HAMMOND | The fate of the Virgil Huber Funeral Home building, 7051 Kennedy Ave., is caught in the cross hairs of a lawsuit that will decide whether it becomes a church or a chiropractor's office.
Santiago Gamez, pastor of New Life Worship Center Church in Hammond, is suing Service Corp. International Indiana Funeral Services Inc., which is a part of North America’s largest provider of funeral and cemetery services.
"It's an extremely unfortunate situation," said Jonathan Petersen, Gamez's attorney. "It's a classic David-and-Goliath case."
Petersen and attorney Natasha Burkett said SCI unlawfully broke its contract with Gamez, costing him the building he intended to turn into a church.
SCI representatives said they have no comment on the pending litigation.
The Gamez family, the church congregation, Hammond businesses, city officials and people from the community raised $30,000 to buy the building. With the costs of the lawsuit, the amount intended for the building has plummeted. Gamez said many are disappointed with the situation.
"It's a matter of principle," Gamez said. "I have to give account to the city and the residents. I have to give account to my church. This is not right."
Gamez was going to use the building as a main church and use the current church location at 5249 Ann Ave., also in Hammond, as an extension, because the current church is too small, he said. He hopes a judge will grant him possession of the building.
"One of the reasons I placed a lawsuit is that I feel this is an injustice; we need that building to better serve the community," Gamez said.
In 2010, Gamez entered a purchase agreement with SCI for the funeral home in Hammond, according to Petersen. At the time, Gamez couldn't raise enough money to buy the property.
In 2011, SCI approached Gamez with a new agreement calling for a purchase price of $200,000 for the building with a down payment of $60,000, Petersen said.
When the corporation contacted Gamez in 2011 after storms damaged the property, it asked Gomez to provide maintenance on the property in exchange for a price cut on the building. According to Petersen, Gamez, his wife and the church congregation worked to clean and repair the property for an estimated 221 hours.
Unbeknown to Gamez and the community, in July 2012, SCI entered into an agreement to sell the building for $165,000 to Michael and Rebecca Vandersluis, who plan to use the building as a chiropractic clinic, Petersen said.
Petersen said SCI indicated it entered into a contract with the Vandersluises because a building appraisal showed it was worth $7,000 more than the original asking price.
In SCI's motion for summary judgment, the corporation contends Gamez terminated the contract almost two years ago and received back the $5,000 from SCI he had invested in the building. The company said no contract was unlawfully broken.
Petersen said the contract with Gamez stated the contract price would adjust after an appraisal, and the company did not honor the contract, which is why Gamez is suing the corporation.
"(SCI) stole the building right out from Rev. Gamez's feet," Petersen said. "Instead of doing the right thing, and selling the building to him, they engaged in a contract with (the) Vandersluises."
In a deposition, SCI representative Michael Decell said he doesn't read contracts carefully when he signs them.
"It would've been nice if they read the contract," Petersen said.
There is no set court date. In the meantime, Gamez said the church is going through hard times.
"We wanted to have the building as a church to better serve the community, and a lot of people knew we were going to move to that area," Gamez said. "They wanted to come to our church, but since that didn't happen they have joined other churches. We've lost many church parishioners."