By The Grace of Bailey, There Go I

Third-Place Nonfiction
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Photo by Jennifer Lu.

The sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, even them I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.  – Isaiah 56:6-7

 

The racket came to me exquisitely on the wind as a chill hit the September air. On the median between Elm and Broadway in downtown New Haven, a band of men gyrated brass instruments in the dusk: trombones alternated with a sousaphone, cymbals clashed, black bodies jerked in time with the raps of the snare drum, and customers shopping at Urban Outfitters and J. Crew emerged to listen and sway. I listened as the band played two numbers. As they packed their things, I asked a man who they were. My name is Norman M. Smith, he said to me, and we are the Kings of Harmony. He urged me to listen again at a church service on Dixwell, a poor neighborhood in New Haven adjacent to Yale’s campus. Intrigued and eager to hear their tunes again, I took his suggestion later that week.

Surrounded by parking lots, the United House of Prayer for All People of the Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith sits unassumingly between gabled, brick walls. Rising on its façade are two blue crosses flanking a central white one. Though I had arrived on time, the glass doors of the church were darkened and locked. I spotted a well-dressed family entering through a side staircase and nervously followed them under the church to a basement room lined with wooden pews. At the front of the room hung four portraits: three photographs of dark-skinned men in robes and a painting of a black Jesus. Below the pictures, wrapped in thick protective plastic, sat a golden chair. A handful of people milled about the small room. I must have been early.

As more families trickled in, the assistant pastor explained he would be leading the ceremony since the pastor was ministering across the South. He opened with a call for testimonials. Besides the elderly, nearly everyone lined up to speak. Some told of their gratitude for life’s small blessings, most mentioned difficult economic circumstances, and everyone voiced praise for “Daddy.” One woman said her car had broken down, and she didn’t have the money to repair it. When her son offered to drive her to church that evening, she politely refused. The audience shouted in agreement as she described walking alone down the dangerous streets of Dixwell, confident that Daddy would protect her on the journey to the House of Prayer.

When the testimonials neared their end, the members of the Kings of Harmony entered, instruments in hand, and filled the folding chairs at the front of the room. A stout woman in faintly glimmering heels unhooked the microphone from its stand and sang. Her voice, though homely and without accompaniment, struck me with the sincerity of its plea for Daddy’s saving grace. The worshippers around me rose. The singer’s face contorted with the struggle to hit the high notes, or perhaps in accord with the emotion of the lyrics. Moments later, tears flew from her eyes, the trombone joined her blues, and then there was the snare drum to steady us. I should have looked away. Everyone but me was standing. The rest of the band surged forth as she broke into sobs and guttural exclamations. Her ecstasy charged the basement, and soon most of the congregation danced into the aisles, shouting strange words. As the faithful began convulsing, parishioners kindly removed glasses from their faces and shepherded them towards open spaces. I tried to focus on the band, but the sight of those possessed captured my attention. I closed my eyes to better listen to the bright sound of the trumpets. A woman behind me whispered, as if directly into my ear, “Thank you, Lord, thank you … ” The band faded out and there was only the sound of sniffles and muffled whimpers. Tissues emerged from purses, some people left with eyes red from weeping, more came and took their seats. Two more believers delivered songs to the congregation, and each time a similar frenzy ensued. There was no sermon, only music and a collection.

I ambled home in a state of exhilaration, humming meaningless imitations of the band’s brass motifs. The rapture of that worship was unlike the ordered rituals of the Catholic masses that I had attended with my family every Sunday at 7:45 a.m., often carrying the crucifix during the processional as the lead altar boy. I had fallen away from Christianity since coming to Yale: my belief in God seemed to have little to do with daily life. Knowing whether a deity resided in heaven seemed as important as knowing the exact number of stars in the night sky. But the intensity of that basement room was vividly real and seemingly obtainable. In the next weeks, I went back to many ceremonies at the United House of Prayer. Each time I attempted to reach the emotional heights of those around me, or as the devotees say, to “climb the Holy Mountain.” Each time I left questioning my impotence: what beliefs did these people have that 13 years of Catholic school had not taught me? How could they express their devotion outwardly with such ease while I could only stand and watch? How had they come to know God so personally that He inhabited their bodies?

After attending more meetings, I discovered at least one belief that prevented me from full conversion. I was taken aback when I discovered the “Sweet Daddy” of their songs actually referred to the church’s leader, Bishop C.M. Bailey. The songs that I assumed were dedicated to God the Father, as many a Roman Catholic mass had ingrained in me, were actually prayers to some man preaching in the South. My first service at the House of Prayer had been a perfect expression of the conversion I wanted: all spirit and music with no minister to indoctrinate me. I was in an unusual position for a catechumen: I felt no desire to sing praise for Bishop Bailey, but I envied the worshippers who did. Their adoration for Bailey intrigued me further.

In my conversations with parishioners, I learned that the church’s largest event, the annual Holy Convocation, was scheduled to take place in October in Charlotte, N.C. There would be speakers, they said, and the church’s best bands, and, to top it all off, a visit from Sweet Daddy Bailey.

