(Two years ago today, ArchBishop Earl Paulk passed away. Though he died under a heap of scrutiny and controversy, I felt it necessary to remember some of his accomplishments as a religious leader; and the following post was my attempt to do so. I hope you enjoy.)
I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was a cold winter day in January 2002 and I had only been in Atlanta for about three weeks. Some friends and I were in my new dorm house at the local bible college that I was attending doing what we overchurched aspiring ministry leaders did a lot back then; WATCH OTHER MINISTERS who were doing what we one day wanted to do. Our ministerial voyeurism normally consisted of watching the same list of mainstream classical and neo Pentecostal ministers; these were individuals like T.D. Jakes, Noel Jones, Marvin Winans, Juanita Bynum, Iona Locke and Clarence McClendon etc. (all individuals I scarcely follow these days) This one particular day while we were watching some of the usual suspects’, one of my friends noted that all of these ministers had come through “the cathedral” at some time or another. I quickly asked him what and where is the cathedral? He responded that it was Bishop Earl Paulk’s church The Cathedral at Chapel Hill over in Decatur (a suburb of Atlanta). This was my first introduction to a man that I would come to learn and hear a lot about in the next several years that I would spend in the phoenix city of Atlanta. The man I speak of is the now decease Archbishop Earl P. Paulk.
On March 29, 2009 the Archbishop Earl P. Paulk (born May 30, 1927) died and hopefully entered the church triumphant after a long battle with cancer. The name Paulk may be familiar to those who follow local Atlanta news or keep up with Christian tabloid reports. He is the Atlanta Charismatic Archbishop who had been at the center of much controversy over the last ten plus years, all relating to alleged and proven sexual misconduct accusations rendered by former members of his Atlanta based mega church. I will spare you the troubling details of these now banal and overstated congregational sex scandals. Besides it seems almost inhumane in my thinking to continue to restate and reflect upon the shortcomings and personal mistakes of a person’s life before the individuals who loved and cared for that person have had time to celebrate the good of that person’s life. I think this is a particularly salient point to consider when reflecting on the life of Archbishop Paulk. For in truth Paulk’s life as a religious leader contains as much to laud as it does to lambaste. And believe me I say this as one who has criticized Paulk with vigor and ashamedly with much humor over the years. Having stated this clearly let me now turn to how I will remember Archbishop Paulk.
As aforementioned Paulk was the founder and bishop of
Chapel Hill Harvester Church in Decatur, Georgia which probably means nothing to most readers of this blog. However a brief history of the church will reveal that Chapel Hill Harvester Church was one of the country’s first influential independent megachurches. Now in our current mega church driven, bigger is better Christian culture this does not seem like much of an accomplishment, but when one considers the time period and setting from which Paulk’s congregation emerged it becomes quite a different story.
Paulk’s megachurch emerges during a time when Atlanta was still highly racially segregated as it relates to religious institutions. However, despite this reality Paulk who formed his CHH church in 1960 with his wife persisted that his congregation should and would be an integrated church. In fact, Paulk opened the doors of his church to all races when such a thing was still shunned among almost all white congregations in the metropolis of Atlanta. The realities of religious racial segregation in Atlanta was so pronounced that Dr. King in a 1950’s interview on Meet the Press commented that there were no white members at Ebenezer Baptist church "not because they are not welcomed but because they will not come." I should note that the religious racial segregation of Atlanta has not changed much in the last 40 years, even with the coming of the 1960’s civil right legislation. I contend that Sunday morning at 11 is still the most racially segregated hour of the week.
In addition to becoming one of the first racially integrated churches in Atlanta, Paulk’s Chapel Hill Harvester Church was also one of the first churches nationwide to incorporate with efficiency the combination of liturgical arts, such as dance and drama, with cutting-edge social ministry. This is still an accomplishment that few churches can compare or rival. Paulk saw the ministerial components of worship and social renewal as inseparable. This point is accentuated in the fact that Paulk was often ridiculed as senior pastor of what is now Mount Paran Church of God for promoting racial integration and the rights of womens in ministry and worship. It is also documented in his biography “The Provoker” that Paulk marched with Dr. King (of course what person over 60 doesn’t claim to have walked with Dr. King these days) and was a signer of the 1957 Atlanta manifesto which decried racial violence in Arkansas and other cities in America. Also, his public housing ministry was named one of a "thousand points of light" by President George H. W. Bush. Paulk’s long history of racial justice advocacy in church and society is commendable especially when one considers the paucity of religious leaders black and white who have taken up the cause in Atlanta even until today.
Lastly, I remember Archbishop Paulk not only as a racial justice advocate, and ministry practice innovator but also as a pastor to many pastors. In 1982, Paulk was ordained as a bishop in the International Communion of Charismatic Church’s, which was a vibrant fellowship of self -described charismatic churches that sought to join themselves with the striving ministry of Paulk. Highly visible ministry figures to the likes of
Carlton Pearson and Clarence McClendon have been associated and influenced by Paulk’s ICCC over the years. In fact, few congregations have done more for the promotion of mainstream charismatic renewal than Paulk’s Cathedral at Chapel Hill.
Despite the reality of the justifiable scrutiny which plagued Archbishop Paulk the last several years of his life up until his death, I contend he should be remembered with these positive accomplishments in mind. For me Paulk like so many other figures in history will be remembered in tension as a person who exhibited in public life the capacity of humanity to be the conduit of both immense good and inexcusable chicanery. This view enables me to remember Archbishop Earl Paulk as the complex and commendable beautiful mess that he was.
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor