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 parents can't get off work to attend a football game or a concert, they call Melton. When an old lady needs a father figure for her grandson, she also calls Melton. "It's a calling, a passion that I can't deny," says Melton. "Young people mean the whole world to me."

The same day he spoke to New Times, Melton had a doctor's appointment to see whether he'd be diagnosed with sleep apnea. He suspects his condition is work-related. "It distresses," he says. "My beard and hair turned white overnight."

The teens aren't always the humanitarian mission. Sometimes, they're the missionaries. Melton took a group of young people to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, to Jamaica to help the Maroon community, and most recently to the Dominican Republic, where they handed out toys to 5,000 children. The trips were all sponsored by New Mount Olive, which also gives out $125,000 in scholarships each year.

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

Still, for all that work, there's a sense in New Mount Olive that this generation of young people is slipping further away from the church — and few understand why. "In all honesty, it's a challenge, considering it's an older congregation and the neighborhood is changing," says Rev. James Adams.

Melton has a YouTube account he calls "mtoliveedge." He gives out scripture readings in iPod files. And this year he helped launch a hip-hop choir. "Our purpose is to help teenagers feel comfortable, reach out to those who can't make a connection," he says.

But he says he's not proselytizing, not a recruiter. "My role is not to turn over (church) members," says Melton. "It's to turn over leaders." In this sense, Melton hopes Carter becomes a role model to the young people who come through the church's programs. "They're beginning to understand that I function as a tentacle of the pastor," says Melton. Last month, the teenagers made a video thanking Carter and congratulating him on his 40th anniversary as a Baptist pastor.

At this stage in their case against Carter, the former trustees must prove "entitlement" — that the church's bylaws give them the right to review its financial records. Carter's side has argued that since the trustees were not corporate officers of New Mount Olive, they don't have that right.

Willie Jones, the attorney for the trustees, believes that he won this stage of the case after his October deposition of Selena Thomas, the octogenarian woman who kept financial records for the tape ministry, whose sales are supposed to go entirely to church coffers. "In my deposition of the chair of the tape ministry, she stated that she has never recorded any revenue that was earned," says Jones. "And [she said that] she gave those funds to the pastor's wife."

The transcripts of that deposition have not been printed or quoted in case filings, and Thomas did not return messages seeking comment. But Jones says her testimony under oath "is enough to establish an entitlement for an accounting. We don't know how much money the pastor and others may have received."

Carter's attorney, Pettis, says that Thomas testified to having kept receipts of purchases and giving them to the church treasurer, Ben Williams. (Pettis advised Williams to not comment for this story, as well as church administrator William Lyons.) Pettis says the tape ministry funds went directly to the church, not into the Carters' pockets. If there was faulty accounting in the tape ministry, says Pettis, the trustees had the power to correct it.

The former trustees have rejected Pettis' offer to let them view the most recent independent audits, which were filed in the case last month. Jones says his clients want a more comprehensive study of the church books than Pettis has produced. "What they did was furnish a sanitized audit that was done solely for the purposes of this litigation," he says. "The audits don't touch any of the money that Ms. Thomas says that she gave the pastor's wife." Last week, Jones filed a document in Broward Circuit Court alleging that Carter has collected "in excess of $17,800 in checks between 2002 and 2005 to his own use without approval from the church governing bodies."

The former bylaws allow for the spending of church funds for only three purposes: benevolence, missions, and for the needy. "The pastor is certainly not needy," says Jones. "He is certainly not benevolent. And he was already being fairly compensated" for his role in the church mission, with a salary that exceeds $200,000.

The elderly ladies wear their finest dresses and hats to New Mount Olive's Sunday service, but this congregation is far from wealthy — judging by the knackered sneakers their grandchildren wear to other church functions. This knowledge makes former trustees vigilant about how the church spends its members' money.

"I see my Sunday school kids coming with holes in their shoes," says Mullins. "They have no more than 25 cents to give."

Even the poorest congregations, however, are generous to their pastors, if only to show their appreciation and keep their spiritual leader from bolting for another congregation. Church members who take the bus to service don't necessarily begrudge Carter for cruising to the same service in a silver Mercedes.

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