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Published: Saturday, March 11, 2000
By MARIAN DOZIER Staff Writer
(about Redemptive Life Fellowship Church, 2101 N. Australian Ave., West Palm Beach, FL 33407, 561-805-7900)
Sunday's sermon was about winning, and as Bishop Harold Calvin Ray delivered it in his rapid-fire style, he told his all-black flock at Redemptive Life Fellowship in West Palm Beach that they were born to it. God expects it, he told them.
As support, Ray sprinkled his talk with his own tale: He had just returned from Washington, where he met with powerful Republican leaders, at their invitation, to discuss his plans for a national black-church-led economic movement.
"I couldn't have gotten the speaker of the House out there to talk to me if I'd wanted to; it was God," he intoned. "I was functioning in divine predestination. God hooked it up."
Ray, 44, a former lawyer who founded his church in 1991 with two dozen members in a Holiday Inn meeting room, went to the nation's capital as the leader of one of the most ambitious economic recovery plans ever devised by the black church for the community it serves.
The month-old National Center for Faith Based Initiative would link black congregants with corporations and government, hoping to turn out savvy consumers and black entrepreneurs, and construct a black church that operates like a business.
The plan is still developing; it has no corporations signed up, and a planned $5.4 million headquarters on Ray's 19-acre lakeside campus is still just a drawing. But Ray has attracted the support of 10 of the most powerful black pastors in the country to serve as governors for the center. It was their enormous clout and legitimacy that helped attract the interest of the Republican congressmen. The center's governors include the Rev. Floyd Flake, former six-term congressman and pastor of Allen AME in New York; Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas and his highly successful TV and book ministries; and Bishop Charles E. Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles.
With their giant churches, tens of millions of dollars in book and video sales, and huge national TV ministries, they help Ray offer access to millions of black churchgoers -- and their pocketbooks.
"What they're talking about doing is long overdue," said the Rev. Mark Lyons of the 6,000-member Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale. "If they're serious and sincere, they're going to wield major power with the type of combined access and influence they control."
With the shadow of a scandal in the backdrop, the center could face some skepticism from the troops it seeks to help. Last year the Rev. Henry Lyons, a longtime pastor in St. Petersburg, was convicted on state and federal charges of stealing $4 million from the coffers of the National Baptist Convention USA during his term as its president. Lyons was also convicted of defrauding corporations that wanted to do business with the convention's millions of members. The Rev. A.B. Coleman, who was chairman of the Florida General Baptist Convention during Lyons' reign, said the scandal has left him and a lot of black churchgoers wary of any large-scale, centralized effort to mix church and business.
"The concept is a laudable one, but the problem with this sort of thing is, historically, it ends up benefiting the people in control, not the people in the pews," said Coleman, 22-year pastor of St. Andrew's Missionary Baptist in Jacksonville and a board member of Florida Memorial College in Miami. "I need to understand how it is to be controlled, what safeguards are in place." Ray, a supremely confident man, is unmoved by such talk.
"That's debilitating to my time, and I'm not going to waste one minute of it on ulterior motives or speaking out of ignorance," he said. "We cannot allow the failures of the past to prevent future success." Ray's plan is to hire a Fortune 500-style chief operating officer to manage day-to-day operations, and to hire outside auditing, tax and accounting firms to do the center's paperwork. Legions of researchers, economists and lawyers also would be hired to direct the vision laid out by the center's governors and Ray, who will be chief executive officer.
"If you're looking at this as a bunch of black preachers coming in saying, 'We'll buy so many Chryslers if Chrysler gives us so much for our churches,' you're looking at it wrong," Ray said. "We're talking about, 'Where's the reinvestment dollars? Where's the Chrysler plants? What is Chrysler doing with the Community Reinvestment Act?'
"Look, we've got a readily movable constituency who knows, in their hearts, the importance of where and how they spend their money, but they don't know how we can turn it around," Ray said.
"All we've got to do is give them a plan that makes sense. ... It's all about economic alignment. It's simply an idea whose time has come."
Ray grew up a deeply religious boy in a 150-member Pentecostal "holy roller" church in Joliet, Ill., which he recalls as smaller than his office is today. It was the kind of church he tried to help with tailored legal advice in 1982 as a Notre Dame-trained lawyer in private practice in Dallas.
"I saw so much potential there if only they'd organize. But I think it was all a little scary for them," Ray said. "They loved me, I loved them, but they weren't ready."
He left for the lucrative world of medical malpractice law, and was moving in social circles peopled with the successful.By 1986, he was ordained by the Church of God in Christ and married to American Airlines ticket agent Brenda Pikes. Today, his wife is known as Pastor Brenda.
Ray's faith was constant, says his sister-in-law, Fern Miles. "Even in the courtroom, during his summations," she said, "he used Scripture to make his points."
He attracted the attention of super-lawyer Willie Gary of Stuart.
It was a heady time, and Ray was flying all over trying cases, sometimes with Gary, speaking at conferences and spending a lot of money.
Two months before he accepted Gary's invitation to join forces in January 1990, Ray filed for bankruptcy with debts of more than $100,000.
"We have been transparent about our financial problems, and we have worked ourselves out of indebtedness," Ray said. "We preach about that: 'Let's go up. I'm going to work out of it and you can, too.' Just be faithful, tithe and manage your finances."
They moved to West Palm Beach, a central spot between his office in Stuart and Brenda Ray's job at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. But they didn't see a sense of purpose in the black community, or any apparent effort to do anything about it. They started hosting Friday night Bible study in their two-bedroom condo, and, within a year, Ray quit Gary's office to focus on his ministry vision.
The Bible study was moved to a Holiday Inn, then to a bigger space at Bear Lakes Middle School. It was there that James Gilbert, a member since 1995, met the Rays. He was struck by their faith, work ethic -- and their incessant push for members to strive for more. He credits Ray with inspiring him to buy a home in 1996 and to open an auto-detailing business, Kingdom Services, last year after 13 years of working in the city's Public Works Department.
"His point is not to let society dictate who you are and what you can do. He says, 'Be the head and not the tail,'" said Gilbert, 35, of West Palm Beach. "I wouldn't have had the courage without his example."
Redemptive Life Fellowship has spawned a half-dozen for-profit and nonprofit corporations.
They include the Redemptive Life Academy, a travel agency, a women's clothing business and, soon, a real estate company.
It also has spawned Kingdom Dominion Church Fellowship, a group of 40 churches with about 15,000 members that are under Ray's administrative oversight, and the Kingdom Dominion Network, a group of 350 churches that has morphed into the initiative center.
Redemptive Life Academy also has an active prison ministry, a 14-city summer youth mission that ministers in the inner city and an AIDS counseling group.
With his expensive suits and diamond bracelets and a six-figure house in exclusive Bay Hill Estates outside Palm Beach Gardens, Ray lives his success -- unapologetically.
"I work 24-7, I teach and preach all over this country, I have income from eight books I've written, I'm a lawyer. Brenda and I don't receive salaries from the church," he said. "Don't criticize me because I'm working hard and can afford a few things.
"I tell people in church I drove into Palm Beach [County] with a Mercedes-Benz and a BMW; I don't think because I'm preaching that I have to give that up," he said. "I can't help you, brother, if we're both broke."
Marian Dozier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6643.
Copyright 2000, SUN-SENTINEL Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.