With each sheet she wrapped around her body that day, the crowd roared for “Prophetess” Juanita Bynum.
At the singles’ conference, sponsored by fellow evangelist T.D. Jakes, Bynum spoke to her audience in plain, smoky-nightclub language about her battle with the flesh and her longing for a husband. The bedsheets represented all the empty sex she’d had with men.
“Why am I not married?” she cried. “But I find it very difficult to listen to anybody preach to me about being single when they got a pair of thighs in [their] bed every night … and you keep telling me to ‘Hold on, honey, stay there by yourself’ … and you goin’ home to big old muscles and thighs? … I wanna hear ‘hold on’ from somebody that knows my struggle!”
Her sermon that day in 1997 culminated with what she said was a dropping of the sheets, signaling that she was repentant, done with premarital sex and ready for a man delivered by none other than the Holy Ghost.
“I don’t wanna be disillusioned, I want a man of God, a praying man … a man that loves his mama and respects his sisters. … Say ‘Yeah!’ ” she hollered.
The predominantly female audience hollered back.
To understand the powerful appeal of Juanita Bynum as a leading Pentecostal figure, one has to look back to that moment. And perhaps to understand why the alleged beating she took from her estranged husband last week in a hotel parking lot seemed to shock her legions of fans, one has to look back to the “No More Sheets” sermon.
From that expression of yearning she has built a vast, lucrative ministry based on the dueling notions of need and empowerment: Women need to be strong, self-respecting and self-sufficient, but only in doing so will they attract a heaven-sent man.
Her marriage to Bishop Thomas W. Weeks seemed, at least on the surface, to be a literal testimony to that. Though both pastored their own churches, they founded and co-pastored Global Destiny Church in Duluth.
But now that Weeks is charged with aggravated assault and making terroristic threats against Bynum, some of her fans are being taught a lesson about fairy tales, some say.
“It’s a very romantic notion, but the romance rarely matches the reality,” said Renita Weems, former Cosby professor of humanities at Spelman and an ordained minister.
Her ‘life is her message’
Bynum, 48, was born in Chicago and reared in the charismatic Church of God in Christ, a denomination that has a history of female evangelists. She married in her early 20s but within a few years divorced.
After years of moving from being a beautician to a Pan Am flight attendant to joblessness and food stamps, she came into the Pentecostal ministry herself. Her messages drew from her struggles as a single black woman trying to find a “good brother” in the 1990s.
At the time it was a lament that fueled such books as Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale,” Pearl Cleages’ “What Seems Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” and dozens of articles in black women’s magazines. The statistics seemed to echo their concern: in 1996 on the eve of “No More Sheets,” nearly a fifth of all black women between 40 and 44 had never been married.
Then, in stepped Bynum with her blunt, down-to-earth and at times raw sermon, which was later released on VHS by Jakes’ ministry.
“I wouldn’t say her preaching or her theology is revolutionary, it’s actually conservative and fundamental from her interpretation of the Bible,” Weems said. “But living a promiscuous life, it’s not that women haven’t heard that message, it’s just they’re not accustomed to women in ministry admitting to that in the pulpit.”
Weems and other clergy and observers say Bynum took a page from the marketing book of male mega-church ministers such as Jakes, who was on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “Is This Man the Next Billy Graham?”
Bynum began to write books and to record CDs, and as her popularity grew, her sermons were picked up by the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Her church in Hempstead, N.Y., grew. Her faith-based conferences across the country drew thousands.
“Juanita’s life is her message,” said Valerie Bridgeman Davis, associate professor of Hebrew Bible and homiletics at Memphis Theological Seminary.
“From the purely rhetorical perspective, the sister can tell a story. She can weave the biblical text into the human story. Jakes does this well too, providing a hope that’s beyond an ordinary hope, it’s a God-laden hope. You hook them into believing it’s a story about them.” Once the audience is hooked, “you’ll buy their book, you’ll buy their CDs and you’ll show up wherever they are,” Bridgeman Davis said.
Yet Bridgeman Davis and other clergy say they believe Bynum is genuine in her message. Her fans agree.
Renee Mayo, 49, of Atlanta has followed Bynum’s career for years. She still has a VHS copy of “Sheets,” and for a time got her hair done at the same Atlanta salon as Bynum.
Mayo, who is single, said some evenings after work she’ll come home and watch one of Bynum’s sermons on TBN.
“Something she’ll say will stand out as though she’s speaking to me,” Mayo said. “I’ve been in a relationship before where I’ve been hurt too. I can feel she has an anointing. She’s changed a lot of lives.”
A celebrity couple
So when Bynum announced she would marry the lesser-known Weeks, to her fans it seemed the fulfillment of her word.
It was the sort of New York wedding that made Star Jones’ seem modest: an orchestra, a billowing white veil, a crystal-encrusted gown, a wedding party that numbered in the scores, a diamond ring that hovered around 8 carats. Bynum has said the entire event, which was televised on TBN, cost more than $1 million.
The wedding seemed then like a coda to “Sheets.” Here was a Christian woman who’d admitted to sleeping around and living off men, but who turned her life around by being obedient to God and the reward for obedience was a God-fearing and God-preaching man. For her legions of fans, it seemed the ultimate if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too moment. Particularly in the evangelical community, they became a celebrity couple, the Bishop and the Prophetess.
But marriage between two pastors is rarely a fairy tale, said the Rev. Cynthia L. Hale, pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur. There is always the subtle competition to see who gets the most amens, she said. And in recent years, it was whispered among clergy that there was tension in the Bynum-Weeks union.
“In our profession you’re only as good as your last sermon,” Hale said. “And Juanita is very gifted. So there’s a lot of ego involved. Who’s preaching better? Who’s got the attention of the people. The question is, who is THE pastor?”
On Friday, Hale said, she got a call from one of her female congregants, upset over what happened to Bynum in the parking lot. Hale said she gently explained that while it was fine to appreciate an individual for their gift, exalting the person can only lead to disappointment.
The Rev. Lisa Rhodes, dean of Sisters Chapel at Spelman, said the episode may be as stark a message to Bynum’s following as “Sheets,” that even women in the church deal with violence against them from the men they love. And that staying in those relationships is not healthy.
But Hale said she thinks that when Bynum resurfaces, this moment will be turned into another pivotal sermon.
“Oh, she’s going to come back,” Hale said. “This will give her another connection to women; now that they know she’s experienced difficulty as a married woman; that will speak volumes to women who’ve been there.”