New Pastor Buoys Church’s Spirits

Times Staff Writer

At first, it appeared to be a typical service at Ward AME Church: tambourines rattling, hands clapping and voices soaring to the sweet sounds of gospel music.

But with the sermon, the deep voice of the Rev. C. Dennis Williams signaled that a new chapter had begun for a church that had fallen on hard times.

“Storms never come to defeat us,” the new pastor said to members shouting “Yes, Lord!” and “C’mon, preacher!”


“The Lord,” he continued, “sends storms only to make us stronger.”

Williams, 45, has assumed control of one of the largest and most prominent African Methodist Episcopal churches in Southern California. In recent months, the Los Angeles church has been rocked by a sex abuse scandal that led to the defrocking of its previous minister and triggered a precipitous drop in membership.

The former pastor, the Rev. Sylvester Laudermill Jr., was accused of molesting two boys, one of whom is now an adult who attended an AME church in St. Louis, where Laudermill pastored for 10 years until 2004. The man told St. Louis police in December that Laudermill started a 7-year relationship with him when he was 14. Soon after, an accuser in Los Angeles emerged.

Laudermill maintains his innocence, and he has not been criminally charged. Police in both cities are investigating.

But in March, Laudermill was suspended after church administrative committees in St. Louis and Los Angeles launched investigations.

He was ousted last month after the St. Louis committee confirmed six of the eight allegations made by the adult accuser and the Los Angeles committee said that it substantiated two allegations made by a 17-year-old.

Laudermill has been barred from any position within the AME Church, which has not been sued by either accuser. Laudermill did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

AME Bishop John Bryant, who runs the church’s 5th Episcopal District, which includes St. Louis and Los Angeles, informed members of Laudermill’s removal at a closed-door session May 8.

“It was a shock,” said Lee Coleman, a member since the 1970s.

While the Roman Catholic Church has been shaken by sex abuse allegations against priests in recent years, the AME Church, which has more than 2 million members worldwide, has mostly avoided headline-grabbing scandals -- especially ones involving allegations of sexually abused boys.

“That’s very unusual for a black church,” said the Rev. Michael Battle, a professor at the Virginia Theological Seminary and author of “Black Church in America: African American Christian Spirituality.”

Battle said there was a history of black leaders sexually harassing women or cheating on their wives -- a behavior tolerated in part because of the historical context. Slavery and racism forced black men into subservient roles, and they responded by acting out sexually, he said.

“To be a male black leader, it’s also implied that you have to show your dominance through sexuality,” Battle said. But abusing a boy, he added, is viewed by the black church with the same contempt that the black community has for homosexuality.

Some Ward AME members still don’t believe the allegations against Laudermill or question the fairness of the investigations.

“If that accusation is true, why hasn’t he been prosecuted?” asked Ed Knox, a member since 1970. He called the defrocking of Laudermill premature.

The question now facing Ward AME: Can it return to its former glory?

The church once boasted 5,000 members. Church officials say current figures aren’t available but concede that significant numbers left the congregation.

Still, during an interview conducted while he moved into his office, Williams spoke confidently about the future.

“Without struggle, there is no liberation,” he said in an interview, rephrasing abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He is already planning to introduce new ministries at the church near USC.

To be sure, Williams’ credentials and dynamic preaching style have already brought excitement back to the church.

“He’s young, energetic, and he has what it takes to get us back to where we were,” said Errol Briggs, an usher who has been a member for 19 years. “People will be hanging off the rafters pretty soon.”

Williams, who was born in San Diego and raised in Santa Ana, has been preaching since he was 15 and pastoring since he was 24. He holds a number of theology degrees, including a doctorate in preaching from United Theological Seminary in Trotwood, Ohio. For the last 10 years, he pastored at an AME church in San Diego. Membership grew to 2,000 from 600, he said.

Ward AME will be the fifth church he has led and, by his own admission, his toughest assignment yet. He compared his assignment to that of Nehemiah, an Old Testament figure who led the Jews in rebuilding the walls of a ruined Jerusalem.

“I see Ward as a restoration of the walls,” Williams said.

During his first Sunday at the church, June 4, a sense of anticipation filled the air. Among those in attendance were members who had left the church after the abuse allegations surfaced.

Williams, wearing a white cassock, urged church members to be like eagles who fly above the storms. He also told them that healing was on its way.

“To have a breakthrough, you have to have a breaking,” he said. “The Lord is bringing restoration.”

Williams never mentioned the scandal specifically, and the congregation of hundreds, including his wife and three children, rose to its feet as Williams concluded his sermon.

“I don’t know why we went through what we went through,” he said. “But it only made us stronger.”

Retired minister Cecil “Chip” Murray, 76, served as the interim pastor until Williams’ appointment.

“The attendance reflected the pain,” he said, noting the drop in church membership and the palpable tension in the congregation. “As with any congregation, the pain at times caused some degree of polarization. It would cause some degree of negativism. It would cause some degree of defensiveness.... People are people.”

Some members shunned the young accuser and his family, Murray said.

A committee was formed to help bring healing and restoration to the church. A church member, who is a psychologist, heads the committee and offered her services free to members.

Both she and Murray said they were unaware of anyone who lost their faith. But Murray said he was sure that some questioned their beliefs, which proved disquieting to those who maintained their faith.

“That’s the nature of confusion,” he said.

But the fresh start has many members excited and happy. After the service, many raved about Williams’ sermon.

“Today’s service was the beginning of healing,” said the Rev. Barry Settle, an assistant pastor. “We believe the best is yet to come.”