It's Revival Week at the United House of Prayer, a celebration the church stages three times a year to purge its parishioners of sin. Tonight is a special night: A national evangelist, one of the church's highest-ranking officials, will be paying a visit.
At about 8:15 p.m. on this January evening, the pink stucco chapel on Old Town Alexandria's King Street starts to fill. Glad to be out of the cold, the churchgoers shake hands and hug and kiss as they shuck layers and settle in for the evening. Some have brought Bibles; others, tambourines. One man has a washboard tucked under his arm.
A large, freckle-faced lady hums to herself as she flounces her skirt, pulls a painted rattle from her bulging shoulder bag, and taps it against a black leather Bible. As if on cue, singing starts: Everybody knows the words to these gospel songs, and nobody is afraid to belt them out. Then people trickle up to a microphone to testify—to pronounce their faith in God; in the church's founder, Sweet, Precious Daddy Grace; and in its current bishop, Sweet Daddy Madison. One woman gazes skyward, shuts her eyes, and shakes her head softly as she gives thanks for being shown “the way to the mountain.” The congregation adds the intermittent “Amen” and “Ain't that something?,” and punctuates the woman's testimony by slapping tambourines.
Soon enough, the evangelist takes his place behind the pulpit, the music tapers off, and the room falls still. Tall, broad, and suspendered, he towers above his audience and smiles warmly as he wishes everyone peace. Three or four worshipers nod while the freck led woman whispers, “Amen.” But then, as if prompted by a flip of a switch, the preacher's tone abruptly changes. His smile vanishes and his sweat-covered brow creases as he pushes his bifocals up the bridge of his nose. The congregation must get business over with, he booms, before he can preach. God needs their money. He needs them to reach into their pockets, purses, and wallets right now and give Him what is rightfully His.
Unflinchingly, all but two elderly women leave their seats and file placidly past two collection plates before the pulpit—one for “love offerings” to their pastor and one for tithes. They deposit small change and dollar bills.
After the churchgoers return to their chairs and the money is counted, the evangelist wipes his forehead with a handkerchief and shakes his head in apparent disbelief. “This isn't enough!” he cries. He calls on two young girls to pass the plates around once more. He tells them to be bold in asking members to give.
“Everything you have, God gave you. You owe it to Him to give 10 percent of what you have,” he bellows. “I want $50 more and then we can move on here.” He waits, but he counts only $15. “Come on, let's give the Lord $50,” he coaxes. “I'm just trying to help you here. You know we're building new houses with that money. Big houses. Houses some of us might need by the time this Republican Congress is finished, because they, the rich, they don't care about the poor man. Big houses, some costing millions, millions of dollars. And we don't owe the bank a dime, no, we don't, not a dime.”
People reach for their wallets again and again. Half an hour later the evangelist stuffs almost $300 into a manila envelope and calls it quits. Not bad for 22 young mothers, middle-aged moms, and grandparents on a bitterly cold night.
Only then does the man begin to preach.
It is a small scene, but a telling one. The United House of Prayer, which is based in Washington, is more than a church; it is a very big business.
The church owns millions of dollars' worth of real estate across the country—at least $34 million worth in D.C. alone—as well as a handful of restaurant and retail operations. Its CEO and current bishop, Samuel “Sweet Daddy” Madison, is revered in the church's song and scripture; altars across the country are bedecked with his likeness.
Glad as they are to give gifts unto God, some members of the church feel that they're giving more to Madison than to the Lord. They claim that Sweet Daddy Madison rigged his election to the bishopric in 1991, and that he is now abandoning the church's commitment to Jesus in order to enrich himself. They whisper about his expensive new house and about his close relationship with the church's builder, a company run by a white man. Their distrust of their new leader has sparked an internecine war that plagues Madison's young reign, jeopardizing the church's public image and threatening its membership base. Stumbling from one bizarre in-house scandal to the next, the United House of Prayer has become to the religious world what brokerage house Kidder Peabody was to Wall Street.
