A 33-year-old mother of three named Davina Kelly is at the center of the abuse allegations against Pastor Sherman Allen, and she is already the subject of much controversy in local black church circles. The question people ask: Is she the victim of sexual abuse by a powerful and manipulative spiritual leader, or was she simply having an affair that didn't turn out quite the way she'd hoped?
I've heard spirited arguments on both sides from churchgoers who have no allegiance to Allen, pastor of Fort Worth's Shiloh Institutional Church of God in Christ. I figured it would be best to let Kelly, who lives in the area with her husband, Darian Kelly, speak for herself. What follows is drawn from a lengthy interview with Kelly and her attorneys in February, just days after the Kellys filed suit against Allen, Shiloh, the Church of God in Christ and as-yet-unnamed COGIC officials who are accused of covering up decades of improprieties involving Allen, a well-known Pentecostal preacher and prophet.
Davina Kelly alleges that Allen coerced her into a sexual relationship; paddled her repeatedly during private counseling sessions, causing severe bruising and even bleeding; then forced himself on her sexually. Allen has denied all of the allegations in a court filing but has not spoken to the media about the case. He remains as pastor of Shiloh, in the Woodhaven area of Fort Worth.
I've written several columns about the Allen case, which is causing major rumblings in the Church of God in Christ, the largest and one of the oldest Pentecostal denominations in the United States. Read here and here for more information about other women who have made similar allegations against Allen.
When we spoke, Kelly had given birth to her third child just a few days earlier. She is a poised woman who measures her words. She's also a lawyer's dream for at least one reason: She answers only the questions you ask. Kelly was raised in Los Banos, California, where her father pastors a Church of God in Christ congregation. I gathered that her parents' church was old-school COGIC, where spiritual fads are eschewed and the "saints" adhere to a code of simple faith, modest dress and sober living. Allen's church, Shiloh, would be quite a contrast. Here, the pastor trumpeted his status as a prophet, wore loud, tailored suits in the pulpit and dropped the names of some of the biggest names on the black Pentecostal scene. You might say Allen's church is neo-Pentecostal; for sure, Allen was at the cutting edge of recent developments in Pentecostalism, such as the emphasis on prophetic "words" from God and prosperity teaching.
Kelly and her husband joined Shiloh in 2001 after visiting many times and coming away impressed by Allen's dynamic and authoritative preaching. She says she never heard the rumors—widespread for years among local black churchgoers—that Allen "spanked" his members as a form of spiritual discipline. She did hear, though, as Allen's circle of preachers is quick to proclaim, that the pastor was "so anointed by God."
Not too long after joining, Kelly attended a revival at Shiloh and heard the testimonies of some members that seemed to indicate they had a clear understanding of God's purpose for their lives. Kelly did not; she felt adrift in her faith. She "broke down" while talking to her husband about it, and he suggested that she meet with Allen. Darian Kelly would actually make the appointment for her, Davina says.
So it was that Kelly stepped into the "green room" -- Pastor Allen's private office in the church -- for counseling in November 2001 "to find out my purpose and my place." She was 28.
What follows is Kelly's account of that meeting and later events.
The early-evening meeting began with small talk and questions about her family. Then Allen asked if she'd brought her Bible. Nope. See, you're not even spiritual, Kelly thought to herself. He's serious -- and he has his Bible.
"He asked me something about 'scourgings' -- did I know what that was," Kelly recalls. She didn't.
He gave her a Bible and directed her to turn to certain Scriptures. They all had to do with disciplining children. Just about any black Pentecostal -- and probably many other churchgoers -- can cite these verses verbatim in the King James Version: "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." And there are others, of course, whose repetition is part of the experience of growing up in a strict faith tradition.
As Kelly read these Scriptures, Allen, stern and serious, asked leading questions that subtly turned the object of physical discipline from unruly children to spiritually wayward young adults such as herself, Kelly says. That's the way it appears to her in hindsight, anyway.
