Preying on the Congregation
Dozens of worshipers packed the Sunday-night service at Grace Christian World Church last December to hear the words of a visiting minister who had traveled all the way from Montreal. The members' dress was more casual than that of the morning churchgoers, their attitudes more relaxed. The evangelical Christians had come to the storefront church in Lauderhill for some old-fashioned teachings from the Gospel, a sermon on hope and faith, soul-lifting music, and healing from the minister.
But Letitia McPherson's words were a bit unconventional that night. Something drove the minister to scrap her prepared sermon and preach on the topic of sexual indiscretion within churches, according to Edina Bayne, McPherson's assistant pastor, who recently recalled what happened that evening. McPherson, she said, quoted passages from Genesis 49 -- in which Jacob chastises one of his sons for sleeping with concubines. Stedroy Williams, pastor of the Lauderhill church, held his head in his hands. A married father of three, Williams, age 39, had founded the ministry in 1992.
After finishing her sermon, McPherson, with microphone in hand, began her altar ministry, urging parishioners to come up front for prayer and healing. Williams, meanwhile, left the church to drive visitors from a work-release program in Pompano Beach back to their prison. Well after Williams had exited, McPherson spotted a man in the back of the church who appeared to be agitated.
"Are you angry?" she shouted to the man. "Come forward, brother, I need to pray for you."
At first he ignored McPherson. But ten minutes later, McPherson turned around to find him standing in front of her, his face a stern mask. "I came here for one purpose tonight," he uttered into the microphone, calmly and deliberately. "I came here to kill someone."
Everyone knew the man, who had been a member of the church for more than a year. But no one had a clue as to what he was talking about.
"You're not going to kill anybody," said McPherson.
"Yes I am," he replied, "I'm going to kill him."
Bayne said that McPherson continued talking to the man in an attempt to calm him. "I don't know what this is about, but you're not going to do that," she said. "I'm going to pray for you. You have to change your agenda."
Then came the man's stunning allegation. "What do you do with such a one?" he asked, referring to Williams. "What do you do with someone who has molested your daughter?"
McPherson quickly handed the microphone to the assistant pastor, Michael Beerom, and ushered the man into the back office, according to Bayne. Beerom stood there, dumbfounded, she said. Then one of the church's two singers grabbed the mic and started singing a favorite hymn of the church, one that turned out to be somewhat prophetic: "No Weapon Formed Against Me Shall Prosper."
In the office the man told McPherson that, on the previous night, his nine-year-old daughter had told him that Williams had molested her about a year earlier. The father immediately filed a police report, he told McPherson, then drove to Williams' house and confronted the pastor, who denied the allegation. "But he couldn't look me in the eyes," says the man, who talked to New Times on the condition that only his first name, Ricky, be used, in order to shield the identity of his daughter.
Ricky says he left Williams alone that night, but the more he thought about what his daughter had told him, the more his blood boiled. So the next night he went to the church with his brother to take care of Williams.
As it turned out, the police report, which was filed in Lauderhill, did not lead to a single charge. In fact Williams has not been charged with any crime thus far, and the Lauderhill police have officially closed their investigation into the girl's claims.
But Ricky's public accusation that December night brought to light what members of the Grace Christian World Church see as a troubling pattern of transgressions on the part of the pastor. For some it confirmed what had been rumored for years and was the latest example of a national phenomenon: church leaders preying upon parishioners, using positions of trust and respect to take advantage of women sexually. For others the allegations, if they are true, show how vulnerable members of a small, independent church are. Williams' operation is regulated neither by government nor a church council. He's literally running a "one-man show," according to Bayne, who adds, "It's scary."
Edina Bayne did not set out to bring Stedroy Williams down. She and McPherson were invited to Grace Christian World Church, where they found themselves reluctantly embroiled in strife. In fact Bayne wonders why the scandal couldn't have broken "two weeks earlier or two weeks later." But she thinks she knows the reason. God, she believes, wanted her and McPherson to stop Ricky from killing Williams and to expose what was going on inside the Lauderhill parish.
In addition to her role as assistant pastor of Restoration Ministries in Montreal, Bayne, age 49, is a businesswoman and a prominent Montreal activist on black and women's issues. She is a former director of the Black Coalition of Quebec, cofounder of Quebec Says No to Violence Against Women, and a member of human rights committees investigating racial issues at Montreal City Hall and in the police department. A native of Trinidad, she was raised by her father; her mother died when she was four years old. "My father was a wonderful mother," she says, laughing in her throaty, Caribbean-accented voice. "That's where I developed a healthy respect for men."
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."
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.
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."
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.)
Another meeting was scheduled for the following night, to resolve unfinished business. But that Friday night, as McPherson and Beerom met with parishioners, Williams telephoned and said he was calling from New Jersey, according to Bayne. He told Beerom to take "my people" into the back office, without the Montreal ministers, and put him on the speakerphone. There he told a group of 20 people to stop the meeting, according to Anglin. He accused the ministers from Montreal of making up stories to try to take away his church. Williams then hung up, and a heated argument broke out between parishioners who supported Williams and those who still wanted help from the Montreal ministers.