“In the books of Matthew and Mark, it says that Daniel prophesied that God's church is going to one day be desolate; the temple will be used for abominable things,” explains Philadelphia member Alonso Duncan. “In the House of Prayer, that's what's going on now.”
The church's leadership, however, says that the United House of Prayer is stronger than ever. “The latter house will be greater than the former house,” says “Apostle” Lattisaw of the Alexandria parish, citing the Old Testament's Book of Haggai (2:9). “Daddy Madison is going to do what [his predecessor] Daddy McCollough did, and a little bit more.”
The United House of Prayer is not the nation's largest black church—religion experts say that its claim to 3 million members nationwide is impossible—but in terms of spiritual intensity and flamboyance, it ranks among the richest. What's more, few black churches can claim the per capita tithes and vast real estate holdings boasted by the United House of Prayer, and fewer still can claim its legendary Washington clout. To understand why that is—and why the church is so divided now—you have to know something of the history of the United House of Prayer.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, an angel appeared in one of Joseph's dreams and said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Some 1,900 years later, in the small New England burg of New Bedford, Mass., a Portuguese immigrant named Marcelino Manoel Da Graca arrived from the Cape Verde Islands off Africa's west coast. Starting his immigrant life as a cranberry picker, Da Graca claimed to be the vessel via which God had finally arrived upon America's faith-battered frontier. Pointing out that his middle name was a translation of “Emmanuel,” Da Graca insisted that he was God and had come to Earth in the form of man. He changed his name to Charles Manuel Grace, aka “Sweet, Precious Daddy Grace,” and argued that biblical references to “grace” were references to himself.
But he never ignored his predecessor, Jesus. He fashioned a theology around Jesus' teachings, augmented by the Old Testament. A verse from the book of Isaiah (56:7) especially appealed to him: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord...these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
In 1926, at a cost of $39, Grace built a shack of a chapel in West Wareham, Mass., and founded the United House of Prayer for All People, Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith.
His timing was impeccable and got better. Depression-era morale was abysmal, especially among Southern African-Americans migrating north, and cults' popularity soared as charismatic leaders saw opportunity in people's despondence. Most of these cults arose from the Asuza Street Revival, a religious mobilization held in Los Angeles between 1906 and 1909 under the leadership of a black preacher named William J. Seymour. The basis for the revival was a popular feeling that mainline Protestant churches were too dry and businesslike—and their members, in turn, were not filled with the Holy Spirit.
“Daddy Grace had an electrifying image and people rushed to see him,” says the Rev. Cain Hope Felder, chairman of the Biblical Institute for Social Change and an expert on African-American biblical interpretation. “They're the same people who rushed after Jesus and the prophets. All these people, they have a certain level of gullibility.”
Grace flaunted long hair and flashy garb and staged huge revivals, faith healings, and mass baptisms—1,000 people strong—in rivers and under fire hoses. His theatrics inspired his followers to translate their awe into “love offerings,” even if their recipient wasn't always saintlike. On more than one occasion, Grace was arrested for vagrancy and “cheating and swindling the public,” according to the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle in 1927. Decades later, in 1956, he was sued by a woman who claimed to have been his first wife and to have been abandoned by Grace after giving birth to his daughter. Though the suit was dismissed, it prompted another woman to claim that Grace had fathered two of her children.
If Grace's means were unorthodox, his theology was not particularly so. He preached the Trinity, and unlike apostolic contemporaries who believed that baptisms should be performed only in the name of Jesus, he embraced baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. What made his denomination truly Pentecostal was its embrace of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as a manifestation of receiving the Holy Spirit. (The term “Pentecostal” comes from “Pentecost,” the feast on the seventh Sunday after Easter that commemorates the Holy Spirit's descent on the apostles like “great tongues of fire, filling them with utterance.”)
Though Grace often preached that “love of money is the root of all evil,” his followers saw it as their duty to make him an earthly king. He had come from Portugal to bring them God, and they would honor him with gifts and call him “Sweet Daddy”—not “Father,” but “Daddy”—to acknowledge that he was a loving man who provided and cared for them, unlike the severe ministers of traditional Protestant churches.
