Pastor Felix Gross hosted the grand opening of his spacious new church in The Bronx on Saturday — a long-held dream that seemed far out of reach just months ago.
“We are elated, because we are seeing that soon we’re going to have a church full,” said Gross, who’s led the Evangelical Church Disciples of Christ since 1979.
The new worship space also allowed him to celebrate the 100th birthday of his mother, Aide Cabrera, who hit the milestone on June 14, and co-founded the South Bronx church in the 1960s.
The past several years had been full of turmoil for the congregation.
In November, THE CITY reported on Gross’ claim that he received nothing after selling his church’s two long-vacant lots in Longwood to a housing developer.
The firm, Brisa Builders, constructed two six- and seven-story apartment buildings on the lots, which now house tenants in 83 units financed by city and state housing agencies.
But the congregation wasn’t granted access to its promised first-floor and basement-level space at 917 Westchester Ave. because Gross refused to pay $3,000 a month in condominium charges that he says came as a surprise to him.
The pastor told THE CITY that he didn’t know about those charges when he entered the agreement — although they were deep in the fine print.
Days after the story ran last year, Brisa Builders CEO Ericka Keller sued the church in Bronx Supreme Court, alleging that the house of worship wasn’t fulfilling its end of the agreement — and was waging a “smear campaign” against her company.
“Gross acted with malice, oppression or fraud, and is thus responsible for punitive damages in an amount the court may deem proper,” reads the complaint.
The Gospel of Forgiveness
In April, Gross said, he called Keller to try to resolve their differences, and they agreed to meet at the pastor’s home without attorneys present. At the meeting, Gross lamented that the church wasn’t receiving all that it was promised from Keller’s late father, Thomas Keller, who led Brisa Builders before she took over about nine years ago.
“She is the daughter of a man who shook my hand before he died, and told us you are going to have the church of your dreams, and I trusted him,” Gross said. “And that’s why we chose Brisa Builders.”
At the meeting, Gross learned that a large portion of the $3,000 charges would cover the space’s insurance. But since Gross already had a long-standing relationship with an insurance provider who would offer a much lower price, he asked Keller if he could pay for his own insurance and have the charges waived. She agreed.
Gross said Keller also agreed to drop the lawsuit and pay for extra finishes and fixtures for the church, including kitchen appliances.
“She began to be very cooperative, and things began to happen,” Gross said. “The first thing that we told her is, ‘If we are going to come to an agreement, we want to open the church by the end of June.’”
Shortly after, Gross received the keys to the space, as well as the title, and moved his church’s belongings from a brownstone on Union Avenue to its bigger new home.
After privately celebrating his mother’s birthday in the new church basement with friends and family on Saturday, Gross opened the doors to the public.
In the late afternoon, moments after Gross and his wife, Samaris, cut a ribbon to officially open the church, parishioners and guests poured into the building. A standing-room only crowd sang, clapped and praised during a mostly Spanish service.
Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr., who had previously urged the state attorney general’s office to investigate the development deal, presented an official New York City Council Proclamation to Keller, recognizing her service to the community.
Keller told THE CITY that miscommunication was “the real schism” between the church and her company. She added she was pleased their differences were resolved, allowing the church to serve the neighborhood.
“The services are so needed in this community and it was just so needed for them to get into the building,” Keller said. “And I’m happy that they’re here, that they’ve made it a home and that they will be here for a long time to come.”
But that wasn’t the end of the legal battles for Keller.
Victor Abreu, a former member of the church who introduced Gross to Brisa Builders, has sued the firm for allegedly breaching a 2016 agreement. Abreu told THE CITY that he has received $100,000 from Brisa for brokering the deal, but is seeking $200,000 more that he claims that he is owed.
“When parties enter into a contract, they’re legally bound to it,” said Abreu’s lawyer, Karl Silverberg. “And if they breach it, they’re subject to a lawsuit and damages and a judgment against them. And we’re in the process of pursuing all our legal rights.”
Keller said that Abreu agreed to an initial $100,000 payment for bringing the church to Brisa, and now he’s demanding more.
“I think he’s been compensated for what he did,” Keller said. “And now he’s trying to really just take advantage of the situation.”
Keller is refusing to pay the additional money to Abreu, contending that the agreement was made “under duress,” court documents show. She made a counterclaim with the court, and is seeking to get back the $100,000 from Abreu, the records show.
Abreu is seeking $5 million in damages from Keller for the alleged cancellation of an earlier agreement with Brisa, court records filed on Monday show.
A Word to the Wise
Diaz, who called the opening of the church a “miracle,” told THE CITY that all ministers who own property in the city should heed caution when dealing with developers.
“There are developers taking advantage of them,” said Diaz.
Working in the South Bronx, Gross said that he’s always wanted to grow his church as a way to empower those around him.
“Our goal has always been to uplift the integrity, the value, the self-worth of every member of the church,” he said. “You are not just, you know, a poor Hispanic. You are a valuable asset for society. And we want to make them feel like they are in the church that they should be proud of.”