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Feud carves congregation

For nearly 30 years, members of Faith Temple Church of God in Christ shared their love of God through worship services, prayer sessions and fellowship hours.

For its longtime members, the church has been an integral part of their lives for three decades. It's where their babies were baptized, their children married and their parents eulogized.

James Bryant Sr., the church's original pastor, led his flock on their Christian walk for 20 years after the congregation was founded in 1965. In 1970, a church was built at 11775 130th Ave. N. Rogers Blair, who followed Bryant at the pulpit, preached there until he died in 1994.

But today the gray stucco building sits empty Sunday mornings. There are no prayer services throughout the week. No one is allowed to enter the church.

But its stillness is deceiving.

Circumstances surrounding the church are anything but calm. The congregation has split into three groups.

One faction left the church and pays $1,000 a month to pray in peace.

Another cluster worships in a chapel in St. Petersburg to avoid confrontations with a group that stayed at the church. The St. Petersburg fold is suing the other group over the ownership of the church building, which is worth $216,000.

The feud is 3 years old, and recently a judge ordered the church closed until the matter is settled. Possibly in court.

"I just wish it never happened," said Jim Blair, a brother of Rogers Blair and pastor of those who fled to St. Petersburg. "It's brought a disgrace to God."

Loyace Gulley said the squabbling got so out of hand that he and about 40 other members left the church in January 1997 and started a church in a rental property on Starkey Road.

"It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen," Gulley said. "We just started all over again.

"We have to pay about $1,000 a month just to have peace," he said. "The Lord does not want us to be in any confusion. It's just a building. The church is the people."

Gulley said the turmoil began when Rogers Blair died. "Everybody just got their own committee and decided what they wanted do," he said. "That's when all the name changes came up."

Some members wanted to remove the pastor who replaced Blair. In order to do that, they were told, they would have to leave the Church of God in Christ denomination.

So they did.

In March 1996, the group changed the church's name to Greater Faith Temple Holiness Church.

That move didn't please all the church's members, some of whom eventually started their own congregation. They called it Bryant Faith Memorial Church of God in Christ. They, too, claim rights to the church building and to the congregation's assets.

Both congregations, Bryant Faith Memorial and Greater Faith Temple, claim they are entitled to $11,000 worth of church funds. In November, a judge ruled that the money belonged to Greater Faith Temple Holiness Church.

The lawyer representing Bryant Faith Memorial did not return telephone calls.

Greg Showers, an attorney representing the members of Greater Faith Temple, said the litigation is in phase two: getting his clients back in possession of the church property.

"They had every right to be there," Showers said. "They felt the best thing to do is to step aside and allow court intervention."

"If we're able to resolve it, that would be great," said Elizabeth Amir, an attorney working with Showers. "And if not, our next step would be to go to trial."

A final mediation session is scheduled for May.

And what happens to the members of Bryant Faith Memorial if Greater Faith Temple is granted the rights to the property?

"They would welcome these people back into the church because they are Christians and they are trying to do things the Christian way," Amir said.

Yet Gulley, the former deacon who left the church, doesn't see anything Christianlike from either side.

"Everything seemed fine," he said. "Then a lot of people started hating each other. (Hate) must have been there all the time. It just came out when the pastor died."