The boy was watching people sing at a sweaty Pentecostal tent service one Sunday morning when a prophet onstage scanned the congregation and fixed her eyes on him.
“You need to come up here,” the prophet told the wide-eyed 9-year-old, D.E. Paulk. “The Lord has a word for you that you need to speak to the church today.”
As he was led to the stage, D.E.’s heart raced and his legs went numb. He grabbed the microphone with clammy hands and stammered the only words he could find: “Uh.. God… uh… loves you.”
From that moment on, D.E. hid behind furniture in his family’s church in Atlanta whenever pastors prophesied. But someone would steer him to the pulpit, and D.E.’s family would join the prophet in laying hands on him while predicting mighty signs and wonders for the boy they called “The Promised Seed.”
No prophet, though, came close to predicting what really happened to D.E. in the years ahead.
No one predicted that his family would build one of the most racially groundbreaking megachurches in America only to see it collapse from a series of bizarre sex scandals covered by “A Current Affair” and other tabloid magazines and TV shows.
No one predicted that D.E. would discover that the man he believed to be his uncle, Archbishop Earl Paulk Jr., was really his biological father. The bishop had slept with his brother’s wife while sharing the pulpit with both.
And no one predicted that after years spent extricating his family from assorted scandals, D.E. would do something in church that was, for many of his parishioners, far more outrageous than anything his notorious uncle did.
“And because it had nothing to do with sex or money,” D.E. says, “I never saw it coming.”
‘Raised by wolves’
The boy who was dragged onstage is now 42 and doesn’t look like he can be pushed easily in any direction. D.E. is 6-foot-1, with broad shoulders and beefy “I’ve been working out” arms. He greets a visitor with a boyish smile and a mellow voice that sounds more suited for a late-night talk show than a pulpit.
He is still in the church business, and so is his family. D.E. is co-founder and senior pastor of the Spirit and Truth Sanctuary, a quaint brick church in suburban Atlanta.
Glowing portraits of D.E.’s wife, Brandi, and their two teenage kids, Esther and Micah, ring his office. So do portraits of his parents, Don and Clariece Paulk, and his sister, LaDonna Diaz. A gushing biography of his uncle, Bishop Earl Paulk Jr., rests on a table. Glossy photos of the church’s glory days show the Paulks shaking hands with politicians, gospel music stars and world-renowned preachers such as Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller.
Today, D.E. speaks before a racially mixed congregation of about 700. His church grounds aren’t crammed with worshippers, buses and police officers directing traffic. The buzz of being the Hot New Thing is gone.
“It’s strange for us to be normal,” he says, “to not have anything in the news about us, to not be talked about or to not be the biggest church on the planet. It’s not part of my life anymore.”
His life before was so complicated that D.E. simply told curious church visitors who said his name sounded familiar to “Google me.”
Google gives part of his story: How the Paulks built the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit at Chapel Hill Harvester Church into one of the nation’s first and largest megachurches; how three American presidents honored their church; how the place imploded after the revelation about D.E.’s biological father. But the headlines don’t say what happened to D.E. afterward.
How did the revelations affect his relationship with Don Paulk, the man who raised him; the person he still calls dad. Did his uncle, Bishop Paulk, ever apologize? How could D.E. even set foot in church again?
The headlines also don’t explain what happened to D.E.’s mother, Clariece. How did she explain her actions to her son and husband? Did the marriage survive? Clariece Paulk, 76, recently told me that she prayed for over 20 years that no one would discover her secret. At times, Bishop Paulk would apprise D.E. from a distance and say to her, “He kind of looks like me in the shoulders.”
“I’d be so afraid that somebody would see a picture of him and Donnie Earl at the same age, and I tried to hide the pictures,” she said. “I lived in fear, just misery.”
D.E.’s story is not just about a scandal. It’s about fate. Are we all captive to the arc of our family history, no matter what we do?
D.E. tells people the scandal was not of his making. He is not the bishop. Yet some things about D.E. remind others of Bishop Paulk. Is D.E. bound to make some of the same mistakes?
“He fights that,” says his 76-year-old dad, Don Paulk. “He’s made statements like, “I don’t want to do that. That’s what my Uncle Earl would do.’”
It’s a battle D.E. is already losing, says Jan Royston, a former Chapel Hill member who knew the bishop. She is part of a community of ex-Chapel Hill members who still feel betrayed by the Paulk family.
Royston started an online support group for former Chapel Hill members wounded by their experiences. She says D.E. isn’t contrite; he’s conniving.
The bishop twisted scripture to prey on people for riches, glory and lust. D.E., in Royston’s view, is just another manipulative, pulpit predator.
“He was raised by wolves,” she says. “Donnie Earl can’t help who and what he is.”
As tough as the critics are on D.E., no one was more so than the man who left him such a complicated legacy.
Before D.E. could find normalcy, he had to learn to deal with the strange. He had to take on the bishop.
Becoming the bishop’s spiritual son
He punctuated his sermons with “darling” and “honey,” but there was little tenderness in the bishop’s public persona. He was the anti-Joel Osteen, a stout, craggy-faced man who scowled more than he smiled and preached with a raspy, hectoring voice.
Once, the bishop drove away a church member who challenged his authority by implying that she was a lesbian. He warned another critic that he might come after him with his .38 revolver. He hid his television set in a closet because he didn’t want his congregation to discover he could succumb to worldly temptations.
Some leaders have Type A personalities. “He was Triple A,” says Don Paulk, who is 11 years younger than his brother. “He would rather preach than eat when he was hungry.”
The bishop’s wrath could fall on his family as well as his congregation.
LaDonna Diaz, D.E.’s older sister, was the bishop’s secretary.
“I would leave work some days crying,” she says.
But D.E. was treated special from the start. Prophets began calling him “The Chosen One” when he was just a child. Boys, it seemed, were the only ones chosen by God in the patriarchal, Pentecostal culture that D.E. grew up in.
The bishop had three daughters. D.E. was the only male offspring with the Paulk surname. He was expected to become the family’s fourth generation preacher and succeed the bishop one day.
