Higher Ground Empowerment Center: Occupy Atlanta's Latest Win Is Deal To Save Historic Church

WASHINGTON -- Occupy Atlanta can declare another victory in its fight against big banks. Six days ago, Pastor Dexter Johnson called on the organizers to help save his church, a 108-year-old icon located in the Vine City neighborhood. Johnson feared his Higher Ground Empowerment Center (HGEC) was close to eviction. But yesterday, BB&T, which he says had initiated eviction proceedings, agreed to halt the legal action and settled with the church on favorable terms.

This is the second time Occupy Atlanta has used tents to halt an imminent eviction. Activists recently camped out with an Iraq War veteran at her home in Riverdale, Ga. That action saved the vet and her family from foreclosure as she was able to secure a modified loan agreement from her bank. The activists also successfully worked with two other families, providing tent-free legal assistance on their foreclosure issues, Occupy Atlanta organizer Tim Franzen explained to The Huffington Post.

The organizers are currently occupying the home of a family in downtown Atlanta and continue to disrupt housing auctions at area courthouses. Throughout the country, activists staged similar actions in an effort to shine a light on the foreclosure crisis through the Occupy Our Homes movement.

The Higher Ground Empowerment Center fell into financial peril after a 2008 tornado devastated the facility by ripping off the roof and steeple. A $1.1 million loan with BB&T was used for the rebuild.

Johnson, 48, has been the pastor for 18 years. He started out as a member: his parents raised him in the church, and as a single father he raised three children in the congregation. "It was very important," he said. "It was my lifeline. It was where I grew up spiritually. It was where I came to know God myself. It's all I know."

Johnson said the church did more than open its doors for Sunday worship -- they offered a summer camp, a food pantry, a clothing bank, performed outreach to at-risk children, and advocated for residents facing their own housing crises. "We were leading while bleeding," he said.

By bleeding, Johnson means they were experiencing a devastating drop in membership after the storm that displaced the church. The pastor held services for 18 months in a nearby mosque, but membership fell by nearly 50 percent, donations were down by almost as much. HGEC-owned rental properties and businesses nearby were also effected by the storm.

In an attempt to stabilize the church's finances and pay off the loan, Johnson said he cut his salary by 70 percent with staff soon to follow with their own salary downsizing. The pastor took on consulting work, counseling work, and manned a copy machine at a law firm to make up the difference.

But the loan payments couldn't be saved by salary cuts. David R. White, vice president of BB&T corporate communications, said the loan was eventually satisfied when the church deeded the property to the bank in December 2009. "The church remained on the property as a tenant since that time," he said. The church still had trouble making rent payments, and the issue ended up in court.

Johnson said they've been paying a modified amount into the court registry. The bank had pushed for a final resolution that would have resulted in their eviction, he said.

White told HuffPost last week that the bank had no intention of evicting the church and expected to resolve the matter. "We have been working with them since 2008," he said in an interview. "We are committed to work with them and get a mutually agreeable solution."

White said he doesn't know why the church reached out to Occupy Atlanta. The need for the activists was made clear yesterday, however, when they were invited into direct negotiations with a BB&T executive. Franzen says they were able to get the bank to forgive hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and turn over the deed to it's main building and nine nearby properties that the church previously owned. The church got a new 25-year loan at one-percent interest. "This is a huge deal," Franzen said.

"It took us six days to win and on the seventh day we rest." he joked. "Hats off to BB&T. They made a good deal today. The campaign against them is over. I think they did the right thing. The only reason we came in last Thursday was because BB&T was trying to challenge the church's appeal to hold off the eviction."

The church also worked with Rainbow PUSH to reach the agreement.

White would not comment on the specifics of the loan, but Brant Standridge, BB&T's regional president in Atlanta, released a statement to Huff Post. "BB&T has agreed to sell the property to Higher Ground Empowerment Center at an affordable price and to fully finance the sale," he wrote. "BB&T has a long-standing relationship with the church and supports the meaningful work that the Higher Ground Empowerment Center does in the community. We share a mutual goal of improving the community and we recognize all the work they do in this neighborhood."

Johnson was relieved by the settlement. "We own it," he declared. "I'm telling you, it feels like the weight of the world has been lifted off of me. I just knew that I could not lose the church on my watch."