Rarely in my life have I experienced a passion so unabashedly that it consumed me, but the members of the United House of Prayer experienced such ecstasy on a regular basis. I wanted to be shaken, like them, with feelings so strong I could do nothing but express them in mystic tongue. Maybe the music, with its sweet, Southern soul, or this charismatic leader “Daddy” could lend some of that intensity. I booked myself a ticket to Charlotte.

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Jennifer Lu

Daddy Grace, the founder of the United House of Prayer, was born as Marcelino Manuel da Graça in approximately 1880 on Brava, the southernmost of 21 islands that make up the Cape Verdean archipelago near northwestern Africa. Brava is a volcano whose sheer cliffs tower more than half a mile above the swirling Atlantic. Though the majority of the islands were considered unlivable, the Portuguese had claimed them as colonies in the 15th century and used them as an outpost in the slave trade for those buyers unwilling to travel to the African continent. The slave traders “domesticated” the islanders by introducing them to Portuguese and Catholicism, before selling them at an increased price. By the end of the 19th century, Brava was largely uninhabited as most residents who had gained their freedom chose to immigrate to the United States.

In May 1902, the de Graça family arrived in New Bedford, Mass., a booming port town and destination for most Cape Verdeans. When Marcelino de Graça was 28, he married a 17-year-old and together they had two children, but after three years of marriage, they divorced. He Americanized his name and began referring to himself as Charles Grace. In 1919, Grace settled into his lifelong career by founding the United House of Prayer in nearby West Wareham, Mass. Unlike most religions, which are formed by splitting from another church, Grace’s was entirely new. He attracted converts by making the church constantly available, holding services every day of the week. The town’s police department received numerous complaints from neighbors who decried the loud services that dragged into the night, sometimes as late as daybreak.

Grace maintained that God communicated the United House of Prayer theology to him particularly for the benefit of African Americans: he was sent to relieve their oppression and second-class status in America, yet he often referred to them as “you poor colored people.” In 1926, Grace traveled south on a missionary tour to spread his faith. He brought a company of followers to publicize his arrival: traveling musicians journeyed ahead to generate interest; a crowd of ardent believers ensured each tent meeting appeared full; special guests like Nora “the midget evangelist” were spectacles in themselves; and elders used a loudspeaker to call out from a car plastered with advertisements, “Daddy Grace is in town. Come one and all, and listen to the man of God.” Journalists were invited to services, and if they failed to attend, Grace bought ads in the local newspaper that resembled factual articles. It was during this time that Grace picked up the moniker of “Daddy.” Stepping into the tents, Grace asked, “Are you glad to see me, children? … Ain’t you all got a nice daddy?”

Aside from its charismatic leader, the rest of the church’s theology was less well-defined  —  “If we are directed to sing, we sing; if we are given the inspiration to testify, we testify; and if we are called upon to exhort, we exhort,” Grace said  —  but the church shared many beliefs with Pentecostal churches emerging at the time. Above all, the religion prized glossolalia, the ability to speak in tongues. The power was seen as a direct sign of salvation. Yet while other Pentecostal sects preached that deliverance could be achieved in a single moment of true belief, Grace taught that unity with the Holy Spirit could only be achieved over time and that there lurked an ever-present danger of sin. And unlike other groups who actively evangelized, Grace discouraged his members from interacting with those outside his church.

Grace did set out clear procedures for each church to follow. Each newly furbished church was fitted with pews facing a raised platform, known as the “Holy Mountain,” which was accessible only to the church leaders. (Churchgoers say of the altar’s name, “Holy men don’t pray in pulpits. Holy men pray in the mountains.”) The week’s services followed an order still in place today, including Pastor’s Night to raise funds for the preacher’s salary on Tuesday, Home Builders Night to raise funds for construction of new churches nationwide on Wednesday, and an intense prayer service called the Flood Gate Meeting on Saturday. Members were expected to attend every day unless incapacitated: “If you lose your leg, come limping,” Grace wrote in a June 1955 letter. A hierarchy of elders handpicked by Grace governed each congregation, and in turn, each church was divided into multiple clubs known as “auxiliaries.” Each auxiliary’s primary purpose was fundraising, and the clubs competed against each other in their collections. But each auxiliary was also assigned unique duties: Grace Soldiers, for example, were charged with escorting Daddy whenever he visited town, and the young virgins of Grace Maids acted as his personal assistants on the Holy Mountain.

Perhaps most important of the church’s many clubs were the “shout bands,” the dozen or so men who punctuated each service with their music. Grace urged churches to form shout bands to fulfill the Bible’s final psalm, which exhorts worshippers to praise God with lively music. While other black churches focused on vocal talent, the House of Prayer’s unique sound centered on the trombone and other brass, an emphasis that derives from the story of the Israelites destruction of the walls of Jericho with their horns. Music was a key attraction at the new church and often prompted people into ecstasy with more ease and power than the words of any preacher. One early trumpeter in the church said, “The people came to hear the band as much as they came to hear [Grace] talk.” Much as the Kings of Harmony had entranced me, the music “captured their minds,” the player said, and never let them go.