The bishop encouraged that dream. He became D.E.’s spiritual mentor.
“I still have notebooks and notebooks from when he would preach,” D.E. says. “There would be moments of revelations. I almost couldn’t keep up. I was just writing as fast as I could.”
The bishop returned D.E.’s devotion.
He placed him front and center at church events. And when D.E. became a standout high school basketball player – good enough to land a college scholarship as a point guard – the bishop was a familiar figure in the stands.
D.E.’s wife, Brandi Paulk, says her husband and the bishop drew energy from one another. Now 35, she grew up in Chapel Hill watching that relationship evolve.
“It’s almost as if they fed off of each other,” she says. “There was a connection there spiritually. He considered him his spiritual father.”
When he was in high school, D.E. saw something that made him wonder if that connection went deeper.
Hearing ugly rumors
On the bishop’s 60th birthday, Chapel Hill celebrated with a video tribute. As D.E. watched images of his uncle flash onscreen, he was stunned by a black-and-white college graduation photo.
“My hair, my face, my body – I was like, that looks like me in black and white,” D.E. recalls.
He kept the realization to himself. “I pushed it way down inside of me.”
Others didn’t bury their suspicions. Every now and then, D.E. overheard church members joking about the bishop being his father. He ignored the whispers. But the salacious rumor spread.
“What I heard many times was that Donnie Earl is called Donnie Earl because they didn’t know if he’s Earl’s or Don’s,” says Scott Thumma, a sociology of religion professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. He spent five years at Chapel Hill gathering material for his dissertation on the church. “Everybody kind of chuckled about that.”
D.E. focused on his future instead of dwelling on the past. He experienced a series of dreams in college that convinced him to become a minister. He enrolled in a Bible college, the Earl Paulk Institute, and became a youth minister at Chapel Hill.
His timing could not have been better. D.E. had the right name at the right place at the right time. Chapel Hill was taking off.
The bishop had co-founded Chapel Hill in 1960 with his brother and sister-in-law. Pentecostals had been dismissed as country bumpkins, vulgar, lower-class whites who talked in tongues while getting “slain in the spirit.” But the Paulks were different.
The bishop preached a “kingdom theology” that added a progressive edge to the traditional Pentecostal message. The theology urged Pentecostals to transform the world here and now and not focus so much on waiting for Christ’s return. The bishop championed civil rights when many white Southern churches refused to admit African-Americans. Chapel Hill eventually became one of the nation’s first integrated megachurches. White pastors criticized the bishop for his stance on civil rights but he kept reaching out to black parishioners.
The Paulks identified with African-Americans because they themselves felt like outsiders as poor Pentecostals in rural Georgia.
“We always felt like we were the underdogs. We were not accepted; we were the minority,” Don Paulk says.
The underdogs became top dogs in the church world. They were riding a wave: the rise of evangelical Christians in America.
Conservative Christians helped elect Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. They seized control of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1985 at a raucous meeting in Dallas, Texas. And televangelists such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart drew global audiences to their broadcasts. Chapel Hill, whose services were broadcast in Africa and Latin America, was part of that mix.
It eventually became the fourth-largest church in America, with 12,000 members. People didn’t flock there just to hear the bishop preach. They turned out for the pageantry, a show enlivened by Clariece Paulk.
Clariece changed the way megachurches worshipped. She was a classically trained pianist who introduced dramatic skits, modern dance, “Bach and rock” music – stylistic flourishes now common in megachurches.
“A hundred people would join the church a week,” she says. “I would just sit there and weep. I couldn’t believe it. I knew it wouldn’t last forever.”
It didn’t. And D.E. started to notice that behind the scenes, a megachurch was a lot like a basketball court: competitive and filled with games.
Mega-egos in the megachurch
D.E. was immersed in a world of signs and wonders. People testified to mighty acts of God: miraculous healings, revelations, divining evil spirits. And he saw his share of wonders - broken people born again; incandescent moments when it seemed like the finger of God touched people’s lives.
But he also saw the pettiness. He was the church emissary dispatched to pick up visiting preachers at the airport and tend to their needs. Their egos were as big as their entourages.
He met pastors who demanded a fueled private jet and $7,500 up front before they would deign to visit. When they arrived, they were surrounded by pastor groupies: “armor bearers,” “adjutants” and “servant spirits” who did everything from pick up their dry cleaning to pump their gas and carry their Bibles.
These pastors shared trade secrets with D.E.: How to extract a fat offering from a congregation, how to fake prophesizing and how to perform the all-important “courtesy drop” – crumpling to the ground when a man of God presses your shoulder during a “healing.”
D.E. remembers one pastor’s behavior after he delivered a sermon.
“He can’t even carry his own handkerchief. Somebody has to wipe the sweat off of him. He can’t dress himself after the sermon because he is still ‘under the anointing.’”
D.E. shakes his head in disgust.
“It’s just a bunch of bull really,” he says.
That’s the sentiment that seemed etched on D.E.’s father’s face in some of the photos taken during Chapel Hill’s rise.
Don Paulk looked like the bemused outsider as he stood in the pulpit with his charismatic brother and his celebrated wife. They loved the stage; he preferred the background. They were effusive; he was a stoic who didn’t like getting “mushy.” They reveled in the titles and rituals of church; he openly rolled his eyes if he disagreed with a sermon.
His brother’s ego grew along with the church. The bishop loved getting recognized at the airport. He surrounded himself with people who wouldn’t question his authority. And he treasured letters from folks who read his books, listened to his tapes or watched him on TV.
“He began to read too much of his fan mail,” Don Paulk said.
Don Paulk, though, had questions about God that the traditional church couldn’t answer.
As a boy, D.E. stumbled across a book by his father’s bed. It was called “The Christian Agnostic,” and it was written to reassure skeptics who couldn’t accept certain central Christian beliefs. D.E. felt like he had caught his father with a dirty magazine. He took the book to his mother. She reacted with shock.
“Let’s pray for your daddy,” she said as she grabbed her son’s hands.
