The annual holy convocation of the Church of God in Christ, Inc., commonly called COGIC, in Memphis this week holds heightened significance for members of the "world's fastest growing denomination." It is the 100th anniversary of the gathering and the first for a new presiding bishop, Charles E. Blake.
Blake pastors the mega West Angeles COGIC, the so-called church of the stars — Magic Johnson, Denzel Washington, and Angela Bassett are members — in Los Angeles. He assumed the dual role of presiding bishop and COGIC chief executive officer following the death of Bishop G.E. Patterson in Memphis on March 20th.
Blake's first convocation as presiding bishop could also be his last depending on the outcome of a referendum among the church's delegates on November 12th to decide whether or not a special election should be held to fill the denomination's top position. Though Blake or any other candidate would only serve out the last year of Patterson's term until next year's regularly scheduled election, even such a brief stay atop COGIC could include life-changing opportunities.
Blake already is the focus of some controversy. He earns a $900,000 salary and owns a 10,000-square-foot mansion in Beverly Hills while most of his congregation lives in impoverished South Central Los Angeles. And critics say his position on gay issues has changed from progressive to conservative in recent years, perhaps as a result of his elevation in the church hierarchy.
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Despite the importance of the city to the denomination — "Memphis is our Mecca," Blake told the Flyer — COGIC remains misunderstood by many outsiders.
There's no misunderstanding of the annual convocation's economic importance to Memphis, however. The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates that the event generates $25 million to $30 million for the local economy. This year's centennial celebration and the election year of church leadership in 2008 could bring in even more.
Local economic impact aside, COGIC is one of the driving forces behind the global Pentecostal movement. "We are, in many ways, the mother organization of Pentecostalism," Blake says, "which is the fastest-growing religious movement in the world."
COGIC world headquarters is located at Mason Temple, just off E.H. Crump Boulevard, south of downtown Memphis. Mason Temple was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s final speech on April 3, 1968, and today holds the remains of COGIC founder and temple namesake, Charles Harrison Mason.
Blake's Mecca reference to Memphis reflects the church's humble beginnings. Mason staged the first national COGIC pilgrimage here in 1907, scheduled after the fall harvest, when time and money would allow far-flung "saints," as COGIC members are called, to make the trip. A century later, the annual convocation draws around 50,000 visitors. Membership has swelled to an estimated 5 million members in the United States and 57 foreign countries.
COGIC practices Pentecostal-Holiness spirituality, which emphasizes a personal, physical relationship with God. Worshippers may spontaneously break out in glossolalia, also known as speaking in tongues, which confirms their one-on-one connection with the Holy Ghost. As one preacher bellowed on a recent Sunday morning, "If God wanted other people to know what he was talking to you about, then he wouldn't put it in unknown tongues."
COGIC also is socially conservative. For instance, controversy followed Blake in 2003, when he accepted the Harvard Foundation's Humanitarian of the Year award for his African charitable works from the Rev. Peter Gomes and invited the openly gay Gomes to speak at his church. After Blake's congregation complained about a "sinner" preaching in their pulpit, Blake claimed that he wasn't aware of Gomes' orientation. The church issued a proclamation against same-sex marriage the next year, calling the homosexual lifestyle "aberrant and deviant."
Some COGIC members have said Blake knowingly took the progressive stand but recoiled from it following the backlash from church members.
Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
COGIC founder Mason was an outcast who dared to preach a new version of the Bible in Baptist country. Mason and his band of dissenters also happened to be black in 19th-century Mississippi. Not surprisingly, they were persecuted.
Mason held revivals and preached itinerantly until settling into his first church — a cotton warehouse in the Delta town of Lexington, Mississippi — in 1897, where the congregation was fired upon with pistols and shotguns, according to church lore. A decade later, Mason attended a Pentecostal revival in Los Angeles, which became known as the "miracle on Azusa Street." He came to believe that speaking in tongues was the sign of a true believer baptized in the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal-Holiness movement officially went global through the Azusa Street revival, and the Church of God in Christ followed.
Mason came to Memphis, where he opened the first COGIC church at 392 Wellington. By 1907, there were nine other COGIC churches, mostly small and rural, scattered throughout the tri-state region.
No one better embodied the growth of COGIC than another Memphian, the late Gilbert Earl Patterson, who served as presiding bishop from 2001 to 2007. A member of the closest thing COGIC has to a royal family, Patterson possessed a disarming down-home wit, but he also had a talent for leadership behind his folksy facade. When former President Bill Clinton eulogized Patterson last March, he told the crowd, "His church grew vast and great because people could feel [Patterson] believed in a God of second chances. People could feel that they were loved and mattered and could start all over."
Patterson built a media empire headquartered at his downtown Temple of Deliverance. Bountiful Blessings, Inc., airs over radio station WBBP 1480 AM and on Black Entertainment Television and Trinity Broadcasting Network. The broadcasts, along with sales of DVDs, CDs, cassettes, and VHS tapes, have elevated the COGIC presiding-bishop job to unprecedented visibility.
For whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?
Every Sunday morning thousands of saints fill the Temple of Deliverance sanctuary with the sounds of singing and clapping. A 50-person choir and full orchestra lead the music. In a dark room above the sanctuary, a production crew records the service for radio and TV broadcasts.
