“Down through the years, ” Jimmy Barnett says, “our pastor has looked out for us.” He recalls one time when Allen lent him $40, another when the pastor provided him a car, “no strings attached.”
Applause thunders inside the small, stark church on Hollywood Road in northwest Atlanta.
“This is the right way!” Charley Ruth says, his voice rising above the clapping. “We are sure this is the right way!”
The testimonials offer familiar comfort to a congregation that, along with its pastor, is under siege. It is from the House of Prayer that the state took 41 children into protective custody last month after allegations of systematic whippings overseen by the pastor. The children included two boys who showed up at school with welts and bruises; the other 39, officials say, were at risk of similar abuse.
Police filed criminal charges against Allen, 68, and 10 church members. A week later in court, the parents of the 41 children refused to renounce their pastor’s teachings on discipline. They left their children in foster care rather than accept a deal that would have reunited their families. The children, ages 2 to 17, could remain in state custody a year or more.
The case has sparked debate across the nation over when corporal punishment becomes child abuse, over the rights of parents to discipline their children, over the role of a church in a family’s life.
To Allen, there is no debate: God has a purpose in allowing the House of Prayer’s children to linger in foster care —- and he is at its center. To church members from this poor neighborhood, the episode is one more persecution they will endure with God’s —- and Allen’s —- help.
Their unquestioning devotion to their pastor is all that is certain about the House of Prayer. Everything else is shades of gray —- an array of ambiguities and contradictions that obscure the meaning of what has happened at the little church that, until a month ago, was anonymous except for a tiny roadside sign.
Church members say they love their children. But at the pastor’s direction, adults sometimes hold children by their arms and legs and suspend children in the air while whipping them with belts and switches during church services.
Allen encourages church members to live free of sin. But former members claim he frequently intersperses his sermons with inappropriate sexual comments, and the pastor confesses to an affair years ago with an 18-year-old woman from the church. He also acknowledges an early marriage that he had kept quiet, a marriage that produced two children whom he long ago left behind.
Church members say their pastor has given them homes, cars, money —- material goods that complement his spiritual sustenance.
But what they have given Allen in exchange is control.
“You can’t do anything in that church I don’t agree with, ” Allen says, “because I’m the pastor.”
As the pastor, Allen authorizes courtships between church members and approves marriages for girls from the congregation as young as 14. Georgia law forbids marriages at ages younger than 16, so Allen takes young brides-to-be to Alabama, where they can legally wed.
The pastor collects weekly dues of $25 from every church family, many of whom rent houses or apartments that he owns.
He promotes isolationism among church members, encouraging them to live within walking distance of one another and discouraging them from voting.
He advises congregants to avoid contact with family members outside the church who are “trying to poison their minds against the church.”
And he makes it clear that the parents whose children were seized would be in conflict with the church if they reunited their families by promising a judge they would not follow the church’s disciplinary practices.
“They’d be compromising their faith, ” Allen says. “Either you love the Lord thy God with all your heart and soul … or you don’t. God doesn’t accept serving two masters.”
Such talk prompted Judge Sanford Jones of Fulton County Juvenile Court to label the church a “cult.”
Some former members agree.
“They look to this man just like he’s God, ” says Ernest Madden, a church member for 29 years who left after a dispute with Allen. “Everything they do, they have to wait to see what he’s going to say about it. It’s amazing he can keep that many people’s minds in unity with him. But you can see it: What mother would leave their own baby?”
The accusation infuriates Allen.
“If we are a cult, why is that door open to everyone, both black and white?” Allen shouts from the House of Prayer’s makeshift pulpit.
“If we are a cult, where are our guns?”
He thrusts his worn black Bible heavenward and waves it fiercely.
“This, ” he says, “is the only weapon I need!”
Step inside the House of Prayer’s unadorned brown brick building, even on a sunny day, and the most noticeable feature of the sanctuary is its warehouselike darkness.
Wire mesh covers the ceiling, from which bare light bulbs emit a harsh glare. One window is covered with a black garbage bag, another with plywood. Signs taped to the doors note that renovations are under way.
Eight rows of wooden pews on each side of a center aisle sit atop a bare concrete floor. The pulpit is covered with black and white tiles that form a cross. The altar is a metal folding chair; all that cushions parishioners as they kneel there to pray is a small square of tan carpet or a pillow from a chair.
Despite the sparse surroundings, the congregants engage in lively services, clapping in cadence and tapping their toes to songs played on a portable electronic keyboard. “Somebody pray for me, ” one song implores. “In times like these, we need a savior, ” another says. “Lord, help me today, ” another lyric pleads, “you know our children have fallen by the wayside.”
About 90 members —- including 30 or so children, mostly toddlers and babies —- are left after the state seized the 41 children. The adults are about evenly split between men and women. Even for a weeknight service, most dress for church; jeans and T-shirts are rare, even on children.
