"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Store-Front Religion - How Little Pastor Williams Scammed The Inner City

LaFarge Williams was born and bred in Bradford, an inner city neighborhood of a large East Coast city  It was  a poor, drug-ridden, crime-infested hellhole where drive-by shootings, prostitution, illegal gambling, single-motherhood, and welfare queens were the rule.  It was a nasty, trash-strewn place, as bad as any in the country - worse than the slums of West Baltimore, East St. Louis, and most of Detroit north of the river.    


The police doubled patrols in the area, carried twelve-gauge shotguns, and never stepped out of their cruisers unless they wore triple-layered Kevlar bullet-proof vests.  Gunfights between the Metropolitan Police and Dominican gangs spilled over into residential neighborhoods, and the row houses on 12th and 13th Streets were riddled with bullet holes - not just police-issue .45s and .38 specials, but high-grade, armor-piercing, high caliber battlefield ballistics. 

LaFarge was no different than any child of his age in the slums - abandoned as a baby by his father, raised by his grandmother, and ignored by his drunken, cracked-out mother who died in a gutter from an overdose of Fentanyl

The one and only safe and sound place in Bradford was the Bible Community store-front church, repurposed from whatever it sold to religion; and thanks to the Reverend Isaiah J. Fielding was always filled to overflowing.  Fielding was a natural, a charismatic, compelling, inspirational prophet who invoked the presence of Jesus Christ every Sunday. 

After the invocation, the reading of Psalms and Kings, the pastor warmed to his audience, and before long he had them hooting and hollering, scrambling up the aisle, shaking and trembling, and shouting 'Praise Jesus, Oh Praise the Lord'.  One by one the congregants stumbled towards the altar, raising their hands and whooping in ecstasy and before long the whole place was standing, writhing, and shouting. 

The Reverend just smiled at the Lord's work.  He had only read from the Good Book and Jesus did the rest. All it took was some fancy hog calling, carny barker smooth talking, and old LaFollette Union Square political wilding and his work was done.  It was as easy as pie, came naturally, and was rewarding - not in a big, megachurch way, but in small but consistent tithings, enough for a new silk suit, a trip to New Orleans and some alligator shoes 

Little LaFarge Williams sat in the back row of the church every Sunday, gussied up as much as his grandmother would allow - the diamond tie stud, for example, that Grandfather Willy hocked and she retrieved as collateral for some unforeseen event, a glittery set in gold thing that she kept in her sewing kit but gave to LaFarge on Sundays. 

He was proud of that pin, it gave him cachet and importance - he was A Big Man for two hours once a week and was the price of admission to Pastor Fielding and the Lord.  He sat in his seat and watched the Reverend start from a slow drawl and work up to a St. Vitus' dance of religious twisting and turning, holding the Bible and sweeping it across the congregation and shouting Hallelujah, Praise the Lord with verve and wild passion, 

'I can do that', said LaFarge. 'I want to do that', and so it was that he became Pastor Fielding's apprentice, learning the trade.  He like his mentor had a natural charismatic talent - he could speak as low as the rumble of a bass organ, and shout to the hilltops.  He could read the word of Christ as if he had written it himself.  Fielding knew that the presence of such a young prophet would bring the faithful in and would fill his coffers.  

The people of Bradford like any black population with feet in the North but hearts and minds still in the cotton fields were just dying for salvation, for divine succor - just one glimpse of Our Lord and Master would be enough; and when a child could bring them to Him, it had a special, profound meaning.  The innocence of a child meant more to Jesus and to them than even the holiest of preachers. 

So LaFarge and the Reverend were a tag team on Sundays, each rousing the congregants in their own way each with their hands on some particular spiritual need and worldly misery.  They were good, and the money kept rolling in. After some time Fielding let LaFarge have his own Sunday service, and the boy was at his best.  He really looked inspired, as if the hand of the Lord had touched him on the shoulder, but based on the money he made for the church, he was one of the best 'artists' of Bradford and the whole inner city. 

'Let's go on the road', the pastor suggested.  Not to revival tents and hope and glory fairgrounds, but right here in the ghetto, a sprawling mess with hundreds of abandoned buildings waiting for a tenant. 'Why we could be the Lords of 22nd Street and Masters of Akins Avenue', Fielding said, waving his arm to encompass all that he saw. 

First there were two churches, then three, all filled to the gills - they preached together and individually, and their reputation spread.  Not only were they messengers of the Lord, and not only His streetcorner prophets, but endowed with the Holy Spirit.  A mere sighting of them was enough, a glimpse of a godly figure, close to the divine.  And the money kept pouring in.  They organized celebrations for the entire Bradford community, commandeered blocks and parking lots, covered them with tents, and had a go like Elmer Gantry, and Billy Graham. 

'These people may be poor', Fielding said, 'but generous? Generous to a fault', and with that his trips to New Orleans doubled, Armani suits filled his armoire, and diamond stick pins like the one LaFarge's grandfather wore, were on his Italian silk ties every Sunday. 

As for Little Pastor Williams - that was what his adoring parishioners called him - he rose to the very top of his game, and went from store front to established church to megachurch to televangelism.  His was the top-rated religious show on BET.  He became as wealthy as Jerry Falwell or Oral Roberts ever were. He published books on Righteous Living, The Path of the Lord, And Loving Jesus, and his online videos got thousands of daily viewers.  By the time he was twenty-five, he retired to his home in Palm Beach, lived like a king, had a harem of beautiful Jamaican women, a cigarette boat, and the luxuries of a pasha. 

'Just think of it', he said.  'All thanks to Jesus Christ'.  He smiled, of course the Lord had a little help from him, but better to be humble at times like these. 

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