On one wall, 20 monitors of various sizes, some black and white, others color, show what the six video cameras in the service are capturing. On screen, a woman leads "praise and worship," the warm-up for the sermon. She praises "Hallelujah!" and speaks in tongues, improvising as she channels the Holy Spirit.
Behind this scene, at the control room's nerve center, the director sits at her switchboard with a headset on as red buttons on the board light up. She tells the cameramen what to shoot and how to do it. There are no rehearsals, and though she knows the program, she still must stay on her toes, especially when the speaker welcomes guests to the sanctuary and asks them to stand.
Next to the director, a graphics engineer programs song titles, lyrics, and scripture for display on two screens in the sanctuary. Like so many other COGIC employees, the graphics engineer started by volunteering her help and eventually became a full-time employee as she learned the trade. She repeats the COGIC statement of faith as she displays it on the screen.
A videotape operator with a wall-high panel of recording machines cues and rolls pre-recorded announcements and records a VHS master of the service, as well as DVD copies for the broadcast on BET and TBN.
The production is managed in-house and staffed entirely by COGIC members. They sing along with "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and sway in their seats like the congregation. As one of them explained, "This is Bishop Patterson's thing."
The call center adjacent to Patterson's Temple of Deliverance rings like church bells on Sunday, with viewers of the broadcast ordering DVDs or CDs. Now, more than seven months after Patterson's death, you can still see him preach on TV, though the conclusion of each program is only available to those who purchase the entire sermon.
Patterson's stature as presiding bishop attracted huge audiences. His message caused new members and even entire congregations to join the church. Patterson's visibility, his elevation of the bishop's office to global relevance, and the financial windfall that accompanied the changes make the position even more attractive to prospective leaders.
Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.
Patterson's Temple of Deliverance reaches toward the heavens from the middle of housing projects near Mississippi Boulevard and Danny Thomas Boulevard, looking like a diamond amidst pieces of a broken bottle.
Blake explains that the location of Patterson's church reflects COGIC's mission. "When other churches have moved to the suburbs, we have remained in the heart of the city, administering to the needs of inner-city dwellers," he says.
Blake admits that the church's impact on the inner city is hard to measure. "You might say it doesn't seem to be very successful, and in many ways that may seem to be true," he says. "On the other hand, we have to [consider] how much worse things could be. The millions of people who are involved in the church may do what the church is advocating, and if so, some of these problems are less intense were it not for the church."
Critics, however, say COGIC's growth has come at great expense to its more needy members. They fear that financial concerns overshadow ministerial priorities and that profits outweigh prophecy in certain of the church's works.
One of the critics is a former saint and Blake employee at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. Todd Talbott joined the church in 1992 and accepted a job as director of development and communications for Blake's Save Africa's Children charity in 2005. Talbott, who had behind-the-scenes access, says Blake's affluent lifestyle contradicts the inner-city ministry so important to COGIC's mission.
"There are members who are overextended with their credit because they're told that if they give to the church, they'll be blessed," Talbott says. "[Blake] lives in a 10,000-square-foot mansion on Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills. The rich members of the congregation know, because they're invited over there, but most people in the church have no idea."
The Flyer obtained West Angeles COGIC's 2005 payroll summary, which shows Blake's salary at just under $900,000. Aside from the few stars who attend West Angeles, Talbott explains, the people in Blake's church are impoverished residents of South Central Los Angeles.
"The bottom line is," Talbott says, "what pastor needs to be paying himself almost a million-dollar salary, living in a mansion in Beverly Hills off the tithes and offerings of a congregation from one of the low-income areas of Los Angeles? The money he makes could be going back into the community."
Talbott claims that Blake bestows special recognition upon big donors and offers tithers a special prayer, asking them to stand at the end of service before inviting everyone else to rise and join the congregation in prayer.
"That's where pastors have prostituted the Word," says Talbott, who was raised a Southern Baptist. "They've made people believe that good things will come to their lives if they give money. Do you think that's something Jesus would do? Jesus hung out with the destitute. The pastors today are the Sagacees and the Pharisees — the rich, opulent who believed Jesus couldn't be the son of God because he was too simple and hung around with the unholy."
Eric Slack, Blake's assistant chief operating officer, says that Blake is a successful businessman who, "really hasn't been that dependent on the church." He adds, "We believe in supporting members through benevolence funds. We have a number of larger ministries that ... encourage community development."
Questions about pastors asking more financially than their flocks are able to give will likely continue as long as the plate is passed. Then again, with Matthew 19:24 in mind, perhaps pastors are doing right by their parishioners, ensuring that riches won't burden their passage into the Kingdom.
The Future of COGIC in Memphis
Three years ago, then-presiding Bishop G.E. Patterson announced that the 100th annual holy convocation would be the last in Memphis. Detroit and Atlanta had offered more attractive packages for the event. Last year, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau worked out a deal to keep the convocation in Memphis through 2010, prompting Jerry Maynard, former chief operating officer for COGIC, to tell the Memphis Business Journal, "One thing we'll never do is threaten to go away to drive prices down."
Maynard has since reported that COGIC has agreements with some Memphis hotels through 2012. Still, the long-term future of COGIC convocations in Memphis is an open question. When asked if the church will consider moving the convocation, Blake says, "Not at this time."