Parishioners accuse preacher of reneging on their loans

Grieving mom says pastor invoked God to get insurance money

Cynthia Fleming buried her 23-year-old son, Marine Cpl. James T. Jenkins, in his dress uniform and all his medals on a rainy October afternoon nearly two years ago.

Mourners filed past the open casket. Women in black dresses wailed. Then Bishop Steven Parrott walked to the pulpit and looked into a grieving mother’s eyes. In a sonorous baritone honed by decades of preaching, he told her: “Cynthia, be comforted, everyone in this room loves you.”

For months afterward, the Newark pastor called Fleming once a week, lending a sympathetic ear as she talked about her fight to win death benefits for her son, a decorated Iraq veteran who suffered a breakdown after his second combat tour and went on an alleged crime spree before killing himself.

Fleming vividly remembers when her relationship with the preacher began to change. It was March 15, 2006, the day she told Parrott she’d been awarded the insurance settlement. He called back a day later, she says, and told her God had begun speaking to him.

God, he said, wanted him to borrow money. He was very specific about how much: $25,000.

“The Lord told me to ask,” she recalls him saying. “It’s for my church.”

She wrote him a check the next day and two more checks over the next two months, $75,000 in all — a hefty portion of the death benefit. Fleming was sure the preacher was good for it, they’d practically grown up together, neighbors on the border of Newark and East Orange, the son and daughter of preachers. In the weeks after asking for the loan, she said Parrott told her he had lined up a “multimillion grant” and could more than double her money by August 2006.

It never happened. Now Fleming, who lives in Mount Holly, says she’s lost hope she will ever see her money. Parrott’s refusal to pay back all but a few thousand dollars, she says, already cost her the chance to buy a house. She says Parrott gave her two worthless third-party checks and a bogus money order over the past several months.

Worse still, Fleming says she’s come to learn she’s just the latest in a line of a dozen or more people awaiting repayment from Parrott of personal loans.

“This man preyed on a grieving mother. The money he took was blood money,” Fleming said. “I can’t believe I ever trusted him.”

Decision to discipline

Parrott is best known in Newark as the former director of the Lighthouse Community Center, a homeless shelter on Washington Street founded by his father, Bishop James Parrott, who died in 1997 and was credited with serving more than 1 million meals to the destitute. Steven Parrott’s employment at the shelter ended in 2005.

In two brief interviews over the past month, Parrott, 51, acknowledged his debts to Fleming, 48, and “others.”

“Everybody who has loaned money will be paid back,” Parrott said after Sunday services recently that drew about 20 people to his church, Lighthouse Temple, which worships in St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on West Market Street in Newark.

Parrot smiled and shook his head when asked about allegedly invoking a higher power in soliciting the loan from Fleming. But he said he considered that loan — and the others — to be separate from church business.

“Everything I did was on my own,” Parrott said. “It was between me and the people I borrowed from.”

The leaders of Parrott’s mother church, Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith Inc., don’t see it that way.

Last month, acting on complaints from Fleming and others, elders in the New York-based Pentecostal denomination removed Parrott from his position as corresponding secretary for the national church and barred him from leading his congregation in worship.

“Our concern is that he made some very poor financial decisions,” said Bishop Fred Rubin, a member of the church’s governing board of apostles. “In not repaying those loans, we saw this as a moral problem.”

Many of the people who loaned Parrott money, Rubin said, were parishioners in his church in Newark or affiliated with the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith Inc., which has several dozen member churches, most in the eastern United States. Many of those lenders were pastors or retired pastors.

Rubin, who was present at the meeting at a church conference in South Carolina where the decision to discipline Parrott was made, said he was unaware Parrott told Fleming “the Lord” told him to ask for the loan.

“God and the devil get blamed for a whole lot of things,” said Rubin, the pastor of Community Refuge Church in Manalapan and assistant pastor of Solomon’s Temple in Detroit.

Rubin said church leaders have given Parrott until the end of next month to repay Fleming and “several others” in order to regain his standing in the church. Parrott, Rubin said, was also ordered to have no role in church financial matters and to “seek counseling and obtain meaningful employment.”

It is unclear if Parrott is currently working. Rubin said he didn’t know, and Parrott wouldn’t say. Fleming said Parrott told her recently that he is not.

In bankruptcy

Parrott and his wife, Jeannice, filed for bankruptcy in 2005, citing nearly $40,000 in credit card debt. Paperwork filed as part of the proceeding by a lawyer for Ford Motor Credit Co., said the couple had fallen nearly $10,000 behind on lease payments for a Lincoln Navigator, which was registered to the Lighthouse Community Center.

Herbert B. Raymond, an East Orange attorney who represented Parrott in bankruptcy court, declined comment, citing confidentiality rules.

On March 10, 2006, Parrott and his wife were granted a discharge by the bankruptcy court, effectively releasing them from liability for at least a portion of the debts — six days before Cynthia Fleming wrote Parrott the first check.

One of the biggest creditors in the bankruptcy case, the couple’s former landlord, Ghansham N. Chainani, said Parrott refused to pay rent for nearly a year and still owes him more than $16,000.

He said he fought for three months before evicting the Parrott family from the house last August. Bankruptcy records show Parrott’s children — ages 12, 14, and 23 — also were living in the four-bedroom house.

Chainani said a year without any income from his only rental property was a severe financial blow.

Fleming said she’s especially angry with Parrott because she opened her heart to him in the months after her son’s funeral.

Her judgment at the time, she concedes, was clouded. Her grief had been beyond description. Her son, James Jenkins, had been her pride and joy, a standout athlete at Nottingham High School in Hamilton Township. A sheaf of awards show he had been a model Marine, winning citations for leadership, physical fitness and then, during two tours in Iraq, bravery.

He was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroics during a 55-hour period in the 2004 battle for Najaf. A commendation written by a three-star general credited Jenkins with “eliminating” four enemy militiamen at close range, directing an attack that killed another four militiamen several hours later and then taking out two snipers. Those were just the highlights of a citation that runs a full page.

But Jenkins returned from Iraq in early 2005 a troubled young man. Calls he made from his duty station, Camp Pendleton, Calif., to his mother in New Jersey terrified her.

“He was having nightmares,” she said. “I knew there was something very wrong.”

Jenkins’ commanders later told Fleming they believe her son developed a gambling problem after coming home. Legal trouble followed. First Jenkins was accused of writing bad checks. Then, in September 2005, he was accused of robbing and attempting to sexually assault a woman in California. He was a fugitive when he killed himself by putting a pistol to his temple and pulling the trigger.

Fleming said her son’s tragic end was all she could think about when Parrott began talking.

“I really thought he was trying to help me,” she said. “All he was doing was targeting me.”

Parrott insists that was not the case. At the end of an interview after a recent Sunday worship at his church, services he observed but did not lead, Parrott walked outside into the sunlight. He looked a visitor in the eye as he shook his hand.

“Cynthia is my sister, and I love her,” Parrott said. “She’s going to get her money. I want to get to heaven you know.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Star-Ledger, USA
Aug. 27, 2007
Wayne Woolley

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This post was last updated: Aug. 27, 2007