Witch Hunt at New Mount Olive

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

When he resumed, Franklin said that the vote to suspend the trustees violated the church's constitution. An audience member shouted that Franklin should be fired. "You can't fire me," Franklin answered. "I'm an unpaid volunteer." A visibly dejected Franklin said half-heartedly, "I guess I'm finished," getting his only round of applause.

Nathaniel Green grabbed the microphone, and he too was shouted down. Another former trustee, Mullins, remembers the prayer meeting as "the closest thing I've seen to a lynch mob." Yet another trustee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "I've been going to Mount Olive church since 1943 when my mother carried me there. I never thought I would see that kind of behavior in church. I was in awe. I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of a riot."

The month after the meeting, church business ground nearly to a halt. Carter was on vacation. The trustees had sought out an attorney, Willie Jones, of Delray Beach.

Dr. Mack King Carter's explosive sermons galvanize Mount Olive members, but he hurls his hottest invective at former trustees.
Courtesy of Nathaniel Green/New Mount Olive Tape Ministry
Dr. Mack King Carter's explosive sermons galvanize Mount Olive members, but he hurls his hottest invective at former trustees.
Dr. Mack King Carter
Courtesy of Nathaniel Green/New Mount Olive Tape Ministry
Dr. Mack King Carter

A week before their scheduled meeting of August 9, 2006, trustees sued Carter on the grounds that his moratorium was illegal. They asked the court to protect their rights under the church's bylaws.

For all Carter's theatrics about a satanic attack, the trustees who filed suit suspect it was a red herring. His real objection, they contend, was to a more thorough audit of church finances. Jones sent a letter to the New Mount Olive attorney promising that his clients, the trustees, would drop their suit and resign their posts if Carter would only allow Sharpton Brunson to resume their audit.

Carter's side refused the terms. Carter then assembled the congregation on August 9, announcing the creation of a "ministry of directors" that would take the place of the board of trustees. Each member would meet with Carter in advance of his appointment to that ministry. Jones says it effectively gives Carter the right to fill the church leadership with loyalists. Pettis, Carter's attorney, denies this, saying that only the congregation itself has final authority on selection to church positions.

A new church constitution was also unveiled and in it, Carter saw his powers dramatically increased. But those like Deacon Morton, who was involved in its drafting, say that the differences are exaggerated by disgruntled former trustees. "The first document was vague and ambiguous in terms of checks and balances," says Morton. Pettis says that the constitution was re-drafted to make church governance more "efficient."

Dr. Mack King Carter and his wife, Patricia, both declined to comment for this story, even to answer questions about the considerable good works New Mount Olive does in its community. If the allegations against Carter are true, however, it could jeopardize the church's status as the neighborhood's moral authority. For those who work on the front lines, on Sistrunk Boulevard and in some of Fort Lauderdale's most troubled schools, their jobs would be that much harder.

Rev. James Melton is known there — and around church corridors — as "Crunch." Tall, with broad shoulders and a snow-sprinkled beard, he is a mountain of a man, an impression heightened by his slow, rolling gait, deep voice, and solemn expression. He earned his nickname as a New Jersey high school football star, then took it to the University of Alabama football team. And it has lasted long into his career as a youth counselor, where "Crunch" is somehow less intimidating than "Reverend Melton." "For young people, it's a relationship," says Melton of the nickname. "And my life is about access."

Melton worked with at-risk youth at a social service agency in Cleveland before coming to New Mount Olive 15 years ago. "In Cleveland, white people were paying me a salary to work with black people," Melton says. As that nagged at him, he started looking for a black Christian congregation that could hire him. New Mount Olive, he said, was one of the few in the nation with a full-time position for a youth minister. "I think Dr. Carter had this burning desire to see young people nurture and grow in their faith and in their lives," says Melton. "But he pretty much left the design to me, because it's my expertise." When Melton went to Carter for advice, he says, the pastor told him, "That's what I hired you for."

Melton is largely oblivious to the conflict between his pastor and the former trustees. He puts his loyalty squarely behind the pastor who gave him a job. In all his church activities, Melton says he's never encountered the former trustees involved in the conflict.

According to Melton, about 250 teenagers come through New Mount Olive in any given week — most of whom are students at Dillard High School and Arthur Ashe Middle School. The schools received FCAT grades of D and F, respectively, for 2007, and posted some of Broward County's highest statistics for disciplinary actions.

"Our philosophy is that when school is out, church is in," says Melton. He puts an emphasis on "student leadership" for young people who fall into three categories: "middle-of-the-road," "at-risk," and what Melton calls "hardcore." No one expects miracles — it's enough to turn a hardcore into a middle-of-the-road — but some do happen. Melton remembers a teenaged girl who was referred to the church by her friend. "We did not know the severity of the abuse she was having at home," says Melton. "She joined the church, got a scholarship, and went to college. That's one kid, but that's the kind of salvation the church offers."

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