Montreal pastor pursued by parishioners

CBC News, Canada/July 27, 2010

Parishioners at an evangelical church in Montreal are taking legal action against a prominent pastor they say pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars loaned to him in God's name.

Several members of the Bethel Christian Community have gone public with troubling allegations about money they say they lent to their spiritual leader - Rev. Mwinda Lezoka, a Congolese native who has ministered to Montreal's growing African community for two decades.

At least 24 members of the modest parish claim they loaned Lezoka significant amounts of money - sometimes even remortgaging their homes - to support their church's activities.

All of them say they have never seen promised returns.

Fed up with what they describe as a "cycle of silence," a small group of congregants stood vigil outside the church on Sunday, in an attempt to reach out to fellow parishioners who may have had similar experiences lending money.

Homes remortgaged to build church

Céline Vital said she and her sister remortgaged their homes in 2006 to lend Lezoka $145,000 he told them was needed to finance a new church building.

The women say none of that money has been repaid. Now they are suing Lezoka, who "has to answer for what he's done," Vital said.

"We don't know what happened to the money," said Roselyne Myrtil, who, along with her husband, said they lent Lezoka $8,000 to support the church's expansion but have never seen a cent returned. "That's the problem."

"There are a lot of people that don't talk, that are afraid, that don't want to say," what happened to them, Myrtil said.

Stéphanie Benoit said she maxed out her credit when the pastor asked her for help.

"We were about to lose the building, so I lent $4,000 on my credit cards because I didn't have any money," she said. "Right now, I'm working on the assumption that I'm not going to see one cent."

Sylvain Julien, a former organist at the church, said he lent Lezoka $27,000 in 2006 after advancing funds on his credit card. The pastor signed a contract to reimburse the loan with interest, Julien said, but no money has materialized.

"I was scared," to speak out, Julien admitted as he stood outside the church Sunday morning. "But now that I see the list getting longer, getting longer...."

Stéphane Robinson's family also lent Lezoka money, he said, because they trusted him. "They're very religious, so very vulnerable when you tell them you're doing it for God," he said. "So they're willing to do it, because it's for God."

Parishioners aren't the only ones who want to sue. Contractors owed tens of thousands and a Quebec zoo are also suing. Parc Safari said it's suing the pastor and his church for almost $1 million after its money wound up in a church bank account.

Church members handed out flyers to congregants all morning Sunday, but saw no sign of Lezoka. The church's main doors remained locked and inquiring visitors were told Lezoka was inside "ministering to the sick."

Lezoka is affiliated with the University of Montreal, and has been honoured several times during Black History Month, his followers say.

When CBC News reached Lezoka by phone, he wouldn't comment on the allegations, but offered to make an appointment at a later time.

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