For decades, neighbors in Faubourg Marigny knew New Orleans Triumph Baptist Church, founded in 1959, for the gospel music that emanated from the building on North Rampart Street every Sunday.
Occasionally, a jazz musician or a Mardi Gras Indian who belonged to the congregation would die, and the narrow streets outside the church would fill with brass instruments, tambourines and mourners dressed in black, ready to accompany the family to the graveyard.
Ronnie Crockett, who became the pastor in 2000, endeared himself to his flock with an idiosyncratic, rapid-fire style of preaching that he sometimes referred to as “Crockology.” He would dish out quips like this one, on the Passover story: “There’s a lamb that’s going to get you out of your jam.”
And until recently, the church had an almost spotless financial history. Members, even the ones on fixed incomes, always gave enough in tithes and offerings to cover expenses, said Zandra Batiste, who joined the congregation 48 years ago.
As a member of the church’s board of trustees, Batiste recalls Crockett occasionally tracking her down at work to get a signature on a check, standard church practice for any expense over $500. Crockett would explain what the check was for, and she’d sign it. But most of the time, the checkbook stayed locked in a church safe. There wasn’t much money to spend, and not much to spend it on.
In hindsight, the trouble began a few years ago when the church bank account was suddenly flush with money, the result of a decision to sell its longtime home in an increasingly crowded neighborhood and move downriver.
Court files show Crockett, 49, was arrested Aug. 11 and accused of “fraudulently taking church funds.” He was held for a few hours and released.
The application for his arrest warrant said that $137,000 worth of church money remains unaccounted for.
Now, Crockett is back in the pulpit, but his church is unmoored. Some of its longest-standing members say they’ve been banned for raising questions. The old building was sold, but the new one meant to replace it remains shuttered. The money earmarked for renovations is gone.
The church formerly had about 150 active members, but attendance has dropped dramatically. One recent service drew about two dozen people.
Over the past month, Batiste and three of her closest friends in the congregation — church trustees Carrie Brown and Delois Cambor, and church member Carolyn Wilson — shared their version of what has happened at Triumph Baptist over the past few years, backing up their account with a thick binder of church documents, bank records, photographs and letters.
Crockett initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but ultimately never responded to phone messages. His next court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday.
Decision to move
The congregation at Triumph Baptist began mulling a sale of its longtime church building at 1760 N. Rampart and a nearby parking lot around the corner in 2011. In the years after Hurricane Katrina, the neighborhood had become denser and more developed. Parking became a headache. The lot held only 20 cars, and worshipers who parked on the street were finding tickets on their windshields after services.
So in the summer of 2011, after getting the church appraised at $375,000, a majority of the congregation voted to sell. The church owed no debt; the mortgage had been paid off decades earlier under its founding pastor, the Rev. Lloyd Brown.
In 2013, the parking lot on St. Anthony Street sold for $185,000. The next year, the church itself went for $275,000 to a buyer who wanted to carve the property into condos.
Batiste said she and her friends questioned at the time why Crockett had gotten so little, compared with the appraisal, noting that a year later, after a hasty renovation, the building was resold for $575,000. But they never got a satisfying answer.
In any case, they soon put their concerns aside. They were enthusiastic about the move to a new building at 840 Caffin Ave. that seemed within their price range and perfect for the congregation. Roomy and structurally sound, with a big parking lot out front, it had housed First Thessalonians Missionary Baptist Church before Katrina.
The congregation could not move in right away, however. The new building needed an interior renovation as well as new electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems, the typical litany in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Still, it all seemed affordable at the time. Having purchased the building for $180,000, the church still had about $178,000 in the bank from the sale of its former property. In fact, Crockett predicted in 2014 that the church would have $100,000 to spare after the renovations were complete.
In the meantime, Triumph rented space at the Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion funeral home in Treme for weekly services. The congregation is now worshiping at a rented space at 6117 St. Claude Ave. owned by the Rev. Leonard Lucas.
Looking back, the trustees interviewed for this story said, the red flags started appearing around this time.
Crockett began keeping the checkbook on him, they said, telling trustees he needed easier access to the church’s funds so he could pay contractors working on the new building. They said Crockett had no receipts for repairs done with money from a Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund grant.
To the longtime church members, one of the pastor’s most galling acts involved a relatively small amount of money: three checks totaling $600 that was supposed to be used for scholarships in the name of Brown, the founding pastor.
Cambor, one of the trustees, recalls that Crocket told her he couldn’t remember the students’ exact names, so he asked her to sign the checks and leave the “pay to the order of” line bank. He said he would write the names in later and mail them.
Instead, bank records show, he wrote in the name Ronnie A. Crockett and cashed the checks.
In the meantime, church members continued to wait on the renovations at their new building. Whenever anyone asked, Crockett would say the same thing: “Soon, soon.”
A special account
In January 2015, Crockett told the congregation that he’d had a dream. God had told him that Triumph should establish a new “840 account,” named for the address of the new church.
If each member gave $21 a week for 40 weeks, they could each contribute a total of $840 to finance ministries at the new building, he told them. In return, the church would place bricks in front of the building with their names on them.
“He told us, ‘Long after we’re gone, our names will be there on those bricks,’ ” said Batiste, who coughed up the $840, as did her three friends.
The account, which grew past $10,000, has been emptied, records show. Some of the trustees now theorize that it must have been Crockett’s attempt to replace what he had been taking.
Early in the summer of 2015, after a few trips to the bank, Cambor saw the first signs of what looked like wrongdoing. In both December 2014 and January 2015, Crockett had written himself two checks of $2,900 — essentially paying himself double his agreed-upon salary.
Cambor, a member of the church since 2009, approached Crockett privately about that and other discrepancies she had seen on the bank statements. She recalls telling him, “Money is gone from the bank. I have evidence that you’ve taken it.” She asked him to show her receipts, she said.
He brushed it off, she remembers, saying, “Sister Cambor, you do not pay me enough.”
Cambor, shocked and frustrated, tried for several months to get Crockett to convene a board meeting on the matter, she said, but with no luck.
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SOURCE: The New Orleans Advocate – Katy Reckdahl