Love Thy Neighbor

Unless your neighbor tries to build a homeless shelter in Noe Valley

But Bell believes the church's troubles with its neighbors date back to 1996, when he returned to San Francisco after years in Seattle, Sacramento, and Richmond. He was moved by the city's tremendous problems with homelessness, and decided to invite homeless people to stay in the church. He says that's when he started getting angry calls from the neighbors. "I thought the attitude was that I'm going to be bringing all these 'black' people into our neighborhood," Bell says.

The church has since been hit with multiple code violations, including violations for having a pile of debris at the side door of the church, remodeling without a permit, distributing food to the homeless without a permit, a wall crumbling near the foundation, and having people living in the church.

The word some neighbors use when describing the church is "sketchy," but Bell insists the violations are simply a symptom of harassing neighbors who call to complain every chance they get.

Pastor Joesiah Bell says he plans to take the money and move out of Noe Valley.
James Sanders
Pastor Joesiah Bell says he plans to take the money and move out of Noe Valley.

The pastor and his church have had internal problems beyond neighborhood squabbles. In June 2004, the Church at San Francisco Where Jesus Is Lord sued Associated Trustee Services, BDM Mortgage Services, and others. The case alleges that the pastor attempted to borrow $237,000 from BDM Mortgage without getting permission from the church's board of trustees. "The funds (if any) obtained by the Pastor were not used for the benefit of the Church," court documents read. The church, which was clearly concerned about foreclosure, requested dismissal of the case in May 2005.

A few months later, in September 2005, the pastor's wife, Teresa Bell, filed for divorce. In that case, she's filed an order restraining him from selling or disposing of any property "except in the usual course of business or for the necessities of life as presented to the Court," documents read.

The pastor allegedly took money that Teresa Bell earned at her job and used it for the church, according to his wife's attorney Drexel Bradshaw, who's arguing that she was entitled to her community share of the property. That case is still in litigation.

The pastor says disputes over his finances, and his wife's attempt to claim church property, wouldn't be happening if he were a white pastor. "This is just ridiculous, it borders on the absurdity," he says, adding, "I'm trying to transform people's lives." The church has received $800,000 from condominium developers, Bell says, but it's unclear where it will move if and when construction at the Church Street site begins. And he's still holding out a shred of hope that he could stay put and build the House of Sarah right in Noe Valley. Sketches and plans for the shelter still hang on the door outside.

And, at the end of the Wednesday-night service, Bell and the dozen or so people who eventually gathered there each took out some money and raised a hand "to the Lord" for an offering. Calling out for donations, Bell reminds them that he would need $5 million for the House of Sarah. "Don't bring a check!" he says. "Bring cash! Money order!"

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