Church rift reflects political disunity

Willie Brooks, 81, says he was attacked by the pastor of the Bethlehem Progressive Baptist Church during a service.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Willie Brooks, 81, says he was attacked by the pastor of the Bethlehem Progressive Baptist Church during a service.

Something sad is going on at an institution most of us don't know enough about.

Bethlehem Progressive Baptist Church in Brooksville is 151 years old — absolutely ancient by the standards of this part of Florida. For years, if you were a prominent black resident of Hernando County, there was a good chance you belonged to Bethlehem.

Teachers at the old, segregated Moton School were members. So are Hazel Land, the first black woman to graduate from the University of Florida law school, and Willie Brooks, one of the county's first two black sheriff's deputies. Bethlehem's longtime former pastor was the now-deceased Rev. Louis Edrington McGhee, once Brooksville's most influential African-American leader.

And, until a few years ago, the handsome, white sanctuary on S Brooksville Avenue was packed every Sunday, as was the choir box.

Now, three dozen is a big crowd, Brooks said, and "we don't really have a choir. It's just a little put-together deal."

Some of the reasons for this decline are common in a lot of traditional churches, including an aging congregation.

But another isn't common at all. On Sept. 2, the Rev. Cecill Hubbert grew enraged as Brooks, 81, and another member of the congregation carried on a conversation as Hubbert was preaching — though several members said Hubbert was mostly just talking about the need for more donations.

Hubbert first asked Brooks to be quiet, said member Lorraine Stockley.

"Then he rushed off that pulpit and he said, 'Shut up! Shut up! I said shut up!' And he went to the back of the church and he said, 'When I say shut up, I mean shut up,' " Stockley said.

Hubbert reached around another elderly church member, Eddie Warren, and grabbed Brooks, "and we all went down in a pile," Brooks said.

"Everybody was shocked. I was screaming," Stockley said. "I was like, 'What the hell is going on? This is a church.' "

Nobody was hurt, said Brooks, though he has since been hospitalized twice with heart problems.

Brooks and Warren reported the attack to Brooksville police, but both of them signed documents stating they didn't want to press criminal charges.

When Brooks later changed his mind, a prosecutor told him that because of the signed affidavit, the matter would be impossible to prosecute.

So, there won't be a criminal case, and, at this point, there hasn't been any other real action.

Hubbert has never apologized to him in person, Brooks said, and others at the church said he hasn't done enough to ask the congregation's forgiveness.

Not only that, said longtime member Matilda Holland; Hubbert created the circumstances that led to the incident. Hubbert, she said, doesn't call business meetings because he likes to run the church his way, with the help of a few close allies in the congregation.

"They are just totally for the pastor, right or wrong," Holland said.

That's why Hubbert spent so much time on Sundays talking about money, she said, and why so many of the members tuned him out. That's also one reason why attendance had been declining, even before the incident with Brooks, she said.

Neither Hubbert nor his supporters returned several of my calls, so I don't know their side of the story.

I imagine it's different than the one I heard from his detractors, but I think it's safe to assume that nobody is happy with the way this has all played out.

I also think there might be parallels here with what's going on outside the church in the aftermath of another nasty local election.

Is this a reach? Maybe. There haven't been physical altercations that I know of, and I don't think anybody is expecting any apologies.

And is it sappy, not to mention hypocritical, for me to go all Rodney King and ask if we can all just get along? I'm sure some of you think so.

But, still, we have disagreements to put behind us, work that can get done only if we do it together.

When I interviewed Brooks two weeks ago, he said he wasn't interested in hearing an apology from Hubbert at this point. It's too late, he said, and he won't come back to the church "until this whole mess is straightened out."

But several other members still do attend and said they would listen if Hubbert asked for forgiveness and expressed a willingness to change the way he runs the church.

"That's what we Christians do," said Andy Williams, a former county employee and lifelong church member.

But it ought to happen soon, he said: "The Bible says not to let the sun go down on your wrath. Because tomorrow is not promised."

Church rift reflects political disunity 11/13/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 10:16am]

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