Ocean City’s Oldest Surviving Church Stages Comeback

Ocean City’s Oldest Surviving Church Stages Comeback

first_imgBy DONALD WITTKOWSKIShari Thompson says she plans to do a lot of praying for God’s intervention to help Tabernacle Baptist Church overcome its financial and legal challenges.Thompson and other leaders of Ocean City’s oldest surviving church are recovering from a court battle with Tabernacle Baptist’s former pastor over the ownership of the historic building at the corner of Eighth Street and West Avenue.“It had been a very ugly and contentious back-and-forth,” Thompson, chairwoman of the church’s board of trustees, said in an interview Friday.The board was able to regain control of the property after it filed a lawsuit against Pastor Charles Frazier, who has since died, challenging a deal that he had worked out with the church’s former leaders to sell him the building for $1 in March 2019, Thompson said.Despite emerging victorious against Frazier, the church apparently lost its tax-exempt status amid the fight over its ownership. Thompson said the church is facing a total of about $24,000 in city property taxes for 2019 and 2020.Claiming that it never lost its tax-exempt status, Tabernacle Baptist is disputing that it owes the city the back taxes, Thompson said. The issue is before the courts.Shari Thompson, chairwoman of the Tabernacle Baptist Church board of trustees, speaks to City Council.Thompson appeared before City Council at its meeting Thursday night to ask for the governing body’s help. In public remarks, she recounted the church’s litigation against Frazier and the struggle for ownership.The Council members and Mayor Jay Gillian expressed their support for the church. Gillian noted that the city government has been working with the church for a long time to try to resolve the dispute over the property taxes.“If I had a magic wand, I would make it go away,” the mayor said.City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told Council that the city was obligated by law to impose property taxes on the church after it had passed into private hands during Frazier’s temporary ownership.“We can’t alter how we collect taxes by statute,” McCrosson said.However, McCrosson said there is a possibility the courts could rule that the church does not owe the taxes if it finds that the transfer of ownership to Frazier had been improper in some way.“We may be able to treat it as though that transaction never occurred,” she said.The Tabernacle Baptist sign notes the church’s long history in Ocean City.In the meantime, the church is facing a tax sale on Oct. 1, a potentially complicated development that the board of trustees must handle. Thompson said the board is discussing what action it may take before the tax sale is held.“We’re not clear how we want to proceed with that,” she said during the interview. “I’m just trying to be very prayerful of that.”During the Council meeting, McCrosson stressed that the city has no intention of foreclosing on the church for unpaid taxes. She also explained that the foreclosure process takes about two years, so the church is in no imminent danger.“They owe taxes. (But) the city is in no event going to close their doors,” McCrosson said.Councilman Keith Hartzell suggested that the community could possibly organize “one whale of a fundraiser” to help the church pay its taxes.“I’m certain we can raise that amount,” Hartzell said.Tabernacle Baptist, one of South Jersey’s oldest African-American churches, dates back to 1890 in Ocean City. The church cornerstone displays the year 1908, which actually marks the date the building was physically moved from Central Avenue to West Avenue and placed on its “new” foundation, now 112 years old. Its towering steeple, topped by a cross, overlooks Ocean City’s downtown district.The church’s towering steeple overlooks Ocean City’s downtown district.Once in deteriorated condition, the church underwent a $400,000 restoration from 1999 to 2003, Thompson said. The building sports a new coat of white paint, a complete interior renovation, a new HVAC system including central air, and other upgrades.The improvements were financed by fundraising efforts organized by a local builder and church member, the late Dan Murray, Thompson said.The church’s new leadership, headed by Thompson, wants to showcase Tabernacle Baptist and its improvements by inviting in the community. This Sunday, the church will hold the last of its outdoor summer services under a tent next to the building. The service is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. and will include social distancing protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic.Born and raised in Ocean City, the 48-year-old Thompson was president of Ocean City High School’s Class of 1989. In college, she earned her bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University and her master’s at Temple University. A scriptwriter for both film and television, she now serves as a professor in the radio, TV and film program in Rowan University.Pointing to her deep roots in Ocean City, she said she and the other members of the board of trustees are committed to preserving the church as a religious centerpiece in the community.The church is holding the last of its outdoor summer services under a tent this Sunday at 4 p.m. This photo was shot before the July 19 service. Improvements are planned to the exterior and interior of the church now that the litigation and tax troubles are nearing an end.last_img

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