Daddy Grace's self-aggrandizing interpretation of Scripture further cemented his authority; he went so far as to say that church members should look to him, not to God, for salvation. “Never mind about God,” he used to say. “Salvation is by Grace only. Grace has given God a vacation. If you sin against God, Grace can save you, but if you sin against Grace, God can't save you.”
Grace would travel from New Bedford to Newport News, Va., and Savannah, Ga., erecting “missions,” usually in slums, and collecting money. As he wended his way south, he garnered a reputation for his purple-and-chartreuse cutaway coats and his 4-inch fingernails. The fingernails, say members who knew him, were proof of his prophetic nature, as was his poor diction, for the Bible speaks of a prophet with horns growing out of his hands and a stammering tongue.
Daddy Grace's other trademark was the red, white, and blue paint he used to decorate his fingernails. Today the church says that the paints represented the colors of the first tabernacle, or tent, used by the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. But religious historians suspect that the real reason for Grace's trimmings was to emphasize patriotism and diminish white concerns that his church was a subversive, militant organization. Later, Grace would paint the trim around the windows of his Logan Circle home red, white, and blue, and each United House of Prayer mission today is being renovated to include red-and-blue stained glass like the mother house here in Washington.
In 1927, Daddy Grace chose Washington, D.C., as his world headquarters and incorporated here, prophesying that the United House of Prayer would one day become a nationwide faith. (He moved to the District in 1929 and built the mother house in the early 1950s.) Over the following decades, he built his church into an empire—winning converts, lining coffers, and constructing churches all along the Eastern seaboard.
In 1958, a New York Herald reporter wrote that Daddy Grace bore a distinct resemblance to folk hero Buffalo Bill. The comparison isn't as bizarre as it sounds. In his time, just about everyone east of the Mississippi and south of Boston knew who Daddy Grace was. (Black Americans, anyway.) As a kid growing up on Washington's 4th Street SE in the 1940s, the Rev. Reginald Green, a Baptist pastor in the Shaw neighborhood, used to spy through the front doors of the church's Anacostia mission with his junior-high buddy Marvin Gaye. The two delighted in Daddy's long, dangling locks and huge diamonds as he preached what Green and Gaye thought of as “fun and games.” And even to children growing up in WASPy enclaves of southern Virginia, Daddy Grace was as big a draw as the traveling circuses that came to town.
Critics called him a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, and a huckster, what with his dozens of opulent abodes, including a Rhine-modeled castle and an 85-room, 21-bathroom mansion in Los Angeles, not to mention his fruit farm in Cuba or his coffee plantation in Brazil. Then there was Grace's claim to be able to perform miracles. But Grace, pointing to himself, would simply retort: “I can only say that if Moses came here now he would have to follow this man.”
When he died in 1960, Daddy Grace left the church a $25-million estate, but he also saddled it with a $7-million debt, $5.9 million in unpaid income taxes, and another $1 million in unpaid property taxes. A financial morass ensued, and 151 founding members sued Daddy Grace's successor, Walter McCollough, claiming that his election violated the church's constitution. The judge who heard the lawsuit described Daddy Grace's reign as “40 years of dictatorship under one man,” ruled for the plaintiffs, and appointed a receiver until church finances were cleaned up, at which point a second election would be held. McCollough won that election as well, and in time his house became even greater than Sweet, Precious Daddy Grace's.
Walter McCollough was a spellbinding preacher who took Daddy Grace's outreach programs to new heights. He poured church monies into low- and moderate-income housing in Washington and other East Coast cities. He opened food banks, senior-citizen homes, and day care centers, and fostered partnerships with charitable organizations such as the House of Ruth. And at Christmas, he put on the best light show in town. Using thousands of colored lights, McCollough began an annual tradition at the main bishop's pad at 1665 North Portal Dr. NW that still draws gawkers by the tour-bus load.
