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Vegas mega-church cost sparks parishioner concerns

The Greater New Jerusalem Baptist church now under construction in west Las Vegas is big — around five times the size of the congregation’s current church — complete with an events center, soundstage and private office space for the pastor and his wife.

But its congregation is, by parishioners’ own admission, relatively small.

Weekly attendance at the church, one of several dozen in and around west Las Vegas, hovers somewhere around 400 people, roughly one-tenth of the attendance seen at a handful of other “mega-churches” elsewhere in the Las Vegas Valley, according to a 2012 survey of Southern Nevada’s largest churches.

Church members say New Jerusalem has suffered a post-recession dip in weekly attendance, and fiscal 2013 financial reports indicate the church has yet to recover from a subsequent decline in tithing. Most New Jerusalem church members and nearly half of all west Las Vegas residents are black. One-third of residents in the church’s ZIP code live at or below the poverty line.

Parishioners at the church’s current home on D Street already are footing the bill for more than $340,000 in annual salary and administrative expenses on top of a $4 million estimated tab to erect the long-planned 28,000-square-foot headquarters.

All of which has former New Jerusalem deacon James McKoy worried.

McKoy fears church leaders are mortgaging the church’s future on the new house of worship at 1818 Martin Luther King Blvd.

He and others say losing a small church would be too of high a price to pay for building a bigger one.

“To his credit, when (Pastor James Rogers) decided to build it, he brought the church along, he told everybody about it,” McKoy said. “What he never told us is that he didn’t have financing for this project.

“The story he tells the church is that he was driving by the (planned church) site one day and God told him to build there. ... His only plan to finish it is ‘God is going to provide,’ and that’s not a plan.”

STACKED BOARDS

McKoy, New Jerusalem’s former director of ministries, said he was promptly dumped as a church deacon after raising concerns about financing the half-finished church project with Rogers early last month.

Rogers, former president of the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP, repeatedly declined comment on how or whether the church had obtained financing for the effort, explaining only that he and his parishioners believed “the Lord would provide” for the building’s construction.

Budget documents obtained by the Review-Journal indicate Rogers, his wife Jessie, son James Jr. and daughter-in-law Keysa each received five-figure salaries while serving as church administrators in 2013, raking in some 51 percent of the independent, tax-exempt church’s year-end revenue and more than three-quarters of its payroll and office expenses.

Each of Rogers’ immediate family members also serve as members on two church-affiliated trustee boards, bodies McKoy said have been stacked to carry out the pastor’s bidding after past attempts to finance a new mega-church were rebuffed by several area banks.

None of the three church board members reached for comment were able to provide detail on how that church project is being funded.

McKoy reported that church officials received a $400,000 construction bill on the project in early July, one neither he nor the rest of the trustee board could figure out how to pay out of New Jerusalem’s dwindling general fund.

After weeks of prayer, he brought the topic to the pastor, the only church authority who seemed to have access to details on the project.

According to McKoy, it did not go well.

“(Rogers) called an emergency officers meeting to dismiss me from the board,” McKoy said. “He’s a total authoritarian leader. ... Over the years, he’s been able to put together boards that, when they meet, only rubber-stamp what he wants to do, so when you go against him he can just dismiss you.

“So building the building ain’t the problem, it’s the way he went about it, without any financing. Now we could lose our church, over nothing but his self-ambition.”

McKoy said Rogers has called a second emergency church meeting Aug. 10 to hash out questions surrounding the building project. He expects the pastor will push for access to the church’s $250,000 in remaining general funds, a move he hopes board members will fight.

Former board Chairman John Wesley and church deacon JD Calhoun declined to comment on the church’s ability to pay for its new home.

New Jerusalem financial secretary Stephanie Dunn said she has not seen the contract signed to initiate construction of the new building.

Dunn said New Jerusalem simply can’t afford to move ahead with the $4 million project as advertised to church members.

Barring a “lump sum payment or a big donation,” she has no idea how Rogers plans to move forward with the new church.

“We don’t have money available in any account to do this as of June 30,” Dunn said. “We don’t know anything, we’re not told anything and I’ve never seen a copy of the (construction) contract, so we don’t know actual from factual.

“I think (Rogers) must have a plan, he must have something in store, but I don’t know what his next move is.”

TOO MANY CHURCHES?

Non-New Jerusalem church members have concerns of their own about the project.

Lifelong west Las Vegas resident and outspoken community activist Beatrice Turner pointed out that her wedge-shaped, historically African-American neighborhood — roughly bounded by Rancho Drive and Interstate 15 between Carey Avenue and Bonanza Road — is already home to more churches per capita than any other neighborhood in the valley.

She and other west Las Vegas residents say there are a lot of things the area could use — a new credit union or a grocery store, maybe a new community center — but about the last thing it needs is another church.

“We don’t need no more churches over here; we got enough,” Turner said. “They have choked all the economic growth out of the community and haven’t put anything back.”

Fellow longtime resident Jeannie Beatty was raised in west Las Vegas and baptized at New Jerusalem’s D Street location.

Beatty, 71, fears the new church will bring unwanted traffic to the area and leave New Jerusalem’s old building in the lurch.

Above all, she wonders why church leaders seem so eager to pick up stakes.

“I don’t understand why you’d want to relocate a church that’s been there for as long as it has, over 50 years,” she said. “Some say they’re moving it because they need a better church, but they’ve got enough room to expand. Why not just build around it?”

Neither Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow nor Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly — the two elected leaders who joined constituents for the new church’s November groundbreaking — returned requests for comment on the project.

Pastor Rogers also declined to comment on the move except to say that it gave the church an opportunity to expand its ministry after facing certain unnamed “obstacles” to growth at its current location.

GROWING INTO IT

Charles Bilberry, a New Jerusalem-appointed construction liaison on the new church, couldn’t provide a copy of the contract to build the new facility and deferred all comment on the financial feasibility of the project to Rogers.

Bilberry said the church is yet to miss a payment on its new project and has no plans to scale back the effort, which workers hope to have completed by September.

“It’s been one of the church’s goals for some time, and (Rogers) felt this was the time to do it,” he said. “It’s a big project. ... It has a sanctuary and an events center. There are administrative offices, and there is an office for Mrs. Rogers.

“They’re hoping to grow into it.”

North Las Vegas-based church contractor Underground Inc. reported the church is current on its construction payments. Project superintendent Russ Gant said the company has had “no trouble whatsoever” with church officials, whom he said might even look to expand the project in a few places.

Church board member Doc Hines isn’t worried about the church’s ability to pay for those potential expansions, though he admitted he didn’t know enough about the project to begrudge others’ concerns.

Hines, like fellow churchgoers Dunn and McKoy, would like to know more about New Jerusalem’s plans to pay for its new home.

For now at least, he’s willing to leave the matter to a higher power.

“I don’t think we’d start a church if we weren’t able to finish it,” Hines said. “I don’t worry about it, because God fixes what’s in his hands.”

Contact James DeHaven at jdehaven@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3839. Find him on Twitter: @JamesDeHaven.

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