Preying on the Congregation

Pastor Stedroy Williams' house of worship has become a house divided as some members insist he sexually harassed women

She becomes enraged, however, when black men victimize black women and then expect the women to protect "a brother."

In a recent article in The Gazette, a Montreal newspaper, she is quoted as saying that black women often expect to be treated poorly by black men, who are angry and frustrated because they see themselves as being at the bottom of society's totem pole. Bayne, who also writes articles for The Gazette and another Montreal newspaper, The Community Contact, decided to do the unthinkable in the Christian world: share her experiences at Grace Christian World Church with the press. She feels it's the only way to stop Williams.

"Because of the respect and authority granted to Williams as a pastor, I see the parishioners there as captive, and it bothers me," she explains. "This kind of thing messes up peoples' lives, and no one has been able to stop him -- not the police, not the church, not himself."

Edina Bayne, Williams' reluctant nemesis
Montreal Community Contact
Edina Bayne, Williams' reluctant nemesis
Modest digs: The Grace Christian World church shares a strip mall with an auto body shop
W. Kelley Lucas
Modest digs: The Grace Christian World church shares a strip mall with an auto body shop

Most Christian houses of worship are supervised by governing bodies. For example Bayne's church in Montreal, Restoration Ministries, is led by a bishop and a council. While Williams' church is not, Bayne and four former parishioners say that, after the recent scandal broke, the pastor hastily asked a bishop from another church to look into the matter. But those who were asked to speak to the bishop declined, saying the bishop is a friend of Williams and therefore merely a smoke screen. "It's a joke," says Ricky. "He wanted me to talk to the bishop, and I said [to Williams], 'I'm already pissed off, don't piss me off any more.'" A resident of North Carolina, the bishop has visited the church only twice, say parishioners, and can't effectively monitor Williams.

Anyone visiting Grace Christian World Church for the first time would find it in the unlikeliest of places. It sits in a warehouse district in Lauderhill, along a weed-choked road, where storefront churches share strip shopping centers with auto body shops. The contrast is especially jarring on Sundays, when women in silk dresses and veiled hats and men in suits clutching leather-covered Bibles pass mechanics in oily jeans and T-shirts, their heads bent under car hoods. Williams' church is one of about half a dozen independent churches catering to ethnic groups on NW 38th Street. That same stretch of road boasts a Muslim mosque, a Haitian church offering services in Creole, and several Caribbean Pentecostal churches.

The reason the churches are located in such a place is simple: The rent's cheap, and most of the parishioners are poor or working-class immigrants. Many drive from as far away as Miami to pray there.

Williams, who opened Grace Christian World Church a little more than seven years ago, would not talk to New Times about his background except to say, "If you write about the bad things, write about the good things, too. Write about all the drug addicts and homeless people I help." None of the parishioners New Times spoke to knew much about his past either. But according to a cover story on Williams in last November's issue of The Gospel Truth, a Miami-based monthly newspaper that highlights black evangelical ministers in South Florida, he has not lived an angelic life.

Williams was born in the West Indies in 1961 and has lived in South Florida for 19 years. His childhood was rough, and he ran away from home at the age of 14. "In fact, from the age 14 through 24, I used drugs, I sold drugs and I led the life of a thief," he says in the article. "It seemed as if every time I turned around I was in trouble for one thing or another… my life was a mess."

In 1982 Williams spent some time in jail after he was arrested by Homestead police for aggravated assault. An arrest affidavit provided by Miami-Dade police states that Williams shot at someone twice with a .22-caliber revolver but missed. The case was dismissed that October, the affidavit adds, but does not say why. Details of the case were not available either; Homestead police have files that go back only five years. In the Gospel Truth article, however, Williams says that being in jail "shook me up a little."

"There were times I didn't know where I was," he states. "I remember one time saying to the Lord… 'If you get me out of prison this time, I'll serve you.'"

After he got out of jail, the then-24-year-old Williams returned to his old ways, until one fateful day when he walked into a Fort Lauderdale restaurant. He met a woman named Mary who told him the Lord loved him and was calling on him to preach around the world. "I was too busy checking out her fleshly parts," Williams recalls in the article. But while driving home, he adds, his car suddenly stopped in the middle of the road. Williams began weeping. He pulled over, got down on the ground, and said, "Lord I give you my life." Two years later he became a minister.

The Gospel Truth article does not mention whether Williams went to Bible college, as most ministers do, but Bayne claims he told her he did not. A candidate for clergy of a large denomination usually studies at a seminary and is then ordained and assigned to a church. But anyone can open a nondenominational, independent church and register with the state as a nonprofit organization, which does not have to pay taxes. Because the government does not regulate churches, parishioners are responsible for checking out a pastor's credentials and background. Most assume, however, that churches are part of a larger network or fall under a bishop's purview, according to Dwight Hopkins, professor of theology at the University of Chicago. "There should be some accountability," he says.

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