A former self-employed taxi driver and dry cleaner, McCollough brought a business acumen to the United House of Prayer that would become as much a staple of its doctrine as some of its exotic liturgical rituals. Where Daddy Grace saw the church's wealth as a virtue, McCollough saw it as a way to establish the church as an independent institution. It was McCollough, for example, who set the precedent for what is perhaps the church's proudest feat: Not once has it borrowed money.
During the early '70s, D.C.'s black churches were getting involved in housing to aid their low-income parishioners, and the District's Redevelopment Land Agency (RLA) had major parcels it wanted to put out to bid, including one on M Street between 6th and 7th Streets NW. The United House of Prayer, says the Rev. Green, who worked for RLA as a church liaison, “had more money than all of [the other churches] put together, and wanted to get involved.”
So, in 1971, up to Portal Drive the RLA bureaucrats trekked in hopes of striking a deal with the wealthy preacher. On arrival, they were told they would have to wait—much to Green's amusement: “We're talking about an African-American making these Caucasian boys who had all the power in their hands wait!”
When McCollough—who, like Grace, had a mustache, sideburns, and long, pressed curls—did finally emerge, he drove a bargain that would cement his role as a Washington player. RLA wanted eight- and nine-story high-rise apartments, while McCollough wanted low-density walkups. But when RLA asked McCollough what kind of government funding he'd need and McCollough said none, the agency gave him the land condition-free. He lived up to his side of the bargain, developing the 90-unit Canaanland Apartments without a mortgage.
McCollough went on to build the 190-unit Paradise Gardens and 108-unit McCollough Terrace apartment complexes across the street from the mother house. He also purchased a handful of single-family row houses, some near the apartments and some across town in Northeast and Southeast neighborhoods. (Both McCollough and Madison, who has purchased substantial property as bishop, have established a pattern of snapping up parcels in specific areas, thereby consolidating the church's presence in communities.) In 1985, when the National Urban Coalition held a ceremony to honor Bishop McCollough, the church was lauded for being D.C.'s second-largest holder of low- to moderate-income multifamily housing, after the District government.
It is virtually impossible, however, to determine the full extent of the church's real estate empire; there are few public documents pertaining to its holdings, and House of Prayer officials declined to answer any questions about church finances. Nor would the church's lawyers at the D.C. office of the prestigious Baltimore firm Piper & Marbury answer questions.
It appears, however, that the D.C. portfolio Bishop Madison currently oversees as Trustee for the United House of Prayer is worth at least $34 million and includes at least 500,000 square feet of property, about 300,000 square feet of which is being used for multifamily housing, according to 1994 Lusk/TRW Redi reports. The apartments, which rent for $285 to $525 a month, and about a dozen single-family homes scattered across the city, are maintained by a United House of Prayer property management office at an annual cost of $750,000-plus, according to Apostle Andino Cunningham, the office's assistant manager.
The values of almost all these properties have doubled in the last decade, according to Lusk/TRW. In 1985, Paradise Gardens carried a total assessment of $5.97 million and a land assessment of $880,740. Last year, those assessments were $11.1 million and $3.52 million, respectively. And the bishop's red-and-white, gingerbreadlike Tudor manse at 1665 North Portal Dr.—a 7,830-square-foot miniature castle with seven-and-a-half baths and two acres of surrounding grounds with a tennis court—is currently assessed at $667,135, compared to $421,448 five years ago.
Nor are the church's real estate holdings limited to Washington. It owns apartment buildings and commercial space in such cities as New Haven, Conn.; Norfolk and Newport News, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Los Angeles—and it is planning a 186-unit senior-citizen development in Savannah, Ga., and a $15-million mixed-use facility in west Philadelphia. Bishop Madison is also currently renovating or razing and rebuilding most of the United House of Prayer's 132 missions at a cost of more than $1 million per mission. As of last summer, the bill had topped $178 million.