Matthew Bobo, one of Kelly's attorneys, claims Allen's m.o. is remarkably consistent in the cases of alleged paddlings that he's come across to date. "Their story," Bobo says, "the setup, the spiel -- the words he used are exactly the same."
Allen would ask, "What does that mean to you?" Kelly says. When she wasn't getting the drift of the conversation quickly enough, Allen steered her there.
"After reading all of the Scriptures, I saw that it wasn't about my children," Kelly says. It crossed her mind that he was talking about disciplining her, but she thought, no way. "I'd never heard of that -- it sounded silly. Pastors don't spank their members. He's got to mean something else, something spiritual.
Inside, she derided herself for her ignorance. "He's so educated. I feel like a fool."
Did he mean a "spiritual spanking? A spiritual whupping?" Kelly asked.
"What are the Scriptures talking about?" Allen replied.
"Spanking," Kelly replied. "A regular whupping, right?"
"Yeah," Allen answered.
Kelly says today, "At some point I almost wanted to laugh, like, he don't mean it like that. But because he had a straight face—he's serious—I looked at it as I'd be irreverent."
It's important to take a short detour and consider the black Pentecostal context -- or, as some would argue, the Pentecostal context, period. Kelly was raised in a pastor's home, where honoring one's leaders was a given. The American notion of individualism, of questioning authority, of the rebel with a cause, is not a black Pentecostal value. Respecting the "man of God" is of great importance, and surely, being a pastor is one of the most difficult and taxing jobs imaginable. Kelly had been bathed in Pentecostal catchphrases such as, "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm." If her pastor did something wrong, the teaching goes, God will punish him. It is not for you, the layperson, to say or do anything about it. Pray, wait and leave it to God.
Kelly's thoughts must be understood within this context, and numerous times throughout our interview she said things like, "I really felt like he was doing what God told him. He was so spiritual, he was really deep. The way he prophesies, God speaks to him and tells him things." Or: "I just trusted him...I never seriously stopped to question. I just believed him. I kind of went along with what he said."
Time will tell whether a judge or jury accepts these explanations for Kelly's actions.
At the end of that first meeting -- in which no actual counseling took place concerning her problem, Kelly says—she left with a bevy of assigned Scriptures, which she was to read every day, and "a sense of rules," and that if "you break those rules, you'll get a spanking."
Kelly was confused, but she pushed aside any questions. "He's saying this, and he's serious," she thought. "I'll find out what he really means by that."
She did, just a week later.
"I'm Gonna Learn to Obey"
Kelly didn't tell her husband about the talk of spankings. She didn't think he'd understand. Plus, Allen had told her he'd eventually counsel both of them. Right now, he allegedly told her, she was like a glass he needed to pour into. When that glass was full, he'd start pouring into her husband.
Allen asked Kelly a few days after the first meeting if she'd been reading all of her Scriptures every day. No, she hadn't; in fact, she'd missed three days. "He looked at me sorta like, that's a big thing," Kelly says. He asked if they were going to set up a meeting. Kelly did, knowing she was already in trouble.
This time when she walked into the green room she saw a "brown wooden paddle" on the couch. She thought, "This is serious."
At first Allen made jokes and small talk. "We ultimately established that I broke the rules," Kelly says. Allen, she claims, directed her to stand up and grab her ankles. She was fully clothed and wearing jeans.
"I was very scared," Kelly says. "I was even scared in a way that I wouldn't even stop in the middle of that and really question him. I thought I deserved it."
She says Allen stood there holding the paddle and asked her, "What are you going to learn how to do? Are you gonna learn to obey?"
"I'm gonna learn to obey," she replied. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to break the rules."
Allen whacked her one time on the rear end, not "real, real" hard, Kelly says. Then he called her over and asked if she wanted to hug him.
"Should I?" she asked. Allen gave his assent.
"I came over and he hugged me," Kelly says, "and then he was back to his normal self."