There were others, too, who thought Don Paulk needed their prayers. They saw him as the weak link in the Paulk trio that built Chapel Hill.
“He was a patsy,” says Jan Royston, the ex-Chapel Hill member. “He would do whatever Earl Paulk would tell him to do.”
Thumma, the Chapel Hill expert, said Clariece Paulk was “clearly the authority in the family.” Her husband was “fragile” and “weak-willed.”
“He was utterly jealous of Earl,” Thumma says, referring to the bishop. Don Paulk “was back-biting, snippy and vindictive. You could read that into his body language every single meeting.”
Like his father, D.E. started to roll his eyes at some church traditions as he became a young man.
One Sunday when a pastor placed a microphone in front of D.E.’s face and told him the Lord had something for him to say, D.E. looked at the expectant congregation and said, “The Lord hasn’t told me anything today.” He handed the microphone back to the astonished prophet and sat down.
D.E. was becoming his own man, and there was one man who didn’t like it – the bishop.
Taking on the bishop
By 1991, Chapel Hill’s popularity peaked. President George H.W. Bush had honored the church with a “Point of Light” award for outstanding community service. The church grabbed national headlines for dispatching volunteers into a violent housing project in Atlanta and turning it around. People bragged about attending Chapel Hill. Some installed specialty license plates on their cars inscribed with the “K” church crest, a symbol of the bishop’s kingdom theology.
The church celebrated its newfound status by completing construction of a $12 million, 7,000-seat neogothic cathedral. The church’s spire soared majestically 245 feet, and the sanctuary featured stadium seating. One news account compared the church’s splendor to Solomon’s temple.
And just as Solomon was undone by his desire for other women, so was the bishop.
In 1992, six Chapel Hill women publicly accused the bishop, his brother, Don, and two Paulk nephews who were ministers of manipulating them into sexual relationships. They portrayed the Paulk ministers as diabolical manipulators, saying they used their spiritual authority and their “kingdom theology” to justify extra-marital relationships.
The bishop denied the allegations. Later that year, Don Paulk publicly confessed to an extramarital affair. The bishop said one nephew admitted to inappropriate contact with a woman and was disciplined; the other nephew did not speak to reporters. The women’s accusations were covered by the television program “A Current Affair.”
In 2001, a church member filed suit against Earl Paulk Jr., saying he started molesting her when she was seven. He denied the allegations, and the suit was settled out of court.
D.E. was at college in the early 1990s when the first wave of sex scandals hit. His father called him and apologized for his indiscretion. D.E. was bewildered, however, by the accusations.
“I didn’t know how to process it,” he says of the wave of scandals. “I couldn’t navigate it. I wondered why are they attacking my family so viciously.”
Yet he also knew that power can corrupt both pastors and their followers.
“I wasn’t naive enough to believe that there was no truth to it; I wasn’t naive enough to believe that all of it was true.”
He was seeing another side of his family as well as the church. His first instinct, though, was to stick by them when he saw news crews chase his father and uncle into their homes. The church’s public image was taking a hit. Chapel Hill needed something new to help draw people back to the pews.
D.E. became the Hot New Thing.
The bishop elevated his status. He allowed him to preach every other Sunday and beamed with pride when D.E called him his spiritual mentor. He stenciled D.E.’s name alongside his own on the brick entrance to Chapel Hill.
D.E. brought energy and a clean past to the church – he even break-danced during service.
Yet as he grew into this new role, his preaching riled the bishop. D.E. suggested in his sermons that God affirmed gays and lesbians. The bishop didn’t tell him he was wrong but ordered him to wait to preach that message until people were ready.
D.E. responded with a question: How long had the bishop waited when God ordered him to preach acceptance of African-Americans in the 1960s?
“We had that first moment of I’m a man of God now, too,” D.E. said. “I have God telling me things to do, too. How can I deny it any more than you denied it?”
As D.E.’s confidence rose, though, the church’s fortunes continued to plummet. The scandals drove thousands of members away. Tabloid television shows joined the fray, and the Internet was eventually filled with lurid details about the bishop’s sex habits.
The amount of money in the weekly offerings fell, but the bills kept coming. People saw the cathedral’s glamour but not the financial grind. Sitting on 100 acres filled with church office buildings and a Bible college, the upkeep for the cathedral alone could make an accountant weep: a $45,000 weekly mortgage payment; a $30,000 monthly power bill; an annual $200,000 property insurance payment.
The church’s staff had grown to around 300, including 26 full-time pastors. The bishop had hired many down-on-their luck pastors to prop them up until they could find work and support their families again.
“The government had welfare,” Don Paulk says. “We had staff.”
D.E. told the bishop that the church couldn’t function like a charity. In a four-month period, D.E. didn’t get a paycheck on eight occasions. With a wife in college and two kids, he told the bishop he had to make a decision for his family.
“Do what you need to do,” the bishop said.
D.E. left the church in 2003 and started his own congregation. He had $600 to his name. He struggled just to rent a hotel room and a microphone for the Sunday services. But he didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore.
In 2005, the bishop’s fortune took another bad turn. He was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery to have parts of his bladder, colon and prostate removed.
Though his body and his church were failing, the bishop remained defiant. He told what was left of his congregation that God was not finished with him.
“We may be old, but we’ve still got a lot of fire left in us,” he thundered, “Honey, you don’t talk about retiring. We talk about re-firing.”
His body would not listen. Nor would the bill collectors. The church needed new leadership.
Don Paulk would not take his brother’s place. He turned to D.E.
“I need you to come back and take over,” he told his son, who had left three years earlier. “I can’t do it, and I don’t want to do it.”
It was a call D.E. expected and dreaded. He would be returning to the scene of a crime, a place where there was constant talk of lawsuits and depositions and reporters taking notes in the pews.
“I don’t want to go back,” his wife, Brandi, told him.
D.E. had found a sense of normalcy at their new church. It had grown to 300 members. He said he didn’t want the drama or the challenge of preaching every Sunday to an almost empty 7,000-seat sanctuary.
But he couldn’t say no.