The women wear long, shapeless dresses and coverings for their heads. The hats and headdresses are in homage to a passage from Corinthians that suggests there is “shame” in women praying with their heads uncovered.
Allen says he lets the women know his fondness for hats.
“To me, they’re more dressed, ” he says. “It took me back to yesteryear.”
Allen, who himself often sports a fedora, has been preaching at the House of Prayer since the days when men routinely wore hats to church —- the mid-1960s, when Allen and a few founding church members wandered through northwest Atlanta housing projects recruiting members.
Then, as now, the theology was simple: Allen’s self-taught interpretation of the King James Version of the Bible. He preaches against abortion and homosexuality, against birth control and out-of-wedlock sex. He thinks the end of the world is near —- but not too near.
“We’re in the beginning of the end, ” he says.
From the beginning, Allen has offered himself as a father figure to the members of his congregation, many of whom grew up in single-parent homes.
Church member Jairus Barnett, 20, recalls that when he was a boy, Allen drove an old pickup truck with an engine that made a distinctive noise. When he heard the truck coming, Barnett says, he would drop everything and run to the street, hoping the pastor would take him and his friends fishing or swimming.
The House of Prayer literally began in the homes of church members.
Even as it moved to a rented church building that burned and then into its current home, the nondenominational House of Prayer remained a modest operation. Allen says he has never drawn a salary for preaching; instead, he made his living as a landscaper and house painter until he decided he was too old for physical labor.
A few years ago, he sold about two acres of land he had inherited in the Dunwoody area for more than $500,000. He immediately gave $100,000 to the House of Prayer for renovations. He also cleared one family’s $10,000 debt, and he gave his wife’s parents $30,000 to renovate their home and build a tool shed.
In the early days of the church, says former member Madden, the message was the reward of hard work.
“He would preach that you need to get out of the projects, ” says Madden, a retired mailman who describes himself as Allen’s second-in-command during those years. “He would say, ‘Young man, you need to go to work, be self-sufficient.’ … I liked it because he preached prosperity —- bringing those up who are on a lower level.”
But over time, Madden says, the focus changed. Allen wanted more control, he says, and got it by keeping church members financially dependent on his generosity. Many of them stayed in low-paying jobs, or didn’t work at all, and became increasingly loyal to Allen as he helped pay their bills, Madden says.
“They would have to come to the church treasury to get his approval, ” Madden says. “If they were on his left side, it was a thumbs down. If they were on his right side, his good side, it was thumbs up.”
Madden says Allen objected when he bought a house in the suburbs near Stone Mountain. And when Madden bought his children a horse, Allen accused him of elitism, deriding “that stinking horse.”
What Allen wants, Madden says, is for the congregation to live in an enclave near the church, away from outside influences.
Madden finally left the House of Prayer about a year and a half ago. The last straw, he says, came when Allen meddled in the marriage of Madden’s daughter. The pastor gave her a gift of $20 and told her not to tell her husband, Madden says. She told him anyway. When the husband challenged the pastor over it, Madden says, Allen ruled him “out of order” and instructed several church members to eject him.
“I got up out of my seat and went to the back door, ” Madden recalls. “I told my children, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ I told Pastor Allen I was getting my children out.”
“He said, ‘I’m the pastor here.’
“I said, ‘Yes, sir, but you’re not Jesus.’ “
He says he approached Allen, offering to shake hands in farewell.
“Pastor Allen said, ‘Throw him out.’ “
“I haven’t been back since, ” Madden says, “and I don’t intend to go back.”
Allen disputes some of Madden’s account, saying he banished Madden because he disrupted services.
He acknowledges, though, that he wants to limit outside influences on members of his congregation —- even from members of their own families who might cause them to stray.
“If I’m out trying to plant corn, ” he says, “I can’t have a bunch of crows eating up the corn while I’m trying to plant it.”
He also discourages church members from exercising their right to vote. Until the 1960s, when civil rights legislation guaranteed voting rights for black citizens, “who wanted your vote?” says Allen, who has never registered to vote. “Could you vote? To me, hasn’t anything changed.
“I don’t stop them from voting, ” he continues. But congregants get the message. “If I don’t vote, and I tell them why I don’t vote —- I have that strong an influence.”
And he says he doesn’t tell church members where to live. But he acknowledges he prefers that they reside in close proximity to one another and the church. Most do, despite the largely run-down housing and high crime that mark the area. After services late one night, church members warn a visitor to avoid stopping even at traffic signals to stay out of trouble.
About one-third of the congregation’s 22 families live in property that Allen owns or controls. He says their rent is low —- about $400 a month —- and they don’t have to pay when they don’t have the money.
Last June, Allen allowed Charles and Kim Ogletree and 10 of their children to move into a white house he owns near the church. Their house sits beside a creek in a rugged hollow. Its paint is faded, the lawn is all but devoid of grass, and the shed out back is falling down.
