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Church’s prayer rally brings relief from Boston officials


DORCHESTER, Mass. (BP)–Like Moses proclaiming “Let my people go!” to Pharaoh, Harmon Claiborne stood up to the city of Boston and won a nagging tax abatement case that had threatened to close the doors of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in the Dorchester community.
On Jan. 7 just after 9 a.m., Claiborne held an emergency prayer rally at the inner-city storefront facility with about 40 members of the African American congregation and others, including John Borders, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church, Dorchester, and Hessie L. Harris, pastor of Born Again Evangelistic Outreach, Mattapan.
At issue was a 1995 notice stating that the city of Boston would be foreclosing on the church property because the church had not paid its taxes, which eventually totaled $150,000 including penalties. Taxes were assessed after the city had declared the building abandoned. The claim came shortly after Claiborne became pastor of the church following the death of founding pastor Walter Stevenson. The congregation had shrunk to less than 10 members and the facility had fallen into disrepair that was too expensive for the then-tiny congregation to repair.
Upon review, a city team inspected the building and grounds in 1995 and told church leaders there was no need to pay the tax bill. Antioch then tackled renovation of its auditorium and Sunday school classrooms that ultimately cost nearly $70,000. The congregation has since grown to about 200 members.
Nevertheless, last June Claiborne received notice once again stating that the entire church property would have to be auctioned for non-payment of taxes. The congregation has since been appealing the tax assessment.
On Jan. 7, while the prayer rally continued inside, representatives of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development arrived some 40 minutes later and began showing the property to a prospective buyer.
However, the would-be buyer retreated even before entering the building when confronted with signs proclaiming such messages as “Leave God’s Property Alone.” Meanwhile, those present at the rally were fervently praying and singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
By 10 a.m., less than an hour after the rally started, Charles Grigsby, director of the Department of Neighborhood Development, was dispatched to the scene by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He arrived with the good news that the property would not have to be sold as a unit for taxes.
Instead, a compromise had been found: a parcel of the land that is not being used by the church would be subdivided and sold separately to satisfy the tax claims. Claiborne now estimates that the congregation will owe about $40,000, a much more manageable amount.
Earlier in its history, the church had worked with Habitat for Humanity to build 13 units of low-income housing.
Further, Grigsby told Claiborne that his department would work with Antioch Missionary Baptist Church as it deals with the city inspection details and needed zoning variances.
In response, Claiborne wrote the mayor the day after the rally to express thanks for “stepping forward in our time of crisis. Also, you spoke to the conscience of the City of Boston’s tax title department, thus empowering the Department of Neighborhood Development to rescue us from a trying dilemma.”
The pastor also praised Borders and Harris, the two neighboring pastors of much larger churches who stood with him. He compared these colleagues to Aaron and Hur who, in Exodus 17:12, supported the arms of Moses during a difficult battle.
Claiborne also expressed appreciation for Ignatius Meimaris, director of missions of the Greater Boston Baptist Association, and Ken Lyle, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England, who petitioned the mayor for assistance and offered the urban church encouragement.
The drama on Blue Hill Avenue did not go unnoticed across the region. Claiborne was interviewed on an evening news television program Jan. 7 and a sympathetic story with his photo appeared on page one of the Boston Herald Jan. 11.