“Why are you doing these stories?”
She looked me in the eye and spoke slowly. Her lunch sat untouched in front of her.
“Why do you care?”
I struggled to find words. It’s my job to ask questions, but this woman wanted answers. For years, she said, many people had known about Pastor Sherman Allen’s practice of beating women with a paddle as a twisted form of spiritual discipline. (For a full report, see the February 21 Dallas Observer cover story, “The Reverend Spanky.”) Allen was so smart, so “spiritual,” so friendly when that’s the side of his character he wanted people to see, that dozens of women got entangled with him. She was one of them.
When she told her story to her Christian friends and leaders of her former denomination, the Church of God in Christ, she says she was treated like she was crazy.
She knows it’s hard for outsiders to understand, as many of the comments to my Bible Girl columns on Allen demonstrate. “He may be a sicko, but what kind of adult idiot allows someone to paddle them?” goes a typical comment.
My source had heard it all before. We underestimate how crafty Allen could be in identifying women at a critical point of vulnerability, she said, and how the dynamic of the black Pentecostal churches can create a sick nexus of the powerful and the powerless. “Touch not mine anointed,” the oft-cited, wrenched-out-of-context Bible verse goes, “and do my prophets no harm.” This meant that even if Allen had done someone terribly wrong, the aggrieved party should only seek redress through private prayer. Criticizing a pastor -- God’s “anointed” -- was tantamount to the sin of rebellion.
In my experience in the Pentecostal churches, “Touch not mine anointed” is usually deployed as a smokescreen for pastors and preachers involved in sexual immorality, financial impropriety and just plain stupid stuff.
The woman kept pressing.
“Why do you care? I can see if it were your daughter. But it isn’t. And no one cared when I told them years ago.”
I had an answer in my gut, but really, it had nothing to do with Sherman Allen. I thought back to the early 1990s, when my pastor and his wife -- laboring in the Church of God in Christ, Allen’s denomination until he left it last year to duck church discipline -- were shuttling to church in a hooptie. I don’t know how many times we got a call Sunday morning to hear that they were stuck on the side of the highway with a busted something or other, kids in the back, cars whooshing by.
See, their church was in the heart of the South Dallas ghetto. My pastor started his ministry by preaching under a tree off of Bexar Street, across the street from his grandmother’s house. In those early days there was barely enough money to keep the lights on. What does it cost, anyway, to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ?
An amplifier and a cheap microphone. A Bible and some folding chairs.
Nothing and everything.
Because there is this matter of your life. Yes, you will pay dearly. The Apostle Paul talked about “dying daily” for the sake of the gospel, and I can tell you just what that meant in my pastor’s case: working two, sometimes three jobs to support his family and spending the rest of his waking hours in ministry, taking calls at midnight, visiting the homes of shut-ins, preaching in the street when no one seemed to be listening. He and his wife were continually pulling money out of their pockets to buy a kid school clothes, turn on the lights in a single mother’s home and keep someone’s wayward daughter from getting evicted.
I remember an early financial milestone at the church: We were able to guarantee our pastor a salary of $550 a month.
Other memories flitted by as I shared lunch with this woman a few weeks ago. The day Brother Chris fell through the rotted church floor. The $50 air conditioner I dubbed “The Sound and the Fury,” which produced impressive noise and pushed a lot of air around but never cooled a single cubic inch of space. The dude who flopped like a fish while the pastor cast a demon out of him.
We saw miracles. A man who had made plans to kill his wife that Sunday morning, then heard a voice telling him to come to the little white church on the corner. He walked in with murder on his mind, repented of his sin and exited the church door in peace.
A woman who heard my pastor preaching outside, who dumped out her 40-ounce and asked for prayer. She was “delivered” on the spot of her alcohol addiction, and today she leads a peaceful, productive life.
There is so much more, I cannot tell it all.
In the Pentecostal world today, many view small, bare-bones ministries as sorry things -- inferior efforts that do not merit the blessing and favor of God.
Pastor Sherman Allen would sit in his home late at night with his preacher buddies and cackle about the pathetic “country” pastors whose congregations could only afford to buy them a Lincoln, not a Mercedes, a Beemer or a Bentley. “They believed they should be living the high life,” one source who was privy to those conversations told me.
Funny, because the Bible tells me I will lose my life in following Jesus Christ -- my selfishness, my willfulness, my ambition, my greed. “We who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body,” Paul wrote.
I saw that happen. I saw Jesus’ life revealed in my pastor and his wife and in the members of my church, the faithful ones who persevered. I saw families flourish, marriages heal, kids graduate from college and land lucrative jobs. I found myself surrounded by children with a vision for living godly lives and brothers and sisters who watched my back, loved me fiercely and helped me raise my child.
And, just so you know, after many years of labor in the ghetto the church and its leaders did prosper.
Finally I had some words to wrap around the disparate thoughts.
I am sick to death of self-important preachers who put on a Pentecostal pageant instead of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
I am disgusted with the emptiness of ministries that preach prosperity while the majority of their members can’t get a grip to pull themselves out of poverty.
I am outraged that loose-living pastors are allowed to remain in their positions for years with no evidence of repentance, no change in behavior and no exercise of church discipline. Divorce and remarriage, in particular, are treated like a special right for Pentecostal and charismatic clergy. They’ve shook the Bible upside down to come up with lame justifications for turning their backs on their first wives and husbands and “trading up.” Because God, of course, always wants to take us to a “higher level.”
I am chagrined that in these last few years “Pentecostal” has become a byword for hypocrite and flake.
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If you’ve lost sight of the fact that there really are men and women of God with righteous motives, I don’t blame you. When I interviewed Sherman Allen’s alleged victims, I found that each was struggling to reclaim her faith in God and, even more so, in the church.
I have seen up close what it really means to be a man or woman of God. It has nothing to do with money, fame or accolades. It has everything to do with dying to this culture, this world and its empty imperatives.
Jesus put it this way. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,” he told two of his ambitious disciples. “And whoever wants to become first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Where this fits in the Pentecostal three-ring circus I can no longer tell you. Somewhere out back in the freak tent, I guess, where you find the men and women who’ve committed themselves to pleasing God, not man. --Julie Lyons