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Mercy Junction Justice and Peace center in Highland Park on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The center has been forced to close temporarily after safety concerns were raised about two residents who have formed their own religion.
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A Monday court order brought a Highland Park community center one step closer to evicting a pair of renters who are holed up in the basement and driving off business.

Ryan Holmes and Tyler Short, of the "Church of Urth," have 10 days to appeal a judgment that awards possession of the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center to its elders and director. From there, Mercy Junction plans to file a writ on June 16 that would allow Hamilton County deputies to evict both men — and end a month-long saga that's been pushing renters away from the community center.

"We definitely will not open until at least June 16," Director Beth Foster said Monday, "and maybe even a few days after that as we figure out our situation."

The center, which is owned by St. Andrews Center, rents about 30 spaces to artists, activists and other community organizations focused on social justice issues. Holmes and Short were granted a lease in December 2016 after pitching "Church of Urth," an interfaith social justice ministry that emphasized happiness as the root of truth.

"We are a space that offers community space for artists, activists and people of faith," said Kali Meister, a former director and one of six elders for the center. "And they came in as activists and people of faith. But there was just something about them."

Also known for feeding the homeless and those in need, Mercy Junction closed its doors May 12 after Foster said she received several messages about a stream of Facebook posts Holmes made the night before "threatening some level of violence."

The posts include Holmes describing himself as the Archangel Michael, bringing everyone to Heaven, and questioning whether rape is real.

"We came into the center, got in touch with his family, thought it was a mental health crisis," Foster said. "We closed that day. His family came and spent all Friday and Saturday here. On Monday, the Facebook posts got even worse, so we announced we wouldn't be opening. From there, we've gone through the process with the police and what they can do."

Then came an eviction notice they ignored, Foster said.

In a Facebook message Monday, Holmes said only a landlord can issue an eviction.

"They cannot act without talking to God," he wrote. "And none of them have met God yet. So you see the problem for the church. No state authorities can step in. Neither can they. Why do they want me evicted? That's my question."

Mercy Junction members said Holmes broke their lease agreement, is scaring away other partners in the building, and tries to wrongfully represent his organization as Mercy Junction.

"They subleased a room they didn't have a lease for, they vandalized some property," Foster said. "But the real kicker was the violation of our principle: They spoke of misogyny, presented themselves as Mercy Junction and had threats of violence."

Holmes agreed his lease had a "values clause," but questioned how posting on Facebook is a violation.

"Tell me how art violates values," he wrote.

Unless the threats of violence are personal, police can't treat this as a criminal issue, Foster said. In the meantime, four people have vacated the premises, either afraid of Holmes or tired of his message. Others avoid the space they paid for, and the center is losing money refunding their rent in part or full.

"I really haven't been able to go to my studio because he's been so aggressive," said Morgan Koch, an artist who rents space at Mercy Junction. "He claims that he will fight everyone, no matter what size you are. I have a 4-month-old right now. I also have a 7-year-old stepson I can't bring him either."

Days before attempts were made to evict the pair, Holmes and Short signed a lease for a larger space at Mercy Junction, Foster said. But neither showed up for Monday's court proceedings, resulting in an automatic "default" judgment in favor of the center.

"Got a court date today," Holmes wrote earlier that morning on Facebook. "Blowing it off. Someone is trying to evict me from a really old church. Problem is. Nobody is sure who owns it."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.

This story was updated June 5 at 11:55 p.m. with more information.

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