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Ravaged church divided over incoming pastor

ST. PETERSBURG

A protege of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons is to be installed Sunday as pastor of a St. Petersburg church that has been embroiled in controversy for almost five years.

The appointment of Largo resident Jerry "J.J.'' Alexander Jr. to head New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church was meant to help heal the fractured congregation that also recently lost its church to foreclosure. Days away from a celebratory ceremony, some in the predominantly African-American congregation are objecting to Alexander, citing his brushes with the law and lack of educational qualifications.

Alexander, who won the majority of votes in an election with two other candidates, is hoping for harmony within his new congregation.

"It's my prayer that we could come together as a people of Christ,'' he said.

Members of his new congregation have also objected to Alexander's association with Lyons, the former head of the National Baptist Convention USA who was convicted of grand theft and racketeering for swindling more than $5.2-million from the convention's corporate partners.

Lyons was to play a lead role in the installation, but during an interview with the St. Petersburg Times last week, Alexander, 36, announced that those plans had changed.

"This is a sacred service and I didn't want it to turn into anything else. I just shared it would just be best for him not to come,'' he said.

A night manager for Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in Tampa, Alexander said he was ordained by Lyons in 1993 and served as associate pastor at Lyons' Tampa congregation, New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. He said he considers Lyons, who spent nearly five years in state prison, a mentor.

"He has really been an excellent pastor and taught me and a lot of pastors about working with people of faith,'' Alexander said.

• • •

Alexander, whose father, the Rev. Jerry Alexander Sr., is pastor of Union Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, follows another controversial appointment.

In 2003, the Rev. Gordon Morris Curry, now 31, was tapped to lead Pleasant Grove by his grandfather, the church's previous pastor. Some congregants objected to Curry because of his criminal record. They added that Curry, who changed the name of the church to Greater King David International Church, was elected fraudulently.

The disputes created a schism, and many members left to form a new congregation.

Like Curry, Alexander is considered a "son'' of the church, having grown up in Pleasant Grove. Over the past year and a half, he has stood in as a worship leader and preached occasionally, he said. He said that his return to Pleasant Grove has been "like a family reunion of sorts.''

But it has not been a completely happy one. His arrests have upset some members. They include a 1997 arrest for solicitation of a prostitute. He was found guilty.

In 2007 he was arrested for a traffic violation for driving while his license was suspended and found guilty. The most recent arrest took place in June for possession of a counterfeit license plate, a felony, and for operating an unregistered vehicle.

Alexander declined to discuss the most recent case, saying that it is pending.

"I acknowledge the fact that I have made mistakes, but I'm grateful to God that he has forgiven me, and that's all every Christian believer has, is that we have been forgiven of our sins,'' he said.

"One of the great testimonies that the preacher could have in his ministry is to have made some mistakes. Throughout the Bible, God never used a man that was perfect.''

• • •

Questions have also been raised about Alexander's education. In a recent church bulletin, he is referred to as the Rev. Dr. Jerry Alexander, but during an interview, the Osceola High School graduate admitted that he has no college degree.

The series of controversies that have plagued Alexander's new congregation in recent years came to a head in 2007, when a Pinellas County judge agreed that Curry had been improperly elected. Even as members celebrated their victory and renamed the church New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, they struggled to raise money to pay off the mortgage Curry had taken out on the property at 2540 Ninth Ave. S.

The property, near Jordan Park, went into foreclosure last fall and was bought by Word of Life Fellowship in July.

The once-thriving congregation of hundreds, which has dwindled to less than 100, now meets in rented space at St. Mark Lodge No. 12, 1210 Union St. S. The congregation is hoping to buy its own property.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at 892-2283 or wmoore@sptimes.com.

>>time line

Drama in a house of God

May 2003: Retiring pastor the Rev. Joseph Gordon handpicks his grandson, the Rev. Gordon Morris Curry, as his successor. Some dispute his election.

August 2003: Curry renames the church the Greater King David International Church. An estimated 400 of the church's 500 members leave.

May 26, 2004: Church leaders fire Curry, change the locks and get police to escort him from the property. Curry takes them to court. A judge dismisses the trespassing order and reinstates Curry.

Aug. 11, 2004: Deacons and trustees hold an election to dislodge Curry days after they are barred from entering the church for Bible study. Those present vote to oust Curry, but he stays on.

August 2006: Curry puts the church on the market for $3.5-million.

July 2007: Judge orders Curry removed as pastor. Congregation holds celebration service and renames the church New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church.

October 2007: Church goes into foreclosure.

July 2008: Property is bought by Word of Life Fellowship Church.

This coming Sunday: Installation of the Rev. Jerry Alexander Jr. as new pastor, 4 p.m. at First Baptist Institutional Church, 3100 Third Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

Ravaged church divided over incoming pastor 08/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 2:35pm]
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