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Damn shame

Locals fight to preserve the legacy of — and their place in — a historic church



Kathleen Foster sits in a pew at the front of the sanctuary. She wants everyone to know that she hasn't been driven out, that she has no intention of leaving. She is not one to be easily cowed. She wants everyone to see as much, especially the pastor.

It's the first Sunday of November. There are maybe 40 people who have shown up for service. It's a far cry from the packed sanctuary that Foster remembers from her early days at St. John's Baptist Church. But those were the days of Rev. Milton E. Proby, long before she or anyone else in Colorado Springs had heard of Willie J. Sutton Jr.

"Communion is designed to remind us of the supreme sacrifice that had to be made in order to bring us back to God," preaches Sutton. "If you got some issues, you need to come to the table, because what the table makes you do is, it forces you to look at yourself so that man can examine himself."

For three years, a significant clatch of church leaders, including longtime church trustees and members of this independent Baptist congregation, have been trying to fire Sutton. These members will tell you that the 47-year-old is nothing but a con man, a religious grifter from Chicago who won their confidence through charisma and lies, only to set upon this historic church to bleed the coffers dry. Twice these members have gathered and voted to terminate his employment.

Sutton has simply refused to leave. He has his supporters, among them church deacons that he has appointed, and his critics say that these men are protecting Sutton against the wishes of the congregation.

Sutton and his supporters have refused to discuss the situation with the Indy. Over a nearly three-month period, Sutton has not responded to multiple requests for an interview. As one deacon, a Sutton supporter, puts it, this is a church matter, best to be handled within the church.

This Sunday, however, it seems the pastor is preaching directly to his critics.

"For far too long our church has been separated," Sutton exhorts. "It's time to come together. Come on, y'all. If God, come on, can forgive you and me — let me talk about me — for the stuff I've done, how dare I not forgive someone else."

He claps his hands and stomps his foot for emphasis.

"Look at somebody and say, 'I ain't leaving here before my time.'"

"I ain't leaving here before my time," they repeat.

"Y'all are catching it. I'm not going to leave here 'cause of you.

"Come on, somebody, help me here," he pleads. "So while we share this communion together today, examine yourself. Quit trying to get in somebody else's business, and examine yourself. Are you with me? And I guarantee you that our church will better.

"Are you with me?"

Now, it's Foster's time to leave. She refuses to take communion from Pastor Sutton.

A week ago, she had come to church with her daughter and 3-year-old grandson, and as service was beginning, she was approached by a deacon and asked to come to the foyer. There she found two police officers waiting for her. She was told that she was trespassing at the church to which she's belonged for decades.

"The officer told me that if I didn't leave," says the longtime School District 11 educator, "they'd arrest me."

And it wasn't the first time.

St. John's, led by Proby for nearly 50 years, was once the most popular African-American church in Colorado Springs, attracting 400 to 500 worshippers to Sunday service. When he died in 2005, St. John's was left largely directionless, struggling with a low turnout for service and seeking the right man to fill the considerable void left by Proby's passing. In 2007, they hired Willie J. Sutton Jr. of Chicago.

There was so much hope back then, says Foster, that Sutton would carry on with the character and vision that had once made St. John's so valuable to the black community.

"I told him when he got here, he had the opportunity to take St. John's to a level it's never been," Foster says. "And he has, just not in the manner that I had in mind."

Carved into stone

St. John's had a long history even before Milton Proby, almost as old as Colorado Springs.

In the winter of 1896, the congregation began building a church and parsonage on Pueblo Avenue near downtown. For nine years, the congregation had met in a blacksmith's shop on the corner of Wahsatch Avenue and Cimarron Street, and under the leadership of Pastor Clifford Gladden, the 32 members hauled rocks to the new site and set them by hand. They were done in 1907.

"A coal stove and then modern gas lights were symbols of success," reads an official history of the church. "As people moved west, so did segregation and St. John's became the home of Black worshippers."

