Longform

Return of the Black Widow

Page 10 of 13

The Unraveling

As Jaie Benson left New Birth Ministries' Sunday service on October 19, 2003, she spotted the white woman talking to her ride--James Bell, a black insurance executive. "This is Camille Bridwell," Bell told Jaie. "She needs a ride home."

As the group walked toward Bell's Cadillac Escalade, Benson noticed how the woman often touched his arm or elbow, looking directly into his eyes, as if flirting with him. So Benson was surprised when Bridwell--no longer Bridewell--explained that she was a missionary and evangelist. For the previous eight years, she'd traveled among "the nations" doing God's work in China, India and Pakistan. Now God had called her to return to the United States to start her own church. She had already taken one step by setting up the International Willing Hands Ministry.

At first, Benson thought Bridwell was flaky. But after Bell invited the evangelist to his sister's home for lunch, Benson realized Bridwell was smart, articulate and warm. "You have a business anointing," Bridwell told Benson. "The Lord just gave me a word over your life that you are entering into seven years of prosperity, and you will never have to worry about money again."

Bridwell then confided that God had called her to be an entrepreneur. "I'm to be part of a business with a group of 12," Bridwell said, "and I'm to lead that group."

Bishop Eddie Long had warned his parishioners about "parking-lot prophets." But Benson didn't dismiss what Bridwell said. "Until somebody proves otherwise," Benson says, "I trust them."

And Bridwell seemed so devout. At Bell's request, she prayed for his sick sister, laying her hands on the woman's stomach and praying in tongues.

Bridwell confided that she'd been living with a young black couple she'd met downtown, helping them--at God's command--with their three children and many problems. Benson had seen the young couple at church. Bridwell said the one-bedroom apartment was cramped and implied the couple had stolen $7,500 from her. But she had no place else to stay. (The couple didn't respond to a request for comment, but it's clear that Bridwell didn't have $7,500.)

It sounded so grim, that night Benson couldn't sleep. The next day, Benson called Bridwell to ask if things had improved. "No, but God will provide," Bridwell told her. Impulsively, even though relatives were staying with her, Benson invited Bridwell to move in until funds from her missions group came through. After all, God had given Benson a new lease on life.

Benson hadn't really wanted to return to Georgia, where, 12 years ago, her 15-year-old son had been killed on his bike by a hit-and-run driver. And at first it didn't seem like Atlanta was the answer. Before moving, Benson had nailed down a $90,000-a-year job with Relizon, a business communications company. She leased a three-bedroom condo in the prestigious Buckhead area and immersed herself in New Birth. But after only a few months, Relizon downsized, and she was jobless again.

This time, Benson didn't feel despair. She teamed up with seven other church members to start a technology business and consulted to make ends meet until they perfected their product. But money was tight, prompting Benson to search for a cheaper condo and pinch pennies on household expenses.

When Bridwell eagerly accepted her offer, Benson and Bell drove to the dumpy apartment complex to pick her up and found her standing on the curb amid a mountain of shopping bags, paper sacks and boxes. Benson thought, "This is Beverly Hillbillies stuff." Despite her nice suit, Bridwell seemed like a bag lady.

Bridwell had to sleep on the couch until Benson's brother, son and grandchild left after a long visit. The first 10 days were hell. "She was constantly meddling in everything," Benson says. She said God told her Jaie's brother had "a spirit of slothfulness" and tried to monopolize Benson's grandchild. "I had to correct her several times. You had to be very sharp with her; otherwise she wouldn't stop. She knew right away I wasn't controllable."

Benson learned that Bridwell had been celibate since her wealthy husband had died of cancer and desperately wanted to find a mate. "God is sending me my Boaz," Bridwell often told Benson. In the Bible, Boaz was the wealthy, esteemed husband of Ruth. "He's at New Birth. Have you seen anybody who looks good for me?"

"Camille, I'm tired of hearing about your Boaz," Benson finally said. "Can't it just be a husband?"

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Glenna Whitley