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.”
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.
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 prostrate 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.