'Just crazy': Tax-exempt Durham church faces potential foreclosure from huge property tax bill

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- The Rev. Johannes Gumbo insists he'd much rather preach the scriptures than preach property taxes.

"I'm here to preach, not fight about buildings," Gumbo said. "This is just crazy."

But on Wednesday night, Gumbo and his congregation of largely African immigrants in east Durham find themselves in a high-stakes battle with the Durham County tax collector.

"Our tax bill is around $87,000," he said. "No, we don't have that."

The church should not need it. The church generates no income. It's a religious entity, exempt from taxes.

Shepherd's House has been worshiping in the sprawling building on the corner of Main and Driver streets since the mid-2000s. It was gifted the property in 2008 by the previous congregation. About four years ago, Gumbo's members officially purchased the building, which set off a trigger at the tax office.

"After a year, which is 2019, we received a letter that we need to pay taxes, 30-something thousand dollars," Gumbo recalled. He said they immediately began trying to communicate with the Durham County Tax Office.

But when ABC11 reached out to the tax division, there was a different story.

"Shepherd's House was sent at least two separate notices of the need to file the tax-exemption form. And either they didn't understand or didn't have the proper advice," said Brian Wardell from the county attorney's office.

However, the church's attorney, Jamie Paulen, contends that after the pandemic took hold, communication with the tax office became nearly impossible.

"These church people are lay people; so they don't understand that this deed has triggered the tax department to take a look at this nonprofit designation. They could not get anyone to answer their calls," Paulen said.

Gumbo added, "There was no one to answer us. You write a letter, you call, nothing."

With Shepherd's House unable to pay, the county is now referring the matter for foreclosure proceedings.

Down in the church's basement, some of the local organizations that count on this church as community space are now caught in the middle. Including the women from Feed My Sheep, the food pantry that feeds families in need two Saturdays a month.

"People come to get their souls fed. And we help feed their stomachs," said volunteer Rose Greene.

Fellow Feed My Sheep volunteer Helen Taylor added, "I don't think they should close up the church or sell the church because the church is really serving the community."

The county told ABC11 that state law prevents the tax office from giving the church a retroactive tax exemption this long after the taxes were due.

The matter will likely end up in an appeal before the North Carolina Property Tax Commission.

Meanwhile, the community is rallying around Shepherd's House. Groups like Feed My Sheep, which rely on this space, are holding a virtual meeting Thursday night to raise awareness and help the church fight back.
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