COLUMBIA — While protesters voiced anger outside the walls of Second Missionary Baptist Church, other members of Columbia's black community gathered inside the church for a fundraising benefit. They sang songs of worship, hoping to bridge a rift in the community formed in the wake of a lawsuit brought against Warren Funeral Chapel.
The benefit, supported by the Columbia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, raised money for the funeral chapel, which may be in financial trouble following the lawsuit.
"We need to support someone in our community when they are down and out," said Mary Ratliff, president of the Missouri and Columbia chapters of the NAACP.
Before entering the church, the Rev. Roderick Williams reached out to protesters for a moment of prayer.
"There shouldn't be any schism in the body," Williams said, referencing a New Testament letter before giving his explanation. "We have to come together. Because when one member of the community suffers, we all suffer."
The black community in Columbia, though, is having trouble in its efforts to unite - one group of members supports Harold Warren Sr., who has been a "staple" in the community, while others shed tears in remembrance of their deceased, who they say were mishandled by Warren.
Last week, Attorney General Jay Nixon filed a lawsuit in Boone County Circuit Court asking the court to close the Warren Funeral Chapel because inspectors found unsanitary conditions. According to the lawsuit, inspectors found a garbage bag containing organs from multiple bodies in a casket, as well as the decayed, unembalmed body of a woman who had been stored at the funeral home since September 2007. Since the filing of the suit, six additional bodies have been recovered from Warren Funeral Chapel.
On Friday, Kathy Johnson, one of the protesters outside the benefit, filed a class action lawsuit against Warren Funeral Chapel in Boone County Circuit Court, saying her mother's remains had been mishandled. Johnson said she had spent about two years looking for the spot her mother was buried and had many complaints with how the situation was handled. Harold Warren Sr. and Harold Warren Jr., were both cited in the lawsuit, as was Rock Bridge Cemetery caretaker David Turner.
"They never told me where she was actually buried," Johnson said. "There were three different spots they told me and no markers. After that, things just started going downhill."
Johnson said she wasn't surprised when she learned the bodies had been found. She said she thought Warren was mishandling the deceased because he was handing out favors and eventually couldn't afford to run the funeral chapel.
Johnson said she had seen such favors firsthand.
She said she contacted Warren two weeks before her mother died and explained that she didn't have insurance to cover the funeral.
"I asked if he could help us out, and he said he would," Johnson said, noting that she agreed to pay about $2,700 to the Warren Funeral Chapel. "He was pretty good about helping the community. We had a lot of respect for him."
But the respect, at least for Johnson, has since been lost: "I feel that if he couldn't afford to bury my mother, he should have just left her in Iowa."
During the benefit, Williams addressed the crowd, acknowledging the hurt of those protesting the gathering, who were in many cases questioning the status of family members' remains.
"We also need to embrace those families as well," Williams said.
While touching on how the lawsuit may cast doubt on the Warrens, Williams urged the crowd to remember what the family has done for the community.
"We are not getting the other side concerning all the good things," he said. "(Warren) went out of his way to help people."
At the benefit, Ratliff reiterated Warren Sr.'s contributions to Columbia. His community involvement spans more than four decades. He was the former head of the city's chapter of the NAACP and also became the first black city councilman when he was appointed to the Second Ward position, replacing Betty McCaskill in October 1972. He was then elected the following April to serve a two-year term.
The chapel's financial situation could soon be even worse if it is shut down. That's why friends and family said they came together for the benefit program, donating $3,286.51 to the funeral chapel.
"We are here to support someone who is a businessman and could be in financial trouble," Ratliff said. "They've done so much for the community, and now we need to reach out to them."