Witch Hunt at New Mount Olive
For regulars at the Sunday service of Fort Lauderdale's New Mount Olive Baptist Church, the spiritual journey of Pastor Mack King Carter is as familiar as that of any biblical figure.
It begins in Ocala, Florida, in 1953, when, at the age of five, Carter says he became "a slave for Jesus Christ."
At Belleview-Santos, a segregated school in Ocala, the future ecclesiastic was an eager, attentive student intent on making his teachers proud. In the decades to follow he would remember their names and repeat their aphorisms for the New Mount Olive congregation.
To hear Carter rhapsodize about Ocala in those sermons today, it seems he wants to return to the city — not modern-day Ocala so much as the Ocala of his youth. Or of his parents' youth, when all the businesses on West Broadway, from Magnolia to 16th avenues, were owned by black families. It was home to the best black hotel in the state and one of the few black banks in the South. The black preachers bought their suits, hats, and shoes from Crompton's Dry Goods Store, until its black owner, Gibbs Crompton, died in 1959.
Carter had to leave Ocala to know how rare his experience there was. He studied at the University of Florida, delighting in classes like philosophy where he debated with prejudiced white classmates. He earned his doctorate of ministry degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and served as pastor at Green Castle Baptist Church in nearby Prospect, Kentucky. By 1980, it seems, Carter longed for a return to Florida. Judging by his writings, Carter had discovered an aching nostalgia for Ocala — a close-knit black community empowered by faith — at the same time he discerned disenfranchisement, self-hatred, and a lack of faith in the black communities he'd observed since leaving his hometown.
Watch a clip from one of Pastor Mack King Carter's sermons
He's long said it was "God's call," but maybe it was also Carter's hope to recreate an Ocala-like harmony that led him to Fort Lauderdale and New Mount Olive in 1981. The congregation, which since 1918 has gathered around NW 9th Avenue, just south of Sistrunk Boulevard, was the spiritual anchor for the African-American community, due in part to the steady hand of its senior pastor, Rev. George Weaver. In 1982, Weaver named Carter his successor. "For him to choose Pastor Carter was instant credibility," says Kenneth Mullins, a long-time New Mount Olive member. "We all accepted him instantly."
Carter's bombastic style was in marked contrast to the plain-speaking Weaver, and under Carter the congregation surged. It attracted new members, growing to around 9,000, making it the state's biggest black church, one with the resources to practice community activism in a low-income, crime-ridden section of the city. Carter's sermons would be telecast locally and internationally. With that high profile came political power, as well as the admiration of such celebrated figures as Aretha Franklin. She's been known to phone Carter and request a video of his sermons.
But along the way, Carter lost the faith of several of the church's most active members, a group of trustees who suspected him of violating church bylaws — possibly, taking more than his fair share of church funds. When in the summer of 2006 the trustees tried to investigate their suspicions, they say Carter suspended their activities and revised the church's constitution to give himself more power. Carter accused the group of doing the Devil's work.
With their conflict now spilling into Broward Circuit Court, things are bound to get uglier in the new year. The thousands who flock to New Mount Olive on Sunday mornings likely will have to choose sides. And no matter the outcome of the pending litigation, Carter's vision of a community bound together and strengthened by faith now seems further away than ever.
Dr. Mack King Carter is the most visible, powerful member of the New Mount Olive congregation, but the church's original bylaws sought a separation of power, giving the church's 25-member board of trustees something like a congressional function. The trustees would oversee the spending of church funds and, in theory, could block initiatives by the pastor that the board thought were not in the church's financial interests.
Kenneth Mullins' path to the New Mount Olive trustee board was typical. He started as a Sunday school teacher. "To see the faith of these children, that made me love church," says Mullins. "Then Dr. Carter told me, 'I'm going to recommend you to the trustee board.' I said, 'What's the trustee board?' "
He learned the board was made up of people like him — active church members willing to accept trustee chores on top of their full-time jobs. A professional then employed with a state utility, Mullins knew about dealing with bureaucracy. He would serve on a board that also had a county employee, a cop, a social service worker, and small business owners, who each brought their own expertise.
Tony Franklin owns a window treatment company in Oakland Park. He went from New Mount Olive Sunday school teacher to trustee beginning in 1995. His new role in the church, Franklin says, led him to see Carter in a new light. "Whenever there was a power struggle, it came about because the trustees disagreed about what the pastor wanted to do with the management of the church's assets."
Carter had a vision called the Family Life Center — a new campus to house a gymnasium for kids and classrooms for adult education. Carter believed the center would help New Mount Olive expand its mission to the community. No trustees questioned him; they just wanted to know how they were supposed to pay for a complex that, according to some estimates, might cost the church $23 million.
Trustees went looking for ways to trim the $3 million church budget, which led Mullins to a discovery that, due to built-in annual raises, New Mount Olive was paying some of its staff — like secretaries and bookkeepers — salaries out of proportion to their qualifications. Those cuts were easy to make. It was harder, says Mullins, to cut portions of the budget that involved Carter. About $450,000 was spent to televise Carter's sermons, which aired internationally on the Word Network and locally on WSVN. Eventually, the trustees would succeed in trimming $100,000 from that figure. Carter wasn't happy.
