Prosperity gospel. You started hearing those two words associated with large churches in the South a few years ago. Pretty quick it got to be more popular than “fire and brimstone,” and why not? The carrot works better than the stick. Prosperity gospel made a sad story out of something that most Black Southern boys experienced, suggested to us that maybe our financial problems were due not just to our failings in this world but also in the next. I grew up in what was a normal Southern Baptist congregation for the most part, on the west side of Charlotte. We had a pastor who let his own hubris nearly destroy a church started by freed slaves in 1857. You can figure out who he is, if you want to search the Internet for about thirty seconds. I won’t call out his name.
I was in high school when the world’s economy started to disintegrate thanks to … maybe you can call it banking addiction. You always hear about how addictive crack is, and how it’s the natural consequence of “gateway drugs,” but what is the mortgage-backed security if it isn’t the glass pipe of the financialized economy? Hell, you might have to be high the regular way to think doing that stuff was a good idea. Doesn’t matter. People were losing their jobs left and right in my community.
Around the same time, my pastor stood in front of us and acknowledged the local news that he had been charged with tax evasion and wire fraud. In his five-feet-tall glory, he started singing the blessing God would put over the situation:
“OH-HH oh-hh OH-HH GOD-DDD WILL-LLLL! MAKE A WAY-YYYY! FAVOR! INCREASE! OVERFLOW!”
It was similar to an appeal he made to the church one Sunday in 2004 after the IRS seized our Chevy Express passenger vans and a 60 passenger coach bus from the parking lot:
“Uh- God will uh- make a way uh- he will make a way uh- that the IRS uh- WILL HAVE TO PAY US!”
Both times, a large group of the congregation roared and danced to the organ and drums. I was there to lay witness to it, but I wasn’t surrounded by as many true believers the second time around. Cracks were forming in the hull of the congregation’s ship, and I don’t believe anybody in that room could’ve predicted a car would be what nearly broke the ship into pieces.
Yes, a car—but not just any car, a 2006 Maybach 57. An automobile based on the excess of the period that manifested into a $360,000+ joke. The joke played on our church was even bigger in the grand scheme of things. But the peak comedy started on a Wednesday night bible study when the Bishop mentioned the Maybach the first time.
At the time Beck Imports was our small-town Mercedes dealer situated along Independence Boulevard for years. They had a small showroom tacked onto their building in 2004 for the arrival of Maybach. This particular week the Bishop had a speaking engagement in Wilmington, which meant he had to travel Independence Boulevard on his way there. He’d had a relationship with the dealership over the years and decided to stop by. To an audience of admiring Baptists, he retold the story of how The Lord told him to stop and led him to the double brown exterior of the Maybach in its circular showroom:
“The Lord put it in my spirit to have Brother Smith stop the car and look.”
An older member of the congregation stood up and yelled:
“Oh Lord yes! We should get that ‘May-backer’ for Bishop!”
My mother had heard enough. I saw her squirm, visibly angry for about five minutes, and then we stood up and left the pew. She nearly dragged me to the car moving so quickly. We got about a mile away from the church in her used BMW 545i before she calmly said:
“This mother … must be crazy as hell. And that … must be out her mother … mind talkin’ bout ‘we should get that car for bishop’ with her dumb ass.”
I’d thought religion was intended to eviscerate those types of sentiments from someone’s soul. But there they were.
The Maybach appeared in the Bishop’s parking space behind the church a couple weeks later. As soon as I saw it, I realized they suckered the Bishop into buying the unsellable Fifty-Seven they’d had in the showroom for a while. It was a dual tone of light browns that no one wanted; I had seen that very car about six weeks, before on a Saturday outing with my father.
My dad is a ridiculously frugal man, so he’d almost choked when he saw the $360,000+ MSRP on the sticker. Later when retelling the outing to my mother and explaining the price tag, she wasn’t too enthused about the marque or the car. This is a woman that once owned a W140 S600 on an executive assistant’s salary. A Benz true believer. Yet this didn’t seem impressive enough to her to cost as much as it did. She reiterated that point every week when we saw it parked at the church.
One of those weeks, the Bishop pulled me aside after service. He knew I had a pretty wide-cast net when it came to knowledge of automobiles, and he had questions about functions on the Maybach. That conversation turned into a trip to his house.
Ah, the Bishop’s home, it wasn’t just any house, it was a large monstrosity situated on the bank of Lake Norman with two three-car garage bays and an elevator. The house was exquisite, and it should have been since it originally was lived in by a much more famous minister, deceased NFL star Reggie White. I arrived in my father’s Dodge Ram. The Bishop’s personal valet (a member of the church) parked the truck out of the way in the driveway after I exited.
I met the Bishop in front of the open garage doors and walked around the massive but familiar Mercedes product within. It was late 2007 and I was barely even old enough to be driving on my own. I pointed out minute details and functions all over the car and the Bishop seemed pleased. I was uneasy, my parents were very hard working people and it was obvious to me they couldn’t even afford our middle-class existence. Yet, here I was sitting in the back of a Nappa-leather-and-Alcantara-lined cocoon of luxury with the person who has told me all of my young life that The Lord will provide if you’re steadfast in your belief and giving. It was clear there was a disconnect going on here but at the time I didn’t want to actually see it.
What I didn’t know was the same week a special agent from the IRS had walked into the Bishop’s funeral home and questioned him. Apparently, The IRS had already been paying extra attention to the Bishop for months. I always assumed the Maybach was his “Frank Lucas in chinchilla” moment, but it was actually an anonymous letter from a member of the church’s board that started it. At the same time another pastor of another Black congregation was heading to jail on similar offenses that eventually led to a further investigation of our Bishop. It showed how for years he’d pilfered all of the money the church had until it was eventually 5 million dollars in debt and bankrupt.
The next Sunday, the Bishop mentioned my house call to the congregation. I felt dread in my heart as he recounted the moment when I’d pointed out the Maybach emblems etched into the headlights. I was embarrassed further when his wife showed up to the church the next week behind the wheel of a Bentley Continental GTC. She said it was my (half-joking) advice that led her to buy it.
The IRS was breathing down his neck and the church’s finances were in a tailspin, but that didn’t stop a Rolls-Royce Phantom from appearing behind the church one Sunday. The Bishop and his wife started some appearances of their own after that—in court. The most faithful sheep in the congregation flooded into the Federal courthouse to show their support. Some of them had to beg a ride to court, because they didn’t have enough money to own a car.
Eventually, the Bishop got what he deserved, but he left us all a bankrupt shell of a church. He served his 8 years then came right back to Charlotte. Morris, a sales manager I worked with in a Nissan store who moonlighted as a minister brought me up to speed:
“You know who I ran into the other day? Somebody you should know real well.”
“J*******t, you know he got out a few months ago.”
“I didn’t actually.”
“Yeah him and H*****t got a new church and everything.”
“What was he driving?”
I left the sales tower rather than continue the conversation. How a Maybach 57 and a Phantom, and countless other cars become a Passat is just another cautionary tale of greed and corruption. Yet he shone as bright as the sun for a moment at least on those streets, trapped in the seductive power of his own mantra:
“Breakthrough! Increase! More than enough!”