“I stuck by my family,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I condone everything that happened. But what am I supposed to do, leave my elderly parents alone and let my uncle die? He’s old and sick. What am I supposed to do? Take him by the side of the road and drop him off?”
He agreed to return only if the bishop signed documents empowering him to make financial decisions for the church. He cut staff to save money. He began preaching more.
“From the moment we stepped back in there, the bishop was allowed to preach if D.E. allowed him,” Brandi says.
The bishop didn’t cotton to the demotion. He openly pouted. He sarcastically thanked D.E. when called upon to deliver a public prayer – after all, it was his church. He sat offstage most of the time because of his medical needs, but he resented seeing D.E. take the spotlight.
“They got me sitting on the front row like a little puppy,” the bishop grumbled to a fellow pastor.
The bishop would find a way back onstage. But he wouldn’t like the role he had to play.
Discovering the family secret
A year before D.E. returned to Chapel Hill, Mona and Bobby Brewer, a longtime church couple had filed a suit against the bishop, with the wife claiming he manipulated her into a sexual relationship that had lasted years.
The bishop eventually admitted to the affair. He subsequently swore in an affidavit that she was the only woman he had slept with outside his marriage. The couple’s lawyers didn’t believe him and eventually demanded that he take a DNA test – along with D.E., Don and Clariece Paulk. In 2007, a judge agreed and ordered the test.
D.E. was about to learn whether the whispers he’d heard were true.
“I don’t think they cared one bit about me,” he says of the couple behind the lawsuits. “It was like, there are no rules anymore. Everybody is going down.”
On a November day in 2007, D.E. stepped into his Honda Accord with the bishop and his parents. He drove them to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation headquarters for the DNA tests. The bishop sat in the passenger seat, and his parents sat in back.
The bishop was carrying a colostomy bag.
“He would try to put on a brave face and pull his pants up,” D.E. says. “You could see the bags hanging out. He was embarrassed. He was a mess.”
And, for once, he was silent. On the car ride, D.E. was the only one who spoke. He assured his family that no matter what happened, they would stick together.
He kept to himself what he was thinking about the absurdity of the scene: “Here I am, the evidence, driving the perpetrators.”
The test results were supposed to come back in five weeks. Two days later, the phone rang in D.E.’s home. He had just driven his children to school and was painting their playroom. He had a Bible study to lead at church later that night.
He picked up the phone. It was his lawyer:
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you the news. The test results came in. You are the biological son of Earl Paulk.”
D.E. hung up the phone. He suddenly felt drained, and alone. He was 34, and only now did he know for sure why people giggled behind his back when he was a boy.
He called his wife and broke the news. He went to his children’s school and checked them out early. There would be no Bible study for him to lead that night. He called if off.
His life was about to become a Bible study. The lesson: What happens to a family when its worst secret is revealed?
Confronting the bishop
D.E. called the bishop.
“You need to come to my house tonight. We need to talk.”
Then he called his parents and his sister.
The family gathered on a sprawling couch in D.E.’s living room. They sat upright like nervous students on the first day of school.
“This is what it is…” D.E. began.
They greeted the news with stunned silence. D.E. told them that they would have to tell the church. He warned that a local television station had been tipped off and would run a report the following week. They needed a plan.
Then the bishop spoke. He went into preaching mode. He said outside forces were trying to destroy the church. He was gathering steam when someone cut him off.
It was LaDonna, his niece; the secretary he used to send home in tears. She turned to the bishop on the couch.
“This child had nothing to do with any of this,” she declared, referring to her brother, D.E. “He is completely innocent. He didn’t do any of this, but he’s having to clean this up. You need to say you’re sorry.”
The bishop said nothing. He stared at his feet.
He would eventually pay a price for his lie. He pleaded guilty to felony perjury and was placed on probation for 10 years and fined $1,000. A mugshot taken after he entered his plea is now immortalized on the Internet. It shows a pasty-faced bishop staring at the camera with a look of tight-lipped fury. The lawsuit that forced the revelation had an anticlimactic end. The church couple settled the lawsuit with the Paulks out of court.
LaDonna was shocked at herself for raising her voice to the bishop. She had never done that before. She had another thought that she dared not utter aloud.
Her father had been overshadowed by the bishop all of his life. But he could claim something that his older brother didn’t have: a son.
Now even that was gone.
“Damn,” she thought. “Uncle Earl. He got it all.”
D.E. was also thinking about the man who had raised him, the father he loved so much.
“I was hurt for what it was going to cause him.”
The family meeting continued. Who would break the news to the church? Who would deal with the press? Shouldn’t it be the bishop?
D.E. stepped forward.
“I’ll do it.”
‘I don’t want to change the past!’
Two days after that Sunday service, Clariece Paulk sat down before a computer and dispatched an impassioned e-mail at 8:31 in the morning.
She wanted to explain how her only son came into the world.
Using her husband’s e-mail account, she began with, “It is with a heavy heart that we write you…”
After her daughter was born, she wrote, she started taking a new birth control drug that harmed her reproductive system. When she tried to have another child, her doctor told her that her “blood” was “killing” her husband’s sperm.
She was desperate to have a boy to carry on the Paulk name. She thought that maybe “another sperm” might work. The person most similar to her husband “of course” was his brother.
“So I asked if I could receive his sperm,” she wrote. “To me, it was no more than insemination.”
She asked for forgiveness and said “God’s ways are higher than our ways.” She still held to the words of many prophets that “our ministry” was destined for greatness.
“I can’t change the past,” she wrote. “I don’t want to change the past! We have the most wonderful son that anyone could ever ask for.”
How could a marriage survive such a revelation?
Last December, Don and Clariece Paulk celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. They live in a suburban Atlanta neighborhood filled with stately brick homes draped with American flags. A gleaming, silver, refurbished 1941 Cadillac sits in their driveway.
Clariece Paulk’s email might sound surreal to outsiders, but not to her son and other family members. They say she is an unlikely temptress. They call her an artistic genius, someone whose mind is saturated with church hymns, biblical stories and prophecies about her son that she collected in a scrapbook. Clariece Paulk loves worship so much that when she was a kid her mother used to punish her by not allowing her to go to church.
