Friday, January 15, 2021

The Vision

My childhood church

I wrote a piece recently over at Hagerty about my childhood pastor, and how a dumbass Maybach helped drag him where he belonged. Prison, that is. Hell wasn't exactly where he needed to go, but it is what he put the church through. There’s more to that story than I touched on in my piece but I’m going to give you the rest now.

I haven’t used the bishop’s name, mostly because I didn’t really need to, but because it’s easy enough to find on your own with a Google search. With that said, it was a large local scandal and a lot of what came out of it wasn’t even known to many members of the church. 

That leads me to a question a few people have asked me: how the hell did it get this bad without anyone knowing? That question has an answer with many parts but I’ll begin with the simple answer: we honestly didn’t see, at least the congregation didn’t. The people involved in the day-to-day doings of the church did, however. Most Black churches really do have a janky building fund but ours wasn’t normal. Eventually things got completely out of control and one would be hard pressed to not see what was happening. But until then everyone gave.

Giving is a major part of any Christian church. During the late 90’s many people in the congregation, including my own parents, reached deep into their pockets to raise money for the “vision” God had for us. The vision was paying off 66 acres of land the church purchased in the mid-90’s by the year 2000. The wild part is the church managed to do it. There was a large wall plaque in the shape of a tree in the church lobby with brass leaves with every name that contributed. There was even a song called The Vision by the church choir that made contemporary gospel radio. I remember the reprise “It is so!” from the song as the choir and band would join together during the offering collection. Things still made sense then, but in the years that followed, giving in our church turned into a heist. 

I remember quite a many Sunday where the bishop guilted the congregation into giving. He would say things like “the Lord told me there are 50 people in here with 100 dollars” followed up by some variation of “don’t miss your blessing cause you don’t want to give.” To make it worse he’d even hold up ending our service until the money appeared. He actually asked the ushers to not open the doors to the sanctuary until the congregation coughed up the money he wanted. 

And he pretty much took all of it. The church was in absolute shambles for a few years and we didn’t start noticing until there were literal cracks forming in our buildings. Yes the foundation of the main church had cracks in it, from years of neglect. The roof began to spring leaks, and the pews fell apart. All the Bishop did was beg harder and try his best to distract us in the name of the Lord. 

Speaking of distractions, the bishop came up with many. One was our television ministry: a million dollars a year just so the little man could say he was on television like T.D. Jakes or Creflo Dollar. He told the congregation it was good for the church, that it would aid in us building our new church faster. Yet, instead of building a new church on the 66 acres of land we owned debt free, we ended up purchasing a second church in Huntersville with the Bishop’s wife as the head pastor. That decision was made around the same time the Bishop decided to change the plans we had for the vacant land. What was originally supposed to be a simple place of worship morphed into a 15000 seat mega-church designed to make even Joel Osteen look broke. I remember going to the groundbreaking ceremony that year, my mother looked on, skeptical. We continued raising money towards this new church all while the Bishop spent it on his Maybach, Audemars Piguets, and tailored suits. 

The lake house in recent years

Then there was the house, I touched on it briefly in my original piece but I couldn’t even accurately describe it in the little space I gave it. Him and his wife rented the house from the wife of deceased NFL star Reggie White. Right on the shores of Lake Norman, it stuck to the custom home code of the late 90’s. It was a nearly 20,000 square foot monstrosity that housed his wife’s bad taste in furniture. It also housed the cars, towards the end there were many. It was wild seeing them strewn about outside the house they moved into after they couldn’t rent at the lake anymore. I can’t help but laugh at the thought of a Maybach and a Phantom sitting in front of suburban tract housing. But eventually all that went away when he did. 

Our church almost went away too, it was limping along in bankruptcy with maybe 150 members left in the congregation after he went away. But as divine of intervention I’ve ever seen, things all fell into place for the church to survive. And now, 10 years later it’s thriving without the force of greed holding it down. That’s the happy ending in all of this. I may tell that part of the story another time. But now, there’s more important things to address. 

The world has it’s way of balancing out all things, good and evil, hot and cold, I could go on and on. We tend to fall on the wrong side of morality and goodness when we let any one thing consume our lives. I think for the Bishop, greed wasn’t what motivated him, greed made some of the bad decisions, but it didn’t move him.

What did move him was the idea of being someone. In hindsight, the Bishop could’ve made his way there easily, he had a reputation for being a powerhouse in the pulpit. And he was, that’s part of how he was able to rob the church’s purse so openly. But all he had to do was wait. To live in some type of modesty for a few more years. He could’ve had what he wanted through conventional means if he was willing to wait. But he wasn’t. So he went for it. He nearly ruined a church that existed long before him, before he even thought about being a man of the cloth. What I’m really saying here is blindly following his ambition led to his own downfall. We all should be led by our ambition, but never consumed by it. When you leave that balance behind, you lose yourself, you lose your purpose, and you may even lose your life as you know it. 

For everyone that sat in those pews every Sunday, the vision represented more than property. It was pride in something much larger than themselves that they did together. It’s fitting that the county took that 66 acres and built a composting centre on it. The church was supposed to take in lost, dead souls and make them whole. Instead they’re taking dead tree limbs and making a fine selection of mulch, to grow great new fauna. But to be fair, the Bishop and the congregation truly could’ve come out of this in worse positions. The world still managed to find balance. In a way maybe the vision really was something much larger than a property, a building, an institution. With that said, I’ll leave you with words from the song:

Write the vision, make it plain;

That they may run and not faint

Though the vision.... is only for a while

It shall speak... and not lie

For if the Lord said it

You can count on it;

He will do just what He said

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