Debra Roulhac owns all of Juanita Bynum's New York Times bestsellers. And if one of the Pentecostal evangelist's conferences came anywhere near Tampa Bay, Roulhac was there.
For years, Roulhac and thousands of women nationwide extolled Bynum's penchant for correcting her flock while exposing her own flaws, even admitting to sleeping with men for money years ago.
But their faith was shaken in 2007 when news broke that Bynum's husband, Bishop Thomas Weeks III, had assaulted her in the parking lot of an Atlanta hotel. Revelations followed of a struggling marriage and delinquent taxes. Meanwhile, Bynum appeared on national TV shows, leading some to question her judgment as a spiritual leader.
Now, she is trying to remake herself — going by the name Juanita Bynum II — and returning for what may be her first appearance in the Tampa Bay area since the controversy.
About 1,700 people are expected to attend a two-day revival this week in Plant City where Bynum will preach.
"We deal with a lot of ladies who have been through divorce and different struggles, and they lose self esteem," said Calvin Callins, pastor of the revival's sponsor, Greater New Hope Anointed Ministries. "So just coming to hear Dr. Bynum … is a living testimony that you can recover from whatever you'd been through."
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Bynum, 50, began her rise to Christian celebrity in the late '90s, after she spoke at a women's conference in Dallas sponsored by the ever popular Bishop T.D. Jakes.
There, Bynum gave the groundbreaking "No More Sheets" sermon, removing white sheets wrapped around her body to symbolize the release of the relationship sins of her past. She instructed women on the right way to seek love by explaining all the wrong ways she'd gone about getting it, including her short-lived first marriage.
By 2002, she was hosting conferences of her own. In downtown Tampa, at what was then called the Ice Palace, 20,000 people showed up. The four-day Women Weapons of Power event sold out hotels, boosted Tampa's tourism numbers and further solidified Bynum as a Pentecostal powerhouse.
"She spoke exactly to wherever you were at that time," Roulhac said, speaking of Bynum in general. "It didn't matter who you were; God was using her to speak directly to your situation."
Naturally, Roulhac rejoiced when she learned earlier in 2002 that Bynum had wed Weeks, said to be a "God-fearing" man, in what was reportedly a million-dollar ceremony. A year later the couple released their book Teach Me How to Love: The Beginnings.
But critics never strayed far from Bynum, who uses the title "prophetess." They grew more vocal after headlines revealed her husband beat her in an Atlanta parking lot and Bynum then took to the airwaves.
Within a month, she appeared on Good Morning America and began calling herself the "face of domestic violence," a move some believers saw more as a publicity stunt than victim's advocacy. Later, she appeared as a counselor on the daytime TV show Divorce Court.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Bynum had not paid $32,000 in back taxes on her 23-acre home in Waycross, Ga.
The couple eventually ended their five-year marriage. Weeks pleaded guilty to assaulting Bynum and was sentenced to three years of probation and community service. He has since become engaged to another female minister.
Critics lambasted Bynum for the very public way she chose to deal with her affairs. Even some Bynum devotees were turned off.
"I wasn't pleased with the fact that she publicized it," said Roulhac, who lives in Tampa and is a minister herself. "I don't think she had enough time to heal."
It's not uncommon for people to become confused and even lose faith in religious leaders who seemingly don't live up to their own standards, said Tim Morgan, deputy managing editor at Christianity Today magazine.
The scandal surrounding Bynum "doesn't totally invalidate her previous teachings," Morgan said. "But if you're reflective about this, it does perhaps make you rethink her message."
These days, Bynum is going through "a re-birthing and redefining," according to her Web site.
She lives in Hempstead, N.Y., and is busy doing conferences again, which is why she did not respond last week to requests for an interview.
For a four-day conference last week in Hampton, Va., Bynum announced that she would receive therapy in front of the crowd. Those who attended the sessions would be asked to sign confidentiality agreements.
Despite the emotional roller coaster Bynum has seemed to take her flock on, many remain strapped in for the ride. About 6,000 attended the Virginia conference, according to Bynum's site.
Roulhac says she will likely attend the revival in Plant City.
"She's still called to do God's work," Roulhac said. "You don't really ever get a vacation from that."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at [email protected] or (813)269-5303.