Real estate isn't the only business the divine developer knows. Back in Daddy Grace's days, the United House of Prayer made a name for itself in the culinary realm, operating kitchens and cafeterias across the country. And the church is still synonymous with good, cheap food. One of its better-known eateries is the Saints' Paradise Cafeteria next to the mother house, catty-corner to the Mount Vernon Square Metro stop, where meatloaf and ribs draw federal workers in droves on weekdays. It is also a popular pit stop for D.C.'s politicians, a place to schmooze with one of the city's big voting blocs—a campaign tradition established in the '70s when mayoral candidates and councilmembers hung around 601 M St. NW, sometimes spending nights there, awaiting Bishop McCollough's coveted endorsements.
In 1978, for example, McCollough endorsed incumbent Mayor Walter Washington without so much as mentioning then-At-Large D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry. A few years later, in 1982—after Mayor Barry donated a plot of city-owned property to McCollough for Paradise Gardens—Barry did receive the bishop's blessing. And while the church has since curtailed its endorsements, Barry and his rivals made their rounds at Saints' Paradise last summer and fall.
The church also sells dry goods and cosmetic products under a private label. It purchases such items as olive oil, coffee, hair gel, and cocoa-butter lotion directly from manufacturers, prays over them, sticks a United House of Prayer label on them, and sells them at its various missions. People buy the items for no less than fair market price, says Apostle Cunningham, assistant manager of the church's property management company. The bonus is, they're blessed.
Finally, there is the church's primary source of income: tithes. Nearly all members tithe at least 10 percent of their incomes to the church; if they want to attain a higher status within the church hierarchy, they tithe more. On top of their tithes, they pay “love offerings” to the bishop; “pastor's offerings” to their pastor; “fast sacrifice offerings” (the cost of one meal once a week); “back the attack,” or “BTA” fees to cover the church's legal costs; “assessments”; “dues”; and contributions to the “pastor's anniversary fund” and the “church building fund.”
Consider the offerings of the North Carolina family of Pastor Horace Cutter. During the course of a lifetime, 62-year-old Horace, a semiretired professional dry cleaner, says that he, his wife, and their 10 grown children have contributed “in the millions” to their church. He and his wife contributed anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a year each for 45 years. Add to that the payments of their 10 kids, six of whom are college graduates, and you can see how the amount easily hits seven figures.
“We did what we did for soul salvation,” explains Cutter. “Not for form or fashion, but for Jesus. And in return, God has blessed us.”
What does all this amount to? Tax laws exempt the church from having to make revenues public, but church members claim that the organization's net worth is in the billions. In 1961, Washington Post reporter Tom Kelly described Daddy Grace's finances as being as “obscure as the Book of the Apocalypse.” Thirty-four years later, you could say the same about Daddy Madison's church.
Classified a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the House of Prayer is exempt from paying federal and state income taxes. Because it is a religious institution, it is not even required to file applications for exemption with the Internal Revenue Service. Its paper trail at D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is equally short. Incorporated prior to 1964, before disclosure laws were tightened, the United House of Prayer is exempt from filing annual reports. As far as D.C. taxes go, the agency's taxation department would release only a blank copy of the form it requires churches to file to qualify for income, sales, and personal property tax exemption. Even that form doesn't require the listing of income, but only a total cost of property owned.
To reassure parishioners, many large churches join watchdog organizations, such as the Herndon, Va.-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which issue a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval stating that the church is on the fiscal up-and-up. The United House of Prayer, however, hasn't joined any of these groups.
The disclosure issue is exceedingly touchy for the church. During nearly two months of reporting for this story, Bishop Madison was available neither for an interview nor to respond to a list of questions sent to his home. His apostles were helpful in providing historical and theological background, but stopped returning phone calls after questions—which focused on the church's finances and the allegations members have made about Madison's administration—were sent to the bishop.
And people outside the church cautioned against digging too deeply. One Washington attorney warned to “tread lightly with these people,” and not to “touch anything tax-related.” Two estranged church members described a man they claim to be Daddy Madison's private investigator, saying, “You should be on the lookout.” The United House of Prayer may be expressive in its faith, but when it comes to money, the church's lips are sealed.
