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Pastor acquitted after three years of turmoil

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ELKHART, Ind. --- An Elkhart reverend has been acquitted from a long legal battle.

Reverend McNeal Stewart III of Canaan Baptist Church in Elkhart was sentenced to 30 days in jail in January of 2019.

Deacons of Canaan Baptist Church brought the first lawsuit against Stewart in 2016 over who should be responsible for finances within the church, according to Stewart.

Three years of frustration and legal battles concluded Wednesday with an overturned decision by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

A 34-page document detailing the reversal stated that all orders maintained by the judge in the second lawsuit brought against Stewart are now void.

The deacons are no longer part of Canaan Baptist Church and the congregation is now free to move forward, according to Stewart.

“It’s actually a movie that starred us that we couldn’t end,” said Diane Stewart, Reverend McNeal’s wife.

The legal battle began during the summer months of 2016 when the deacons filed the first lawsuit against Stewart over who should be responsible for finances, according to Stewart.

In 2017, the lawyer representing the deacons served an eviction notice at noon to Stewart’s counsel stating that Stewart would be evicted by 5 p.m. that same day from his position as pastor and from the parsonage, said Stewart.

Stewart explained that the eviction notice was not an official order declared by the judge, but felt the deacons attempted to push him out of the community.

A second lawsuit was filed in 2018 that prevented the financial secretary from handling funds and alleged Stewart was diverting funds, said Stewart. Stewart was suspended from his position as pastor and did not receive pay, according to Stewart.

The deacons held a vote to decide whether the congregation wanted Stewart to remain pastor in May of 2018 at the church. An emergency injunction allowed Stewart permission to be on the church premises for the vote during which the congregation overwhelmingly voted for Stewart to remain in position, said Stewart.

The deacons reported to the judge that Stewart exceeded a five minute speech time restraint and the judge held Stewart in contempt of court, according to Stewart.

Stewart paid $2,500 and issued an apology to the court at the request of the judge.

Stewart continued his position as pastor during which the judge again found Stewart in contempt of court and sentenced Stewart to 30 days in jail, said Stewart.

“I found comfort in those prison bars and in that prison cell by knowing that men and women of faith down through history have found themselves in those very same places,” Stewart.

Stewart filed an appeal to the same judge while incarcerated, but it was denied. Stewart then filed a request to the Indiana Court of Appeals and was released from jail on a $100 bond, said Stewart.

Indiana Court of Appeals released a final decision on Wednesday, reversing all decisions in the second lawsuit.

Stewart lost his job with a local school in Elkhart due to the lawsuits and is now left to rebuild his life.

“There were many moments where I felt like throwing in the towel,” said Stewart.

Reverend Stewart’s motivation may have waivered throughout the legal battle, but it never stopped.

“It means everything to me [to be pastor]. It’s at the core of my being,” said Stewart.

With the decision made by the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Stewart family is finally piecing their lives back together after a lengthy legal battle and it means everything to them, according to the family.

“And I kept pinching myself, thinking I’m not actually in a dream you know…until he showed me the appeal and you know I’m thinking ‘It’s over. The nightmare is finally over,” said Diane Stewart.

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