2/19 UPDATE: the rest of the story -- the Diocese of Texas has cancelled services - which these people knew - until the safety of the priest and lay leaders can be assured. See more above.
If you have ever wondered what a protracted church fight, sometimes called a Level IV conflict does to a parish and what kind of witness this is to the community, here is a perfect example.
Worshipers at St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas came to church yesterday to find a note taped to the locked gate telling them that services were canceled. The press was called, the priest who locked the gates was not at home and charges and counter charges abound.
Mark Garay of KTRK-TV/DT of Houston reported:
People went to their church for Sunday services and they were locked out. Now, they're left wondering if they'll have to find a new place to pray.
It all stems from an ongoing dispute with their church pastor. The St. Joseph's Episcopal Church is about 400 members strong. They're praying this will all get resolved and they'll be able to stay at the church and keep the congregation together.
They gathered to sing and pray on the outside drive, locked out by steel gates, where inside they have celebrated god every Sunday for years.
"We haven't seen anything like this before," said church member Paul Chukwujekwu.
The problems began at St. Joseph's Episcopal Church about a year ago. Members began complaining to local publications that the Rev. Nogozi Ehmehkah Agimm was ignoring his pastoral duties,; not helping troubled families, refusing to offer communion to hospitalized church members and neglecting visits and prayers for one 74-year-old church goer who was dying of cancer.
"This priest has never visited him or called his house to pray for him. And word just came to us that this man died last week," said church member Michael Onuogu.
Complaint letters went out to the Governing Bishop Don Wimberly. But members say Agimm then accused his own congregation of stealing money, and last week set off a burglar alarm during Sunday service before leaving with his family.
"His intentions were of course to for the fire marshals and the police to come here and arrest everyone. But of course, it didn't happen," said Chukwujekwu.
Last Wednesday, the congregation says he wrote a letter telling church members they were no longer welcome, and threatened to have them arrested.
"My faith has been tampered with," said church member Innocent Ohalete. "The church is a place of worship, where we come to seek salvation."
We went to Rev. Agimm's house for his side, but there but there was no answer. In fact, church members say their last contact from him was a note left on the front gate this morning.
Church members are hoping to arrive next Sunday and see the gates open. But they admit if they don't hear anything soon, they may have to find another place to worship.
Church members deny anyone has stolen from St. Joseph's. But they do say there have been at least two other break-ins at churches nearby.
Eyewitness News tried calling the Episcopal Diocese of Houston for a comment, but a taped message said the office was closed until Tuesday.
Here is the video.