Evangelist with a big stick

Juanita Bynum speaks to a flock in need of tough love — and to critics who are tough on her

A woman in a white doctor’s coat clutches the head of a wireless microphone, steps in front of hundreds and yells to them to lift their hands and voices.

It’s the Monday night “prayer clinic” at New Greater Bethel Ministries in Queens Village, and “Prophetess” Juanita Bynum is about to deliver a message from the Great Physician.

“C’mon and bless him tonight!” she shouts in a voice that pummels the eardrums and permeates every crevice of the converted movie theater. She walks back and forth as congregants lose themselves. “C’mon and bless the Lord! Hallelujah!”

“Glory!” They shout back.

Once the roar subsides, Bynum stands behind a table that is draped in white cloth and purple satin, and for the next two hours teaches about the spiritual requirements for entering into the presence of God. She admonishes believers to be like Christ.

“Oh, I’m not hearin’ nobody say nothin’!” she says. A roar of response rises and then subsides. “You put on the garment of righteousness to serve the Lord, not yourself,” she says, her volume building with every word. “He saved us so that we could serve — ANYWHERE!”

Bynum, 45, who splits her time between homes in Hempstead and Washington, D.C., delivers the same brand of tough- love evangelism she has become known for during worship services in small churches, national conferences in giant arenas and on the Trinity Broadcasting Network to millions of viewers. She’s a bestselling author with a new book and a music CD on the way — all of which has afforded her a lifestyle where she can have a million-dollar wedding.

She is a rising star among charismatics and black women, who can’t get enough of her openness and tell-it-like-it-is style. Her supporters say her ministry is helping them to become better Christians, but critics question whether her lifestyle is too extravagant, her fund-raising tactics too heavy-handed and her teachings biblically sound.

A teen ministry

Born in Chicago to a rug salesman and a school nutritionist, Bynum, who has four siblings, followed her parents, who both preached in their Pentecostal church, into ministry as a teen. After graduating as valedictorian from Saints High, a school run by the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tenn., she worked as a beautician. A job as a Pan Am flight attendant brought her to New York almost two decades ago.

In full-time ministry for the past 15 years, Bynum describes herself as a “prophetess,” which she defines not only as someone God reveals future events to, but also “empowered with a special gift to really change the hearts and minds and the direction of people by knowledge.”

Bynum emerged from relative obscurity in the late 1990s when Dallas preacher Bishop T.D. Jakes asked her to address a singles conference. Her sermon, “No More Sheets,” dealt with a slew of failed romances. Using four sheets borrowed from a hotel maid’s cart, she demonstrated how every man she’d slept with who walked away left her in spiritual bondage.

“Every time you sleep with somebody, you become one with that person, and so it’s almost like getting married and divorced in our soul constantly — married and divorced, married and divorced,” she says, sitting in the front pew after the prayer clinic for an hour-long interview. “You’re just constantly taking yourself through that emotional trauma like that until you get to the point where you don’t know who you are. … People were just waiting for somebody in Christendom to say, ‘I did that,'” says Bynum of the sermon, which became a bestselling video and book.

‘Robe of righteousness’

The message resonated with Laurelton teacher Melissa Brooks, 40. “I was the type of person, I would have me some sex before I went to church and after I got home,” she says.

After three years in Bynum’s mentorship classes for women and now the Monday night prayer clinic, Brooks says she’s on a different path. “I’m understanding about putting on the robe of righteousness,” she says.

Bynum, who holds an honorary doctorate in theology from Truth for Living Bible College in Jacksonville, Fla., says it’s been as important for her to live as morally uprightly as she demands others do. “Trust is a huge thing in Christianity,” she says. “I’ve strived to live my life so that people can trust God again. I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt people.”

But some believe she does.

Jackie Alnor, who produces the online church watchdog publication “The Christian Sentinel,” criticizes Bynum for flawed teachings and aggressive fund-raising. “My biggest problem with her is that she’s claiming she is a prophet.”

Bynum’s pleas for money on her show amount to “spiritual extortion,” Alnor says. “She focuses on the people struggling, living hand to mouth, and tells the poor to give to the rich. She’s the opposite of Robin Hood.”

Alnor is also among those who criticize Bynum’s 2002 televised wedding to Bishop Thomas W. Weeks III, pastor of the Global Destiny Church in Washington, D.C, at the Regent Wall Street Hotel in Manhattan.

Media reports said the ceremony featured a wedding party of 80, a gown with a bodice covered in crystals and a 7.76-carat diamond ring — a far cry from their private ceremony a year earlier at Las Vegas City Hall.

Bynum had waited all her life to have a fairy-tale wedding, she says. “It started out with a $500,000 budget, and then it just started growing like the blob,” she says, adding, “I didn’t think it robbery to celebrate my day.”

She says she doesn’t put much stock in what her critics say. “It’s just not important,” she says, adding, “If you talk about me, and you don’t talk to me, then that’s too low for me. I can’t come to that level.”

More than an expositor of the gospel, Bynum is also an industry. According to TBN, viewers around the world tune into her weekly “Weapons of Power” sho w. She’s also an author and a gospel singer, with her sermons, books and CDs for sale on her Web site.

And she heads Juanita Bynum Ministries Inc., based in Waycross, Ga. Tonya Hall, her administrative assistant, declined to disclose either Bynum’s or the ministry’s income. “Her financials are something that we do not release,” Hall says. (Although some religious institutions file financial disclosures, an Internal Revenue Service spokesman says Bynum’s ministry has not.)

What Bynum will talk about is her latest book, “My Spiritual Inheritance,” out last month, about the importance of finding mentors in the church.

She says she believes it’s her destiny to expand her TV ministry to reach more believers and nonbelievers — and she likes being called “the Christian world’s Oprah Winfrey.”

“She is an intelligent black woman who’s making a statement and doing it in style,” Bynum says, “and I want to bring that same something to Christian television.”

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Oct. 23, 2004
Pat Burson, Staff Writer

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday October 23, 2004.
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