Though Grace was able to attract scores of converts on the 1926 tour, his expedition had its share of troubles. Grace found himself in a conflict with J.W. Manns, a rival Seventh-Day Adventist preacher in Savannah, that led to a brief arrest for libel and disorderly conduct. In a vitriolic editorial, Manns exposed Grace’s persona as a lie: He was from Brava, not Jerusalem, and he was a divorced father, not the virgin he claimed to be. After a week, Grace departed for Charlotte, where he was eagerly welcomed. But in Seversville, N.C., a man drowned during a mass baptism. Grace recounted that he twice tried to save the man but was unable to pull him from the water. After Grace abandoned the body and swam to shore, he saw that many were still waiting to be saved and he continued with the baptism. Shortly after, he fled to New Bedford. Later in life he said of the incident, “I think it was good for the man. It was a beautiful way to die, don’t you think so?”

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I arrived in Charlotte for the climax of the 86th Annual Holy Convocation, an event that spans August through October when the bishop visits his largest congregations. The occasion is described in a set of instructions God presented to Moses after the Israelites fled from their bondage in Egypt. Members of each sponsoring church largely fund the event by paying a required convocation fee, in addition to their usual tithe.

At eight o’clock on Saturday evening, when the service was set to begin, the Charlotte Mother House was filled to the brim. Every inch of wall space was occupied, and people stood two abreast in the aisles. The stained-glass windows did not glow, as they looked out only to corridors built around the sanctuary, not the outside. At the front of the church was the altar known as the Holy Mountain. Below huge chandeliers and a mosaic of diamond-shaped mirrors sat Daddy Bailey on a large white throne. He leaned back with his bearded chin jutting towards the ceiling. On either side of him, two young women in white waved feathered flabella imprinted with a black cross. Two ladies in shimmering dresses and ornate hats sat a step down to his right, each being cooled by her own attendant maid. These women were the bishops’ wives: one was First Lady Wilhemina Bailey and the other was Saint Lady D. Madison, the former first lady. The room was dripping with sweat as I stood there overlooking the congregation. I realized I was the only white male amidst the dark-skinned audience.

“How you doin’, sir?” a woman interrupted my bewilderment. “You’re gonna need to go all the way through.” I shuffled through the crowd and found a foot or two of open wall space behind the church’s left pews.

“Daddy’s Program,” as the schedule called it, began shortly. “Tonight, we are in the presence of a king, a king who need no introduction on tonight,” a young girl boomed into the microphone. “But since I have been blessed with this mah-velous opportunity, truly it is an honor. Truly he is a keeper and a savior of many souls in a man today.” The crowds roared. “We welcome you, Precious Daddy Bailey.” The girl continued: “And to those who have travelled near and far”  —  that must be me, I thought  —  “we’re not gonna tell you to sit back, relax, and enjoy. Oh no! We want you to get on the end of your see-eats, roll up your slee-eeves, get into it with us. And again I say welcome, welcome, welcome! Now precious Daddy Bailey, I believe I said a couple of years ago that Daddy McCullough said, if you want to go to heaven, come to Charlotte. Now Precious Daddy Bailey, you’re in Charlotte, you’re in the Queen City, so let’s go to heaven. Is anybody ready to go to heaven out there? Y’all gotta be sure.”

A soloist backed by a choir sang while dozens of spangled children entered through side doors and danced a routine in the central aisle. The song ended sweetly and the young dancers dispersed to sit with their parents. The music was good, but the service seemed tamer than what I had witnessed in New Haven. The preachers spoke passionately, harping on the need to give God everything, but no one was speaking in tongues or throttling on the floor, and everyone seemed to be dressed in more expensive clothes.

The final performance of “Daddy’s Program” was an instructional skit. “Mmm-hmm-mmm,” an older woman walked to the middle of the church. She put her hand on her granddaughter’s head. “Lord, your momma let you go to the House of Prayer lookin’ like that? Looking like it’s Halloween.” The audience hooted and hollered while the child’s mother attempted to defend herself. “Let me tell you something,” the old lady continued accusatorially. “There are some things you need to get straightened out in your heart. You need to get that man out yo’ home.” The congregation oohed its delight. (“Tell the truth,” a woman shouted and leaped out of her seat. “Tell the truth!”) “You need to get it together,” the grandmother scathed. “Basically, I am telling you, you need to get yo’ house in order,” and she burst into song. The song detailed the consequences of being unprepared for Jesus’ imminent arrival. By the end of the song, the daughter was convinced. She walked over to the man, conveniently a player in the band both in real life and in the skit, and told him, “We have been living in sin and living a lie. You gotta go tonight.” The audience banged on the pews and clapped as she sang of her choice of the Lord.