Yet it was under Proby, who became pastor in 1958, that St. John's grew to the height of its prominence. That was due in large part to Proby himself, says the Rev. Dr. B.R. Daniels Sr., who knew Proby for more than half a century.

"He was the most intelligent man that I had ever talked to," Daniels says. "He had an inexhaustible vocabulary. And he loved that church."

Just two years after he stepped in, Proby laid out plans for a new building on donated land on South Prospect Street, with a commanding view of the Front Range.

As Daniels notes, Proby was a civil rights leader in the city and the state. He helped found the city's human rights commission, and served as the first chairman of the state's civil rights commission. He was an adviser to a number of Colorado governors, and when he died, Wellington Webb, Denver's first black mayor, came to the funeral. The year after his death, the Springs city council voted to name a new roadway to the airport the Milton E. Proby Parkway, a $55 million project completed last November.

Among the national Baptist community, St. John's was a well-known name, Daniels says, thanks to Proby's ability as a pastor and as a leader.

"He could dwell with kings," Daniels says, "but not lose the common touch."

Daniels and Proby grew up in the same neighborhood in DeKalb, Texas, though Proby was much older. They met after Proby had moved to Colorado Springs, and joined St. John's. He would visit Texas often to preach at a local church.

"I ran into him, and made him know who I was, 'cause I was such a little fella, he didn't know who I was," Daniels says. "And once I let him know, he invited me to Colorado Springs to preach a revival for him. And I did that for 31 years, until Sutton got there.

"I did it one time since Sutton got there, and he didn't like the fact that the people were close to me. And so, consequently, he stopped inviting me."

He says Sutton has taken down all the church's pictures of Proby.

"He has turned that church all the way around," Daniels says. "The folks who are the pillars of that church have been distanced, and regulated to not even come there."

James Theus is one of those folks; he was there when Proby arrived and remembers the pastor being paid $125 a week. "Sometimes we couldn't even pay him that," he says. "He had suits that had holes in 'em, because we couldn't pay him all the time."

Sylvester Smith was there back then, too. He remembers Proby as "a pretty good preacher" who reached out to the city and the military. "Colin Powell used to come to our church, the colonels from the Air Force Academy," says Smith. "He could draw people."

Smith and Theus, 82 and 77 years old, respectively, actually helped lay the foundation of the South Prospect Street church; their names are carved into the cornerstone.

Now, both their names are on a lawsuit against Sutton and 11 other leaders at the church, including deacons, the treasurer and Sutton's wife, Denise.

Thirty-three members of the congregation are claiming that Sutton and his wife have seized control of the church's finances, and are commingling its funds and assets with their personal finances. They claim the church, under Sutton's leadership, has not accurately reported income to state and federal agencies since December 2009, and that the defendants failed to comply with some state and federal laws while acting under the church's apparent authority.

Further, the plaintiffs claim in their suit that Sutton and the defendants revoked their membership to St. John's when they had no authority to do so.

They are seeking damages from the defendants in an amount to be determined by the court for economic loss, pain and suffering, and other expenses stemming from the claims.

But what they are really seeking, says Theus, is to rid themselves of Sutton. It ought to be a simple matter. According to Theus, as well as Foster and others, the congregation voted months ago to fire Sutton, in accordance with the church's bylaws. The church belongs to the congregation, and in all of its business the congregation is the ultimate authority.

Yet this vote, he adds, has been ignored.

"This man is outta Chicago; he's nothing but a thug," Theus says. "He has been leeching off of us for three years.

"He coulda had a good church, if he had kept his mouth shut and not been a fool, and start puttin' members out and actin' the fool. We have this guy at will, and we can put him out at will. He's going. There's no doubt about it, he's going."

That's Daniels' hope.

"I just want the church to succeed in their lawsuit against Sutton," he says, "so that the memory of Pastor Proby can be restored in that church."

Put out

Daniels actually was a member of the committee that elected to hire Sutton. It was a responsibility he took very personally.