If Walter McCollough was a shrewd businessman, Samuel Madison has perhaps proved even shrewder. Born in the early 1920s in Greenville, S.C.—the exact date is unknown—Samuel Chistee Madison joined the United House of Prayer at age 8 after his sick mother went to see Daddy Grace and came home healed. The church became his life. He became a church Boy Scout, a member of the gospel band, and a deacon. At about age 17, in 1939, he received the Holy Ghost and Fire, a confirmation ritual, and entered the ministry.
According to church and court documents, he rose quickly in the organization, in part by making friends with its leaders, serving as a cook for Daddy Grace in Cuba and as a chauffeur for Daddy McCollough. By 1940 he had become an elder and a pastor, and in 1945, at age 23, he was appointed to the General Council, the highest body within the church. He pastored at missions in South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In 1986, Bishop McCollough appointed Madison senior minister (the second-highest post in the church) and pastor of God's White House—the church's name for Washington's mother house—as well as chairman for the D.C. region and overseer of the state of Maryland.
Madison consolidated power in part by managing the church's money. In Washington he became “head checker,” responsible for receiving and recording tithes for the entire organization. He was also a conduit and recipient of power-giving information. He was in charge of all McCollough products—the church's retail operation—and editing the McCollough Magazine. In 1990, he won the title of “top paying pastor,” meaning that his mission, the mother house, had raised more money than any other mission that year.
Sweet Daddy McCollough died of heart and lung failure on March 21, 1991. On May 24, the church held a General Assembly session to elect his successor. The devotional services at 601 M Street began as the crowd broke into a boisterous rendering of “Amazing Grace.” A pastor from Brooklyn read from Psalm 25, and a pastor from Los Angeles offered a prayer. Then Madison, the senior minister and acting chief executive of the organization since McCollough's death, addressed the 128 pastors, 195 elders, and 246 voting representatives present. He wanted to get the election process under way, but before that he had some disturbing news.
“I hate to have to tell you this, but the officers have confiscated a weapon in this building,” the minutes of the proceedings report Madison saying. “It is confiscated. There will be an arrest following. We didn't come here for this. We came here to do the Lord's will. I trust that there are no more weapons here, and if you are caught, you will go to jail. We're putting our trust in our Daddy. My trust is in the Lord—how about you?” The congregation responded by speaking in tongues and chanting, “Though I walk in the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” It was the first sign of a deep distrust among church members that would dog his administration in the months that followed.
Voting began around 3:50 p.m., and during that time candidates for bishop talked of their encounters with the Holy Spirit while certified public accountants and attorneys personally retained by Madison for the election safeguarded the election process. Voting ended at 7:10. With 200 votes, the late bishop's son, C.L. McCollough, was runner-up. With 360 votes, Madison had won.
At 8:30 p.m., the general assembly adjourned. Bishop Madison assumed his new throne, a white satin wingback, and people showered him with congratulations and dollar bills. Outside, on the mother house's Astroturf steps, a throng of United House of Prayer members joined in ebullient refrain: “O Sweet Daddy, how I love you/You have always been so true/Day by day I often wonder/O Sweet Daddy, I love you.” Nearby stood a much smaller group of members shaking their heads.
The head-shaking didn't stop that day. On July 12 in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., a handful of Madison's opponents filed suit against Bishop Madison and the United House of Prayer, seeking a new election. Later that summer and into the next year, other suits would be filed in cities across the country.
In their lawsuits, the head-shakers said Madison failed to win by the two-thirds majority required in the United House of Prayer constitution and bylaws. They charged that he threatened, bribed, and coerced members into voting for him, allowed at least 80 pastors' wives to vote (in violation of church regulations), and allowed Royal Guards (the bishop's security detail) and police to be improperly present. The plaintiffs alleged that Madison subsequently expelled pastors and ministers he deemed disloyal, while extending monetary rewards to his supporters. (Outside the courtroom, they even hinted that one renegade pastor, who had denied Madison his vote and subsequently suffered a stroke, was poisoned.)