Finally, the songs and skits had finished and the shout bands  —  the Clouds of Heaven, the Sounds of Zion, and the Grace Emmanuel Band  —  readied themselves to play. The next preacher kicked up a speech: “The Scripture tells us in Matthew, the fifteenth chapter, the eighth verse, ‘This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouths, and honoreth me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,’” he quoted without notes. “I wonder right now if God could crack open the sky”  —  the keyboardist hammered a few notes  —  “and if he could let our former leaders look down from heaven, what would Daddy Grace say right now?”

The preacher looked up to the roof, and then he glanced back to Bailey’s throne. “And I wonder if somebody know about this? When the dead in Christ shall rise? There’s gon’ be a trumpet that sounds,” he continued, facing the congregation. “Any believers know when that trumpet sounds, that you gon’ make it into heaven? See tonight we ask the question, ‘Is anybody ready for heaven?’”  —  a single deep note rang out from a trombone  —  “You just can’t say that you’re ready! How many of you know that your actions need to speak LOUDER than your words? Now I wonder right now, I wonder right now, if we could just listen for a moment”  —  and there was the trombone, longer this time, infusing the sanctuary — “See somebody know that heaven is close by!” the preacher yelled from deep inside. “Somebody know they need to get closer to God! They know all they got to do is REPENT!” he yelped.

The music, the long-awaited music, poured onto us. The brass was a prophet. Lacking words, its message could not be denied; delivering all the soul of New Orleans, it could only sweep you away. When that trumpet sounded, it offered a glimpse of heaven. Or something like it. My heart jumped as those angelic tones flew from the trumpets. “You don’t have to wait on NO revival to get saved! You don’t have to wait on NO preacher to get you up tonight! All that you have to know is that you can give God everything! All you have to do is tell God, ‘I’m ready!’ Are you ready to make heaven your home?” The preacher shouted until it seemed his throat would rupture, “ARE YOU READY TO SHOW GOD SOME SIGNS? ARE YOU READY TO SHOW GOD SOME SIGNS? CAN ANYBODY SHOW GOD SOME SIGNS?”

Those ahead of me caught the faith and threw their bodies about as if they were on fire. Everyone sobbed and wailed as they jumped and danced, and the voice of the Holy Spirit drew itself achingly from their tongues. And the band played on all the while, louder and louder over the foreign voices.

I can’t remember how the song ended; I can’t remember how the people settled back to their seats. How does one douse that fire, sever that power? But the song did end, and the people did sit, and the pastor from Baltimore started up the collection, and I left my spot on the wall to get some water, to escape the sweltering heat of that place.

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When I reentered the Charlotte Motherhouse, nearly an hour of collections had passed. Bailey had collected a new briefcase and a vacation package from two large North Carolina churches. An elder declared, “And now we have come to the very best part of this service, for the next voice will be that of our very own, sweet, sweet, Precious Daddy Bailey.” Daddy’s maids took him by his arms and helped him from his throne. The king waddled to the pulpit. He asked the audience to clap for God, then for Jesus, then for the Holy Spirit, for the House of Prayer, for Grace, and for the bishops who succeeded him.

“Listen, because words are important,” Bailey began his sermon. “They reach back through time, and they bring us forward. It reminds us where we come from, and it even tells us which way we’re going.” With a deep voice, he told the congregation that if they followed him, they would have a place in heaven, but he cautioned, “If you’re going to follow someone, make sure it’s the right one.” God had always provided a way for his people to achieve salvation through his prophets, but mankind often refused to listen. Those who were here since Daddy Grace’s day seem to have forgotten the teachings, he said. “But I’m here to remind you,” Bailey preached. “It isn’t about saying you love me, it’s about doing what I say.” He turned to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, “If ye love me, keep my commands, and I will pray to the Father and He shall give you another comforter that he may abide with you forever.” The assembly cheered, knowing the great comforter stood before them.

Bailey turned to the Old Testament story of Noah to demonstrate the consequences of rejecting God’s servant. Bailey sang, “It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain,” to the congregation’s glee. He asked the preachers for a specific verse, but they fell silent. “Where your Bibles? Y’all forget what Daddy McCullough told y’all? He told you always bring your Bibles. Y’all forgot, didn’t you?” Bailey hurled at the elders. “Return!” Then he brought the church to the story of Moses leading the Israelites through the desert. “They started to do the things that were displeasing in the eyes of God,” Bailey warned. “The earth opened up and swallowed them. Some serpents came up out of the wilderness and destroyed them. Some choked on the meat they were eating because they wouldn’t even thank God and appreciate him.” Daddy’s point was clear: follow God’s servant, or else. God threw even the disobedient angels down from heaven. What could we expect?