"Pastor Proby's dying words to me was, 'Help the church, find somebody to lead it on,'" he says. "And I thought that I was doing that, but I got fooled like never before."

Fooled, he says, because Sutton looks impressive on paper, "and talking to him personally, he was very astute, very aggressive as far as being anxious to get to the church and see what he could do to improve the structure of it."

In 2007, Sutton visited Colorado Springs, essentially to audition. "He had to come, answer questions, preach a sermon," says Foster, "and teach a Bible study class."

The deacon board suggested that Sutton be hired, and the congregation voted. In Foster's words, "We had gone through a few candidates before Sutton, and I think that people were just kind of tired of it."

And, as Daniels remembers, Sutton also spoke a great deal of building the church back up to its glory days, "and that he would embrace the folk in such a way that they would love him just like they loved Reverend Proby. Talked about how much he loved the Lord, and how much he would like to get the opportunity to come and take over this challenge."

The church voted to hire him in September 2007, says Foster, and that's right about when the troubles started. The trustees had put forward a maximum salary that they thought the church could support. According to a 2007 church document, a low-range yearly compensation was a $41,000 salary plus another $24,000 in benefits, such as a $12,039 housing allowance, health and life insurance, and a $6,000 transportation allowance. The high-range recommendation bumped the salary to $51,000.

Sutton, in a letter to deacon Leroy Kelly, balked at the offer, claiming it "does not meet our agreed upon package." He countered with a higher compensation package, with a $52,000 salary plus $75,000 in allowances and benefits.

In the more than two years since Proby had died, they hadn't paid a pastor, so the church had amassed some funds. The trustees caved, Foster says, adding, "Along that time, too, he somehow finagled a Lincoln Navigator out of the deacons.

"The contention was that he was going to grow the church, so that we could be able to pay him that salary."

But Sutton didn't even start working full-time at St. John's, Foster says, until April 2008, though the church was already paying him.

Increasingly curious, Foster called some friends of hers in Chicago to see if they knew anything about Sutton.

Sutton is a graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, having earned his undergraduate degree in television. He was ordained as a minister in 1985, and his work with the Midwest Baptist Youth Conference earned him accolades from that Illinois-based organization.

However, Foster remembered him saying he'd preached at a big church in Chicago, so she was surprised when her friends said they'd never heard of him. She sent a friend to the church's address that he had provided; the friend found a small storefront church and sent her a picture.

Foster began to wonder which of Sutton's other claims were accurate, or even true. Finding out was difficult. Sutton had provided the church with a "biographical sketch," and not a traditional résumé, and much of the civic and social work, honors and awards, and even parts of the work history didn't include dates, addresses or contact information. Some of the information contained misspelled names and incorrect locations.

For instance, he claimed to have received his honorary doctorate from New World Theological Seminary in Bethville, Ark., in 1989. According to the seminary's president, Dr. John Tisdale, New World was actually in the town of Blytheville. (It has since changed its name to Anchor Theological Seminary and Bible Institute and moved to Texarkana.) Tisdale was unable to verify whether Sutton indeed earned that degree, despite having kept what he considers thorough records back into the 1970s.

Sutton also claimed that he was working toward his master's at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, yet according to Theus, when he followed up with the school he found that Sutton had only finished 11 credits in a non-degree program. The Indy attempted to independently verify this information, but a Moody representative said the college only releases student information to potential employers.

Foster ordered background checks, and found at least two bankruptcies. Most recently, in 2005 Sutton and his wife filed for Chapter 7, declaring $41,899 in liabilities and $13,000 in assets. Among the liabilities were child support and back taxes.

For monthly income, he listed $1,000 in workman's compensation and $1,600 in part-time pay.

Though none of it was damning on its own, it was enough to make Foster concerned. She started speaking with other church members who said they were leery of their pastor as well. She sent Sutton e-mails, she says, asking him to talk. He refused.

"I started thinking, 'Whoa, I think that we made a mistake.'"

