RICHMOND -- After Sunday services, churchgoers often like to go out to eat and spend time with family.
But at North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church, the hour after sermons became yet another tense showdown on Sunday, with rival factions delivering dueling messages in the historic worship hall. Richmond police were called to the scene by church leadership to maintain order.
"We must not have these disruptions in our worship hall," said Pastor Dana Keith Mitchell, as Richmond police mediated disagreements a few rows away. "And we will stop it."
After about a half-hour of sometimes-angry exchanges, mixed with pleas for order and mournful prayers, both sides dispersed. Three Richmond police officers were on hand, but they declined to force anyone from the premises.
The incident Sunday was the latest in an ongoing feud between Mitchell and his supporters and a group of former associate pastors and members, several of whom have been kicked out of the church by Mitchell.
While the disagreements over funding decisions and church direction seem to be private matters, the spat has drawn public attention thanks to several incidents that have drawn police officers into the church's halls.
A meeting of elders at North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church on July 15 resulted in charges of elder abuse. According to a police report, Otis Glover, 82, was hospitalized with injuries after a 50-year-old male church member "violently pushed" him in an effort to keep him from speaking at a microphone.
The 50-year-old, identified in the police report as a church deacon, was allegedly ordered by Mitchell to secure the mic before Glover grabbed hold of it.
Mitchell, who has run the church since he was hired in 2005 and participates in many community-building events in North Richmond, said the elder abuse allegations are without merit.
The crux of the disagreement between Mitchell, 55, and at least a half-dozen church elders hinges on financial strains and leadership style, church members say. As the church's congregation has shrunk in recent years, finances have tightened, and leaders have appealed for more support.
At the same time, the church is a registered nonprofit corporation, and dissenters have retained an attorney and say they will sue Mitchell to force him to share more financial records. Mitchell has his own attorneys and said Sunday that he will seek restraining orders against the ministers he has kicked out of the church.
"It's a matter of not listening, not responding and not communicating," said member Carolyn Smith. "(Mitchell) needs to listen to us."
On Sunday, deacons aligned with Mitchell called Richmond police at about 1 p.m. Officer Mitch Peixoto responded to the scene and was led upstairs to the worship hall. Peixoto soon found himself in the middle of two agitated groups, at one point using his body to separate two men as arguments grew heated.
Peixoto was concerned by what he saw at the historic site, the oldest African-American church in Richmond.
"Based on my observations, this situation is going to continue to occur every Sunday," Peixoto wrote in his report. " ... I believe without the proper mediation, violence between the two factions is going to occur."