Normal, in this case, would come to mean constant scourgings. Because from that point on, Kelly claims, every one of her "numerous" meetings with Allen over a four-year span involved broken rules and beatings of increasing severity. By the third meeting, she says, he was asking her to bare her panties. Later, she'd be fully unclothed.
Try Cocoa Butter
Kelly engaged in further rationalizations as her "counseling" continued. Allen always preached about destiny, how "you've got to go through something to get to your destiny." The beatings, she surmised, were her lot on the path to destiny.
Shiloh called itself "the Spirit-filled church where the anointing comes alive." In this special place, Kelly thought, she could go to "the next level" spiritually.
Getting to that next level would involve being deceptive with her husband. Kelly claims the paddlings often left her bruised and occasionally bleeding. Allen's instruments of discipline, she says, included a tree branch. "I've been beaten to where it was extremely painful to sit down anywhere," Kelly says. "I remember asking, how am I supposed to hide it? I'm black and blue, I've bled and I've had sores. He would tell me to use cocoa butter and kind of blend it in."
Kelly began to shun intimacy with her husband, fearing he'd see the bruises, find out what happened and "jump" Allen. Davina went so far as to install a lock on one of their bathrooms so she could always dress in privacy. She'd even initiate arguments with her husband so she had an excuse to avoid him sexually. Needless to say, the Kellys had a stressed marriage.
"There were times when I was pushing to be separated from my husband," Kelly says. "And [Allen] would say, no, you can't do that. It's not biblical, it's wrong, you have to make it work. I would tell him things that I thought would absolutely qualify [for separation], but he'd say no."
Allen was experiencing changes in his own personal life. His first wife and the mother of his two children, the former Edwina Cunningham, died of complications from scleroderma in February 2003. She and Allen had married in 1991. None other than Bishop T.D. Jakes would give the eulogy at her funeral; Allen's bishop, J. Neaul Haynes of Dallas, officiated. Edwina's casket was ushered to the cemetery in a horse-drawn "glass carriage," according to her obituary.
Not long after Edwina died, Kelly began cleaning Allen's huge home in Mansfield. Earlier, she'd cleaned the church as a volunteer -- she lived across the street from Shiloh -- and was later hired to do so.
In spring 2005, even as Allen was engaged to marry again, Kelly claims the meetings took a sexual turn. Here's how Kelly describes the shift:
"Prior to that," Kelly says, "he kind of started verbally leading to it. One day I was actually talking to him in his room at the house about problems with Darian and myself. At some point he told me to hug him, and then I hugged him and I could sense something was different. I kind of purposely didn't put my arms all the way around him. And then he told me, put your arms around me, and I did. That's the point when I really started being afraid of him, because he was kind of showing me another side, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I remember hugging him and I remember him saying, 'There is an attraction.' He did have an attraction for me, and did I have an attraction for him?"
I asked Kelly precisely that question: Was she ever attracted to Allen?
"Not really," she said. "Yes and no...maybe more so qualities, because of what I thought of him. He takes care of his family, he loves his wife, he lives right...I told him that."
While Allen was hugging her, she claims, he told her, "There is an attraction, but we have to do what we can to make sure nothing happens, but if something does, that's OK, because you're not happy in your marriage," and he was in an "awkward place."
This took place in April or May, Kelly says; in June 2005 Allen would remarry.
Kelly says she was confused all over again. So all this time he was attracted to her? The sex part, she knew, was morally wrong. She was married; he was engaged.
One can already get a sense of how Allen's defense team could view these alleged events. Davina Kelly really wanted to be Allen's next wife, they might say, and she was the aggressor in the relationship. When Allen married another woman, Kelly got mad, left the church and sued.
This scenario has problems of its own, however, if Kelly's basic chronology is true. She says much of the sexual activity that allegedly took place occurred after Allen was already married to his second wife, who lived in Memphis, headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, during weekdays. She served there as the presiding bishop's secretary and traveled home to be with her husband on the weekends.
Kelly is a little vague on how and when her meetings with Allen began to involve sexual activity, but she claims all of it happened after Allen threatened her.
