Witch Hunt at New Mount Olive

Trustees at the state's biggest black church and its pastor are at odds – and heading for court.

But Kevin Mitchell, then chairman of the board, remembers getting a call on his cell phone that Saturday at a wedding reception. Carter was demanding to know on what grounds the trustees were asking him to retire. "I emphatically told him, that's not what the motion was and that was not the intent," says Mitchell.

Neither the assurances of Mitchell nor the pleas of Franklin could divert Carter from his course. The following day, June 25, 2006, Carter called his sermon "Witches Among Us." He would not name Mitchell, Green, or any other trustees. He didn't have to.

Willie Jones
C. Stiles
Willie Jones

Carter has burly shoulders and a thick, powerful frame from which he can unleash a bear-like roar. But he tends to work up to it slowly, first dipping his heavy brow, his face twitching in its effort to keep his temper restrained.

He began the "Witches Among Us" sermon in a matter-of-fact tone, until he came to this ominous remark: "When I was out of town at the National Congress (of Black Churches), some people got together and voted, for whatever reason, that the pastor needs to retire early."

Judging by the restless murmur that went through the church, the idea shocked Mount Olive members.

"This was not endorsed by me," said Carter, his voice rising an octave. Then he inhaled deeply to find a growling, gravelly place in his larynx. "It is a satanic attack. It is not of God."

Mitchell says that at this point in the sermon, he began to feel "physically sick." Franklin also listened with dread. This is exactly what he had hoped to avoid.

The pastor continued: "Dr. Carter has done nothing immoral or wrong. I haven't defrauded any man's house. I haven't stole a nickel from anybody. I've done nothing for 24 years but preach the gospel of Jesus Christ."

At this the congregation rose to its feet. Then Carter reminded churchgoers of a vision he'd had the previous January. "The Holy Ghost said, 'You are going to be attacked — and the major attacks are going to come within your leadership.' " Carter had a warning for his listeners. "Don't let the devil use you," he said, pausing so his gaze could travel wall to wall. "The Lord has a set time for every pastor to leave a church, and the Lord has not yet told me to go."

Three days hence, Carter explained, the church would have a "prayer meeting" to settle matters between pastor and trustees once and for all. Over a din of applause, Carter bellowed, "God is in charge. And he has everything under control."

Carter's is a tough act to follow. Franklin took the microphone before service's end and implored the congregation to read three pieces of scripture from the Book of Proverbs, the upshot of which was to not make up one's mind until the whole story was told.

Franklin, who attended his first New Mount Olive service in 1968, showed up early for the Wednesday prayer meeting of June 28, 2006. He and his grandson had made copies of the scripture he'd recommended to the congregation a few days before, and they handed them out as people filed into the sanctuary.

The meeting's first half-hour was led by the choir, Carter's voice following the bass line: Open that door / Let Him come in / He'll save your soul...

Dressed in a gray vest and short-sleeved dress shirt, Carter began with an analogy — how the Miami Heat won a championship not because Shaquille O'Neal was scoring but because he was passing the ball. "In these 24 years," said Carter, "I have been dishing the ball out. But let me say this: It ain't working well. The concept of my dishing out, it empowers people and it disempowers the pastor. And I'm here tonight to say that I'm not dishing any more."

The congregation gave him a standing ovation. Carter waited. "We must always be careful that leadership positions we hold do not become principalities and powers," Carter said. "They become like black holes. And good people walk into those black holes and it transforms them as agents of Satan."

Carter asserted his claim to the church's governance and informed the congregation that "I will come back in six weeks, and we're going to restructure our boards and also the church council." He closed by asking for a motion.

Deacon Chuck Morton, also an assistant state attorney, rose. "My motion is that we should prohibit the trustee board and the advisory council from meeting again or taking any further action" — here, Morton was interrupted by another standing ovation. "In other words, a moratorium... until Dr. Carter comes back with his recommendations for us to decide how (the church government) should be structured."

Dr. C.P. Preston, a moderator asked that all who supported Morton's motion stand, and nearly all did. It passed.

Preston, an Ocala minister and close friend of Carter's, did not ask if anyone else wished to speak. But when he opened the floor to questions, Franklin stepped before the congregation.

He looked out onto a rowdy audience, still churning from Carter's and Morton's call to action. As Franklin began, in a faltering way, to say that there is more than one side to the story, boos, hisses, and jeers flew down on him until he had to drop the microphone to his side and wait as Preston asked the crowd to "keep the order — this is God's house."

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