Judge in Charles Street AME church bankruptcy case visits properties in Roxbury, Milton

Judge Frank Bailey was not on the bench in bankrutpcy court in downtown Boston this chilly election day morning. Instead, he was on Warren Street in Roxbury, touring the shuttered properties of the financially ailing Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Bailey and several staffers joined lawyers for both the church and its lender, OneUnited Bank, first to walk through the church’s stalled nearby building project, the Roxbury Renaissance Center. Envisioned as a gathering space for community events, wedding receptions and music lessons, it has been unfinished and idle since 2009, when its funding ran out.

Charles Street filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, to head off a foreclosure threat by OneUnited, which planned to seize the church building itself because the church could not repay $5 million in loans on the center and the church.

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In an unusual trip to the site of properties involved in a bankruptcy case, Judge Bailey (in wool coat and khakis, not his black robe) carried a small tape recorder and took notes as he tromped through the sawdust-strewn floors and unfinished doorways of the Renaissance Center.

The center, with its grand ballroom windows covered in plywood, represents the ambitions of a historic black church that was looking to spread its influence in the community before the financial crisis, when money grew tight and its bank called its loans. The battle between the two prominent black Boston institutions has been bruising at times over the past year.

A nearby storefront property, shuttered with iron grates and vacant for several years, was in far worse condition. It was cold and smelled of must; most of its ceiling tiles had been removed and worn blue linoleum peeling. An old kitchen was in a state of disrepair and a smoke detector dangled from a cord in a hallway. An old poster on an office door said, “Health Care Reform Now! Do it for Teddy.”

The tour was mostly silent, but for one issue raised by a bank lawyer, who said a can of Lysol on the desk had not been there on a prior visit—implying that the church had tampered with the setting before the tour. The church’s lawyer told the judge he would ask whether the can had been placed there since the last walk-through, when only the lawyers attended.

The parties are scheduled to meet at least once more in court this month before the judge rules on a plan of reorganization. Charles Street is looking to repay its full debt over 30 years, but OneUnited has objected to that plan and wants the church’s regional organization to cover the debt.

The visit continued to a third property, the old parsonage at nearby 5 Elm Hill Rd.—a grey house with chipping paint and red trim that’s now used as office space for the church. The judge and entourage of nine, including clerks and lawyers, then caravanned to Milton, to examine a vacant and water-damaged parsonage there.

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