Some of the suits have been dismissed by judges not wanting to chart ecclesiastical waters; some are on appeal; and some are still pending. Some border on the truly kooky, and some sound like little more than the lip of bad losers. For his part, Bishop Madison has not commented on the suits and has relegated their resolution to his attorneys.
The bishop's priority has been to get on with the business of being bishop, a role he redefines as he goes. In many ways, Madison differs markedly from his predecessors. He is a man of modest dress: no flashy gold chains; no garish tie tacks; just dark suits, period. He is an expert delegator, staying relatively hands-off in the church's day-to-day operations. He keeps a high-profile team of accountants and lawyers on retainer. And he offers his “apostles” modern-day corporate perks, including annual retreats to Acapulco for ministers and their wives.
But most important, Bishop Madison differs from the bishops before him in that he's more the church's chief executive officer than the keeper of its souls. And it's that disparity that some members won't accept.
In cities up and down the Eastern seaboard, hundreds of disenfranchised United House of Prayer members are waging a spiritual protest against the “Madison era.” They're breaking away, banding together as “Believers in Christ,” and gathering in living rooms each Friday night for Bible study and worship. Some have even given their living room congregations names such as the Redeemed House of Prayer and the New Direction House of Prayer. In Washington, 40 Believers in Christ convene each Wednesday for choir practice. They've all stopped sending tithes to the mother house and instead started giving money to a minister of their own.
They say Madison isn't fit to be bishop, and they have collected news clips, court documents, and member affidavits to prove it. They wouldn't mind Madison as their bishop, if only he would give them some answers. But the questions now stretch well beyond the original election beefs of four years ago and challenge not just the new hierarchy and corporate direction of the church, but its theological underpinnings. These concerns and questions have divided families and ended lifelong friendships.
“It goes deeper than the election,” explains Philadelphia's Alonso Duncan. “It truly gets at the standards of the House of Prayer, the direction it's going, the truthfulness that's not taking place.”
The malcontents want to know how Bishop Madison and his wife, Deloris Madison, were able to buy a $339,000 home in a Kensington Porten Bros. development soon after Madison succeeded McCollough—an interesting question since the Madisons' previous income appears to have been exceedingly modest. (Before moving into the bishopric on North Portal Drive, they'd lived in one of the church's apartments near the mother house.) The critics want to know how Madison can justify spending church money on junkets to Mexico. (“Besides, who wants to see a bishop running up and down the ocean with shorts on?” scoffs the wife of one dissident pastor.) They want to know why missions that are only 10 years old are being renovated, and why one of the swank new missions in High Point, N.C., has a leaky roof.
And, they want to know, where has Jesus disappeared to? Has Bishop Madison forgotten about Him, about doing His will?
“You cannot tear a foundation out from under a building and expect the building to stand,” says former Winston-Salem Pastor Cutter. “The United House of Prayer was founded on Jesus Christ; you take away Jesus Christ and the United House of Prayer is coming down.”
Duncan and others see scandals that have ripped at the church's integrity in recent years as evidence that God is being shut out. Whether or not that's true, it is a charge made at a time when unsavory events have served at the very least to mar Bishop Madison's holy image.
On March 1, 1992, the chauffeur of a 1990 Lincoln Town Car transporting Bishop Madison and United House of Prayer officers to a Newport News mission for a service accidentally jabbed his accelerator, flew over a curb, and struck a 10-year-old girl, killing her. Bishop Madison failed to mention or pray for the girl at the service directly following the accident.
Madison has also been fighting with his predecessor's family. Immediately following McCollough's death in March 1991, his family claimed that thousands of dollars in cash had been stolen from his bedroom. Deloris Madison had been McCollough's personal secretary and had often worked at his house. After the McCollough family asked Deloris to turn over all of McCollough's other belongings, they claimed that she withheld certain items, including a large diamond ring Daddy Grace had given McCollough. The McColloughs are currently wrangling with the Madisons, as well as Bishop McCollough's bookkeeper and housekeeper, in D.C. probate court.
