Wracked by division in recent years, the "mother of black churches" in Seattle now faces a new challenge: accusations of bullying and toxic masculinity.
In an emotional news conference tapping into the anger and power of the #MeToo movement, four women said they have been bullied and disrespected by leaders of Seattle’s Mount Zion Baptist Church.
The accusations of the women — who have all held important positions in Mount Zion and include two ministers and a daughter of the late, famed Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney — bring another blow to a storied Central Area church that in recent years has been wracked by division.
“This doesn’t come easy for anybody,” said former King County NAACP President Carl Mack, who flew to Seattle from his current home in Maryland to preside over the Tuesday news conference at the Central Area Senior Center.
He called Mount Zion, more than 125 years old, “the mother of black churches” in Seattle.
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Speaking one by one, the women recounted tales of being shouted down, treated with disdain or told to stay away from church meetings after raising questions about issues such as church finances.
The Rev. Dr. LaVerne Hall, who was ordained by McKinney and at one time served as his secretary, said she rose to speak at an Aug. 10 church meeting.
“Sit down,” she said she was told by the Rev. James Stallings, an interim pastor brought in from New York after the previous pastor’s resignation last year.
“Don’t tell me to sit down; I am not your child,” Hall said she replied.
Stallings then rushed at her, according to Hall, 80. She said she was so frightened that she wet her pants.
Stallings did not return messages seeking comment. Harry Bailey, a former interim Seattle police chief who heads Mount Zion’s board of trustees, declined to comment in a brief conversation at the church.
“I just don’t know enough about this news conference,” Bailey said, referring all questions to Stallings, though he was also singled out for criticism by Hall and the other women.
Several of the women and supporters at the news conference called for Stallings and Bailey to step down.
After the August meeting, Hall said she wrote church leaders asking for an apology. Instead, she got a letter telling her to “cease and desist” her disruptive behavior.
“Your negative deviant tones and unruly behavior,” along with “unwarranted toxic emails,” were compromising progress made during this interim period and driving new members away, read the letter signed by trustees and deacons.
It asked her to refrain from attending any church meetings, and threatened to revoke her membership if she didn’t.
The Rev. Ruth Saunders received a similar letter. A former chair of the church’s finance ministry board, Saunders was pressing for a church audit.
At the news conference, she said one hadn’t been done since 2004. In particular, she and others have been asking about nearly $4 million that the church got from the sale of two properties.
“We don’t know what was done with the money,” she said.
Stallings walked into this and other controversies, some going back years. The church went through a bitter split in 2005 when it lost a charismatic pastor and a sizable portion of its membership.
It never really recovered. The last permanent pastor, the Rev. Aaron Williams, resigned after a vote of no confidence. Some felt Williams did not live up to the legacy of McKinney, a revered civil-rights leader who stepped down in 1998.
The vote was later reversed but Williams chose to leave anyway, saying in an email he was “deeply hurt.”
Now, the climate may be even more fraught, adding female outrage to the mix.
Lora-Ellen McKinney, the reverend’s daughter, who said she has been barred from church property, accused Stallings of being an “abuser of women” and creating an atmosphere of “toxic masculinity.”
“We’re OK behind the scenes but when it comes to leadership we’re always pushed to the back,” said the Rev. Dr. Linda Smith, executive director and senior pastor of the Sky Urban Empower and Transformation Center. She attended the news conference to support the Mount Zion women.
Another supporter, the Rev. Kelle Brown, lead pastor at Plymouth Church United Church of Christ, called such discrimination “a stench in the nostril of god.”
Ivory Joe Harris, a Mount Zion member, said he isn’t sure that stench is present at the Central Area church. Stallings, he said, is an “in-your-face” New Yorker, with both men and women.
Though in the past Harris has also raised questions about church finances, and even resigned as a deacon because of it, he said he wished Stallings’ critics would “give the guy time.”
“We just can’t afford to be split again,” Harris said.