To Kim Ogletree, 38, it’s as good as a mansion on a hill. Her family had been crammed into a house with just three rooms. Now they have four bedrooms, a living room, den, kitchen, breakfast room, laundry room and two bathrooms —- thanks, she says, to Allen.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, ” she volunteers cheerfully. The Ogletrees don’t have to do the work alone. “The guys get together after work or church, ” she says.
Sixteen years ago, she says, she came to Allen with no money, no job, no husband and three children, with a fourth on the way.
“From that day, ” she says, “he’s been helping us ever since.”
Two of her daughters were married through the church, at ages 14 and 17. “Both of them, thank God, were married as virgins, ” Ogletree says proudly.
Ogletree laughs at the notion that her pastor is leading a cult.
“The way my life is going, I’m glad I’m ‘brainwashed.’ I’m now not an alcoholic. I’m now not a loose woman. He ‘brainwashed’ me and let Jesus in.”
Carla Wilson drapes a shawl over her head as she kneels at the House of Prayer’s folding chair altar. Her four children, ages 2 to 7, are among the 41 taken into protective custody. But her prayer reflects joy, not sorrow.
“Thank you, Lord, for continuing to hold us up in this way of life, ” she prays. “Thank you, Lord, for continuing to hold us up in this ordeal. If it wasn’t for this way of life, I don’t know what I would be.”
Wilson, who married eight years ago at age 14, is a homemaker, and her husband, David, 30, runs his own landscaping business. They miss their two boys and two girls terribly, they say, sitting close together on a sofa in their quiet living room. “Most nights I get up and walk the house, ” Carla says. “It’s hard to even find something to do with myself now.”
But the Wilsons say they haven’t considered parting ways with the House of Prayer to regain custody of their children.
“I’m not going to distance myself from where the Lord done blessed me at, ” says David, who has been charged with cruelty to children, a felony, for whipping his nephew.
“Right, ” Carla says.
“If I distance myself from the church, ” David says, “I’m distancing myself from the Lord.”
And from Allen, a man he says he loves like a father.
“I growed up in an environment where children were abused, ” David says, “and I didn’t see people come out taking their children.”
He grew up in Atlanta’s Perry Homes, a crime-plagued housing project where Allen had a Bible study.
“I didn’t even know my daddy, ” he says. Allen “took us fishing, taught us how to work.”
As parents, the Wilsons say, they’ve tried to set the best possible example for their children. They don’t drink, smoke or swear, they say, and they always dress modestly. Before their children were taken into state custody, at 1 a.m. March 3, they took their children to the House of Prayer as many as three times a week. Carla says they’ve tried to teach the children “to have respect for authority, to have respect for yourself, not to let anyone use you, not to let anything control you that’s not godly.”
The Wilsons live in one of Allen’s modest buildings up a steep hill behind the church, paying $400 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. “And if we don’t have it, we don’t have to pay it, ” Carla says. Yet the Wilsons say they are not beholden to Allen. “He tells us that we don’t owe him anything. He says we owe it to ourselves to be faithful to the Lord, ” Carla says.
Says David: “He’s just who the Lord done used to help us.”
Tammy Clark doesn’t see Allen as an instrument of God, but as a man obsessed with sex.
“He always talks down to women, ” she says. “He always wants to call somebody a whore.”
Clark left the House of Prayer when she was in her mid teens, and, almost 20 years later, she still resents the pastor. Clark, 35, a grocery cashier, made a special trip to Fulton County Juvenile Court in late March, eager to testify about Allen during a hearing to determine whether children from the church were at risk of abuse. The hearing ended before she had a chance to speak.
“Most of the time he preached, it was all about sex, ” Clark says at her Atlanta apartment. “He would start out reading verses out of the Bible, and before you know it you’re into like a sex class, he’s talking about sex.”
And the pastor’s vocabulary was “filthy, ” Clark says.
Allen routinely urged women to denigrate themselves in front of the congregation by graphically recounting sexual acts they had engaged in before coming into Allen’s fold, Clark says. “It was just crazy.”
Another former member, Tanyaneeka Barnett —- who is Carla Wilson’s sister —- recalls similarly degrading scenes.
“He would make us call ourselves ‘whores, ’ ‘sluts, ’ all kinds of names: ‘dumb, ’ ‘stupid, ’ ” she says. “That’s his way, I guess, of keeping us in there, having us thinking that there’s no way out, we had no one else to depend on, we had no one else to run to.”
Barnett, 25, is an administrative assistant at a real estate company and the most vilified former member of the House of Prayer. Her own parents, church members Jimmy and Jacqulyn Barnett, label their eldest daughter a troublemaker, a liar and sexually promiscuous.
She has incurred this wrath because in March she gave crucial testimony before a judge decided to keep the 41 children in state custody. The children include 10 of her siblings.
