The Rev. Ryan Preston Palmer sat at the front of a mostly empty chapel in his large Gothic church, his Bible open to the Book of Ruth. Sunlight streamed through broken windows, illuminating the pale pink paint peeling from the walls in clumps.
The church building at the corner of North Avenue and St. Paul Street is vast, and Palmer says it could draw people together for missionary work, evangelism and community revitalization.
But that vision is in jeopardy.
On a recent Sunday, 10 people sat scattered before Palmer — another 30 seats waited for worshipers who never showed — listening as the minister described the plight of the Seventh Metro Church.
More than $6,000 in unpaid water bills sent the century-old Baptist church to tax auction last year. A California investor bought the debt, and is now seeking to foreclose on the $1.4 million building.
If Palmer can come up with the money to pay off the debt — plus interest, and the investor's legal fees —the tiny congregation could still save its home, he said. But time is running out, and Palmer asked the churchgoers to look to divine intervention.
"Well, Seventh, we are in a bind that we can't fix," Palmer said. "It's not the ninth hour, it's the eleventh hour.
"This looks like a job for Jesus. At noon every day this week, let's pray: 'God help us to save this building and build your church.'"
The church's predicament is not unique. Records show that in the past three years, investor Christopher Bryan has used limited-liability corporations to buy liens on at least 26 predominantly African-American churches in the city's annual tax auction. He has filed papers to foreclose on half a dozen, and took final ownership of one last month.
Bryan, too, has a vision.
Most of the churches Bryan is seeking to foreclose on have fallen into deep disrepair — at least two have deteriorated so badly that they are not used by their congregations. He said the historic buildings are precious resources that are being wasted by congregations that lack the wherewithal to make full use of them.
He says he plans to rent or sell the buildings he acquires to pastors who will be able to fill the pews.
"Everybody wins with an active church," Bryan says. "The community wins, the congregation wins, the city wins.
"A derelict church benefits no one."
Baltimore, like other jurisdictions in Maryland and across the country, attempts to recover unpaid property taxes, water bills and other charges by offering the debt at auction. In Baltimore, the system dates at least as far back as the 19th century.
Investors pay the amount due, satisfying the city, and then attempt to collect it themselves from the property's owner. They can charge up to 18 percent interest annually, plus up to $1,500 in legal fees and hundreds of dollars in other costs. If they are not paid, they can foreclose on the property.
Critics say the system puts property ownership at risk over small and possibly erroneous bills — the city's water billing system has been plagued with problems — and the poor and vulnerable can lose their homes.
The system drew more scrutiny this month when the city offered liens on Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium — state-owned facilities that should not have appeared on the auction list. Officials blamed a computer error and said they would cancel the sales.
The city offered liens on some 1,000 homes for delinquent water bills in the same auction.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and other council members say they will look for ways to protect vulnerable property owners while also getting people to pay their bills.
"We need to review the tax sale process, period," Pugh said. She said she's waiting to see an analysis of data from the 2015 auction before making any decisions.
Bryan buys liens on hundreds of properties a year. He says he expects 99 out of 100 owners to pay their debts before he can obtain a property through foreclosure.
The tax sale gives investors a way to acquire property for a fraction of its market value, if they are patient. Seventh Metro has been assessed at $1.4 million. Bryan's bid of $53,300 could be enough to acquire it.
"We're not nonprofit," Bryan said.
Churches are exempt from property taxes, but not from the water bills and other charges that can land a property on the tax sale auction list. The city did not provide details of the debts for which Bryan is now foreclosing, but pastors said they had struggled to pay water bills that in some cases they disputed.
Political and community leaders in Baltimore said the risk of congregations losing their churches underscores the need for changes.
The Rev. Alvin J. Gwynn Sr., president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said churches need to join together to oppose tax sales based on water bills.
"It's destroying them," he said. "It's pitting government against the churches. You're taking a backdoor way of taking a debt and turning it into a tax and taking our churches."