"They were arguing, fingers were pointing," recalls Bayne. "Pastor McPherson said to the people, 'I don't want to destroy your church, I don't want to split your church.' One woman was in tears, and she kept saying, 'These ministers are here to help us. They are here to help us!'"
After the meeting ended in a stalemate, the Montreal ministers left for good, as did many parishioners, including Anglin, who took his musical instruments with him. "I felt so let down," he recalls. "I thought, initially, 'Here's a man who's fallen, and I'm going to be there for him, to help him and the victim.' I've lost all respect for the man."
He would have lost that respect sooner if his wife, Dez, had told him what Williams allegedly did to her a year earlier. She says Williams twice made passes at her when his secretary was gone and they were alone in the church office. Once, she says, he grabbed her, pushed her against the wall and tried to kiss her and touch her breast. "He said, 'You have nice legs,' and 'I know you want this,'" she says. "Then he called me Bathsheba, who is beautiful."
Dez Anglin says she pushed Williams away and he apologized, saying, "Don't tell your husband, he'll kill me." So she didn't, but she now regrets remaining quiet.
"I thought I was the first person he did this to," she says. "And I felt bad for his wife and kids. But now I have guilt. If I had spoken out, maybe all these other girls wouldn't have been hurt."
The type of allegations made against Williams are, by no means, uncommon. Sexual scandals involving religious leaders make headlines so frequently they're hardly news anymore. Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, priests accused of pedophilia. While these kinds of indiscretions have been going on for centuries, until recently they were kept in the closet, according to theology professor Dwight Hopkins, who has studied black churches. These days American society, in particular, is less tolerant of sexual misconduct and adultery. "The climate has changed," Hopkins says. "The press had a tacit agreement with JFK not to report on his indiscretions. But with Bill Clinton, it's different. These things are less tolerated by the general public now."
And with good reason, he notes. Religious leaders, like psychologists and doctors, are in positions of trust; people turn to them for comfort and help in moments of extreme need and vulnerability. The temptation is too much for some pastors, but to violate that trust is beastly, according to Hopkins, who says he always leaves his door open when talking to a woman in his office. "I am conscious of my power," he adds.
Hopkins feels that a pastor who has sex with his parishioners should be removed from the church and prosecuted. But while it is a crime in Florida for licensed professionals -- psychologists, doctors, even physical trainers -- to have sex with their clients, it is not illegal for clergy to have sex with adult parishioners. Dennis Nicewander, an assistant state attorney in Broward County, notes that, because of the constitutional separation of church and state in this country, "pastors don't go through the same licensing -- although psychologists are pretty close to pastors."
Williams, of course, has not been convicted of a crime, nor has he been formally charged. But he faces serious allegations made by his own parishioners. A reporter stopped by Williams' church on two consecutive Sunday mornings in an attempt to talk with him. The first time, Williams called the reporter outside before the service began. In the parking lot, with Beerom beside him, the pastor denied the existence of a police report containing allegations made by Ricky's nine-year-old daughter. When the reporter said she had a copy of the report in her car, he grew angry.
"A man is innocent until proven guilty," he hollered as Beerom pulled him away and told him to calm down. "Do you see any chains on me?" he asked, clapping one wrist across the other. He then threw his arms to the sky and looked up. "Only Jesus can judge me," he bellowed. "Mrs. McPherson is a devil! We solve our problems inside the church."
Williams and Beerom then asked the reporter to leave, saying, "We have no story for you."
The reporter returned the following Sunday to talk to parishioners. As she was conversing with mechanics at the auto body shop next door, Williams and two men came out of the church and sped toward her. "Why are you harassing my people?" the pastor roared. "Why don't you leave me alone? I'm going to pray for you." He then threatened to call the police.
Telephoned at his home, Williams was again angry. Asked about the numerous allegations made against him, including those regarding the teenage girl, he said, "What?! I know nothing of these allegations. This is getting sickening."
When he was asked why anyone would make up such stories, Williams said, "This is a cruel world."
The next day he telephoned the female reporter, and his tone was radically different.
"I had a dream about you last night," he said melodiously. "God spoke to me last night. I saw you singing. You have a very beautiful voice. You need to take your talents and use them for God.
"I'm very influential in the community," he added. "Have you been listening to my radio show?"
When Letitia McPherson and Edina Bayne returned to their church in Montreal last December, they thought they'd heard the last of Stedroy Williams. They were wrong.
The week before the two women had traveled to South Florida, Williams served as visiting minister at their church. He'd been recommended by a pastor from another church, and Restoration Ministries paid the expenses for the ten-day trip, which included a stay at the posh Ruby Foo's Hotel in Montreal.
The day after she returned to Restoration Ministries, McPherson received a phone call from a distraught parishioner named Carleen Gardener. The 26-year-old married woman said Williams had sexually harassed her during his visit. Gardener later told New Times she had turned to Williams for help with a personal problem. He offered to talk with her that evening, she recalled, but said she would have to pick him up at his hotel because he didn't want to pay for a cab.
