Family battles over megachurch founder’s estate
The family of a popular Pentecostal bishop from Detroit who started his ministry in a storefront says the national megachurch he built before his death is keeping them from inheriting what they believe to be up to $10 million.
Bishop William Bonner’s two adult grandchildren say his survivors are being shut out of their inheritance and they believe officials with the Harlem, N.Y.-based Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ are hiding money and records about property that belongs to the family.
“He warned people about it,” said Grace Bonner, a Lansing resident and one of the bishop’s granddaughters, who has asked the Wayne County Probate Court to intervene. Judge Judy Hartsfield said during a hearing on the matter Wednesday that she will decide by March 9 whether to dismiss the case.
Considered a “Gospel Giant” by some members, Bonner died in April at age 93, after suffering from dementia and complications from a stroke.
He founded Solomon’s Temple in 1944, which has grown into a 2,500-seat sanctuary on East Seven Mile. It was among the first churches in the city to broadcast its sermons and services, watched by thousands across the country. Under Bonner’s leadership, the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ expanded to numerous cities across the country and around the globe, church officials say. He also founded the W.L. Bonner Bible College in Columbia, South Carolina.
Bonner’s real estate empire includes as many as 30 homes and other properties in Michigan, New York, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., his family says.
His survivors want the church to open its books on the late bishop’s financial affairs to give them more information about the bishop’s will detailing property and cash that they say should be part of their inheritance. But lawyers for Bonner’s estate, which is overseen by a church bishop, say the family should take their questions to church leaders, which Bonner’s granddaughters say they have done without success.
The family, which has no role in the church, is fighting for the right to sell their father’s property, while church officials argue any sale should benefit the church.
Wayne State University associate law professor Susan Cancelosi said the success of the family’s legal complaint depends on whether the late bishop’s assets were listed in the name of the church or privately owned.
Attorneys for Bonner’s estate deny its value is what his descendants say it is.
“(The family) made allegations that the bishop was worth millions of dollars and had a personal jet,” attorney Anthony Adams of Detroit said Tuesday. The relatives’ complaints are “frivolous,” he added, which “turned out to be baseless.”
Adams, his wife, Lynn L. Marine-Adams, and Les Braverman are co-counsel in the matter.
Braverman said the family is not “supporting their pleadings with any factual statements.”
Grace Bonner said her grandfather’s will was changed 11 months before he died, which she said is suspicious.
“My father was not allowed into his office or the home to get his personal belongings,” she said.
“There are bank accounts where the Social Security checks went to. We’ve been trying to contest the will since he died. They have hidden a lot of things from us.”
She said several pieces of property include some on East Seven Mile and Conant in Detroit and an apartment at the Riverfront Towers downtown. Some land parcels and a home are in danger of being foreclosed on by Wayne County because family members say there are delinquent tax bills on them.
Lawsuit seeks answers
Gwen Lewis, a Bonner family friend, said she also has a lot of questions regarding the late bishop’s estate and hopes church officials open the books and answer questions about his last days.
Lewis, who is a widow of a church bishop in Pennsylvania, said the issue is troubling.
“It saddens me,” she said. “Bishop Bonner was our spirit father in the gospel. The Bonner family trusted his handlers.”
Lewis said all the money collected by the churches around the country was sent to a top church official in New York.
“There was a lot of mismanagement of money not just in Detroit but also New York,” she said.
Family members have filed the lawsuit, which is pending before Hartsfield, to force church leaders to answer questions about what has happened to their grandfather’s estate.
They also want questions answered in court about what happened to Bonner’s Social Security checks and pension payments.
A miracle, then ministry
Bonner’s family says his path into the pulpit began when he fell and broke his neck as a young man.
“While he was laying unable to move he said he told God, ‘if you heal me I will serve you forever,’ ” said his granddaughter Lydia Bonner of New York City. “And the miracle happened and that’s how he decided to go into ministry.”
In 1944, Bonner was instructed by then-Bishop Robert Lawrence Lawson to come to Detroit and grow the First Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, then a storefront, into a 3,000-member mother congregation for the Apostolic denomination.
Widowed since his wife, Ethel, died in 1999, Bonner was survived by his son, William Lee Bonner Jr., and his granddaughters. A daughter preceded him in death. Bonner Jr. did not want to discuss the case.
Earlier this month, Greater Refuge Temple, the Harlem, New York-based headquarters of Bonner’s church, voted for a new apostle to lead the churches in Detroit; Harlem; Columbia, South Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; and Washington, D.C.
The church has three levels of leadership: apostles, bishops and elders. Each church has its own constitution. There are about 500 churches across the country all affiliated with the “mother” church, based in Harlem.
Signs of ill health
Bishop David Maxwell, pastor of Solomon’s Temple until 2013, was asked about the case in a legal deposition taken July 8. Maxwell now is bishop at Eliezer Temple Church in Lansing and he’s also vice chairman of the Board of Bishops for the church.
He said Bonner’s health began to deteriorate around 2008 and he began to “appreciably” deteriorate from 2012-14.
“His mental alertness, his physical gait, all of that began to diminish,” Maxwell said in the deposition. “And when I would talk to (the South Carolina church secretary who was helping to handle Bonner’s finances), she was saying he was doing fine. But my observation was that he was not doing fine.
“The weight loss, the slowing of his gait, the challenges that he had with some of his motor functions, excuse me, the comprehension and the mental acuity, he was diminishing, and diminishing rapidly.”
Maxwell said his concerns led him to call Bonner’s son “from time to time” beginning in 2011 about his concerns over Bonner’s health “encouraging him to become more actively involved in his father’s affairs.”
“Perhaps he needed to institute some type of process or court action to declare his father either incompetent or to take control of his affairs,” Maxwell said during the deposition taken by the family’s attorney, Ronnie Cromer. The son sent a letter to a top church official stating his concerns about his father’s mental state in January 2014.
Maxwell said the church in Detroit would collect $1,500 a week for the elder Bonner.
The Detroit church’s pastor, Bishop Henry Davenport, said the church’s local leadership has nothing to do with the court battle and that it is between a New York-based bishop who was a longtime assistant to the late Bonner and the deceased church leader’s family.
“We have done nothing wrong. We have nothing to do with it at all,” Davenport said.
Davenport would not say how the controversy is affecting the congregation, but did add, “God is blessing the church.”