This clique of Sutton's critics continued to grow, and on June 13, 2008, they gathered and voted to throw him out. The group argues that they easily met the bylaws' requirement for a quorum of 1 percent of the congregation.

However, the meeting wasn't held at the church, and they were told by the deacons and trustees that a meeting to terminate the pastor would have to take place at the church. Not because it's stipulated in the bylaws, but because only a meeting at the church would project the proper gravity.

This was going to be a problem. Two months earlier, they had tried to meet at the church, and Sutton had called the cops.

According to a police report from April 25, 2008, roughly 30 people were gathered in the sanctuary. Sutton pointed out five members to the police, including Foster, and said he'd told them all that they could not have meetings at the church without his approval. Ignoring his order, he said at the time, meant that they were trespassing.

Nothing came of it legally. The members left. But soon after, a number of the offenders received notice that they were no longer members of St. John's. Foster still has her letter:

"It is with great spiritual resolve, that we pen this letter to inform you, that due to your continued misconduct, the persistence of the same, and the Jezebel spirit enacted against St. John's Baptist Church and its Pastor, Rev. Willie J. Sutton, Jr., you are hereby dismissed as a member of St. John's Baptist Church. ... You will no longer be allowed on church property or to attend any of its functions. To do so will be treated as trespassing and will be pursued to [the] full extent of the law."

Foster, refusing to give up on the church she began attending in 1976, ignored the threat.

$300 too far

The letter comparing Foster to the notorious biblical villainess was signed not only by Sutton, but also deacon Faris Thomas.

Thomas now is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Sutton.

In 2008, when Foster and others were working to oust Sutton, Thomas saw it as too soon, a snap judgment. A vocal supporter, he was Sutton's primary point of contact with St. John's during the interview process. He arranged the travel for Sutton and his wife when they first visited.

"That process turned more into a friendship-type relationship," Thomas says. "I did whatever I could for him. If it was financial, if he needed to borrow — whatever he needed, I was there as a friend. I was there to try to make sure that he was treated fairly.

"Him and I had a conversation with him about calling the police on the parishioners. I told him with tears in my eyes that that wasn't the right thing to do."

When Sutton did, it disappointed Thomas, but didn't totally change his opinion. He was Sutton's friend, unwilling to give up on him without enough cause. And Thomas wasn't comfortable with the seemingly chaotic efforts to oust the pastor.

However, over time, Thomas says, he tired of Sutton's attitude. He watched as Sutton grew into his role at the church not as "a compassionate and caring pastor," but into a "flip-mouth, arrogant person. A smart-mouthed, arrogant, not-caring pastor."

"When you would talk to him, instead of being a friend, he began to get to the point where he did not have the time to explain anything to you anymore. Now he just sat back in his chair and criticized," Thomas says. "He began to show who he really were."

For Thomas, and many others, the breaking point came with the funeral of Ella Ray.

Ella Dee LaCour Ray and her husband, Leonard, joined St. John's in 1952. At the time, the congregation still gathered at the old church on Pueblo Avenue. As the congregation grew, and Proby set his sights on moving, the Rays were one of the families who helped by donating money.

"They did what they could with the finances, and neither one of them were rich," says the Rays' daughter, Marie Whitmore. "They just worked hard and saved money."

The Rays continued to give throughout the years, even taking a second mortgage on their home, in order to give the church a $30,000 donation. After Leonard died in 1989, Ella sold the house, which she owned in full, Whitmore says, and finally paid off the second.

Ella died last Aug. 12. She was 101 years old.

Her daughter called St. John's to arrange the funeral service. The secretary told her Sutton was out of town, but word about the service got to him, and he called Whitmore back.

"I told him that my mother's wishes were always to have the funeral at St. John's, but she didn't want him to do her funeral. She wanted Rev. Thomas McCray, because she was very fond of him. He had done a lot for her while she was in a nursing home."

McCray was the organist at St. John's at the time, she says, so she didn't see how that could be an issue.

