When I moved to Dallas in 1990, it took me a while to get a clue about Bible Belt religion. First, I had this na�ve notion that in such a racially diverse city, one would find racially diverse congregations. Boy, was I dumb.
Later, while working as a reporter at the Dallas Times Herald, I got in a conversation one day with a staffer about churches and preachers. My colleague, I found out, didn't have a very high opinion of the clergy. "To me," he said, "the preacher is the dude who gets the most girls."
I was shocked. But my colleague was black, raised in a Baptist church in Dallas, and that's how he saw things.
Well, I can tell you those words lost their shock value a long time ago. Sixteen years of fellowshipping in Pentecostal churches--encountering quite a few people whose trust, spiritual and otherwise, had been abused by church leaders--will do that to you. (Along the way, I also met some incredible men and women of God, people with whom I'd entrust my life and my soul. But that's another subject.)
So there were lots of folks like me who weren't the least bit surprised by the Reverend Terry Hornbuckle's out-of-control womanizing. Hornbuckle, founder and pastor of Agape Christian Fellowship in Arlington--a black Pentecostal megachurch that boasted some 2,500 members at one point--was convicted last week on sexual assault charges involving three women. On Monday, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
During the trial, Hornbuckle's defense never contested that the preacher had affairs with numerous women, including members of his church and even one of his married elders. They just said he never raped anyone. Such a stirring defense had Agape's dwindling membership rallying behind their pastor. Go, Terry! Go, Terry!
Last week Fort Worth Star-Telegram writer Bob Ray Sanders had a column on Hornbuckle, and he said what no one has dared to say in the mainstream media: Womanizing is a huge problem among African-American clergy.
Yes, he notes, it happens in all ethnic groups:
"If every preacher who had sex with a church member went to jail, there would be a lot of empty pulpits Sunday morning.
And the sad thing is that there are often people in the congregation who say or do nothing--and, if they do speak up, find themselves ignored."
Sanders goes on to report that the Reverend Hornbuckle was confronted about his womanizing more than a decade ago by a church member and three ministers from outside Hornbuckle's church.
Not all of the ministers had the guts to suggest that Hornbuckle step down from the pulpit, Sanders writes. And nothing became of the meeting. (I know of another instance in which a prominent Pentecostal pastor in Fort Worth met with Hornbuckle and told him to get his life together. Obviously, he didn't get much of a response, either.)
Here's where Sanders drops the bomb:
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"While I'm in no way suggesting that most ministers are having illicit affairs with their congregants, I will say there is enough anecdotal evidence to declare that a whole lot of preachers need to be on the mourners' bench...I know plenty of people who can bear witness to how some of those closed-door counseling sessions in the pastor's office turned into a come-on opportunity by a man taking advantage of a vulnerable woman, all in the name of 'the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost'...
As one who knows the black church well, having grown up in one, I can say that this problem is acute in many African-American congregations."
[Oh, I can hear the righteous wail arising from certain corners of the city.]
"There are guys who can be a pimp one day and the Rev. Pimp the next; Mr. Con-Man on Saturday night and the Rev. Dr. Con-Man by Sunday morning...
The male leaders in such congregations are, more often than not, handpicked puppets of the pastor. Rather than exercise their true roles as deacons, elders, trustees or whatever, they acquiesce to the preacher's demands, turn a blind eye and deaf ear to his misdeeds or become accessories to the crimes."
Turns out Sanders' column has gotten the biggest response of anything he's written in the past year. Stephanie Morris, a Dallas Observer contributor and Dallas Theological Seminary student, bumped into Sanders at the courthouse when the jury was deciding Hornbuckle's sentence, and found out more. Here's what Morris has to to say on the subject:
Stephanie Morris: In his book, Shepherding the Sheep: Pastoral Care in the Black Tradition, Dr. Benjamin Baker, a black pastor and author, said it like this: "...the only thing the black congregation will not forgive the pastor for doing is not preaching."
That's a jaw-dropper of a statement--but one that black parishioners like myself know is dead-on.
The truth is we've been far more concerned with whether the preacher can stir our emotions by shimmying and showboating in the pulpit than with the state of the leader's spiritual life.
And black preachers are well aware of this.
I'm a student a Dallas Theological Seminary--a theologically conservative training ground for ministers of all colors. Before he retired last year, Dr. Eddie Lane taught a class at DTS called Black Preaching, and the young men aspiring to lead black congregations knew that if they hoped to prove their worth to the church, that elective was a requirement.
Black preachers are some of the greatest orators in the world. No need to name them; we've all seen and heard the resounding speeches that inevitably reach a fever pitch then climax, and close (often after a whole hour or longer) leaving us feeling stronger and more empowered. For the black preacher, the ability to do that is a gift--and a skill. And if you don't have it--well, to black folks, you probably weren't "called" to minister in the first place. And that's part of the problem.
If a man is "called" by God to minister, many black churchgoers believe there is nothing or no one that can remove him from that post.
Bob Ray and I stood in the corridors of the Tarrant County Justice Center talking about the exploits of Terry Hornbuckle, but it was not with that bewildered surprise that many of our counterparts had. We talked with a sense of familiarity--reflecting on all of the other Reverend Pimps we know or have knowledge of.
In many black churches, the "business" of philandering pastors is talked about openly among the saints. One singles pastor of a large church in Dallas is notorious for sleeping around and has been said to ask women outright if he can put his face between their breasts. Yet he's still called on to speak at Christian singles conferences and has a growing ministry. "But, giiiiiiirrrrrrllllll, he can preach!" they say--and therefore, he's excused.
We know this is not true of all black preachers, and many of them are genuinely servants of God looking to lead their flocks to Jesus. But the black church has a problem, and it's pastor worship. And as long as we continue to worship a man and his oratorical skills, instead of the Man, we'll continue to see low-lifes like Hornbuckle abusing the call--and the sheep.
Now we turn over the floor to you--the readers of the very first Bible Girl column. We want to hear what you have to say. We'll be back next week. --Julie Lyons