He returned to the comforter, the one man in whom God placed his spirit. “God has one man, and the rest are followers,” Bailey continued. “That man’s job is to save as many as he can, and turn them from darkness to the marvelous light.” Even through old age, God stands beside his appointed, until he dies and God’s spirit finds another body. “How did we get Daddy Grace, how did we get Daddy Madison, how did we get Daddy McCullough? And how did you get me?” he smiled. “I’m not here of my own.” Bailey said he trusted we would follow him. “When Jesus opens the door, the gate, and lets you in, it’s going to be because you’re following his servant in the gate.” The church shouted at their luck to be in the presence of a savior. The music started up again slowly and Bailey drew to a close with an admonition, “Thank him for his goodness. Thank him for his blessing. Glorify him. Give him a holler of praise. Thank him and thank him some more. Know that he’s God. Beside him there is none other. Do what he said, and everything will work out for good,” he ended. “Praise him, praise him, praise him.”

Whether the command was to praise God or praise Bailey was unclear, but the churchgoers did not seem to care. They had descended once more into their ecstasies. Those who did not have the Spirit in them pushed towards the center aisle to give Daddy a dollar bill as he processed out, hoping they could buy a blessing. Bailey’s girls led him back to the Holy Mountain where he watched the whirling sea of his followers dance to the music. He put up his hands and directed the music’s beat.

I rushed outside, hoping to catch Bishop Bailey for a moment at the front of the church. Outside, like a hint of Noah’s deluge, a rain had fallen, and a slight drizzle still pattered. The mothers beside me whispered to their children, “You wanna see Daddy Bailey?” The front doors opened and Bailey’s attendants opened umbrellas as he lumbered down the steps. Security guards restrained us as the bishop and his lady entered the first in a line of cars. A vehicle from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Department turned on its sirens, and the convoy of black cars drove out of sight. I still had tomorrow to ask Daddy my questions.

I phoned a cab to return to my motel. While I waited, I talked to a local minister. He said he was born in New Bedford, but had moved south. He said he liked it better: they got to see Daddy more often. I wanted to know whether he had ever met Bailey. He said Bailey had touched his head when he was anointed into Bailey’s first class of preachers after becoming bishop, but he had never spoken to him.

“You enjoyed the service?” he asked me. I told him I had. “Well, come back and see us tomorrow for the baptism,” he said. “Wear some white pants and a white shirt.”

 

In the years following his first southern tour, Grace propagated his gospel across the country. The House of Prayer, Grace constantly reminded his followers, was prophesied in Isaiah: “Mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Membership in the church was the sole path to salvation; any nonbelievers, who Grace referred to as “beasts,” were doomed to hell. Grace explained his prominence in the new religion by saying that God sent a prophet for each era in history: he was only the latest in a line that began with Noah and Moses. The bishop touted his family name as a fulfillment of biblical prophecies, taking each mention of “grace,” such as “For it is by grace you have been saved” in Ephesians 2:8, as a reference to himself. These teachings toed the line between Grace as a holy man and as God himself. “Grace has given God a vacation, and since God is on vacation, don’t worry Him,” Arthur Huff Fauset quoted Grace as saying in his 1940s study of black churches in Philadelphia, Black Gods of the Urban Metropolis. “If you sin against God, Grace can save you, but if you sin against Grace, God cannot save you.”

In March 1934, Grace came under scrutiny when a young woman, Minnie Lee Campbell, accused him of attempted rape. Campbell said she was driving with Grace from New York to Philadelphia in mid-October 1932 when he threw her on the car’s floor and pulled up her dress. The two did not have sex on that occasion, but she reported other times when he pursued her, such as a night in Washington, D.C., when Grace allegedly told her, “I want you to come up to my room, and I mean come up. I am going to leave the door unlocked, and come up.” Campbell said the two engaged in intercourse, and she returned to her own bed just before dawn. Nine months later, she delivered a son. Grace was never tried for rape, but a jury convicted him on a federal charge of bringing a woman across state lines for sexual purposes. Grace fashioned his conviction into a narrative of martyrdom that paralleled Jesus’ crucifixion. “Only the court of the Almighty is the one which can pass judgment,” Grace said in a sermon in Norfolk, Va. “Conviction is not guilt. Christ was convicted but was he guilty?” While a few turned away from Grace, the vast majority rallied to his side, perhaps seeing their own persecution in the pre-civil rights era in Grace’s narrative. A few days after his Norfolk sermon, on Easter Sunday, 10,000 gathered for a parade celebrating the bishop in Newport News. Church members had had their beliefs tested, and as a result, they only strengthened their dedication to their Daddy, embracing their martyred leader.

But the trial also prompted Grace to reconsider the role of his church. Taking his conviction as a symbol of the African American struggle, Grace embarked on a venture to provide services to poor black communities. In 1949, Grace invested in a series of apartment buildings in Virginia to provide better housing for African Americans. (Presumably, the monthly income from rent must have also satisfied Grace’s entrepreneurial impulses.) He often sent pictures of his real estate holdings to be hung on sanctuary walls. One churchgoer from Columbia, S.C., said the photos comforted her, knowing the buildings “belong to Sweet Daddy and his children.” By 1958, Grace told a reporter he had 41 houses, including a mansion in New Bedford, a riverfront apartment building in Harlem, and a model castle in Bridgeport.

