RUSKIN — Thou shall not steal, reads the eighth commandment, but Shirley Dail insists she had to take possession of the Ruskin Church of Christ Christian Church to save it.
In the two months since she seized the shrinking church, where she had worshipped off and on the past 16 years, the 80-year-old Dail has brought in a vibrant congregation, she said.
Now, the people she pushed out are in court fighting to get their space back.
The house of prayer on Second Avenue NW in Ruskin is a house divided, according to a lawsuit filed by the church July 14.
Dail changed the locks on the church's doors the first weekend of June, preventing parishioners from accessing the church, according to the suit.
In a written statement to the Tampa Bay Times, plaintiffs including church minister Don White said Dail locked herself inside June 5 and put up signs "telling all not to enter, (that) declared several bogus accusations levied at the Ruskin church."
Since then, White said, his congregation — as few as a half-dozen people, according to Dail — has been waiting for a court to settle the dispute, and meeting for services at a Denny's restaurant in Sun City Center.
White said allegations about the health of the church are irrelevant to the lawsuit. He called the congregation both "functional" and "vital."
Forcing their way into the church, White said, would have been meeting "evil with evil."
Dail said the church is "not telling the whole story." A pastor herself, Dail said, she has been holding services at the building. They've been successful, she said, featuring guest preachers and drawing congregations five or six times larger than the usual Sunday crowds.
While maintaining she's been a lifelong member of the church, Dail said she had only attended sporadically since starting a mission, the Church Along the Way, in her Ruskin barn 16 years ago.
She brought that group to the Church of Christ building this summer.
White said Dail left his church more than 20 years ago. According to the suit, Dail claims to be the property's titleholder but can't back it up with any evidence. White said Dail's stepfather was one of the signers of the deed when the church bought the land in 1967.
Dail's claim to the church comes from her involvement in its early days.
A church volunteer for 35 years, Dail said she was among its founding members in the 1960s and made a personal loan to help build the church.
In May, White said, Dail said the church was not running "as it was conceived" and that she had been "called home" to make the fixes she wanted.
Dail's goal was to increase the church's flock. Dail said she couldn't sit by and watch her church dwindle like so many others throughout the country.
"My intent is to keep this property and this building a church, a house of worship," Dail said. "I want it to be active and full."
The past two months have been messy, Dail said. She hopes for a peaceful resolution — and a healthy, active church.
"It's sad," Dail said. "Say a prayer for us."
Contact Samuel Howard at email@example.com or (813)226-3373. Follow @SamuelHHoward.