Thursday, March 7, 2013

Outbreak At Church Service Power Struggle Turns Violent from 1991

Outbreak At Church Service Power Struggle Turns Violent

Posted: November 18, 1991

Sunday services at a Philadelphia church turned violent yesterday as warring factions in an intense power struggle at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith clashed inside the sanctuary.
Police, some in riot gear, were called to break up the confrontation, which included a wrestling match near the altar. The clash came during a memorial service for Bishop S. McDowell Shelton, who led the church until his death last month. No arrests were made.
Just after 1 p.m., police cars with lights flashing surrounded the church at 22d and Bainbridge Streets, and inside it seemed like anything but a church service.
The conflict revolved around who will lead the church and control its enormous financial resources.
What was supposed to be a solemn remembrance turned to chaos, with some of Shelton's younger adopted sons - known as princes of the church - trying to prevent an older son, Elder Nehiamiah Shelton, from taking over.
Elder Nehiamiah, as he is known, said that he was the rightful successor to the bishop's post.
Yesterday marked the end of a 30-day mourning period for Shelton, whom the congregation referred to as "His Holy Apostolic Blessedness." During the mourning period, women were supposed to wear white and men were supposed to wear beards.
Shelton's robe hung over his chair near the altar in the middle of the church, a reminder of his rule.
Disciples stepped to the microphone, one by one, to testify to Shelton's holiness, and kindness to them. Most of them wept.
"You were blessed when you were in the presence of that man, whether you deserved it or not," said Prince Omega, one of Shelton's adopted sons and a member of the Royal House of Shelton, as Shelton declared his family, made up of adopted young men from the congregation.
But the end of mourning also signaled the beginning of an open battle for the reins of the church, and its reputed extensive financial resources, which Shelton amassed during his 30 years as pastor.
Shelton ruled with a firm hand. And there was hardly ever any public discussion of his lavish lifestyle, which was paid for with the tithes of the thousands of followers. Members were counseled to live simply and frugally and were required to give 10 percent of their income to the church.
The bishop, meanwhile, rode in luxury cars, lived in a penthouse apartment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and traveled extensively.
Since Shelton's death at age 62 on Oct. 13, the church has been in turmoil over who among his adopted sons will replace him and who will control church assets.
The divisions were clear yesterday when Elder Nehiamiah Shelton tried to enter the church just after 1 p.m. for the service. He was followed by an entourage of about 20 young men, and he carried what was described as a court order saying that he was the rightful leader of the congregation.
As church guards tried to eject Elder Nehiamiah and his followers, a scuffle started in the aisle after the man refused to move.
The minister at the microphone began screaming, "Stop hitting him! Stop hitting him!"
The congregation of about 2,000 people stood up - some on the pews - and began screaming: "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" Police were called, and several officers, many in riot gear, appeared inside the church.
Elder Nehiamiah and his entourage went to the front of the church amid the screaming.
Prince Omega chastised Elder Nehiamiah for disrupting the "holiest day" of the year, the day of commemoration of His Blessedness. Before turning over the microphone to Elder Nehiamiah, Prince Omega addressed the congregation: ''You want to hear what Satan sounds like, listen to this." He called Shelton and his entourage "reprobates" and "bastards" and then dropped the microphone on the floor at Elder Nehiamiah's feet.
When Elder Nehiamiah tried to speak, the microphone went dead. He never got the chance.
Prince Omega then castigated him for trying to declare himself ''Blessedness II" at a time when all the congregation was trying to memorialize "the greatest man of the 20th century."
Prince Omega stood in front of Elder Nehiamiah, shouting and waving a white handkerchief: "This is a dog, a dog. You're a dog." Much of the audience seemed to approve; others just seemed stunned.
Elder Nehiamiah left the church about 1:50 p.m. The service continued into the early evening.
Even as the conflict grew out of control, members of the insular congregation, who are referred to as "saints," would not publicly discuss it.
"If you're not a member, then you don't need to know," said one woman. ''This is private business."
From the altar, one of the other princes announced that a court hearing on the matter would be held tomorrow. He offered no further detail, but urged as many "saints" as possible to attend.
For all the fireworks yesterday, this is not the first time the church has found itself in chaos. The upheaval that has followed Shelton's death parallels what happened when the church's founder, Bishop Sherrod C. Johnson, died in 1961. At the time, a 32-year-old S. McDowell Shelton, the church's business manager, seized the role of bishop in an atmosphere of intense conflict and heavy infighting.
Yesterday, one of Elder Nehiamiah's supporters seemed to refer to that time, though he certainly was too young to remember.
"They did the same thing to Blessedness, the same thing," he said.

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