In January 1960, Sweet Daddy Grace died in an 85-room mansion in Los Angeles. A Portuguese-speaking immigrant from a volcanic island near Africa, Grace had come to America and created a religion out of nothing. From its humble origins in makeshift tents, he forged a theology that expanded to more than 100 places of worship. Disdainful of money in his early teachings, Grace flaunted his wealth later in life, flashing heavy rings and expensive suits as he visited his dozens of properties across the country. His followers, sometimes estimated to number in the millions, revered him as the last prophet. Was this black preacher God made flesh again, founding the true church in the Promised Land? Or was he an incarnation of the American Dream in the land of promise?

Now with 137 congregations in 28 states, the church has been carried on by three successors, Madison, McCullough, and Bailey, who each assumed the dual titles of Bishop and Daddy when his predecessor died. Each was elected by church elders, a strange notion considering the near-divinity each later preached. Bailey received an unprecedented 91 percent of the votes. When I attempted to learn more about Bailey’s past, I was unable to find information. James Weaving, head of the records division for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, said he was unable to find a date of birth. Stranger still, there is no record of Bailey’s first name: C. M. replicates the church’s founder, Charles Manuel Grace, but Bailey is otherwise anonymous.

As the church nears its centennial in 2019, Bishop Bailey is calling for followers to “return,” a phrase he says God presented to him in a vision. “Whereas, our fore parents sacrificed with their nickels and pennies; and more recent generations have been blessed to have greater resources and make even larger sacrifices, look at the strength and power of the House of Prayer, today,” a recent article in Bailey Magazine rhapsodized. “In this ‘Year of the Sacrifice,’ the United House of Prayer, under the visionary leadership of Precious Daddy Bailey, shines as a bright light in this troubled world.”

 

Sunday morning shone bright. I fidgeted with the buttons on my white shirt and threw on a pair of black pants — where does one even buy white pants? — hoping no one would care. Arriving at the church, I followed the black-and-white blur to a parking lot behind the sanctuary. Most of the women had shower caps or plastic shopping bags tied around their hair. Two tankers from the Charlotte Fire Department were parked at either end of the lot.

From a wooden gazebo a man half-sang, half-spoke a story from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, in which an angel told Philip to travel from Jerusalem to Gaza. On the road Phillip met an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading from a verse from the Book of Isaiah: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Philip asked the foreigner if he understood what he was reading, and the eunuch shook his head no. After Philip explained the Gospel, the black man asked to be baptized. The preacher buzzed from on high: “When you think about those who have left us, all those who have gone onto glory since last year, I ask you this question, ‘Who among you can not afford to give God everything?’” The preacher finished with the simple sentence, plain as the morning, “God has provided all of the help that we need in Precious Daddy Bailey.”

“You’ve heard the preacher, brother preacher,” Sweet Daddy Bailey took over. “Now what hinders you? You shouldn’t be lacking understanding.” The crowd craned their necks to see Daddy speak, to be closer to the water. “I am the servant of the God of the House of Prayer! And I want you to get in the water. And be clean. If the water run out, I know God will give us more. Because I’ve got a work to do. So many need the water.” Then he commanded, “Bow in prayer. In the name of God Almighty, in the name of his precious Son our Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Holy Ghost, I baptize thee! Let Jordan roll! Don’t wait for the water to come to you, come unto the water. Come on and get in the water!”

The fire hoses spurted out a jet, high into the sky, and it rained down on us. Three shout bands commenced playing. Daddy Bailey directed the hoses to the dry areas, aiming to hit everyone with at least a drop. The crowd swam in the river and found faith in the deep, they came up gasping for breath and chanted praise in the ancient words of the Ghost and knew they were living in the last days. I pulled my raincoat over me, not ready to play the eunuch in this story: this truly was a church like none other.

After being hosed for close to ten minutes, I was drenched. Most people departed to change into dry clothes, but I hung back to talk with people. A short, elderly white woman, wearing a knitted sweater over a white dress, stared at me from a distance before she called, “Brother, how are you?” Truthfully I was chilly, but I told her I was just fine. She said her name was St. Paylor and clapped my arm. “You don’t have the Holy Ghost yet?” she asked, shaking her fist. “No,” I said honestly this time. She slit her eyes: “Seek for it. Make up your mind and give your heart, mind, and soul to God. Heart is soul, soul is mind. Same thing, same thing.” I told her I had traveled to Charlotte in an attempt to understand that personal connection with God. “Give it to God, get around the Holy Mountain, get up there on your knees, lay down, roll, whatever it takes. I’m serious, I’m serious,” she instructed. “And call Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy. And ask God that the Holy Ghost give you the mighty burning fire, the mighty burning fire. You’ve got to have the fire.” I asked her how long it took for her to get the Spirit. She chuckled and said two weeks. She had joined the church in Greensboro 23 years ago and then moved to Charlotte. Suddenly she grabbed my hand in hers. “You belong here. You’re supposed to be in the House of Prayer. That’s that. You know this is not a regular church. You have seen that already. This is God’s heaven on earth. Don’t take those words lightly now.” I told her I could not agree more: I had seen signs in the believers’ ecstasies, and I did not know what to make of them.

