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House of Prayer suit alleges misuse of money, abuse of power

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Bishop C.M. Bailey.

A lawsuit in court Thursday casts unflattering light onto what it describes as the political infighting and private financial dealings of a secretive church with deep spiritual and economic ties to Charlotte.

The United House of Prayer for All People is known nationwide for the exuberant worship style of its congregations, along with its shout bands, mass baptisms with fire hoses, and the stone lions guarding the front doors of its sanctuaries.

But the lawsuit by Ronald Belton, a longtime House of Prayer evangelist who lives in Charlotte, focuses on what his attorney describes as the “absolute power” of the church’s top leaders, namely the presiding bishop and the widow of the former one.

Believers hold their leaders as intermediaries with God.

Belton’s complaint, however, describes Bishop C.M. “Daddy” Bailey and Deloris Beal “St. Lady” Madison in more secular terms, alleging that they have sole access to millions of dollars in annual church collections and profits, while exerting deep enough control of their members’ lives to wreck a man’s marriage and banish him from the church.

Belton’s lawsuit originally charged House of Prayer and its top two leaders with breach of contract, wrongful discharge and alienation of affections.

A month ago, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin agreed to the church’s request to be dropped from the case. He also threw out all of Belton’s claims except alienation of affections.

Robert Dortch of Charlotte, the church leaders’ attorney, “categorically denies” Belton’s remaining charge.

“We’ll argue our case Thursday morning and see what the court has to say,” he said this week.

Claim of wrongful firing

Belton, 57, a national evangelist and longtime leader with the House of Prayer, accuses presiding Bishop Bailey and the widow of Bailey’s predecessor of wrongfully firing him from his job and exiling him from the church.

He also says they then bribed Belton’s estranged wife into filing for divorce with the promise of paying for a house she was building near Augusta, Ga.

Among the other allegations:

• Belton says Bailey and Madison, the wife of former presiding Bishop S.C. “Precious Daddy” Madison, personally control tens of millions of dollars collected each year from the House of Prayer’s 151 churches, business interests and estimated 1.2 million members.

• The suit claims that millions of dollars of what’s collected flow into post office boxes in Charlotte. The city was established as one of the church’s major branches almost a century ago by the congregation’s founder, Bishop Charles Manual “Sweet Daddy” Grace.

Court filings include what appear to be church documents explaining how different types of money, from tithes to rents from church-owned property in Washington, D.C., are to be sent to specific post office addresses here.

The case file doesn’t include additional financial records supporting Belton’s allegations of the vast amounts of money involved, or his claim that some of the donations earmarked for church programs wind up instead in overseas accounts.

• Madison, the church’s longtime executive secretary before her marriage to the bishop in 1976, gave several million dollars to Belton’s wife, Gina Smith Belton, according to filings with the case.

Jurisdiction questioned

Thursday, the judge will hear arguments by church leaders to dismiss the case on the grounds that North Carolina courts have no jurisdiction over Bailey and Madison, who both live in the Washington, D.C., area.

Belton’s attorney, Paul McNeil, said the court should hear the case because of the church’s extensive holdings around Charlotte, including some 17 area churches, multifamily homes and a retirement center.

Mecklenburg County’s 2013 tax records indicate the House of Prayer owns property here valued at more than $15 million. Among its holdings: the 16,850-square-foot house on Sugar Creek Road where Bailey stays during visits to the Carolinas, as well as what formerly was the McDonald’s Cafeteria

on Beatties Ford Road.

While courts generally avoid getting involved in church affairs, McNeil says his client’s claims against the House of Prayer leaders should be heard.

“This is absolute power,” he said Tuesday. “You’ve never seen anything like this.”

Church’s massive growth

Sweet Daddy Grace, an immigrant from Cape Verde off the West African coast, built the first House of Prayer church in Massachusetts with his own hands in 1919. Over the next decades, his message of salvation became immensely popular among the waves of rural blacks moving to urban areas.

Grace soon established a major branch in Charlotte. Today, the church’s main headquarters in Washington is known as “God’s White House.”

The House of Prayer has had only four bishops. The third, Madison, a native of Greenville, S.C., launched a massive building campaign in the 1990s in which more than 80 percent of the congregation’s churches were either rebuilt or renovated. He also built apartment complexes, stores, and homes for the elderly.

Madison didn’t borrow a dime. Church leaders paid a Charlotte-based construction company more than $400 million to work on church projects across the country. Most of the company’s principals, including the former chairman of the Mecklenburg Democratic Party, later went to prison on charges that they tried to bilk the federal government out of millions in taxes.

According to Belton’s complaint, Madison’s health began to fail toward the end of his tenure. By 2005, according to the suit, he had become incompetent. His wife, Deloris, took over the operation of the church, using a rubber stamp with her husband’s signature to conduct business.

She used that stamp to position Bailey, then head of the church’s Augusta, Ga., district (where Belton’s wife served as his live-in cook) to succeed her husband, the suit claims.

Belton, who says he spent almost 40 years as a House of Prayer pastor and evangelist, served as an informal right-hand man to Bishop Madison. That, he says, put him in the church leadership’s inner circle.

At odds with the bishop

When Madison died in 2008 – his body was brought to Charlotte to lie in repose – Bailey was elected to take over. According to case records, the new bishop “resented Belton’s popularity throughout the church,” and came into office carrying a grudge.

According to the complaint, Bailey fired and excommunicated Belton in 2012 after accusing him of allowing a woman to walk too close to the bishop’s seat, which is considered sacred and known as his “holy throne.”

In 2009, the lawsuit says, the bishop first became aware of problems in the Belton marriage. Earlier this year, after Belton says he filed a complaint about his firing, Bailey and Madison visited Belton’s wife in Augusta. There, the suit claims, they urged Gina Belton to end her marriage and promised to pay for her new home once the divorce went through.

According to court filings, Belton’s ouster is not an isolated case. “Leaders in the church are commonly fired … and regularly excommunicated if they cross Bailey in any way.”

Researcher Maria David contributed

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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