They were in the office at his house, she says, where she was cleaning. "He put his hand on my throat," Kelly claims, and asked, "Did I know what he would do if I ever told or hurt him? And I said no. He said, 'You don't want to know.'"
Kelly says she was "terrified."
From that point, she says, their meetings included sex. Sometimes, she claims, "the anal sex—that became part of the punishment."
I told Kelly that the defense -- and really, most people who read this -- will wonder why she remained in any kind of relationship with Allen.
"I was really coerced," Kelly said. "And kind of when he really just flat-out said it [let's have a sexual relationship], I said to myself, what do I do? I didn't tell anyone. Because right in between that was when he threatened me.
"I feel like from day one when I walked into the office, that I came for one thing and he had something else in mind."
Kelly Breaks Away
In August 2005, the freshly married Allen held a five-day pastor and wife anniversary -- to commemorate another year's service to Shiloh -- dubbed "Celebration of Love." Afterward, Kelly says, Allen's home was a mess from all the comings and goings and changes of clothes. It was her job to clean up.
Allen's regimen of discipline for Kelly now included strenuous exercise, Kelly says: lunges, sit-ups, push-ups (and not the girly kind). He'd test her sometimes to see if she'd followed through. If she huffed and puffed, he knew she wasn't completing her assignments.
On August 30, 2005 -- the Tuesday after the "Celebration of Love" -- Kelly says Allen directed her through exercises that involved suggestive stretches and stages of undress. "He was playing with me like a Barbie doll," Kelly says. "He had me sit with my legs spread, order me to lean all the way down...at some point, he basically kind of incorporated oral sex into it along with stretches. He wasn't yelling, but he was kind of ordering me, directing me, and at this point it's like you better just do what he says...or you're gonna be punished."
Then, she claims, Allen, naked from the waist down, called her into his bathroom. He told her to reach into his side of the cabinet and get an enema.
"He had me lay there," Kelly says. "I didn't know what this had to do with anything...I was scared, because it just got worse and worse."
Allen administered an enema to her, she claims. Then he "jumped on top of me and anally raped me."
The next day she went to the church to clean, Kelly says. But she was plotting her escape. Allen met her in the church foyer, she says, and acted like nothing had happened. "So how are you and Darian doing?" she says he asked. "I've been praying for y'all."
"He just had this weird, sadistic grin on his face," Kelly says. "And then he said, 'You better keep doing those exercises.'"
Instead, Kelly went home and called her sister, who is married to the pastor of a small COGIC congregation in New York, and told her everything. "This is criminal," the sister said. "You have to get out of there as soon as you can."
The sister and her husband borrowed money so Kelly and her two children could fly to New York the very next day. "Davina needs to get away -- she needs a break," they explained to Darian, who drove his wife to the airport.
Allen attempted to call her a few times after she left, Kelly says, but she just let it ring.
Davina says she wouldn't spill her story to Darian until November.
In late 2005, Kelly sent a letter to the 12 bishops on the Church of God in Christ's ruling body, the General Board, as well as the leader of the women's department, detailing her allegations against Allen -- the paddlings, the sexual assaults. The "state mother" -- or women's leader -- of her parents' COGIC jurisdiction called Kelly and listened sympathetically as she told her story. She referred Kelly to a COGIC attorney, who asked if he could interview Kelly. By this time, the Kellys had a lawyer, and she declined. Kelly also heard from the bishop of that jurisdiction, who told Kelly to refer any questions to the lawyer.
The Kellys would later obtain counsel from Louis Levenson, an Atlanta attorney who recently handled a claim of sexual improprieties involving prominent Pentecostal Bishop Earl Paulk. (That lawsuit was withdrawn last month.) Levenson made an agreement to work with the Las Colinas firm Howie, Broome & Bobo, and on January 30, 2006, the Kellys formally filed suit in Tarrant County.
Just six days later, Shiloh would file for bankruptcy. --Julie Lyons