When she arrived at Williams' room, Gardener said, he asked her to wait a couple minutes while he brushed his teeth. Leaving the bathroom he sat down on one twin bed and Gardener sat on another. He got up to give her a hug, she recalled, and then put his hand on her breast. "You want this, I can tell," he allegedly told Gardener, adding that he hadn't had sex in three weeks.
Williams then apologized, according to Gardener, saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, the devil is trying to get the best of me."
A week later, while the Montreal ministers were in Lauderhill, Williams called Gardener's house and urged her not to tell her pastor about what he had done, Gardener said. He claimed it would destroy both his ministry and her pastor's, she added. At that point Gardener was having trouble sleeping and she frequently cried, so she sought a therapist. Later her therapist, her pastor, and her husband urged Gardener to go to the police. On January 27 she filed a sexual-assault complaint against Williams with the Montreal police department.
After reviewing statements made by Gardener, the attorney general will decide whether or not to question Williams, according to Montreal police officer Christian Emond. The penalty for sexual assault varies, he says, depending on the severity of the attack. As late as last week, Emond could not say when a decision would be made.
Gardener, it appears, is not the only Canadian complaining about Williams. Maureen Mitchell, another parishioner at Restoration Ministries, says he made several inappropriate gestures, in the church office and at a restaurant with other parishioners present. He invited her to his hotel room, repeatedly asked for her phone number, and once grabbed her by the back of the neck, she claims.
Since Mitchell, age 28, joined Restoration Ministries, many outside ministers have visited the church and not one has acted "overly friendly" like Williams, she says. After hearing about Gardener's alleged difficulties, Mitchell was relieved she did not go to Williams' hotel room. "She's a new Christian, and she didn't know any better," she says of Gardener. "I wish I could grab that man by the throat."
While Montreal police are still investigating allegations made against Williams, Lauderhill police have closed their case involving Ricky's nine-year-old daughter. Spokesperson Lucy Crockett says charges weren't filed against Williams because the incident allegedly took place six to nine months before it was reported, and therefore no physical evidence exists. "It's a case of it's her word against his word," she says. "However, we have offered counseling to the girl through our victim advocate."
Nicewander, the assistant state attorney, says that prosecuting a relatively old case of sexual child abuse is a thorny issue. "We get cases presented to us by police departments all the time," he adds. "They're called 'not in custody' cases, where the police don't have corroboration, and they don't believe they have probable cause but want us to look over the case."
Ricky's daughter's case would fall into that category. According to the Lauderhill police report, Williams was baby-sitting the girl at the time of the alleged incident. He brought her to Grace Christian World Church with him to let someone in. She said he took her into the back office and started touching her rear end, then pressed up against her and gyrated his hips. On the drive back, she said, Williams pulled into a parking lot and asked if he could touch her breasts. She said she told him yes because "Stedroy is her pastor and she was afraid to say no to him," according to the police report.
In a taped statement, Williams gave police a different version of events. He denied making advances. He did pull into a parking lot, he said, but that was because the girl said she needed to talk to him. She cried as she told him her cousin had touched her inappropriately and that another man had exposed himself to her, Williams said. Offering comfort, he hugged her for two minutes.
Child-molestation cases are particularly challenging because, short of providing physical evidence, an attorney has only the complainant's testimony on which to rely. Ricky says he believes his daughter, despite Williams' denials. "Why would my daughter lie?" he asks. His daughter is fine, he adds, but he worries that she may have lasting emotional scars. "I didn't get any satisfaction from the police."
Williams may be suffering, however. Attendance at his church has been steadily shrinking since the December fallout, according to parishioners. And the pastor has temporarily stepped down from the pulpit, allowing Beerom to fill in. He's still running the ministry, however, and he attends every service and never made good on his promise to get treatment, parishioners say. "He said it was too expensive," says one former member of the church who recently left after attending for seven years.
Williams also continues to deliver fiery sermons Monday through Friday during a ten-minute radio show for which he buys time on WEXY-AM (1520), an all-religious station. The show serves a vital purpose, says a former church singer, in luring new parishioners into the fold. During a recent broadcast, Williams sounded like he was gearing up for a battle worthy of King David to save his church.
"God has given us the spirit of vengeance," he boomed in early February. "Before we can fight a war, we must understand what we are fighting . There are a lot of people who are out there to destroy. But you and I have been given the power of God to fight against the kingdom of darkness."
Ricky doesn't go to Grace Christian World Church anymore. He now attends a larger Pentecostal church in the area, the Plantation Worship Center, where he feels his family is safe. He says he's almost sorry McPherson stopped him from killing Williams that Sunday night in December. He won't say how he would have done the job, only that he did not bring a gun with him.
"I'm from Jamaica," he says, "and when something like this happens there, we take care of it ourselves."
Contact Julie Kay at her e-mail address:
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.