Trustees say that during a one-month period around 2001, Carter succeeded in getting his pay raised from about $100,000 to $200,000. He requested $400,000 to make up for having no equity in the church-owned home where he lived. And he asked for a $100,000 gift to help him make the down payment on a new house. The trustees gave him the $100,000 down payment but refused his request for $400,000.
On the Thursday evening of June 22, 2006, the New Mount Olive trustees joined other church officials for a meeting in the church chapel. With its wan lighting, bare white walls and seating for several dozen, the chapel sits across the corridor from the main sanctuary, where padded pews for several thousand face Carter's pulpit.
In the months before this meeting, relations between Carter and a segment of the trustees had grown even more strained.
Carter never attended the trustees' meetings. But Everett Howard, the church's administrator, represented Carter there. A group of trustees believed that Howard, at what they assumed was Carter's request, had circumvented the board of trustees in a few important financial decisions. He had, for instance, signed a contract with a cell phone company seeking to install a tower on New Mount Olive property. Some trustees argued that if they had known about the deal, they would have negotiated a better payout. The contract's execution, they said, violated church bylaws.
A more contentious issue was Howard's use of church funds to purchase land just east of the church to construct Carter's long-sought Family Life Center. The church still had not raised enough funds to build it. Trustees were incensed, not just because they weren't consulted, but because they say the church paid more than the land's assessed market value. A group of trustees sought to have Howard dismissed. But they say Carter stood in their way.
Howard declined to comment for this story. New Mount Olive attorney Eugene Pettis says he doesn't know whether Carter hired Howard or directed Howard to make contracts and land deals, but Pettis says that if the trustees objected to Howard's performance, they had the power to dismiss him.
Around the same time, trustees hunting for new revenue streams had begun asking questions about why the church's tape ministry reported such low sales. The tape ministry sells DVDs and VHS tapes of Carter sermons for $10, CDs for $7, and audio cassettes for $5. They're advertised during televised sermons and are available online, after Saturday and Sunday services, and at national conferences where Carter appears. "I was usually in the foyer (after service) and had the opportunity to view the transactions at the tape desk," says one former church activist. "Tape sales were very, very good every month. And you're telling me the tape ministry was only making $400 a month?"
For years the church's annual audits had been performed by Shawn Davis & Associates, a Hollywood-based firm whose managing partner, Davis, is a New Mount Olive member. No trustees accused Davis' firm of misconduct, but given their wariness about Carter's influence, a majority of trustees moved to hire Fort Lauderdale's Sharpton Brunson & Company, whose analysts had no relationship with the church, to perform an audit.
By the time of the June 22 meeting Sharpton Brunson had already been paid $5,000 by the church and were beginning to scrutinize the church's ledger. A more controversial matter was a motion made at that meeting by trustee Nathaniel Green, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who had a particularly acrimonious history with Carter. Green moved that the church prepare a retirement package for Carter, then 59, and begin to consider the way it would choose his successor.
Tony Franklin, a former trustee, sensed danger. Carter and his loyalists might interpret Green's motion as an indication that the trustees expected to find evidence of corruption, evidence which would force Carter to resign. Franklin guessed Carter would react explosively when he heard the news. He says he hoped to preserve some shred of civility between the trustees and Carter, if that was possible. Carter was out of town, but Franklin called the pastor that night. "I personally wanted to make sure that he heard correctly what happened at the meeting," says Franklin. He thought he had succeeded.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
But when the church itself falls on financial hard times, as it has for the last several years, these disparities create friction. Church members have heard calls from the pulpit requesting that they give 25 percent more than they have in the past, even as Carter staged a swanky gala, on November 10, to celebrate his 40-year anniversary as a pastor. About 400 Carter admirers attended the event, paying a ticket price of $75 each, which went to Carter, not his church.
"There's an element of greed that needs to be addressed in Mount Olive and how the monies that are donated to the church are being used — incorrectly, in a lot of instances," says Franklin. He doesn't fault Carter for holding private galas or for collecting a handsome salary, as other former trustees do. His concern is transparency: "I don't know for a fact that people are misappropriating funds. I just know that the way we're spending money is not the way God would have us do."
What's more, questions about how donated funds are used is likely to lead to fewer donations. Since the trustees board was replaced and Carter's conduct has been called into question, there are more empty seats on Sunday at New Mount Olive, say members.
One longtime member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the June 28, 2006, prayer meeting was the last straw. "Since that meeting, I'm not a regular at service," says the former churchgoer. "I've become disillusioned. I visit other churches."
Former trustees Mitchell and Franklin have also been jaded by recent events, but still attend. In sermons when Carter rails against conspirators trying to undermine the church, they know he's talking about them. "It's been a mentally stressful year-and-a-half," says Mitchell. "Draining." He feels ostracized from his church, he says.
Franklin hears the same sermons and knows that he's a target, but he trusts in his righteousness. "I study the Bible and I know that God uses whom he chooses to use," says Franklin. "And I know what a prophet is — and Dr. Carter is not a prophet. To label someone as an 'agent of the Devil' and to say someone is 'unsaved' — he's not qualified to say that."
Mullins, named as one of the plaintiffs in the suit, has been trying to reconcile his own drifting from the church with his family's growing attachment to it. "My daughter loves New Mount Olive," he says. "She was raised in Mount Olive and Pastor Carter knows her. He treats my kids very well; they're just so conflicted. They say, 'Dad, please don't say anything this week.' What are you going to do?
"As a family we have to worship, but where are we going to go?"
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