ATLANTA: Juanita Bynum is known and admired by thousands as a fiery evangelist whose no-nonsense, lead-by-less-than-perfect-example message of self-improvement was seemingly illustrated by her fairy-tale marriage to a man who also is a widely known minister.
The romance, which included a million-dollar wedding, became a nightmare last week when Thomas W. Weeks III was charged with choking his wife, pushing her to the ground in a hotel parking lot and stomping on her.
Her example, of living one’s life as an empowered Christian single woman-turned-spouse, now shifts to spouse-turned-survivor.
“The very thing she’s been preaching and proclaiming has now blown up in her own life,” said Duke University theology professor J. Kameron Carter. “She becomes Exhibit A for her own message.”
Since their marriage in an elaborate ceremony in 2002, Bynum and Weeks had both worked out of Global Destiny Church, but had their own independent and successful ministries, attracting tens of thousands to their conferences and selling thousands of books and CDs. She is the star preacher in the marriage, with her successful career as a media personality, gospel singer, author and playwright.
They had become estranged, and on Aug. 22 they met at a hotel to try to reconcile their differences. Within hours, police were called to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, where they found Bynum with bruises. According to the police report, she told officers Weeks “choked her, pushed her down, kicked and stomped her … until a bellman pulled him off of her.”
Two days later, Weeks turned himself in to the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office. He was released on $40,000 (‚¬29,185) bail with the condition that he have no contact with his wife or her sister. On Friday, he was indicted on charges of aggravated assault and making terroristic threats.
Weeks’ attorney, Ed Garland, did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
A request to speak with Bynum through her publicist was declined.
Bynum’s MySpace page has a message for her followers: “I am currently recovering from all of my injuries and resting well. There are so many great things happening for me in my future, and so much to look forward to concerning my destiny, this too shall pass. The Bible says in Proverbs 4:25 ‘Let your eyes look right on with fixed purpose and let your gaze be straight before you.'”
Bynum, a former hairdresser and flight attendant, gained wide attention after she preached her breakout sermon, “No More Sheets,” at a Christian singles event in 1998 about breaking free of sexual promiscuity. An audience of thousands applauded her raw, no-nonsense delivery, peppered with first-person accounts of her struggle with her spirituality and secular ways.
“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 … telling me to ‘Hold on,'” Bynum roared. “I wanna hear ‘Hold on’ from somebody who’s really holding on! I wanna hear ‘Hold on’ from somebody who knows about struggle!”
She admonished the women in the audience to improve themselves before seeking husbands.
“We ain’t got nothing,” she told them. “What are you bringing to the table? God is calling you to accountability today! Get yourself together!”
Lauren Aqeel was 10 years old when she saw Bynum’s sermon and said it had a powerful effect on her.
“At the time, there were not many female preachers I had been exposed to,” said Aqeel, now 18, who added that she felt the call to preach a few years later. “She has been a mentor from afar to me.”
Pulpit power couples like Bynum and Weeks lead several successful black churches, with their marriages prominently factored into their ministries and serving as an example to their congregations. Often, the wives also run popular women’s ministries that extol the virtues of being a good Christian woman, spouse and parent.
These couples include Creflo and Taffi Dollar, who head World Changers Church International, based in College Park, Georgia; Bishop T.D. Jakes and his wife, Serita, leaders of The Potter’s House, based in Dallas; and Bishop Eddie Long and his wife, Vanessa, who are the faces of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia.
But for Bynum and Weeks, the allegations of domestic violence could have meaning beyond their marriage.
“For all of the strides that have been made to overcome the male dominance that is associated with fundamental Christian expression, this throws light on the ways in which women have been overshadowed in problematic and troublesome ways in the charismatic movement,” Carter said.
At a forum Thursday at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, many of the young women in the audience said they were shocked and saddened to hear of the alleged attack on Bynum.
“It just hit me like a wake-up call, that even the strongest can be victims,” said sophomore Elizabeth Alexander. “When he was hitting her, her husband had no respect for her role.”
Alexander said she sought the opinion of her own pastor, who is male, expecting him to condemn Weeks’ actions. Instead, he responded with scriptures, and said nothing of domestic violence being wrong.
“I was thinking ‘This is my spiritual leader. If I’m abused, what do you do for me?'”
Support for Weeks has been strong on his MySpace page. One message posted Aug. 28 reads: “Bishop Weeks, don’t be discouraged, but be encouraged. Stand firm and know that the Lord is mighty in battle.”
Kera Street, 20, said she is disturbed by such comments.
“She is a victim,” Street said. “It can’t be supported or condoned by the church.”
In an Aug. 31 e-mail to The Associated Press, Jakes said it is time for the faith community to come out of shock over the Bynum-Weeks controversy.
“Knowing the Bible may make you a strong Christian or a great speaker but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the only resource we can draw from or work with to help those in our pews who suffer in silence,” Jakes wrote. “Prayer is a good starting point but this is a problem where wise and fair action steps are needed.”
Aqeel said the incident brings Bynum closer to her followers.
“It got a point where you didn’t see her past anymore,” Aqeel said. “You were seeing a polished, well-groomed, woman of God. But now you see she’s still a work in progress. That’s going to create a deeper audience for her.”
Carter said it is impossible to predict how Bynum’s ministry will rebound, but he said it is possible she will resume with little loss.
“This in no way undermines her significance. If anything, it underscores the importance of that aspect of her message — the need for healthy relationships. It underscores that no preacher is bigger than their own message.”
Original title: US televangelist with message of empowerment faces new focus following charges against husband