Juanity Bynum: Public Lesson on Domestic Violence

ATLANTA, Sept. 19 — The attack in a hotel parking lot here last month was remarkable not only because the victim, Juanita Bynum, is the most prominent black female television evangelist in the country, who is pals with Oprah, admired by Aretha, and who recently signed on to campaign for Obama.

It was shocking, especially to legions of women who had latched onto her message that only chastity and self-respect would bring true love, because the attacker who choked, stomped and kicked her, Ms. Bynum said, was her husband.

The episode has led to debate about domestic violence and how churches, particularly black churches, respond to it.

But it has also raised questions about the trajectory of Ms. Bynum’s career as a woman who called herself a prophetess, and while condemning promiscuity spoke openly about her lust and longing, in what has been called one of the most significant contemporary American sermons. Her struggle struck a chord in many black communities, where marriage rates are notoriously low, and it seemed to culminate in the form of an earthly reward: a televised, million-dollar 2003 wedding to a fellow Pentecostal preacher, Bishop Thomas W. Weeks III, followed by what seemed to be a model marriage.

Since the attack, Ms. Bynum, 48, has tried to reinvent herself once more, announcing that she is “the new face of domestic violence.” But Tom Joyner, the syndicated radio talk show host, did not let her off the hook so easily: “If you’re a prophet,” Mr. Joyner asked, “didn’t you see this coming?”

In a telephone interview, Ms. Bynum said the public had overly romanticized the union. “What happened to me was reality,” she said. “I made a right decision that went bad. If you choose a Cadillac, if two years later someone runs into you and tears it up, it wasn’t a bad decision to buy the car.”

Mr. Weeks, who according to the police report was pulled off his wife by a hotel bellhop, pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated assault and making terroristic threats. Ms. Bynum has filed for divorce.

Conservative critics among the evangelical clergy have accused her of exploiting the attack for publicity, calling her “loud,” “angry,” “aggressive” and “out of control,” while a group of black and Hispanic churches has demanded Mr. Weeks’s resignation. Fans responded with shock.

“It just hit me like a wake-up call, that even the strongest can be victims,” said Elizabeth Alexander, a student at Spelman College, a historically black women’s school here, which held a forum to discuss the issue.

Ms. Bynum, a former flight attendant and hair stylist, rose to fame in the late 1990s with the help of the powerful Bishop T. D. Jakes of Dallas, who supplied an audience of thousands for her frank sermon about sex and the single woman called “No More Sheets.” The sermon is said to have sold more than a million copies on video and profoundly affected many black women.

Ms. Bynum’s sermon admonished women looking for love to stop sleeping around and prepare for a lifetime commitment, but also dwelt on the difficulty of being Christian and single.

“I find it very difficult to listen to anybody preach to me about being single when they’ve got a pair of thighs in their bed every night,” she said that night. “You’re telling me, ‘Hold on, honey, sanctify yourself,’ and you’re going home to biceps and triceps, and big old muscles and thighs.”

She went on, her voice husky and anguished: “I want to hear ‘Hold on’ from somebody who is really holding on. I want to hear ‘Hold on’ from somebody who knows my struggle.” She used bed sheets borrowed from a hotel maid to signify her past promiscuity.

Ms. Bynum’s confessional approach, including of an abusive first marriage, made her a sought-after speaker and a popular host on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, although she did not lead a church of her own. She wrote books that ranked among Publishers Weekly’s top 10 religion best sellers, and her gospel album “A Piece of My Passion” went gold. Women across the country held “No More Sheets” parties to watch and discuss the sermon.

“She’s a powerful trailblazer,” said Shayne Lee, a sociologist of religion at Tulane University who closely follows what has become known as the neo-Pentecostal movement, which emphasizes self-improvement and prosperity over social issues like poverty and crime. “She resonated with so many people because sex is out there in a way that I don’t think any other preacher, or any other black preacher, has tapped into on a grand scale.”

The assault, Dr. Lee said, is a challenge to Ms. Bynum’s credibility: “Maybe she’s been living a lie all these years.”

In a private ceremony in July 2002, Ms. Bynum married the relatively unknown Mr. Weeks, a Washington pastor from a family of clergy members. The couple announced the union in October, then followed up with a lavish New York ceremony in 2003 — with a 7.76-carat diamond, an orchestra and 1,000 guests — shown on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

“This was my once-in-a-lifetime wedding,” she told Ebony magazine. “I did it this way because I plan to stay married.”

Mr. Weeks, 40, whose previous marriage ended in divorce, proved a foil to Ms. Bynum. Bespectacled, bow-tied and far less visceral, he is fond of maxims like “Failure is a tool that God uses to teach us systematic information to give us consistent success.”

The pair quickly capitalized on their marriage, publishing a book called “Teach Me How to Love You: The Beginnings,” and conducting relationship seminars where Mr. Weeks presided over a sometimes graphic version of “The Newlywed Game” and Ms. Bynum heard couples’ grievances as Judge Juanita on “The Love Court.”

In 2006, Mr. Weeks started the Global Destiny Church in Duluth, a suburb of Atlanta, with Ms. Bynum as his “first lady.” (In Pentecostal and charismatic circles, the title bishop usually goes to a pastor who oversees more than one church. Global Destiny says it has locations in Washington, Los Angeles and London.)

The couple separated in June, a fact not made public until the assault case arose. Mr. Weeks was subsequently evicted from his house and threatened with eviction from the space rented by his church.

Mr. Weeks has not granted interviews but has made several statements, saying there is more to the story and apologizing that Christians have had to endure this ordeal.

But during the marriage, Ms. Bynum publicly focused on the duties of a Christian wife, counseling women to give their husbands plenty of sex and to ask them, “Do I please you?”

About this time, Ms. Bynum glamorized her own look, trading a bun for a hair weave, picture-perfect makeup and plastic surgery that she discussed on the BET network. Her wardrobe went from ankle-length skirts to casual chic and glittering jewelry.

In the seminars, she sermonized, “I don’t care what kind of husband you got, that’s your covenant vow, and you have a responsibility to make him feel like he’s a wonder when you know he ain’t.”

The Rev. Dr. Sharon Ellis Davis, a pastor in Chicago who teaches seminary classes on domestic violence, said some mega-churches support female leaders but still perpetuate a conservative message that can lead to abuse. “I don’t personally view her as a liberation preacher; I don’t view her as an empowerment preacher,” Dr. Davis said of Ms. Bynum.

Her audience is “interested in self growth, how good they can be and how God loves them, but not in how to do the kinds of things that stop abuse, that fight oppression, that fight hunger and incarceration and ask the reason why,” Dr. Davis said.

When the news of the confrontation broke, Ms. Bynum appeared on the “Praise the Lord” television program to say that she forgave her husband and would not speak ill of him. She later said there had been previous instances of “pushing and shoving” and that she wanted to “take some classes” to find out why she attracted abusive men.

The experience, she said, caused her to wake up to the prevalence of domestic violence. “The counselor came and the D.A.’s office came and said, ‘This is an epidemic.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about, an epidemic?’ ” She added, “It kind of brought my head out of the sand of the church in that sense and I said, ‘Wait a minute, nothing will change if we don’t bring about social change.’ ”

• Original title: A Minister’s Public Lesson on Domestic Violence

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 20, 2007.
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