Pastor Sherman Allen portrayed his marriage to first wife Edwina Cunningham as a sort of fairytale, with his wife in the role of a needy Cinderella and he as the prince who rescued her from material and emotional poverty. When Edwina died in 2003 of complications from scleroderma, a skin disease, Allen even penned a book titled For Better or For Worst describing what the couple went through while she was in declining health. But former members of Fort Worth’s Shiloh Institutional Church of God in Christ and family friends describe a different kind of relationship behind the scenes.
One family friend had some good things to say about Allen, the subject of last week's cover story in the paper version of Unfair Park -- and, of course, a fixture on Unfair Park. He spoke admiringly of Allen’s down-to-earth manner -- how the preacher would meet him at the door in a V-neck undershirt and boxer shorts, and how a person’s race made no difference to him. The source admired Allen’s Tuesday-night Bible studies, where the pastor dug into the Scriptures in depth. “It was biblically and doctrinally sound,” the source says. “He broke it down verse by verse, word by word.” He much preferred those sessions to Sunday mornings, where the preaching and teaching always revolved around “money, money, money.”
Allen always spoke honorably about his wife in public, but at home, the family friend says, their relationship was volatile, to say the least. “He had a lot of control over her,” the source says. He claims he witnessed “punching, screaming, cussing -- a lot of verbal abuse. ‘I rescued you’ -- he’d say that all the time.” Both spouses fought each other, he says, and F-bombs dropped liberally.
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Edwina, he says, was taller and bigger than Allen and could “hold her own.” But she was “beaten down” spiritually and emotionally, he says. “Her faith in God was visibly shaken. This man was not only supposed to be the leader of the house, he was supposed to be the spiritual leader.”
Though the family friend held Allen in high regard for his knowledge of the Bible, he couldn’t reconcile that with what he witnessed in the preacher’s home. It was like a light that got switched on at church, switched off at home, the source says. He calls the Allens’ marriage “incredibly dysfunctional” -- yet a remarkable change took place when Edwina became ill. Allen was at her bedside all the time until she passed away. The family friend observed a softening of his attitude; the fighting stopped, and Allen, a churchaholic who used to hold 40-day revivals that extended into the wee hours every night, spent more time with his two children. “The environment in the house changed,” the friend says. “I’ve got to think he loved her on some kind of level. But I know toward the end, he would have loved to have an opportunity to make things right.”
Edwina’s funeral was an elaborate affair, with a horse-drawn glass carriage and the flamboyant staging of Gregory Spencer Funeral Directors. Bishop T.D. Jakes gave the eulogy.
Allen’s grief, the family friend says, was genuine. Allen, he says, changed “from someone being confident to someone being devastated talking about her. He wasn’t faking. I’ve seen him faking.” --Julie Lyons