She said, under oath, that Allen forced her to marry at age 14. That when girls were whipped, congregation members would “pull up their skirts or take off their skirts or dresses.” That Allen ordered her to lift her skirt in front of the church and to show her buttocks. That Allen touched her thigh during a service and remarked on her breasts. That Allen regularly spoke about genitalia during church services “in front of the children.”
Lies, Allen and House of Prayer members retort. All lies.
“We gonna stand there and let him pull her dress up in church?” her father, Jimmy Barnett, asks incredulously. In court, Allen angrily denied the allegations but said he had approved marriages for girls to prevent “potential whores.”
Barnett left her husband —- and the House of Prayer —- when she was 19 because of repeated beatings in church, she testified in court.
“I feared for my life, ” she said.
She found her way to the Atlanta home of her paternal grandparents, who had not seen her in years. They gladly took her in.
“She was here at the door, and I didn’t even know the child, ” recalls Sallie Barnett, Tanyaneeka’s grandmother. When her son’s family became deeply involved in the House of Prayer, she says, she and her husband were shut off from seeing them. “But I didn’t stop sending them Christmas cards.”
“Tanya, she was made to do things in that church, made to marry, kept home from school, ” Sallie Barnett says. “I was just so glad she had got away from there.”
Allen does talk about sex in church. He has to, he says, to counter what children are taught in public schools. “They say if you’re going to have sex, use a condom. See, we believe that’s fornication.”
When his church talk turns to sex, Allen says, it’s to provide education or to respond to issues that come up in his congregation. Birth control, for instance, is forbidden. “Only God has a right to say who’s born and who’s not.” Oral sex is discouraged, too. “This country is infected with oral sex.”
He denies saying things or encouraging behavior that “would be a disrespect to the ladies in our church.”
Yet, in interviews and casual conversation, he often discusses sex in explicit terms and is exceedingly candid about his sexual prowess with his 25-year-old wife.
And he says, when pressed, that his own past sexual behavior has fallen short of the sin-free standard he sets.
“I have a past, ” Allen says quietly. He sits in the living room of his small home in northwest Atlanta, a mile from his church, wearing a tight brown T-shirt that reveals muscular biceps developed from years of yard work. His wife Trina sits quietly nearby.
“Years ago, ” he continues, “I was unfaithful to my wife with a young woman, years ago… . I can’t dodge the facts.”
The woman, he says, was 18 at the time and married to another church member.
Because he confessed to the affair, he says, his congregation and Mary, his wife at the time, forgave him.
“I have not disrespected any young woman in the church or tried to come on to them since that time, ” he says. “It was a weakness of my flesh. It was wrong.”
Mary died of cancer last April, and Allen married Trina three days later.
He and Trina have a baby, Amber Rose, born in January, nine months after they married. In earlier interviews, he said the baby was his first child. But this day, he says that’s not true.
Trina is Allen’s third wife. When he was 21 and living in Detroit, he says, he married a woman there. They had two children. He says he has next to no contact with that son and daughter.
“They live one lifestyle and I do another, ” he says. “My son is after one woman, then another.”
“I guess it’s in the blood.”
Three weeks after nine parents from the House of Prayer walked out of a courtroom without their children, unwilling to compromise to reunite their families, Allen ponders a question.
If, as he has been telling his congregation, God had a reason to allow their children to be taken, what is it?
Simple, he says.
“God will suffer the lesser in order to try to help the masses, ” Allen says. “I never would have gotten on national television if it wasn’t for the publicity of our children.”
This entire episode, the heart-wrenching scenes of police and social workers dragging children from their homes, the emotional courtroom standoff that left the children in foster care, the prayers and the protests —- all of it, he says, happened to give him a national audience for criticizing abortion.
“I got a chance to speak out against what they call abortion, ” he tells his congregation. “I call it murder. I got a chance to speak out against two men marrying each other and them legalizing it. I got a chance to speak out against taking prayer out of the schools. News coverage and television coverage offer opportunities this little church never would have gotten.”
The evening is getting late. It’s a school night, so the House of Prayer’s remaining children are in the back of the sanctuary, trying to get some sleep on a foam mattress covered in blue vinyl. Allen’s voice drops to a growl as he implores the church to stay strong, even without 41 of its children.
“Jesus has proven himself in my life, ” Allen says. “I have only been an instrument. Without God blessing me to do these things, I couldn’t have done them.
“Don’t get surprised at what’s happening now, ” he continues. “Don’t be discouraged and don’t be dismayed. What the Lord is working now through his people is a marvelous thing. You’ll understand it by and by.”
“By and by, ” the congregation responds.
He casts their struggle in biblical terms, recalling how Moses led the Hebrews from their oppressors, the Egyptians.
Faith, he says, will win this battle, too.
“Just trust the one who brought you this far.”