"When I informed him of this, Reverend Sutton got a little upset and said, you know, if I wanted to have it at the church, he wouldn't have anybody else performing a service. He would perform it."

Not only did Sutton tell her that he wouldn't honor her mother's wish, Whitmore says, but he also informed her that she'd have to pay $300 for the service.

"Three hundred dollars? As much as my parents gave to that church?" Whitmore says now. "I was knocked off my feet."

But Whitmore didn't want a fight. She was exhausted. Not only had her mother just died, but her husband was extremely ill, and would pass later that month.

"I was really ... I had a hard time," she says. She decided to have the service at a funeral home, "but when some of the deacons and trustees found out about it, they got very upset."

James Theus had served with Leonard on the trustee board. When Theus heard that Ray's wishes weren't going to be honored, he says, he stepped in. "She paid all her money all her life into that church, and he says she can't come there unless I preach her funeral? So I said, 'You must be a fool — this lady's coming to this church.'"

Theus told a deacon to call Sutton in Chicago to tell him that they would be having the funeral at the church.

"And that was it."

McCray did the service, but soon thereafter left the church.

Three weeks later, Theus says, Sutton gave him a letter informing Theus that he was no longer a trustee, but instead he would be a trustee emeritus. It was retaliation for Ray's funeral, says Theus. "Well, you're either dead or you just can't function when you are an honorary trustee. He was trying to take my voice away."

Forgive us our trespasses

Soon after Ray's funeral, members of the congregation held another meeting at the church. On Oct. 25, 35 members took part, and all but four voted to terminate Sutton's employment. They penned letters and sent them to the deacon board, as well as the treasurer, Jerome Scippio, informing them of the vote.

The deacons, the letters read, were instructed to inform Sutton of his termination, while Scippio was ordered to "cease and desist any and all monitory [sic] payments to and for Willie J. Sutton, Jr. or his family, including the Lincoln Navigator and his household, if the Church is making such."

"We gave that list to the deacons," says Theus. "What the deacons were supposed to do, was they were supposed to go to him and do what the congregation say to do."

It appears that neither the deacons nor Scippio took the measures prescribed. No one is exactly sure why Scippio would continue to sign Sutton's paychecks, and he didn't return a request for an interview.

But as Daniels says of Sutton, "Basically, he has a way with words. And he manipulates folks once he gets in their confidence, and then he has a way of turning on them. He turns people against each other. And as far as that's concerned, he has a core of deacons who support him."

Of the church's nearly 20 deacons, Sutton appointed all but five. These deacons, Theus complains, "are like his soldiers."

Since the vote, Sutton has fired off a new slew of letters to the congregants who participated. Charles Givens, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs and a St. John's member since 1968, received the certified letter. In it, he was informed that his participation in the Oct. 25 meeting constituted a trespass and that he was no longer welcome at St. John's. If he violated this order, Sutton wrote, he would be treated as a trespasser.

Foster received a similar letter. Again, she ignored it.

That's why, on this first Sunday of the new year, Foster is among the maybe 30 people at service.

Sutton is singing a capella. He has a powerful baritone voice and sings with a drawn-out phrasing punctuated by explosions.

"I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses," he sings. "And the voice I hear, falling on my ear."

He strains on the last word, his vibrato echoing off the walls and crashing into the congregation.

"It's alright," the congregation calls out. "Take your time. Take your time."

Sutton launches back into the gospel hymn, "He Walks With Me," as though it's a battle cry.

"And the melody, that he gives to me, within my heart is ringing..." he sings. "And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I'm his own! And the joy we share... "

He stops, exhausted, overwhelmed, and paces in front of the congregation.

"Glory! Joy! Hallelujah! Glory! Joy!" a woman is shouting from the pews. "Oooh God! Oooh God!"

A young woman steps out from the choir and picks up the chorus where Sutton left off, with the choir backing her up. The congregation is building to its catharsis and now, right now, they are his.

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