Longform

The Reverend Freak

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And just what kind of church was this? Who went there and why?

The Dallas Observer set out to find answers to those questions, but after interviewing several church members, attorneys and members of the victims' families, as well as hearing and reading the testimony of Hornbuckle's accusers in the criminal and civil cases against him, the answers proved elusive.

What the Observer did find is that the Hornbuckle case was even more sordid than many outsiders thought:

  • On Sunday mornings in the last few years, Hornbuckle was increasingly given to making bizarre statements from the pulpit. One time--in an incident remembered by every church member the Dallas Observer interviewed at length--Hornbuckle preached about bathing his adolescent daughter. "You men need to bathe your daughters," he exhorted his members. "Clean 'em up good."

  • One married church member, after a sexual encounter with Hornbuckle, began to complain of severe abdominal pain. A trip to the doctor revealed the problem: A metal cock ring--a sexual device used to prolong an erection--had been rammed deep into her abdominal cavity.

  • One young woman who testified during Hornbuckle's sentencing claimed he performed oral sex on her in the back of a church van during a trip to San Antonio. She'd come along on the trip as a nanny, and Hornbuckle told her he wanted to teach her how to have an orgasm.

In the end, jury members and the public were left with pieces of a puzzle: a self-appointed bishop who'd so finely tuned the mechanics of seduction that he was able to get away with it for more than a decade right under the noses of his wife and his elders--leaders who apparently looked the other way as the lives and faith of several of their fellow church members were shattered. The young women whose attentions the bishop cultivated during lengthy, exuberant church services fueled by the power of suggestion and incessant talk about money and success. The brazen defense strategy employed by Hornbuckle's attorneys--sure, he was an awful husband and pastor and man of God, but he wasn't a rapist.

In the end, none of the puzzle pieces quite fit together. But each offered a glimpse into the bishop's bizarre world of religion, money, sex and drugs.

In the Beginning

Before Terry Hornbuckle was the bishop, exerting power and influence over thousands, he was a lowly Bible study leader, teaching 15 congregants in Irving. That was in 1986. The next year, he housed the group in an old Grand Prairie Dairy Queen. The congregation grew, and he moved his small flock to a strip shopping center on Division Street in Arlington, a stretch of road known best for bail bond offices, used car lots and strip clubs. It was here, in 1992, that Agape Christian Fellowship first took shape--a nondenominational church with big dreams and a Pentecostal flavor.

People came to hear the charismatic man who'd started calling himself "Bishop." Attendance grew; people were captivated by his image of success, his message of prosperity. The Lord wanted his people to prosper and be blessed with "increase," an appealing message to his predominantly black congregation. Here, they found hope.

By 1999, Hornbuckle found himself preaching each Sunday to more than 2,500 people in a warehouse-sized megachurch. The bishop rose to see the kind of power and wealth he'd always dreamed of. He and his wife drove Mercedes-Benzes and Cadillacs. They lived in expensive homes and wore the best clothes. At the same time, week after week, he was imploring his members to give their all to the church, especially their finances.

That in itself wasn't unusual for a black congregation that had many of the trappings of Pentecostalism--prophetic messages, exuberant worship, exhortations to take steps of faith. In black churches, the leader often embodies the aspirations of his followers. If he looks bedraggled and drives a hoopty, it is a reflection on himself as well as his flock--and not a flattering one. Agape was full of young men and women who looked to their bishop to provide them the keys to prosperity. To reach down from his perch of success and pull them up too.

The bishop encouraged their ambitions and cultivated their attentions. He would sometimes call up groups of single moms and bathe them in compliments and words of encouragement. He probably didn't fail to notice that many of them were beautiful, vulnerable and looking for a man to provide love and stability in their lives.

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Andrea Grimes
Contact: Andrea Grimes
Stephanie Morris