Paylor introduced me to a friend, Missionary Marquina Miles, who was born in New Haven and had also moved to Charlotte, where her husband lived. “Don’t he look like a band boy?” Paylor asked Miles. “He do, he do.” “And then an elder?” “On top of it,” Miles said. Paylor laughed and grabbed me again, “I put it on you, brother. I expect you to live to it.”

I asked them what it was like to receive the Holy Ghost: “Seems like I could just feel the water cleanse me. It was cold,” Paylor said. “Well, my knees was hurting,” Miles interrupted. “So it just went down and then it went down. And I kept drinking the water.” She laughed at herself, but Paylor said she had done the same thing. “At the end I was wiping it off and just putting it in my mouth.” “I think I have another tongue,” Miles joked. “That’s probably why I drink so much.”

Paylor took her glossolalia as a sign that the end times were fast approaching. As evil increased, so too would miracles. “The Bible says the saints shall judge the world,” St. Paylor said. “The true saints, not just ones holding the title.” “We ain’t gonna hold our peace,” Miles echoed. Paylor continued, “And it’s gonna come that time again. It’s gonna come again. Get righteous now. It’s coming again. Daddy McCullough told us, ‘Remember all the Bible you can remember, because there will come a time when you won’t even be allowed to have a Bible.’ And Daddy Grace said, ‘The time will come when blood will be running down the streets and you’ll have to walk through the blood to get to the House of Prayer.’ Wooh my God!” she cried out. “We’re on the edge of those evil days. Hey! Hallelujah!” and then she lapsed into tongues.

Miles gripped Paylor as she said to me, “See, some people like you, you chose to get in. That means your heart was ready to receive.” Paylor had recovered and eyed me, “If you are here and we see what we see in you, you are chosen. You cannot turn back, you have to stay with it.” Miles spoke again, “You understand. You got the Holy Ghost, huh?” and then she flinched and shouted. I explained to her that I was still looking for it. “You got some understanding here. I don’t know.”

The women wished me blessings and left to claim blessed water bottles from the fire truck. I was confused by what Miles had said, and I felt uneasy that they had read so deeply into my desires. By coming down to Charlotte, had I taken a step that many people never reached? Did I have enough understanding? Or, was it possible I had too much? I stood alone in the parking lot, wet with baptismal water, and doubted whether I wanted to be chosen.

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Sunday night began much like the night before. There were lively songs by the area’s choirs and the children danced again in their uniforms. Bailey’s Queens were still bedazzled in their tiaras, and Bailey’s Nurses still roamed about in their caps, as if searching for someone to heal. Somehow the church was even more packed, with members of the city council, local judges, and representatives from the NAACP in attendance as Daddy’s guests. “I’m here all the time, not just at election time,” one female elected official said. “Power to the people.” The audience’s favorite, Gary Henderson, an attorney for Mecklenburg County Child Support Enforcement, received a standing ovation.

I felt different after participating in the baptism, more like a participant than an observer. I murmured my approval and was quick to dance when the music started. Other churchgoers seemed to sense a change in me, too. As I was walked in, a woman named Marilyn Williams asked me if I had a seat, and when I shook my head, she invited me to sit with her family. Yet I was still far from receiving the Holy Ghost. I closed my eyes and danced as the shout bands played, but nothing came over me.

For the first time, I joined in “Daddy’s March” during the collection as the believers parade through the church in half-step waving a donation above our heads. Uniformed cadets direct the path and keep the rhythm. After the male elders and then all adults had marched, I went forward with the young people, my $2 love gift in hand. At the front of the church, we all threw our dollars onto a large table. No one acknowledged the donation, but a hand quickly snatched it up and added it to the growing pile. I walked back to my seat with Williams, and she explained the last group to line up was Daddy’s Club, whose members had paid $2,000 in a year towards the general fund known as the “Resurrection Program.” I asked if those who paid had to pay each year. Williams said they were expected to do so, but there was no strict requirement for membership besides the initial fee.

After the long collection, Daddy delivered his sermon with grace. He preached of the miracles to come: just as God had parted the Red Sea through the servant Moses, those who believed would soon do greater works, but those who antagonized the faithful would be destroyed like the Egyptian oppressors. “We have much to do, and only a short time to do it,” Bailey concluded.

