It was a dark time for the church the Rev. Milton Proby built. Once the largest African-American congregation in Colorado Springs, St. John's Baptist counted only a few dozen regular congregants early last year ("Damn shame," cover story, Jan. 19, 2012). Dozens of long-time members had been forced out by the pastor, Willie J. Sutton Jr.
Sutton claimed the congregants were sowing unrest; they argued Sutton was a bullying and thuggish fraud. And Denver-based attorney Edward Hopkins believed them: Working pro bono, he filed a lawsuit to oust Sutton.
On Friday, El Paso County District Court finally ruled that Sutton indeed had no legal right to maintain control over the church. On Saturday, court order in hand, embattled congregant Kathleen Foster and others watched as the Colorado Springs Police Department forced Sutton out. And on Sunday, with new locks on the doors, Dr. Ferris Thomas, a Sutton critic, led the service.
"We had an amazing weekend," says Foster.
Even after that weekend, a legal posting is taped to every door of the church stating that Sutton, his wife, and five deacons who had supported him since he was ostensibly fired by the congregation in October 2011, are barred from the premises. James Theus (pictured with Foster), another congregant who was deeply involved in the court case, gives a tour of the mess Sutton left behind. His desk looks ransacked and cluttered; on the floor of his office lies the church's computer and a hammer; Sutton apparently had hastily removed the computer's hard drive before leaving.
After taking stock of the scene, Theus turns to the future of the church, and what he and others have learned from the past.
"When we look at another pastor," says Theus, "we're going to look at the toe nails on his feet. And if one's broken, we're going to ask him about it."