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Shelburne cleric believes racism is behind landlord’s bid to evict local congregation

June 14, 2018   ·   0 Comments

Written By MIKE PICKFORD

A Shelburne minister is claiming racism is at the source of a bitter dispute with the landlord of his non-denominational church’s meeting house.

Rev. Vincent Sterling has been operating the Shelburne Worship Centre out of a facility on Steeles Street since December of 2016. Last week, Mr. Sterling reached out to local media after experiencing what he described as “blatant racism” at the hands of his landlord, Ron Early.

The situation, which according to Mr. Sterling began back in April, came to a head last Wednesday evening (June 6) as the church’s congregation were interrupted mid-service by a bailiff, joined a member of the Shelburne Police Service, intent on carrying out a perceived court-ordered eviction notice.

The bailiff attempted to change the locks on both the front and back entrances to the building after informing police he had a court order giving him permission to do so. Upset at the way the situation was unfolding, Mr. Sterling refused to allow him to complete his work, debated the authenticity of the supposed court order and contacted Shelburne Police to send over a supervisor.

Sgt. Paul Neumann quickly arrived on scene and determined that the document the bailiff presented was not a genuine court order, and subsequently ended his attempts to change the locks. The situation has left a sour taste for Mr. Sterling who, after months in which he said there had been no contact with his landlord, alleges the decision to force his congregation from their “home” is racially motivated.

“I believe my landlord’s actions are motivated by racism. This is the second time they have tried to lock us out of our facility. There has been no breach of contract, there are no arrears of rent, yet there is constant, consistent disrespect aimed towards me and gross disregard for our rights,” Mr. Sterling told the Free Press.

Those claims were rejected by Mr. Early and his son Paul, who operates Early’s Machining Ltd. out of the unit immediately beside Shelburne Worship Centre. In a short statement released to the Free Press on Tuesday, the Earlys, without going into any detail on the escalating situation, stated their family was the furthest thing from being racist.

“Our lawyers have asked us not to speak about the actual case, but we feel it’s important to make a statement. We’d like to say that we are, under no circumstance, racist. Our family has always supported diversity in the community and we strongly believe in human rights,” Paul Early said. “Further, we would never behave in the manner that Mr. Sterling is suggesting.”

He added, “I hope to be able to speak more openly about the situation soon.”

Mr. Sterling held a media session on Thursday morning at which he revealed details of the dispute with the Earlys. He later sat down with the Free Press to further press home his belief that he and his family are experiencing “severe” discrimination.

“I would say the treatments started pretty early,” Mr. Sterling said. “I have since spoken to the previous tenant who has informed me there were no issues with the landlord. The point is, what’s the difference between myself and this individual? One thing. They are white and I am black.”

Mr. Sterling took over space vacated by the Shelburne Grace Church of the Nazarene in late 2016. Mr. Sterling says that at that time he reached a verbal agreement with Ron Early to lease the site for a three-year term. While there were no issues initially with the landlord, the minister said it wasn’t long before he felt “bullied” by Mr. Early.

He said Mr. Early had entered the building up to six times without Mr. Sterling’s permission, and had given no reason as to why. After months of back and forth “disagreements,” Mr. Sterling said he arrived at the church on April 6 to see the sign he had erected on the wall damaged and on the ground, and locks on the doors changed.

Mr. Sterling indicated that while there had been no prior communication with the Earlys, and during a quick conversation with Ron at the site on April 6 asked what had happened.

“He told me my rent had not been paid. I knew that couldn’t be possible, as all the money was in the account,” Mr. Sterling recounted. “I called the bank in front of Mr. Early, in front of a bailiff and in front of a Shelburne Police officer to clear the situation up. There must have been an issue on the side of the bank because I was able to confirm that enough money was in the account on April 1, when rent was due.”

Mr. Sterling said that after much discussion, he was granted access to the facility once again and in his mind the misunderstanding was over. But later an official eviction notice giving the tenant 60 days to vacate the facility was issued. Mr. Sterling says he didn’t think anything of it until he noticed Mr. Early had not cashed a rent cheque on June 1.

“To be honest, I didn’t pay any attention to the eviction notice because I have not done anything wrong. My congregation has not done anything wrong. Now, I’m hearing that this is a month-to-month lease, but I believe I have a three-year agreement. Mr. Early has cheques covering most of that time, I don’t understand what has happened that we are now at this point.”

Mr. Sterling does acknowledge that, since Mr. Early owns the building, it is his property and that if he needed it for whatever reason, all Mr. Early needed to do was speak to Mr. Sterling and explain the situation and he would have made arrangements to vacate at the earliest possible time.

“There has been no talking, no communication. Still now, I don’t know why all of this is happening,” Mr. Sterling said.

He said Mr. Early has ignored many requests to meet and speak over the phone, both from Mr. Sterling and from his Toronto  lawyer. Now, Mr. Sterling is facing up to the fact that he will need to find another location in Shelburne. He estimates it may take between four and six months to narrow down a location and complete such a move.

Asked how this had affected him personally, Mr. Sterling shrugged. He was more concerned with how the situation has affected his congregation of up to 50 community members.

“This has affected them terribly. There were people in tears here last week when the police and bailiff arrived,” Mr. Sterling said. “We are like a cushion to these people, we are here to offer our help and support to any and all issues, so for them to see first-hand something like this, it has a great effect.”

Mr. Sterling has refused to leave the facility for any prolonged period of time since last Wednesday, admitting he fears the locks will be changed for a third time. Despite these actions, Mr. Sterling maintains that his faith in the community of Shelburne is unwavering. He vowed that he “will not just pack up and leave” and went on record to thank those who have offered their support throughout this situation.

“I am very cautious here in that I do not want this to be misconstrued and have people think that I’m giving the impression that Shelburne is a racist place, that couldn’t be any further from the truth,” Mr. Sterling said. “I have not seen that. I have not experienced that. This is definitely what I would call an isolated incident. For whatever reason, the landlord has an issue with myself, with the worship centre. I’d love to know why.”

He added, “My hope is that there is a divine intervention and we can put all of this behind us. Am I optimistic? I’m always optimistic. I’m happy to do whatever I can to help resolve this situation.”

While refusing to go into any more detail as of press time, the Earlys say they will share their side of the story as soon as they can. Stay tuned for this developing story.

         

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