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Samoan church in Carson fights in court for its independence

During a break from testimony in Compton court, members of Carson Bethel Church stood in a circle holding hands and praying for God’s forgiveness for their role in a distinctly un-Christian legal battle between two factions of a Samoan ministry that has deep roots in the South Bay and Long Beach.“We know this is bad for us as Christians to take another Christian to court,” the Rev. Taisi Aumua prayed in the courthouse last week, as congregation members chanted “Jesus” and “Thank you.” He instructed everyone to “look at the plaintiffs as brothers, and with love.”About 100 church members filled the courtroom during the weeklong nonjury trial, with half of the room divided in favor of the Carson church, and the other half siding with its parent church in American Samoa.At issue is whether the First Samoan Full Gospel Pentecostal Church Inc. in American Samoa can demand the ouster of Carson Bethel Church’s minister, Tiagogo Misa, and whether it can take possession of the local church’s two houses of worship in a strip mall on Alameda Street.After both sides rested their case Wednesday, Judge William Barry said he would return with a decision after his review of case law. He said he might call for a second trial.First Samoan Full Gospel Pentecostal, which filed the civil suit, sees its affiliated congregations on the U.S. mainland as its inherent property, since it ordains their deacons and pastors. But members of the Carson congregation say the church belongs to them, and that they’re keeping their longtime pastor.After all, it was congregation members who saved the church from defaulting on its mortgage in 1988, as the membership dwindled to just a few families. Their members also raised $30,000 through bake sales, barbecues and other fundraisers for a down payment on a second property to expand the growing congregation in 2002.In 1988, the year the church nearly lost its building, Pastor Misa and his family “were called to Carson” to lead the congregation, said Eleitino Tuiasosopo the daughter of one of the church founders.“The organization never had any money to contribute or to buy the property,” Misa said in court last week. So, in 2002, members of the church incorporated it under the church name, placing the titles and deeds for both houses of God in the name of Carson Bethel Church instead of the First Samoan Full Gospel Pentecostal Church.This transfer of ownership didn’t cause a stir for eight years until, in October 2010, Pastor Misa and most of his congregation chose — after 40 days of prayers and fasting over the decision — to disaffiliate from the American Samoa denomination because of allegations of corruption and abuses of power among the First Samoan Full Gospel Pentecostal directors and its district delegates.The parent church in Samoa responded to Misa’s decision to disaffiliate by sending him a termination letter.“You are being relieved of your ministerial duties,” the letter said, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, Ronald Faulk. “Your insubordinate behavior to the president and to your district elder violates the bylaws of the First Samoan Full Gospel Pentecostal Church Inc.”But Misa refused to leave the church he has pastored for 25 years, and most of his congregation supported him. Some families, however, left for other Samoan churches in Wilmington, Compton, Torrance and Long Beach.The largest Samoan population outside the South Pacific is in Southern California, primarily in the South Bay, Long Beach and San Diego. Much of that community is tied by its churches, which put a heavy emphasis on family gatherings.