In person, she and her husband laugh and joke easily. He writes little short stories about her hyperactive nature. She calls him “baby” and giggles like a little girl when he makes fun of her.
When the talk turns to D.E.’s birth, though, she moves to a chair on one side of the living room while her husband sits alone on a couch.
“The bishop and I worked together,” she says. “He knew every month that I cried when I wasn’t pregnant again. And I don’t know if it was my suggestion or his suggestion, but it just happened.”
She says she never went to a therapist to preserve her marriage.
“The Holy Ghost was our counselor.”
Both she and her husband say they couldn’t put on sack-clothes to publicly bemoan the way D.E. was born because that might make their son feel like an abomination.
Don Paulk says he hated seeing his wife in front of the church having to confront something from her past. He calls her the most spiritual person he has ever known. The revelation, in some ways, made her more real.
“The human side of her endeared her to me,” he says, “because it made her more like me.”
He recalls how his wife reacted when she learned about his extramarital affair years earlier.
“Rather than being the wronged wife, she’d take me in her arms and say, ‘It’s going to be alright. We’re going to get through this. We’re going to make it.’”
As his wife looks intently at him from her chair, he says: “I love her. I love her as much, if not more, than I ever did.”
Clariece Paulk says her decision was driven not by lust but by legacy.
“I just wanted to have a son so badly. I prayed to God for all of those years. I wanted someone to carry on the ministry.”
When D.E. talks about his mother’s actions, he is philosophical.
One morning in his office, he leans back in a red leather chair and mulls over her tryst with the bishop. There is no hint of hurt or anger in his voice.
“I was not mad at my mom,” he says. “Every preacher’s child sees behind the scenes. They see the cussing, the talking about the deacons. They see the good and the bad that the people in the pews for the most part don’t see.”
But a pastor sleeping with his brother’s wife? The question draws a wry smile and a nod. “I’m not going to sit here and say I didn’t think, ‘Wow, maybe someone other than your brother’s wife?’ But it happens.”
The bishop reaches out to D.E.
D.E. was a rock in public, but privately he faltered. The media called constantly; the church’s debt ballooned; he worried about his parents, and he was angry with the bishop.
After the DNA revelations, many pastors no longer sought to share the stage with the bishop. One pastor, however, virtually became a second family member as he supported the bishop and the rest of the Paulks.
Bishop Carlton Pearson knows something about being an outcast. He was a star in the Pentecostal world, an award-winning gospel singer and practically a second son to Oral Roberts. But he was ostracized by fellow pastors when he started preaching a message of universal salvation: God doesn’t just accept Christians but people of other faiths. He lost his megachurch and many friends. He’s now the director of New Dimensions Chicago church.
As D.E.’s anger at the bishop grew, Pearson warned him to not lose perspective.
“Before you were a bulge in that old man’s pocket, the vision of the cathedral was in his spirit,” Pearson said. “If it wasn’t for the bishop, you wouldn’t be here, nor your two children.”
Pearson told D.E. if he hated the bishop, he would become him.
“If you judge him now, you talk to me in your 80s and tell me what you’ve endured,” Pearson said. “You can’t demonize your uncle. You don’t know his relationship with God. For some reason, God didn’t kill him.”
D.E. wasn’t angry at the bishop just because he had betrayed his faith. He had betrayed the family. A reporter with a local television station planted a wire on a woman who had filed suit against the bishop. The “sting” caught the bishop telling her that he would walk away from his family just to be with her.
“Now this is with me closing my church down, putting my family and little kids in harm’s way to rescue him,” D.E. says. “For him to say he will walk away from us to be with her – yeah, I was mad. And I’m still mad.”
In introspective moments, D.E. tries to figure out the source of the bishop’s twisted sexual appetite. He concludes it was rooted in repression. The bishop grew up in a Pentecostal world of thou shalt nots: no wearing jewelry, playing sports, cards, dancing or makeup.
Once, when the bishop was a young husband, he went to a church overseer to confess adulterous thoughts. The overseer told him to turn around, walk out of the door and pretend they’d never talked. He said the bishop could lose his preacher’s license if his fleshly struggles became known.
“He was a powerful person who as young man tried to get help and was told that the best thing you can do is act like it doesn’t exist,” D.E. says. “If you act human, you cannot be a preacher. Only superhuman people get to preach.”
Though the bishop never apologized to his family, he tried to reach out to D.E.
Once when D.E. came to visit him at his home, the bishop told him how hard it was to watch his only son grow up without being able to publicly affirm him. He said he knew long before anyone else that there was a reason D.E. preached like him and even moved like him.
The bishop got teary-eyed. He started to call D.E. “son.”
D.E. wouldn’t allow it.
“Don Paulk is my dad,” he said. “I honor you as my uncle. You may be a father figure in some ways, in spiritual ways, but I will not disrespect my father.”
He hugged the bishop and walked out of the front door.
Breaking down and breaking free
The bishop was dying, and so was Chapel Hill.
By 2009, the church grounds looked like a fading strip mall. Only a few hundred members remained. The balconies were empty; sections of the sanctuary were roped off so that congregants would have to sit nearer the television cameras.
The bishop was hospitalized that same year. Cancer ravaged his body but not his self-assurance.
Bishop Jim Swilley, another nephew of the bishop, visited him in the hospital. Swilley was the senior pastor of another successful megachurch, the Church in the Now. He had seen what dying did to the conscience of people. Regrets bubbled to the surface.
Not so with the bishop.
“That’s not the way he thought,” says Swilley, who was not among the accused Paulk family ministers. “He was at peace with himself.”
And with his brother Don, it seemed.
Same heart, different DNA
Don Paulk may not have been D.E.’s biological father, but he was his real dad.
Don Paulk remained steadfast. He took him to his doctor’s appointments. He was a constant presence at his bedside.
Near the end, the bishop called for D.E. He ordered everyone else out the room.
