Tanning for Jesus

Christopher Smith

The deeply tanned preacher's daughter sits by the side of the pool in her tiny bikini on a brilliant summer day, her legs dangling in the clear blue water. To her right, boats pass slowly on the sparkling Intracoastal Waterway past multimillion-dollar mansions. At her left are two young and poor pregnant black girls sitting silently in deck chairs.

"I'd say God has blessed us for the time being," says 24-year-old Alexandra Billington, her dark hair dangling on sun-dripped shoulders.

Just as the words are leaving her lips, a white pleasure craft glides by the church building where Billington and the pregnant teens live, its name emblazoned on the side: Greedy, with the G fashioned as a dollar sign.


Calvary Chapel

It may not seem like your typical church setting, but, then again, the Calvary Chapel never claimed to be a typical place of worship. And it certainly never signed a vow of poverty. Just a few months ago, it made news when it raised $103 million in a pledge drive that church leaders boast is the greatest single take by a church in U.S. history.

There are some wealthy folks among its 20,000 members, including billionaire heir H. Wayne Huizenga Jr., who talks up the church everywhere he goes. And, of course, the Fort Lauderdale-based chapel has a well-known and charismatic frontman in Bob Coy, Calvary's star pastor.

It's more than a church; it's a real estate venture, whether church leaders like to admit it or not. Calvary has numerous properties in Broward County worth something in the neighborhood of $100 million. Its sprawling main campus on Cypress Creek Drive is estimated to be worth $50 million alone.

And one of its newest acquisitions is the two-story waterfront triplex on Riverside Drive in Pompano Beach where Billington, a recent graduate of Kent State University; some other church folks; and several at-risk pregnant teen girls have been blessed to sleep and sun.

The church has either bought or is in the process of buying the triplex, an empty lot next door, and five condo units down the street for almost $4 million. Its stated goal: To house a program for pregnant teens.

But at present, Calvary Executive Minister Mark Davis says the church is keeping only three pregnant girls — foster kids the church gets from the Department of Children and Families — on the property and isn't allowed, by city code, to keep more than four.

That comes out to about $1 million per pregnant teen, making it perhaps one of the most expensive ministries per capita in American history.

Told you the church had money.

"All we're doing here is changing lives," Billington says. She glances at the two very quiet pregnant girls sitting on the deck in shorts and T-shirts. "These girls are getting saved."

But she knows that, no matter how idyllic the place may seem, trouble lurks outside the gates.

"People want to stop it," she says, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand. "That's how Satan works — the enemy sees something awesome going on and then tries to destroy it."

Enter Anthony Sofia. He's a 52-year-old Italian bull from New York who lives down the street in one of those condos the church has acquired. Even as Billington talks, he stands, quite literally, not far from the triplex gates, commiserating with a couple of other neighbors who live in million-dollar-plus homes nearby.

None of them likes what Calvary is doing.

Sofia doesn't want to destroy the church, but he has good reason to want to give it a smackdown. The church, after all, is evicting him.

"What is the Lord doing to me?" he asks. "Who's throwing me out? God or Satan?"

Executive Minister Davis says he's evicting Sofia for failing to pay his rent. Sofia says it was agreed that he would hold his rent payments in escrow until the condo — which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Wilma and still has huge holes in the walls and is missing a ceiling — is repaired.

Sofia says he's outraged that the church has lied to him and is now throwing him onto the street. But he is far from the only unhappy neighbor. Numerous residents, in fact, have complained to code enforcement about the church's putting a ministry for at-risk teens in their residential neighborhood. And hundreds of people have signed a petition to have the program shut down. From the petition:

"The turnover of people from week to week shows that this is not a family of any sort, and it is obvious that there is a violation of code here. This residence is being used as some sort of a boarding facility for rehabilitating purposes. Although we want to help and support all people of need, this is not the place for this type of activity. This will drastically reduce the value of our homes, lower the quality of our neighborhood, and could be a threat to our children."  

As one wealthy neighbor, Heidi Schafers, puts it: "We had a glass box here, and it's like they are cracking the glass box."

Now, it would be easy here to say that we're dealing with a bunch of rich people who don't want to face the real world. And there's certainly some relevance in that notion. But before you judge the neighborhood too harshly, you need to know the ugly history of those Intracoastal properties that are now in the church's hands.