The Convocation drew to a close with a song, “Dad is my everything.” Everyone clapped as Bailey wagged his finger at us. “He’s my joy in sorrow, he’s my hope for tomorrow. He’s my shelter in the time of storm. Dad is, Dad is my everything.” As I muttered along, I didn’t fully believe the lyrics, but I had come to understand their attraction. The rest of the congregation shared my desire for a personal savior, but they had found an easy answer in their sweet, sweet Daddy, a comforter who answered their prayers and theirs alone. The United House of Prayer could never be for all people: the members needed to believe they were a select group that had been privileged with the Holy Ghost, with salvation. It was a strange and wonderful ideal: unlike my Catholic upbringing that glorified the dying Jesus of the crucifix, this congregation worshipped an empty cross. The church operated as if Jesus died and rose from death, but as if he had never ascended into heaven, as if he walks still among them — indeed, is one of them — healing and saving the afflicted across America. I wished to devote myself to this new American prophet, but following Daddy unquestioningly would not lead to the redemption I sought, a salvation from my own doubts and shortcomings in this life.

A man tapped me on the shoulder. “Were you taking pictures?” he demanded. “You can’t take that. You got it in there? You can’t take no pictures.” He took my phone from me. Another man asked, “You didn’t take no video, did you?” “You need to come with me,” the first man said and led me to the back of the church. He told the other man to stay close behind me. “Everyone keep a low profile,” he muttered. My heart pounded as he led me to the slick lip of the sidewalk. The first man told the other to get his supervisor, Brian Steele. “You thinking about joining?” he asked. I told him that I had been attending services in New Haven and that I didn’t know the rules of the church. “There’s some things we just don’t do,” he said. He pulled out his cellphone to call Steele. While he talked, I quickly started to delete the pictures. “Don’t delete ‘em,” he said when he saw what I was doing. “What were you taking pictures of, Daddy with the money or something?” I answered honestly that I only took pictures of the band playing after the bishop had already left. When Steele arrived, he told me that he could not confiscate my phone but asked that I delete the pictures. I decided to cooperate and deleted all the pictures I had taken inside the church. What I thought I knew crumbled in an instant, as two men escorted me out of the House of Prayer and stifled my own act of witnessing. I was not meant to comprehend anything more.

 

In New Haven, the United House of Prayer owns at least six buildings, valued by independent assessors at over $4 million. Most of the buildings are located on Dixwell Avenue and owned by either the House of Prayer or the Bishop McCullough Trust. The apartments of McCullough Court, a block behind Payne Whitney Gymnasium, are brick homes clustered around a central parking lot. With benches and green shrubs, a sign at the corner calls it the “Garden of Eden.” One resident I spoke to said he thought the place was spacious and affordable. He added that he had been attending services at the United House of Prayer across the street since he was born. Maybe Grace’s original intention to aid poor black communities was being realized in Bailey’s recent acquisitions. I walked further down Dixwell to a commercial building the church owns. Under a sign that says “Solution Convenience, LLC: Body and Soul” is a convenience store. An older man watched a TV from a seat beside the counter. I asked the younger man at the register about their landlord, the church. He said it was affordable. The old man turned his head to me. His eyes were faded and yellowing. The young man hesitated and said nothing more. Though it seems like the church returns some of its wealth to the donors through housing and scholarships, I still felt uncomfortable with Daddy and the money. I was yet unsure whether the United House of Prayer was a wealthy religion or a religion of wealth.

As the tithes and the love gifts, the convocation fees and Daddy’s Club memberships flood the national headquarters, “God’s White House,” Sweet Daddy Bailey expands his empire. As of May this year, Washington, D.C., is witnessing the construction of at least seven new apartment buildings. North Carolina already boasts more than 30 churches, but a zoning permit was recently approved for a new housing development known as Bailey Gardens. According to his annual publication The Truth and Facts of the United House of Prayer, Bailey bought a stucco home “completely renovated with central heating and air conditioning” in Los Angeles in January, and in April, he made a surprise visit to a two-story home with views of the ocean in San Francisco, since he “was so determined to purchase this property.”

I had come to Charlotte in hopes of meeting this inspired leader, of catching a glimpse of faith beyond this world. I believed I had seen its power in a basement on Dixwell, and I wished I could access it as simply as one answers a knock on the door. Do I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth? In Jesus Christ, His only son, who was crucified to redeem my sins? Do I believe in a water baptism to purge me of my evil? Will I kneel down before the comforter, who has dried the eyes of millions in misery with his promise of a world beyond the moon? Must I be born again and consumed in the fire of the Holy Ghost? That faith is like the words of strangers speaking in a room above my own.

The anonymous figure of Daddy, worshipped as divine, is largely inaccessible. Only one person I met in Charlotte had ever had a conversation with him. The mystery surrounding the bishop is particularly strange since the church’s theology centers on his presence. Perhaps it is only the promise that compels the believers, or it is the visions and dreams that at least a dozen described to me or wrote in the pages of Bailey Magazine. The golden throne in New Haven is still wrapped in plastic, awaiting its fattened king. Bishop Bailey is unlikely to visit the small congregation, but his faithful will still pray and wait, wail and pay in the hopes that one day the great things promised to them will finally be delivered. All the while, the prophet smiles at his worldly paradise, and profits.

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