Gwynn's church, Friendship Baptist in North Baltimore, landed on the tax sale list this year for a $6,000 water bill. He showed a reporter a receipt indicating that the 1,200-member congregation paid the bill off before the auction this month. The city sold the lien anyway.
Gwynn said the church is fighting the action. The city did not respond to a question about it.
A spokesman for the city water department said "records indicate a pattern of non-payment from many" of the 15 church accounts The Sun inquired about. Spokesman Jeffrey Raymond did not provide a breakdown.
"In some cases, the non-payment continued even after we provided significant payment adjustments," Raymond said in a statement. "In other cases, we have no record of the customers making inquiries about these particular accounts."
The agency, he said, "sees no indication that the difficulties cited are due to the billing system — either the old system or the new one."
State Del. Mary Washington, who has sought to stop tax sales over unpaid water charges, said she was appalled to learn of churches being caught in the tax sale.
"The more you pull away at the onion of these water sales you come to find again it's not simply a mechanism to get reimbursed, it's a strategy for divesting long-standing community residents of their assets," the Baltimore Democrat said. "The whole idea that the state would be party or allow local jurisdictions to be party to a systemic targeting of religious institutions for profit by out-of-state entities is intolerable."
Bryan said he can understand why people don't like the tax sale. But it takes months to lose a property, he said, and that's time that the owner can use to seek help.
"Tax sales do not happen overnight," he said. "They happen after years of non-payment and legal process. Everyone finds the final step distasteful, but nobody steps in in the 18 months beforehand and does anything about it."
Young, the City Council president, objects to investors trying to make money on churches.
"If I was an investor and I bought a church at a tax sale, I would go ahead and take a tax write-off and give the church back to that church," he said.
Bishop Charles H. Wilson Jr., leader of Praise Cathedral on Franklin Square, said city officials have worked against his church, instead of supporting its work to distribute clothing and feed the hungry.
Wilson and his congregation bought the former Fourteen Holy Martyrs Catholic Church for $250,000 and established Praise Cathedral in 2011. Their goal was to make it the headquarters for several smaller churches. The building has been assessed at $939,200.
Wilson said a $3,500 water bill has grown, with interest and fees, to more than $6,000. The congregation stopped meeting about a year ago, in what Wilson described as a pause to reorganize and sort through expenses.
The enormous, creaky sanctuary has significant roof damage. Windows are boarded up; chipped plaster walls expose brick. In each of the last three winters, Wilson said, a pipe in the cellar burst, causing leaks and running up the water bill.
Church members fixed the broken lines each time and went to the water department to sort out the bill, which Wilson says has been inexplicably high.
The church faced tax sale twice before Bryan's company bought a lien against it last May.
"The city does not do anything to help the churches," Wilson said.
Some say that Bryan does. The leaders of at least three churches that operate out of space he owns — he says he charges $1,100 a month each to congregations in two rowhouses and a storefront — speak positively of him.
The Rev. Anthony Miller Sr. moved his growing congregation from the basement of his Pikesville home to a storefront in McElderry Park owned by Bryan.
"When we met it was just awesome," Miller said. "God divinely put us together."
Miller said he connected with Bryan through his mother-in-law, a real estate agent. The newly remodeled space is perfect for his 30- to 40-member Hope Community Church, he said, and the rent is affordable for a congregation that relies on donations from its members.
Bryan "had a heart to try to impact that community," Miller said. "He's trying to have a positive impact in communities with challenges."
But Bryan's attempt to take over the William S. Barnes Sr. Memorial Apostolic Church led to a confrontation during worship services one Sunday last month.
The Rev. Mark James was listening to a member of the church preach when the Rev. Westley West walked in. James said West told him he was working with Bryan, and planned to move his own congregation into the church.
West attracted attention when he was arrested in connection with a protest over the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. His Faith Empowered Ministries operates out of a building owned by Bryan in West Baltimore, West and Bryan say.
"He began to be belligerent," James said. "It was quite disruptive."
James doesn't buy Bryan's explanation that he wants to revitalize the churches he buys and the communities they serve. He called Bryan and his lawyers "vultures."
"In actuality all he's doing is profiteering," James said.