The missing goods aren't the only bone of contention between the two families. After McCollough died, Bishop Madison announced that he would build his predecessor a $750,000 mausoleum at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. But the tomb was to be just for McCollough, and would not include space for his wife, Clara McCollough, or their children. In response, Clara took her husband's corpse to Fort Lincoln Cemetery, 12 miles away; the late bishop now rests there in a tomb of Italian marble. Perhaps to save face, Bishop Madison built his “memorial mausoleum” anyway, adding to it a garish, 10-foot bronze statue of the deceased bishop. The McColloughs claim that this mausoleum, which depicts a coffin-shaped structure, misleads the public into thinking the bishop's body is there. The danger, they say, is that one day someone may open the casket and find it empty, and disciples will think Bishop McCollough is risen.
Another of Bishop Madison's business arrangements is raising eyebrows among church members. Daddy Madison's church uses a single, white-owned contractor for all its construction projects, Charlotte, N.C.-based United Building Contractors. In the spring of 1994, several members say, United Building Contractors President Jim Myers made a $100,000 “love offering” to Madison at the dedication ceremony of a newly renovated mission. (Shortly afterward, according to these sources, Madison made Myers an“apostle,” one of the highest honors the bishop bestows upon his ministers. Myers is not a minister.) Some Madison critics believe that the money is a kickback, pure and simple. Asked about their charges, Myers replies, “That's all ludicrous—all false allegations.” The “love offering,” he says, was collected from several vendors across the country, and included none of his money.
In August 1994, still more allegations rocked the church: Eight members filed suit against the United House of Prayer in Charlotte for refusing them nuptial, funeral, and baptismal services. The plaintiffs, the family of a church elder named Alfred Harrison, had paid the church $550,000 over several years. But the Harrisons became known as critics of Sweet Daddy Madison, and the suit alleges that in October 1992, the church refused them services, gave them no refund of any kind, and used “violence and physical force” to make them stop attending United House of Prayer missions.
Even Cutter has complaints. He says that he was excommunicated after he began voicing his doubts about Bishop Madison.
Observers of the battle say that Sweet Daddy Madison may not be doing things any differently than his predecessors did; he just doesn't have the control they had. “The church got caught in a power struggle,” says a source familiar with the conflict. “It is a multi-, multimillion-dollar operation, and when those who supported McCollough's son lost the election, they were ousted from a lot of money, a lot of money. It has become an extraordinarily volatile situation by people who take religion very, very seriously.”
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to elect a bishop,” adds Wardell Payne, the director of research at Howard University Divinity School. “And there is always a potential for dissension and schisms when there is a change in leadership. Whoever followed McCollough would have had trouble.”
Both Payne and the Rev. Felder see the split in the United House of Prayer as potentially a good thing for the church. What the organization is going through, Payne says, is a growth spurt; some churches die during growth spurts, some retrench. Felder argues that for too long the pulpit has ruled a far too obliging congregation, and any kind of challenge to any church leadership is healthy. But if bickering in the United House of Prayer continues much longer, he says, Madison's days could be numbered. “You've got four years or so after a contentious succession that hasn't abated and in some ways has gotten deeper,” he says. “I think that is very ominous.”
The alienated members couldn't agree more. Elder Giradie Mercer, a former pastor in Philadelphia, estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the United House of Prayer's membership has protested to some degree. Other members are quietly vanishing. “Right now, half of the church is gone,” says Mercer. “They've got the money, but a lot of people are leaving. This whole thing has destroyed the church.”
“I'm not going back,” says Cutter. “I know this may sound funny, but God will have to step in and work a miracle before I go back. Like God opened the Red Sea for the Israelites in Moses' time—God's going to have to do something like that. That's the only way the United House of Prayer will work for us.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.