About 250 members of the City of Praise Family Ministries packed into several corridors at the Prince George's County Courthouse on Friday. They were hoping for a ruling on one of the pending lawsuits over who should run the megachurch near FedEx Field in Landover.
Because the filing of a last-minute motion triggered a 15-day response period, no real legal action occurred. But the case remains hotly contested.
At issue, fundamentally, is: who should run the sprawling Jericho Baptist megachurch. The buildings, school, bookstore and many parking lots are worth tens of millions of dollars.
The late Apostle Betty Peebles was the long-time leader of the congregation. She installed her only surviving son, Joel Peebles, as a minister in the congregation, but left instructions to the board to keep Joel only in ministry, not in church leadership.
Joel Peebles is a charismatic minister, and is very popular with a clear majority of the congregants, who have supported his move to lead the church. A bitter legal dispute has ensued, and Joel (and most of the congregation) have moved their services to the rented auditorium, cafeteria and gym at Eleanor Roosevelt High School.
"On Sunday, 57 new converts came to Jesus Christ," said Pastor Joel Peebles outside the courthouse. "That is the most important thing that can happen. What takes place in a courthouse is small in comparison to a soul that is saved."
The board still running the megachurch in Landover has invited another minister (and his congregation) to move into their expansive facilities. But some of the long-time congregants believe that board is illegally self-appointed.
"According to the defendants," explained Raouf Abdullah, an attorney for a group of congregants, "only six people in the 10,000 member church have a right to a vote. And they vote for themselves."
The suit by the congregants is asking the courts to install a neutral party to oversee an election of the church board.
Erika Cole, an attorney for the board, said that body is, "committed to continuing the vision established by Apostle Betty P. Peebles by honoring her wishes related to the operations of the Church."
Both sides express confidence they will ultimately prevail in court.
For now, relatively small numbers of people are showing up at the megachurch. Pastor Joel Peebles is attracting thousands to his rented facilities at Roosevelt High School.