D.E. braced himself for the moment of confession. He thought the bishop was going to say something like, “I knew I was your dad but I couldn’t… I want you to know I love you.”
The bishop had something else in mind.
“He was trying to explain to me that he and my mom – he was trying to explain this sexual thing,” D.E. says. “And I was like, gross, dude. What are you doing right now? But in some ways he was being honest. It wasn’t just an affair.”
D.E. reached for the bishop and patted his hand.
“I understand,” he told him. “I want you to be at peace. I hold no ill will.”
The bishop vowed he would take his last breath on the Sabbath. He almost made it. On Saturday, March 29, around midnight, he died. He was 81.
The bishop had preached before adoring crowds worldwide, but he faced a different audience at the end, D.E. says.
“He basically died alone. No fans came to the hospital room. No people wanting autographs, a book signed or to touch the bishop’s ring. It was his family and a couple of nurses. Nobody asked to come see him.”
D.E. still isn’t sure about the man’s feelings for him.
The bishop would size up D.E.’s broad shoulders and compliment him. He beamed when he preached a good sermon but only if he made several references to him.
“I never felt that he was proud of me in general,” D.E. says. “He was proud of me when it affected him, served him, flattered him, validated him.”
The bishop’s wake was held at the magnificent cathedral that brought him such pride. His coffin was placed in the foyer. D.E. stood by it with his family and greeted mourners.
The bishop had led one of the nation’s first interracial megachurches. But at the end of his life, most of Chapel Hill’s white members had abandoned the church. The mourners were mostly African-American. They never forgot the man who spoke out for them when other white pastors remained silent.
A horse-drawn carriage waited outside to take the bishop’s body. As D.E.’s cousins began to push the bishop’s coffin to the carriage, D.E.’s son, Micah, let go of his hand. He rushed to the pallbearer’s side. He wanted to help push his “Papa Earl” into the carriage.
One of the pallbearers stepped aside.
“C’mon son,” he said.
D.E. looked at his 8-year-old, and tears started to well. A friend grabbed him by the shoulders, pushed him quickly through the crowd of mourners and steered him into the empty sanctuary.
D.E. collapsed face down on a pew and cried.
His wife rushed to his side.
What were the tears for?
Some flowed from the accumulated tension of having so many people depend on him to be strong. Most came from a fear he had never fully contemplated.
The Bible talks about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children. The bishop’s deeds wouldn’t be erased by his funeral. They would linger for generations. D.E. realized that he couldn’t protect Micah from the family secret. It would always be with him because it was in him.
“At some point I would have to tell him that wasn’t your grand uncle, that was your grandfather. How would that affect him as a young man?”
Five months after the bishop’s funeral, D.E. sold the cathedral for $17.6 million, short of the $24.5 million asking price. The silver lettering listing the bishop’s and D.E.’s names on the brick entrance was pried away. The grand prophecies about D.E.’s future now seemed hollow. He had to find a new church home for his family. He had already settled on a new direction.
He was going to burn down heaven and extinguish the fires of hell.
Experiencing a rebirth
The thrill was gone. The preening preachers, the “courtesy drops,” the sex scandals – he wanted something different.
D.E. was driving one day when he heard something on the radio that gave him a hint of what that could be. A talk show guest told a story about Rabia Basri, an 8th century Muslim Sufi saint. Basri was running through her hometown carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other when someone asked where she was going.
“I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell,” she said, “and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of peace or fear, but because He is God.”
D.E. knew something about fear. The bishop feared losing power. His mother feared her secret. Pastors feared losing popularity. And the people in the pews came to church each Sunday fearing hell.
How can you love God if you’re driven by so much fear?
D.E. had seen the love of God in action. But he didn’t see it in the rousing sermons, the grand building projects or the bold prophecies. He realized he’d seen it in a man who wasn’t afraid to ask questions; wasn’t afraid to forgive or to be overlooked. It was a man who constantly opened his home to strangers and family members who needed help. It was the man who loved him unconditionally, whether or not he fulfilled a prophecy.
It was his father, Don Paulk. D.E. thought about an episode from his childhood.
His father heard about an African-American high school student in the church who was having trouble growing up in a tumultuous household in a violent housing project. He invited the young man to live with his family. D.E. practically became a second brother to the young man as they grew up sharing Christmas gifts and playing basketball together.
Today that young man still marvels at Don Paulk’s generosity. Lewis Lamar said it didn’t stop when he left for college. Don Paulk sent him money and co-signed his first car loan.
“Here I am a little black kid, and he took me in and reared me and encouraged me as if I was his own son,” Lamar says. “To this day, I call him ‘Uncle Don.’ He tells me, ‘I love you buddy. Call me if you need anything.’”
D.E. also realized that his father wasn’t just driven by compassion, he was driven by a sense of justice.
His dad was the one who insisted that Chapel Hill be involved in civil rights, D.E. says. “It was my dad who went first to meet with Daddy King [Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father] and came home from that meeting and said to his brother, ‘We need to get involved.’”
D.E. had found another spiritual mentor, the one he had all along – his father.
He had always been impressed with the bishop’s charisma. He became more impressed, though, with his father’s compassion.
“I was like, ‘That’s God,’” D.E. says. “All of this ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ had nothing to do with that.”
D.E. took a spiritual detour. He had been leaning in another direction for years, reading about other religions and forms of spirituality. He kicked that into overdrive.
He went on a spiritual pilgrimage. He bought hundreds of books on spirituality: “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle; “The Third Jesus,” By Deepak Chopra; and “One River, Many Wells,” by Matthew Fox.
“I was finding similar truths in these non-Christian books that I saw in the Bible,” D.E. says.
He also sought truth in the people he reached out to. He had lunch with Jewish rabbis, talked with Bishop Pearson about universal salvation, placed statues of Buddha throughout his house and walked through Hindu temples in tears because he sensed the same spirit that he felt at Pentecostal revivals.
In July 2012, D.E. and Brandi created a new incarnation of Chapel Hill. They called it “The Spirit and Truth Sanctuary,” and about 300 members from the bishop’s old church followed them. So did Don and Clariece Paulk, as well as D.E.’s sister, LaDonna.
