In the middle of a chaotic early Sunday morning service at Friendship Baptist Church on Lansing’s south side, a woman shoved an open Bible in front of me and pointed to Isaiah 29:30.
“Woe to the rebellious children, declares the lord, to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my spirit, heaping sin upon sin … ," reads the beginning of the Old Testament chapter.
The Scripture was an apt description of what some members of the church are feeling. The congregation has split into two sides over the past several years, some supporting the church’s 27-year pastor, the Rev. Lester Stone, and others creating an almost entirely new church. The split, which appears to be over Stone’s authority over business matters, has involved the Lansing Police Department , Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings, and even Mayor Virg Bernero. Lansing Police Chief Mark Alley has attended services there but was not present on Sunday.
Stone has been a fixture in Lansing for years, running for a Fourth Ward City Council seat in 2001, and leading the March for Justice that protested the 1996 death of Edward Swans while in custody of Lansing police.
Last Sunday morning, two Lansing police officers were on duty at the weekly 7:30 a.m. “alternative” worship service that has been organized by members of the church that are at odds with Stone. As the service began, Stone stood at the pulpit, speaking in protest against the alternative service.
The alternative worshippers occupied a bank of pews to the right side of the church, while a handful of members who supported Stone sat sprinkled throughout the church. There were several tense moments during the service.
At one point, a small scuffle broke out near the church piano, which caused a Lansing police officer to respond as some cried out that someone had “laid hands” on another church member. As members of the alternative service joined hands in front of the church stage, Stone left the pulpit and declared over their praying that the service was “unauthorized” and asked for it to stop. At one point, Stone stood in front of the pews decrying the service and was prevented by a man with his arms outstretched from getting too close to the alternative worshipers. At the end of the service, fellow parishioners restrained two church members as they yelled at each other, but by the service’s end past 8:30 a.m., both groups dispersed without incident.
It wasn’t the first time the police have gone to the church. “The Lansing Police Department has recently responded to several calls for service at the Friendship Baptist Church in relation to incidents involving internal disputes between members of the Church,” a police spokesman said Tuesday. The spokesman, Lt. Noel Garcia, added that the “complaints” have been sent to the county prosecutor’s office for review.
By comparison to the 7:30 service, the regular 10 a.m. mass seemed like a different church. As Stone got full swing into a sermon around 11:30 a.m., the church was nearly full with harmonious worshippers.
The exact reason for the differences among the congregation is hard to come by: Both sides tell a different story of whether the church is governed by a constitution created in 2007 that was purportedly voted on and approved three times by the church, as opposed to an older constitution that was created in 1984. Members of each side have complained of acts in violation of the church’s laws. One member remarked, “It’s not church; it’s war.”
“There is a minority faction that is operating without any apparent authority that is trying to take over the affairs of the church,” said Frederic “Joe” Abood, an East Lansing attorney representing Stone’s side of the church. “And they aren’t being very successful in that.”
“First of all, what is going on is, to say the least, we do have a dispute within the church,” said Donald Suttles, chairman of the trustee board in opposition to Stone’s leadership. “In general, how this got started was we had a whole different set of ideas about how the church should be managed and operated.”
At this point, the church is apparently operating with two deacon boards, two Sunday services, two trustee boards and two separate business meetings. Suttles said that the side of the church that is following the 2007 constitution voted to put Stone on active paid suspension. But in the last three months Stone has been on unpaid suspension for what Suttles described as Stone’s refusal to “try to let the church come together and heal itself.” Suttles also said that Stone refused to sign an employment contract and has told other church employees to do the same. Suttles said that Stone was opposed to the 2007 constitution because it would take away the pastor’s power to be in charge of church business meetings.
“(Stone) wanted to be in charge of the business of the church, but it’s always been delegated to elected trustees,” Suttles said. “He opposed that.”
Suttles said the finances of the church have been a priority since 2003 when it moved from a location on Main Street to its Pleasant Grove Road location, and now has a large mortgage. Suttles claimed that Stone lapsed in paying utility bills on the new building, which has resulted in the heat being shut off.
Stone would not answer questions about what is going on at the church, saying, “I’m very proud to be the pastor of the church, I think it’s a great church. My family is a member of the church, and I think the church has a great, bright future and I respect and love all the members of the church.”
Abood said that the group opposed to Stone did have control of the church’s finances for a while, but with his help, Stone and his side of the church have regained control of finances.
In December, Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk dismissed a suit filed by some church members to stop Stone and other church administrators from setting up a new church bank account. Draganchuk said that the court did not have jurisdiction over the matter.
Abood also assisted in getting private security guards bounced from the church. Abood said that at a Feb. 14 Sunday alternative service, the security guards had tried to remove Stone from the church. He sent a letter to the security company informing them that Stone was the pastor and was allowed in the church.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said that he is aware of the situation at Friendship Baptist — Stone endorsed him for mayor in 2009 — and that he would rely on the Rev. David Maxwell, who is head of the city’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, to mediate.
“It’s an odd thing in itself to have police dispatched to a church,” Bernero said. “Anything we can do we will. It’s an unfortunate situation that’s it’s devolved into.”
Dunnings would not discuss his involvement in the matter, saying, “I don’t believe in public negotiations.”
Abood said that matters of the governance of the church cannot be settled in court and must be decided internally. Abood said that the church may look toward “The New Directory for Baptist Churches,” which is a sort of manual of decorum written in 1894 by Edward Hiscox.
“The church is reunifying under Rev. Stone and they’re moving forward in a positive meaningful, productive manner,” Abood said. “You’ve got a small faction that’s crying that the sky is falling, but they’re the ones knocking out the underpinning to make the church less stable.”
Suttles said he did not know how the conflagration would end, but he said the goal of the church is to have a peaceful service.
“If we are allowed to have this peaceful worship service, whether (Stone) is there or not, is of no consequence. We are going to have a peaceful service.”