Almost four years of wrangling for control of Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church has ended in victory for opponents of the Rev. Gordon Morris Curry.
The congregation compared the yearslong dispute - marked by contested elections, lockouts and excommunications - to a wilderness experience not unlike that of the Israelites after leaving Egypt.
The congregation opposed Curry's leadership because they felt the election that put him in charge was fraudulent. Members said people who did not belong to the church had been allowed to vote. Curry's arrests, which included two for battery, also were an issue.
This month, a Pinellas County judge sided with the congregation, ruling that Curry's election was improperly conducted.
The congregation celebrated Sunday evening. The women, a sea of white in elaborate dresses and suits, wore shimmering hats with bows and feathers. Men were in formal black.
"I'm just happy to be home,'' soloist Philip Gaskins told the crowd as he prepared to sing in the church at 2550 Ninth Ave. S.
But the return to what has been renamed the New Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, comes at a price.
Church leaders say Curry, 30, drained the congregation's accounts and mortgaged the property.
They also say he stripped the property of almost everything except the pews. Court records also show two liens on the property from the city of St. Petersburg for unpaid utility bills.
Curry could not be reached for comment. Church leaders and longtime members say they are putting the past behind them.
"We just know that the church was paid off one time before and we will pay it off again. I just believe that God is going to see us through this battle,'' said Ruth Johnson-Williams, 63.
The dissension began in early 2003, when Curry's grandfather, the Rev. Joseph Gordon, who was retiring, said he wanted to turn the congregation over to his grandson.
In the judge's ruling earlier this month, he transferred control to deacons Jim Anderson, who works for the St. Petersburg Times in the production department, and Johnnie Jackson. He also gave authority to Anthony Harrell, a church trustee.
Karen E. Maller, an attorney for those who ousted Curry, said he had taken out several mortgages during his tenure.
"We've got to buy the church back. It's going to cost us about $700,000 that he borrowed,'' said Harrell, 42, a church trustee.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at 892-2283 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.