D.E. finally had a new church and a new message: “The Gospel of Inclusion.” God doesn’t exclude: Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Wiccans, gays and lesbians – God accepts them all. There is no hell except what one creates with one’s own actions. People don’t need a “Man of God” to give them revelations; God is within them.
He wrote a book, “I Don’t Know… The Way of Knowing,” explaining his journey. He wrote that while he was still a “Jesus freak,” there is one river, many wells.
“Religion’s nature is to exclude, to see in black and white, to deny exceptions and to maintain dominance by supposedly knowing who qualifies and who does not,” he wrote. “Why is it that religion always seems to need a WHIPPING BOY?”
D.E. didn’t just call for a bland commitment to interfaith acceptance.
“It’s not just live and let live,” he said of the inclusion message. “It’s God in all of these streams. That thing you call Jesus. The thing you call the Prophet Mohammed they call Buddha. It’s just different names, but it’s the same spirit.”
He could have never preached that message at Chapel Hill, but court-ordered DNA tests have a way of liberating a pastor. What did he have to fear now? He had survived the worst the church world could throw at him.
His scandal was his salvation.
“It has a way of wiping out the things that keep you from being authentic,” he says of scandal. “All you have left is who you are. The games are gone. All the church tricks that used to work. I am the biological son of my dad’s brother. So this is what it is. If there was anything I wanted to say I thought would be unacceptable to the church, now is the time to say it.”
He was so excited that he didn’t grasp another possibility. What if the people who followed him from Chapel Hill to his new church didn’t want to hear his good news?
‘The ultimate scandal’
D.E.’s inclusion message went off like a bad product launch. He rhapsodized about Lao Tzu, Buddha and the Bhagavad Gita but his congregation sat stoned-faced in the pews. Some even glared in anger.
The prophet wasn’t even accepted in his own home. One Saturday night, he gave Brandi, his wife, sermon notes comparing Jesus to other Christ saviors in religion. He went upstairs and heard her tiny feet storming up the steps.
D.E. pressed on but the congregation started to drift away. He watched longtime friends who had stood by his side during court cases and embarrassing revelations tell him he had gone too far. They couldn’t embrace the message that God accepted people
from all religions and sexual orientations.
He witnessed another mass exodus from a church, but this time he was responsible.
“Love, not sex, had actually proved to be the ultimate scandal,” he wrote in his book.
It was the lowest he had ever felt in church.
“This wasn’t hurt,” he said. “This was hopelessness. Are you kidding me? They can tolerate all the sexual scandals and the lawsuits, but when you invite a Muslim or a gay person to church, that’s the scandal you leave for?”
His wife told him that not everyone was out to get him.
“I tried to tell him it’s not personal,” Brandi said. “He shuts down. I’ve watched him over the years become more closed off to close relationships because he’s afraid someone is going to hurt him and walk away.”
But D.E. didn’t retire; he re-fired. He walked into the pulpit, red-faced with frustration and pointed in the direction of nearby megachurches that they could go to and said, “Get busy!”
On other occasions, he issued a challenge. “Bring your Bibles,” he said. “Let’s sit down and see who wins.”
He started to sound like someone familiar, a man who once told doubting parishioners, “If that’s in the Bible, bring it to me and I’ll eat it.”
He was becoming the bishop.
“I never wanted to be that.”
And when he saw what was inside of him, he got spooked. He went before his congregation and asked, “How can I find you again?”
He found them through the Bible. He started anchoring his message in scripture and asked his congregation permission to show similar truths in other religious texts.
The exodus slowed. Then, it stopped. Today, the church is a rarity on many levels: interfaith, interracial, a mosaic of people deep in the Bible Belt where many churches remain segregated. The church has gay couples, college students, agnostics, some Muslims and even a Wiccan priest. Pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi adorn the walls.
A stained glass window looming over the pulpit captures the spirit of the church. It’s a design that contains a Christian cross, ringed by symbols from Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. In the middle is a dove, which symbolizes the spirit of peace that binds them all together.
D.E.’s preaching is as easy-going as the church’s approach to differences. No wagging fingers and thunderous revelations. He treats parishioners as fellow companions on a spiritual journey. He sprinkles his conversational sermons with references to everyone from the Buddha to Teddy Pendergrass’s hit song, “Love TKO.”
There are no armor bearers at his side. He tells people not to call him bishop, just D.E. He cuts the church lawn and hates asking for money. He’s not about to hide a television set in his closet.
“I tell my people all the time, if you invite me to watch a football game, don’t let it turn into prayer time because I’m going to get upset. I don’t care if ‘the spirit fell.’ I’m going to be in the other room watching the game.”
His family runs the church with him. Don Paulk says he would have left church altogether if it weren’t for the inclusion message. Clariece Paulk is still behind the piano. His sister, LaDonna, is the church’s administrator, and his wife is a church co-founder and singer (she sounds like Teena Marie).
Most people in the congregation know about the Paulks’ past. Some say that makes it easier to follow them, not harder.
David Searcy, who knew the bishop, is a Wiccan priest who attends the church.
“They’re real,” Searcy says. “What could they do now to blow my mind? Nothing. What could come out of the woodwork or the news to freak me out? They’ve done a lot of crazy mess, and they’ve freaked out a lot of people, but they’re real.”
Some say it’s still hard to digest what happened between the bishop and Clariece Paulk.
“I still can’t judge her,” says Fred Hayes, who was part of the bishop’s security detail at Chapel Hill. “I put it in the back of my mind and leave it alone. We love her for the gifts she brings.”
Those who knew the Paulks during their glory days, though, are more suspicious of D.E.’s new direction.
Thumma, the seminary professor, says D.E. grew up in an atmosphere of lies and deception and he may have become good at it. He’s not surprised that D.E. has such a bold new message.
“He’s Earl’s son,” Thumma says. “Earl Paulk was a religious genius. He was entrepreneurial. They were doing things that were far ahead of other churches. D.E. is a part of it. He’s looking at where the American church is going.”
