Sunday, March 14, 2004

Church divided over loan

Stress at First Baptist erupts in shouting match

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rev. Larry Davis
COLD SPRING - Questions over finances, a criminal investigation and a Monday deadline to pay off a $4 million bank loan have divided First Baptist Church of Cold Spring.

Stress, anger and mistrust have driven such a wedge in the Campbell County congregation of 1,200 that a shouting match erupted Saturday in the sanctuary where members will gather today for services.

"We're being torn apart," said Trustee Rob Moore after watching members of the congregation stand among pews and argue loudly. "There are two factions. People have taken sides. This is a power struggle."

The situation has grown so divisive that members blaming the church's pastor, the Rev. Larry Davis, for the financial problems have begun worshiping at another church.

They will attend services this morning at Rolling Hills Baptist in Cold Spring. First Baptist met there before its church opened about a decade ago.

Treasurer Daryl Neltner, who exposed the problems in January with a letter he wrote to the Kentucky State Police, said some members have been meeting in the afternoon at Rolling Hills.

"Tomorrow will be the first Sunday morning service," said Neltner, who has been attending services at both churches. "There are people who don't agree with what is going on (at First Baptist) and wanted to meet elsewhere."

Fifth Third Bank has notified the church in writing that unless a $4 million loan is paid by Monday, it will begin foreclosure proceedings. Earlier this year, Fifth Third identified $500,000 in questionable bank transfers - some made at horse tracks, online gambling sites and at an MGM casino.

Neltner has said the church is current on its payments. In a letter dated March 10, the bank said it is concerned that money loaned for a construction fund was used for other purposes. The bank has not elaborated or commented on the letter.

Moore said the bank wants the church to put up additional collateral of about $800,000, including the church buses, Davis' church-provided house and other assets.

Church lawyers and officials intend to talk to Fifth Third officials Monday to try to hold off any foreclosure proceedings, Moore said.

Davis has been accused by some of mishandling the money. Police are investigating, and a Campbell County grand jury has issued subpoenas to search Davis' home. But Davis has denied all wrongdoing and has not been charged.

Late Saturday morning a rumor circulated that Davis would address the congregation and explain the financial situation. About 70 people, many hostile to Davis, showed up at the church.

But the rumor was untrue.

"Larry's not going to be here," Moore, a Davis supporter, told members after briefly talking on a cell phone. "He didn't know anything about this."

"I showed up," Neltner said, "because I thought we might get some answers about what is going on."

Then a man stood in the sanctuary and began trying to recruit volunteers for a church program where members go out in the community, hand out items such as loaves of bread or donuts and ask people to attend the church.

Next week's program will apparently involve handing out windshield-washing solvent. The man held a jug of the blue liquid as he spoke.

But as soon as he began talking, he was interrupted by church members, some telling him to "go away" and "sit down."

Others defended the man, saying the church is about ministry and members need to come back together.

A woman erupted, yelling that people criticizing the man were "a bunch of hypocrites." She stormed out of the sanctuary in tears, yelling, "What a joke

"People are under a lot of stress," Neltner said. "I'm afraid it's not getting a whole lot better."


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