Deliver us from evil
Intense battle underway to remove defiant pastor
Erick Johnson | 3/20/2014, 9 a.m.
According to banks statements obtained by The Times, one loan for $174,013.14 had $863.22 in late fees after the church failed to make a single monthly payment for three years. That loan accumulated $31,204.78 in interests alone. The total amount of interest from all four loans is $78,699.01.
The Times also obtained a check Gardner signed and cashed from a member who loaned him $1,000 in 2012. The member, who still attends the church and requested to remain anonymous, said Gardner never paid the money back.
The check is one of few paper trails Gardner left. Most church members loaned him money in cash and said there was no need for documentation since they trusted him.
Members and leaders of The Florida State Association of the Church of God will never know where their money is or how it was spent. Gardner has failed to answer any questions or be forthcoming about anything to leaders, members and The Times.
But members tried. They sent a written request to Gardner last December seeking to obtain copies of bank statements for the church and various financial documents for 2012 and 2013, according to a letter obtained by The Times. Gardner never responded, the members said.
GARDNER'S RESPONSE TO THE TIMES
In researching this story, a reporter from The Times went to the church on two occasions, seeking comment and information from Gardner. On the first visit, the reporter, after Sunday service, was told by one of Gardner’s assistants that he was in a meeting and would have no comment. The reporter returned this past Sunday and caught up with Gardner as he thanked members as they exited the building after service.
During the conversation, the reporter asked Gardner about the thousands of dollars in loans and members' concerns. Gardner calmly said, “no comment”.
“Are you sure?,” the reporter asked. “These are some serious allegations made against you.”
“No comment,” Gardner repeated.
The reporter offered to give Gardner his cell phone number should he want to give a comment later, but the pastor declined.
A DEFIANT PASTOR
But despite his suspension from the organization and allegations, Gardner continued preaching anyway. That’s when Gardner’s relations with his members intensified. Numerous witnesses told a reporter that they were called the day before church by staff member who warned them that an injunction barring them from the church property had been taken out. If they came to church, they would be escorted out of the building and arrested for trespassing.
“Basically, he’s in defiance, “Nicholson said. “He doesn’t suppose to be preaching. His rational is this church is no longer part of the organization and he can do whatever he wants. He’s very arrogant”
That morning, three police officers waited inside the entrance to the church’s sanctuary with their arms folded and faces stoic. No arrests were made, but outspoken members called the move a scare tactic.
Earlier, after inquiring why police were at the church, an usher declined to give an answer and asked the reporter to leave while she spoke to the officers. After failing to get an answer from police, the reporter returned to the worship service inside to take notes for this story.