Thumma says D.E. is in denial. “He’s just fooling himself. He’s never really renounced it, all of that suffering, and come to grips with how insidious and sick it was.”
Thumma’s anger may seem mystifying, but there are many ex-Chapel Hill members who are still hurt years later. The bishop was their hero, a surrogate father; their conduit to God. And Chapel Hill wasn’t just a church; it was a movement. People sacrificed careers, uprooted families and gave everything to the Paulks. Some were so devastated by their experience with certain Paulk ministers that they never returned to any church; some became atheists.
Some of these same people won’t allow D.E. to escape his family’s history, no matter what he does. They say he should have left Chapel Hill and never returned; that he can’t help but be a deceiver because it’s literally in his blood. His new message sounds heretical to them – some think it’s just another family con.
If the Paulk family had a scrap of honor left, they would get out of the church business and sell used cars, says Royston, leader of an online support group for former Chapel Hill members.
“The fact that D.E. is still preaching is proof that God doesn’t exist,” says Royston, who is now an atheist.
She says D.E. is trying to repackage himself, that he will never draw the crowds the bishop inspired.
“He can get a few, but he’ll never get the thousands that Earl had. He’ll never get back the prestige, the honor that people gave to them.”
D.E. says he doesn’t want another megachurch.
“The bigger we get, the less I go to my children’s basketball games, the less I see of my wife at home,” he says. “I don’t want to build a kingdom. I saw what kingdom building does.”
For those who question D.E.’s religious convictions, Swilley, his cousin, offers this:
“I’ve heard people say I don’t like his theology. I say you should be impressed that he has any theology at all.”
It’s D.E.’s attitude toward his family that also seems baffling. Isn’t he angry at his family for deceiving him for so long?
“It was kept from me for my protection,” he says. “How many families have skeletons that they won’t show to their children? It’s not out of spite. It’s out of love.”
And what does D.E. feel about the bishop?
“He never said he was sorry,” he says.
But his anger at his uncle has mellowed. “If you look at Earl Paulk’s life and say he never did anything wrong and he’s a man of God, you’re blind. If you look at Earl Paulk and you only see a monster and sexual predator, you’re blind.”
And what does D.E. see when he looks within himself? Does he see the face of the bishop staring back? Is he like the bishop?
D.E. pauses and thinks about that question. He sighs and leans back in a chair at his parent’s house before answering.
“I hope I am,” he says.
The bishop was a man ahead of his time, he says, someone who was willing to preach an unpopular message. That’s what he wants to claim from the man.
“I’m definitely a chip off the old block. He was a trailblazer. I know I carry that spirit.”
He also knows he carries some of the bishop’s pugnaciousness.
“I could easily become like my uncle,” he says. “I’m not saying that I won’t, but at this point of my life I’m so introspective: Why do I think the way I do? Why do I talk the way I do? I think I have a system of checks and balances in me.” He also has someone willing to get in his face.
“My sister has seen enough of it, she would be like, ‘Dude, don’t even go there.’” The Paulks say that in an odd way the secret helped D.E. If he had grown up as the bishop’s son, it might not have worked. D.E. agrees.
“We would have fought,” D.E. says. “I wouldn’t put up with him trying to dominate me. I’m too much like him.”
After the results of the DNA test went public, Don Paulk delivered the same message. He took D.E. aside for a father- son chat.
“Look Donnie Earl, I love you. There’s no way for me to tell you how much I love you,” he said. “But because of biological things and because of being raised in my home, you have the ability to pick up the best traits of both of us. Capitalize on that.”
D.E. is trying to heed his father’s advice.
Last year, D.E. celebrated the 54th anniversary of his church. The scandal didn’t just save D.E., it saved his family’s church. “The Spirit and Truth Sanctuary” is three years old, but D.E. sees the church as the latest expression of Chapel Hill – with an updated message.
The celebration felt like a family reunion. A beaming Clariece Paulk floated onstage to play a selection of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” Don Paulk took the microphone to thank the congregation and playfully hid it from his wife as she sprang from her chair to add to his remarks. D.E. sat on the front row with Brandi, their two kids – one now 14 and the other 16 – and his sister, LaDonna.
Pearson, the bishop who counseled D.E. during the tough times, flew in from Oklahoma to deliver a sermon.
“You are not a victim of circumstances or life. You are here on purpose with purpose,” he told the cheering congregation.
The service then started to feel like a Pentecostal tent-revival but with an unusual twist.
A group of singers took to the stage and opened with a hypnotic Tibetan Buddhist chant that evoked the spirit of compassion: “Om Mani Padme Hum.”
The chant segued into “Shanti, Shanti Om,” a Hindu prayer for peace. Then as the chanting grew louder, the drums and bass kicked in as the singers switched to a Muslim chant about the sovereignty of God: “La ilaha, Il Allah.”
The interfaith chant ended with the singers soaring. They switched to chanting the Hebrew word for peace, “Shalom,” and ended with a triumphant Christian declaration, “Glory to God on High” as the congregation yelled and joined in.
It was mesmerizing. There’s a reason the Paulks built one of the biggest churches in the country: They know how to do church. It was the kind of emotional scene that made D.E. edge away from the pulpit when he was a boy, but this time he stepped onstage.
The singers then switched to a new song. It was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The congregation joined in.
So did D.E. With his head tilted upward in the direction of the dove symbol resting above the choir loft, he raised the microphone to his lips and sang:
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
Imagine a boy who is told that God has great plans for him. Then imagine that boy becoming a man and discovering in one of the most humiliating ways possible that it all seemed like a farce. He sees some of the worst examples of religion, in human nature and even in his own family.
Then imagine that man living with the knowledge that he could bring shame to his family again, and an army of people would rejoice at his failure.
Now imagine seeing that man step onto a church stage again. He’s singing about compassion and peace while his family surrounds him.
There are no miracles or thunderbolts from heaven. And maybe the prophecies were all wrong – D.E. may never attract the multitudes his uncle once drew. But he is still up on the church stage, eyes closed while lifting his voice to heaven.
That is the greatest wonder of all.