Preying on the Congregation

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

Standing five and a half feet tall, Williams is an attractive man with coffee-color skin, dark brown eyes, and a goatee. He dresses suavely for church, wearing tailored suits, high-collared shirts, rings, and bracelets. He travels around the world, offering his services as a visiting minister, and runs another Grace Christian World Church in London, England, according to Bayne and some of his former parishioners. Williams and his family -- which includes his wife, Shernet, and their three children -- live in a house in the exclusive Inverrary section of Lauderhill.

Both black Americans and Caribbeans attend his church. Several parishioners rate Williams' preaching as so-so but rave about his ability to prophesy. One woman who attended the church for seven years remembers how he once told her that, after being out of work for three months, she would soon get a job. She went home that day to find seven offers on her answering machine. She later showed her appreciation by tithing the prescribed 10 percent of her income, or $50 a week. She also gave a $10 offering every Sunday and a $150 donation for a new church van. "I took care of my pastor," she says, bitterly. "Now I wonder where all that money went."

Once the scandal broke, assistant pastor Michael Beerom advanced to the pulpit
Once the scandal broke, assistant pastor Michael Beerom advanced to the pulpit
Williams hawked his spiritual services to an unsuspecting Montreal
Williams hawked his spiritual services to an unsuspecting Montreal

The woman, who did not want to be identified, admitted that, for years, she had heard rumors about Williams having affairs with female parishioners. She added, however, that when she asked him about the allegations, he denied them.

Conroy Anglin, the church's bass player and a parishioner for two years, paid absolutely no attention to the rumors until last September, when he spotted a teenage girl crying in church. After the service ended, he approached her. "I know that wasn't no tears of joy," he recalls saying. "I'm concerned. Here's my phone number, if you want to talk." Two weeks later the 18-year-old called and told Anglin that Williams had been forcing himself on her for two years -- sometimes in church, sometimes on the living room floor of his house.

A meeting was set up among the girl, her parents, Williams, and Williams' wife, Shernet. During the meeting, Shernet said, "I knew it. I knew something was going on. This is the same thing that happened in England," according to Anglin. Neither Shernet nor the teenager would speak to New Times, and the teen's father refused to comment. "I'm still trying to figure out what is going on," he said. "The father is usually the last to know, it seems."

After the meeting Anglin appointed himself Williams' guardian, checking in with him during the day to make sure he was staying out of trouble. "He didn't work during the day, he had all this free time," Anglin recalls. "So I would call and say, 'What are you doing? Where are you?'" Williams assured him he was staying out of trouble.

So when Ricky came forward with his allegation some three months later, Anglin was aghast. But the situation only got worse.

On Tuesday night, just 48 hours after Ricky had made his announcement, Edina Bayne noticed a man arriving in the middle of the 7:45 p.m. service at Grace Christian World Church. Usually dressed nattily, the man was wearing a baseball cap and khaki shorts. He roamed the church like a caged animal, causing Bayne to wonder, "Why is there no respect during worship here?" The man left the church, and several people followed him outside. Bayne, Ricky, and other parishioners say that the man had been searching for Williams. His wife, they say, had confessed that Williams made a pass at her. After going outside he went to his truck to get his gun but was calmed by fellow parishioners.

Bayne and McPherson were supposed to leave that Wednesday for an appearance in Georgia, but they canceled their trip and stayed on as mediators in the troubled church. They counseled Williams, telling him the proper way to hug female parishioners and warning that he should not be alone in a car with a woman other than his wife. "I asked him, 'Didn't you learn this at Bible college?' He said he didn't go," Bayne recalls.

Because the rumor mill was buzzing, McPherson suggested Williams call an emergency meeting Thursday night, four days after Ricky made his claim. Williams did so, meeting first with church leaders in the back office, according to Bayne and Anglin. There, they said, he confirmed rumors that he was having an affair with a 29-year-old married parishioner.

Williams then faced about 30 parishioners to answer questions. McPherson started the meeting by saying, "Something happened, and the pastor would like to speak to the members," recalls Bayne. "He said he had done some awful things that he is ashamed of."

A long-time parishioner recalls how she rose and asked, "Pastor, are you having an affair?" Williams admitted he was, she says. "Why? You have a beautiful wife. Why are you going around doing this?" she retorted. She also complained that young female parishioners were being placed in positions of authority in the church leadership -- a statement that provided the only comic relief of the night. Williams denied touching Ricky's daughter, however. McPherson advised that Williams seek treatment and appoint someone to supervise the church for a period of six months to a year. One parishioner suggested assistant pastor Michael Beerom, and Williams agreed. (Beerom refused to talk to New Times about Williams.)

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