It starts with real estate broker Craig Buccerino. Buccerino, with dreams of building a townhouse development on the water, bought the triplex, the empty lot, and the five condos during the past four years with the help of investors' money.

To tie all the properties together, he tried to buy the other three condos in the eight-unit building along with a house that sits between the condo building and the triplex. But those owners wouldn't sell.

Bucceroni then put his five condos in the names of straw owners — employees and investors — and took majority control of the condo board. Shortly thereafter, he placed assessments in the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars (ostensibly for a new dock and building renovations) on the remaining three owners. The holdouts say it was a brazen attempt to force them to sell to him.

"Craig said, 'Look out for the sharks; this is a hostile takeover,'" says Richard Marcus, former president of the condo board and one of the holdouts.

But it didn't work out for Buccerino. He mortgaged the properties to the hilt and wound up in debt to creditors and investors, who clamored for their money back. As Marcus says, "It was like a scam — he sort of messed up the neighborhood."

But when it looked its bleakest for Bucceroni, the church did what it does best — it saved him.

Bucceroni says he regularly attends Calvary Chapel and decided to deed the property as a "gift." All the church had to do in return was take over his considerable debt.

"It's all based on Jesus Christ, the savior," Bucceroni says, presumably with a straight face (our interview was on the phone). "This will help get these girls off drugs or prostitution, especially being on the Intracoastal and seeing that if you do the right things in life, you'll be rewarded."

Property records show that Bucceroni is certainly receiving a reward in the form of a church bailout. Residents, however, are convinced that Calvary isn't getting much in the deal. They say the price tag for the debt is in excess of what the properties are worth in the current market.

But Davis says he's confident the church made a good investment, and he stands by Buccerino, whom he compares to an American icon.

"I think Craig Bucceroni made some mistakes, but Walt Disney did the same thing when he put land together in Orlando," Davis tells me. "Craig made some enemies in the neighborhood and took maybe some questionable steps."

Although it seems the church may be engaging in a little real estate speculation or extravagantly spending the congregation's money to set up employees in rather opulent housing, Davis says the church took over the property from Bucceroni for one reason only: To help the girls in the program.

"Real estate is just a tool to help people, and if real estate can be used to help people, then that's what it's all about," he says. "We expect the girls to be at the property for maybe six more months and then we'll look to sell. The market is soft right now, so it may take a year or two."

But are the neighbors right? Is the church violating code in Pompano to house the girls in the neighborhood? That's a complicated issue, but Davis says that as long as they keep only three or four at-risk girls there at a time, they don't need a group home license. Basically, he likens it to an active foster home and says "house parents" who stay on the property are the equivalent of foster parents.

The Broward Sheriff's Office, which handles code enforcement for Pompano Beach, has received several complaints from residents regarding the ministry. Sheriff's spokesman Elliot Cohen says deputies have been investigating but so far have issued no citations.

Residents say the investigation has been impeded by the fact that it has been almost impossible for officers to determine if the girls actually live there and, if so, how many there really are.  

"If something is going on inside the home, we are not authorized to break down a door and investigate that," Cohen confirms. "We would need a warrant to get into any private property. My understanding is we have not been invited in."

Call the situation fluid. But Davis says he thinks all the trouble will die down once Sofia is forced from his condo. Last week, BSO served eviction papers on him, per the church's directive. "It will end soon because Anthony is leaving," the executive minister says.

Sofia, although he doesn't actually have horns, may be nothing but a scapegoat. Even when he's gone, other neighbors will remain who aren't in favor of what the church is doing.

"The thing that gets me angry is the sneaky way the church has gone about it," says Laura Jean Dluzak, who has lived with her husband in a beautiful waterfront home for 27 years. "I always told my children I don't trust them when they're being sneaky. I just don't like the way they're slithering the girls into the neighborhood."

Bill Rogal, the holdout who owns the house between the triplex and the condos, says he thinks the millions that Calvary is spending on the properties would be better spent. "It's an investment for the church, but it's kind of the wrong thing to do," he says. "That kind of money could have helped out a lot of teenagers in need, not just a few."

And as for the teens themselves? When I ask how they like their new paradisiacal home as they sit on the deck with Billington, one of them says immediately, "No comment."

But the preacher's daughter, Billington, answers for them.

"Everybody here is so down-to-earth," she says. "This is fellowship. It's ironic that people are complaining about it, because all that is coming out of here is prayer."

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