DITMAS PARK – A dispute that centered in part on how Black churches should treat their pastor’s wife came to a legal resolution. The courts ordered the removal of former First Lady Paula Scarlett-Brown, widow of the late Archbishop Roy E. Brown who founded the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Flatbush, from her home that the church owns. While the legal dispute ended, a moral debate continues about first ladies.
Authorities removed Scarlett-Brown from 1721 Ditmas Avenue on December 5, she told Bklyner. This ended a court battle with Pilgrim Church that started on August 15, 2018, when the church posted an eviction notice on the house Scarlett-Brown shared with her disabled husband, who died two months earlier.
“The experience of getting evicted was devastating. This whole episode has been like a nightmare,” Scarlett-Brown said. “I was still trying to get time because I didn’t have a place to live.”
The optics couldn’t look worse for the church: its former first lady thrown out into the cold during the Christmas season. Scarlett-Brown said that she’s now living with friends and doesn’t have the money to find her own place to live.
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Pilgrim Church’s attorney, the Rev. Monte Malik Chandler, told Bklyner that the church has been generous to Scarlett-Brown. In addition to receiving $100,000 from an insurance policy on the archbishop’s life, Pilgrim Church offered her $600,000 from the sale of the house, valued at about $2.5 million.
Scarlett-Brown has a long history with Pilgrim Church. She was a congregant at the church before marrying Archbishop Brown in 1996. She worked at P.S. 251 as a teacher and staff developer from 1993 until her husband asked her to resign shortly after their marriage. The former first lady, who was the archbishop’s third wife, became his caregiver for 13 years after he lost both of his legs to diabetes and needed kidney dialysis three days a week. Ultimately, she suffered a permanent back injury from lifting her husband and has been in physical therapy, Scarlett-Brown said.
Archbishop Brown deeded the house to Pilgrim Church and died without a will. Money from his $100,000 insurance policy has dwindled away from paying utilities and maintenance for the house, as well as the costs of moving and storage, Scarlett-Brown stated.
The former first lady said she declined the $600,000 offer from Pilgrim Church because it “came with a list of stipulations and a gag order.” Meanwhile, the church is demanding thousands of dollars for rent from the period she lived in the house while challenging the eviction.
“I’m sure my late husband would be devastated about this. There is no way he would expect them to evict his wife six weeks after he died,” she said.
Scarlett-Brown added: “I’m the wife of the founder. That’s not what you’re supposed to do.”
Chandler is offended by questions about the church’s sense of morality.
“When people ask if this was moral, they undermine the theological concept of the priesthood of every believer,” he said. Under that concept, every church member is equal in the eyes of God, explained Chandler, who has a Master of Divinity degree. He added that Pilgrim Church has treated Scarlett-Brown as it would any other widow in their congregation.
The attorney emphasized the need for context. He said the Black church sometimes “deifies” its leaders and esteem its pastor’s wife above other women in the congregation. “So, when you bring in these titles, such as First Lady, that’s an inaccuracy. Who’s the second lady? If there’s a first lady, who is the 45th lady?” he asked.
In fact, many question the concept of the pastor’s wife as the first lady.
“And [in] many of our Black churches, we have developed this notion of first lady. And so, the wife of the pastor is the first lady of the church. But first lady nomenclature comes from the White House… Somehow in the Black church we decided that we wanted to give a title to the wife of the pastor we call first lady,” the Rev. Cheryl J. Sanders, professor of Christian Ethics at the Howard University School of Divinity, told The Christian Post in an article about the role of pastors’ wives in ministry.
Given that perspective, Pilgrim Church believes it has been fair to Scarlett-Brown, Chandler said. The church, he added, has a stewardship responsibility for the property. “The church still has a ministry to do, children to take care of, poor people to take care of and to comply with the mission of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Though she feels disrespected, Scarlett-Brown wants to move forward while writing the next chapter of her life.
“The animosity, trauma, despair will eat me alive if I don’t let it go,” she stated. “I forgive them and leave them in God’s hands.”