James' mother bought the church building in 1990. It's named for his grandfather.
The congregation peaked around 60, but has dwindled in recent years. Still, they kept the church on the corner of Hillen Road and 30th Street in Northeast Baltimore.
"We have a large building because we worked and we did what we had to do," James said. "This is the level of our commitment and the level of love we have for the place we call home."
A few winters ago, James said, the old building suffered leaks and a large water bill. James had already plowed $30,000 of his own money into repairs and upgrades, he said, and figured he could put off paying the water bill while he took care of others.
James said he believed he had reached an agreement with the city's Department of Public Works to pay the bill, but he didn't know the property had outstanding fines stemming from a problem with the church's fire alarm.
The city sent the church to the tax sale in 2015. Bryan bought the debt and filed to foreclose the next year, court records show.
James tried to defend himself in court — if he couldn't afford the water bill, he said, he certainly couldn't afford a lawyer. He filed a handwritten pleading that asked the judge to strike the lien on the church. By that point, Bryan's lawyers wanted not just the $5,912 debt, but $2,450 in legal costs, they said in an email filed in court records. A judge had already awarded Bryan the property.
Bryan said he continued to give James a chance to pay the debt after winning the court judgment. James claimed Bryan demanded $20,000; Bryan said their discussions didn't reach the point of a specific dollar amount.
After meeting with a lawyer this week, James said Bryan remains open to the possibility of selling the building back to him.
West recalled the incident in late April differently. He said phone messages he left for James had gone unanswered, and he was passing by the church when he noticed the doors were open.
He decided to go inside. His plan, he said, was to sit through the rest of the service and talk with James afterward.
But James interrupted the service, West said, and ordered him to leave. It was James who became aggressive, he said.
Police were called, but no report was taken. Police confirmed the call.
The deed to the property was transferred to one of Bryan's companies two days later, property records show. While James is still using the church, Bryan's company filed a lawsuit against James and the church to take final possession. A hearing is scheduled for next week.
"I've seen their demeanor and posture change from 'Let's work together' to they're the boss and they're calling the shots," James said.
West said he hopes to begin holding services in the church by the end of June.
Before then, the church needs a lot of work.
Walking through the church on Tuesday, West showed spots in the main sanctuary where paint has flaked off the walls and left white splotches on the floor below. He lifted a thick sheet of plastic off the baptism pool to reveal a plank of wood poking out from a few inches of stagnant water.
"One of the most holiest things is treated badly," West said. "We need baptism and communion because it's the two ordinances of the church."
Junk was strewn throughout back rooms, a kitchen in the basement was dirty and rusted, and plaster and masonry has crumbled from the walls. A pick ax lay at the bottom of a staircase. A smell of damp pervaded the whole building.
Yet West described how he could clear out one of the trash-filled rooms, put up mirrors on the walls and use it as a dance studio.
"I know this is not going to be a walk in the park," he said. "This is a challenge. What we're talking about is going to take finances, real money, to come in here and to put this church where it needs to be."
West hopes to buy the building. Bryan said he's excited to work with him.
"You have got to empower dynamic people," he said. "I think it's very important to get resources into the hands of people that are going to make change."
The members of Seventh Metro still have a chance to avoid losing their church.
Rachael Smith sees the tax sale as a trial of faith.
She belonged to the church for much of her childhood. She remembers the close-knit church community of about 75 people under Palmer's leadership. They had Vacation Bible School, summer camps, movie nights, choir rehearsals and Sunday school.
Now 26, she returned to the neighborhood with her husband two years ago and rejoined the church. She believes the congregation — down to 15 members — will grow and thrive again.
Through hard times, Smith said, the church and its people have been her safe haven.
"This is the home place," she said. "God planted this church here for a reason. We have to protect what God has given us. We can't just give it up."
One recent Sunday, she rose from her seat and walked to the front of the small sanctuary to sing the opening hymns. The men and women gathered clapped their hands in rhythm.
Smith was singing "And I Exalt Thee" when she paused. She was about to cry.
The congregation encouraged her to carry on.
Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis and reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.