August. Those who came voted to reject the earlier vote.
Williams, however, had apparently had enough. He could not be reached for comment.
Harry Bailey, a former interim Seattle police chief who heads Mount Zion’s board of trustees, declined to speak about Williams’ resignation or the future of the church, saying the pastor would be the one to talk to.
Two years ago, when Mount Zion was celebrating its 125th anniversary, Williams described the church as being in a “good place.”
Having arrived in 2008 from Texas, where he headed a church’s senior and young-adult ministries, Williams had to learn the local scene, he acknowledged. And Mount Zion’s membership had dwindled to about 1,000 from its heyday of 2,700.
That was in large part due to the 2005 split, which occurred when the charismatic pastor at the time, the Rev. Leslie Braxton, left to start a new church in South King County. That is where gentrification pushed many African Americans who once lived in the Central District.
Gentrification has gotten even more intense since then and has eaten into the membership of African-American churches throughout Seattle. The Rev. Reggie Witherspoon of Mount Calvary Christian Center, also in the Central District, said his numbers are down by about 20 percent.
Williams, in 2015, had a plan of attack. He spoke about reaching out to the Central District’s racially diverse newcomers, starting services like a day-care center and developing properties owned by the church.
While some praised the soft-spoken pastor as humble and genuine, others were not convinced he was the man for the job. They felt he lacked experience as a senior pastor and the leadership qualities of the church’s most revered figure, the Rev. Samuel B. McKinney. Presiding over the church for 40 years, until 1998, McKinney was known around the country for his civil-rights activism.
Williams serves on the Community Police Commission, and has spoken out when he felt the commission was being marginalized. Still, complained Lora-Ellen McKinney, the Rev. McKinney’s daughter, “He doesn’t have a national reputation.”
During one meeting about the property last year, Lora-Ellen McKinney got into an argument with Williams that turned especially ugly. She tried to press assault charges against Williams, saying he grabbed her hand and pushed it against her chest, according to a police report. Williams denied doing so and said he had to put his hand in front of his face to block McKinney, who was yelling and pointing a finger at him.
The officer who wrote the report said he did not believe an assault occurred, and no charges were filed.
“For me, it was just too much,” said Carol Versey-Cobb of the church turmoil. A deacon who had attended the church for some 20 years, she left a year and a half ago.
Ivory Joe Harris, a deacon gravely concerned about the church’s finances, also left the church last year. Five generations —“ from my grandparents to my grandchildren” — had been part of the church until then, he said.
Now comes this newest trauma.
“There are some who feel the church has been destroyed,” said longtime member Georgia McDade. “Others feel we stopped the destruction.”
Either way, the church will have to rebuild. “It’s tragic all the way around,” said Witherspoon.