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ROCKY MOUNT — Off-kilter remarks from a longtime local civil rights leader topped off a weekend event to call attention to a church’s unrequited desire to purchase adjacent property from a resolute land developer.
The Rev. Thomas Walker, senior pastor of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, said the church wants to build a community life center, but has been landlocked by Jim Rabil, CEO of Chambliss & Rabil.
To kick off a Saturday protest march, Walker addressed a couple dozen participants, telling them the land in dispute belongs to God.
Walker, who is Black, pointed out that he believes Rabil is Jewish, and his motive for not selling the land to the church is based on greed as much as racism.
Actually, Rabil, a longtime member of the First Methodist Church, is of Lebanese descent with two sons of color, one Hispanic and one Black.
Rabil declined comment when reached Monday. He said previously that he supports Walker’s community outreach work, but the land Ebenezer wants to buy isn’t for sale.
Rabil offered the land for free if the church purchased Walnut Shopping Center, which sits on the same block as the church on West Raleigh Boulevard. The two parties didn’t reach an agreement, and that prompted the protest march.
Rabil figured the church would want the shopping center since it sits on property adjacent to the land the church wants and would be ideal for any expansion projects, according to June 24 emails between church members and Rabil representatives.
Five of the lots the church wants to purchase have a total taxable value of $25,000. The church offered $65,000, according to the emails.
Rabil told The Rocky Mount Telegram last week that he gave the church a chance to buy the shopping center before placing it on the real estate market. The shopping center houses several businesses, increasing its market price. Its listed sale price is $545,000.
Walker said Saturday that he wouldn’t dare involve the church in purchasing such a dilapidated, environmentally hazardous piece of property, but if Rabil sells the land to the church, then the church would work with city officials to use of grants or other available means to acquire and develop the shopping center, which sits across the street from the city-owned armory.
The Rocky Mount City Council voted last week to fund and provide technical support for a Black Business Matters Zone located in the inner city.
Drilling down on property records reveals that Rabil owns only a portion of the parcels adjacent to the church. Houses along Walnut Street, which runs more or less parallel to West Raleigh Boulevard, are owned by one family and managed by Century 21. Lots along Westhaven Boulevard are all single-family homes, two of which are up for sale, according to signs posted in front of the properties.
Along West Raleigh Boulevard, Rabil only owns two relevant pieces of property, and an alley runs between the church and Rabil’s properties, according to Nash County tax records.
Just down the opposite side of West Raleigh Boulevard from the church is a building Rabil owns that served as Councilman T.J. Walker’s campaign headquarters when he ran for office last year and still serves as his address for official city business, according to the city’s website.
Rev. Walker and Rabil, mainstays in Rocky Mount since the 1970s, have had dealings before.
Walker said that years ago, Rabil refused to sell land to the church on its southwest side. Walker said church members took to the streets to march and eventually Rabil sold the land, which now serves as the church’s parking lot.
“Let’s pray Mr. Rabil comes around to reason again,” Walker said, adding that if Rabil doesn’t sell the land to the church, when he dies, the property will remain tied around his neck like a millstone for all eternity.
During an afternoon filled with Old Testament references, Deacon Chairman Paul Allen Jr. compared Rabil to Goliath and the church to David; Walker mentioned how the Israelites are still engaged in a fight over land in the Middle East; and like Joshua circling Jericho, the small group marched three times around the church building, the properties in question and the shopping center, all on West Raleigh Boulevard.
No trumpets sounded, but some motorists blew their horns in apparent support of the cause.
“In an effort to grow the church into the 21st century, combined with proposing a collaborative community development partnership, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church again faces the challenge of a ‘Rabil knee’ on the church’s neck that is seeking to cut off the opportunity for the church to breathe new life into the Little Raleigh community,” Walker wrote in a press release announcing Saturday’s protest.
Allen said the church can’t grow while being landlocked. He said Rabil has his knee on the church’s neck, a reference to the May 25 death of George Floyd. A Black man, Floyd died with the knee of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, on the back of his neck. Floyd is captured on cellphone video saying, “I can’t breathe,” which has become a rallying cry of civil rights activists like Black Lives Matter organizers.
Floyd’s death led to protests and riots in cities across the country. In Rocky Mount, community members held a peaceful rally on May 31 with Walker in attendance.
Walker said Black Lives Matter takes on different meanings. For many, the movement is about police brutality, but he said Rocky Mount is blessed with Black leadership, so he couldn’t imagine what happened elsewhere happening in Nash or Edgecombe counties.
“We have a great police department and great sheriffs,” Walker said.
But oppression is felt in many ways, and Rabil not selling the church the land it needs to expand is a prime example, Walker said. He accused Rabil of orchestrating the landlocking of a poor, struggling Black congregation by purchasing the surrounding homes at an extremely low price, then refusing to sell the property to the church.
Walker said Rabil bought and tore down a small school that had historic importance and sentimental value in the Little Raleigh community. On the other hand, Walker praised an effort by Christian community and business leaders to purchase an old warehouse, tear it down and build a big-box retail store.
Some of the lots the church wants to purchase have houses, which would have to be demolished for the community life center to be built.
The church, established in 1916, wants to construct a family life center with facilities for senior activities, youth development and entrepreneurship training for young adults.