Church weathers sex abuse charges and fire damage

Baltimore Sun/February 10, 2006
By Matthew Hay Brown and Annie Linskey

Salisbury -- Dr. Julius Zant stood at the pulpit, arms outstretched, beseeching the Lord.

A few steps away, the entrance of New Life the Apostolic Church lay gutted by fire: a cash register melted, the hand-hewn greeter's station blackened with soot. An acrid smell still hung heavy in the 1,000-seat sanctuary; a fine layer of ash coated the pews.

But in the adjacent multipurpose room, the air tasted fresh. About 75 believers swayed to the gospel hum of a keyboard synthesizer as Zant called out in prayer.

"As the building is rebuilt, let us be rebuilt," said the Salisbury neurosurgeon, an elder at the Pentecostal church. "As the building is renovated, let us be renovated. As the building is renewed, let us be renewed."

These are painful times for the 22-year-old congregation at the edge of this Eastern Shore city. On Feb. 1, the youth minister at New Life, the son of the founder, was arrested on sex charges stemming from allegations of an affair with a 16-year-old girl who attends the church. Two days later, the founder, Bishop Richard C. Lawson, arrived to find in flames the foyer he had helped to build.

Authorities say the fire was set. They are investigating whether the sex charges and the arson are connected.

This congregation of 400 - a mix of black and white members, with many youths and young families, who come together Sundays and some weeknights to worship and study - is shaken.

"We've faced a lot of trials, but we've never had as much that is hurtful as the things going on right now," said Lawson, a former contractor who built the 26,000-square-foot church complex off Mount Hermon Road.

"We're all crushed by the things that are being said," he said. "We can't believe the things that are being said."

The Rev. Joshua W. Lawson, 29, is charged with sex abuse, second-degree sexual assault, a fourth-degree sex offense and perverted practice, Wicomico County State's Attorney Davis R. Ruark said this week. Investigators with the Wicomico County Child Advocacy Center allege that Joshua Lawson and the girl, whom authorities would not identify, were involved in a sexual relationship from August to November last year.

Joshua Lawson, who is married with two children, was released on $50,000 bail. He did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Neither the girl nor her family could be reached for comment.

With the investigations into the sex charges and the arson continuing, many are supporting the church. Neighbor Brenda Douglas-Hudson, who attends New Life, does not believe the allegations against Lawson.

"In your heart, if you know someone, you know what they are like," said Douglas-Hudson, whose mother, now dead, had been a member. "Family sticks together."

Four days after the arrest and two days after the fire, 300 people filled the multipurpose room for Sunday worship services, Elder David L. Spann said.

"Just the fact that there were so many people here in the face of everything that is going on shows support of the bishop and the pastor," Spann said.

The son and grandson of Tennessee coal miners, Richard Lawson was in his mid-30s when he heard the call to start a Christian ministry.

Lawson and his wife, Sylvia, arrived in Salisbury in 1984. At the outset, they knocked on doors, looking for guests to attend worship services and Bible study in the couple's dining room. As their following grew, they rented out a dance hall.

In 1990, the church bought land on Mount Hermon Road and began building. Lawson led the construction, guiding the congregation in raising metal frames, carving oak planks for window frames, gilding a replica of the Ark of the Covenant - the vessel that was said to have contained the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed - from biblical measurements. Sylvia hung the wallpaper; a daughter-in-law added illustrations.

Leading a reporter through the wreckage this week, Lawson stopped before the scorched remains of the domed wooden kiosk from which greeters welcomed worshipers.

"All this was hand-done," he said. "My son and I did this."

A photograph of Richard and Sylvia Lawson hung on a blackened wall nearby.

"We're devastated," Lawson said. "Who in a thousand years? ... All we try to do is work with people and love people. I guess evil has no conscience."

He would not discuss the charges against his son or whether he believed the fire was connected to the allegations.

Many New Life members have keys to the church so that they can enter and pray on their own schedules. A couple affiliated with the church discovered the fire the evening of Feb. 3. They dialed 911, and then ran to get Lawson at the parsonage.

By the time Lawson reached the church, he says, the high-ceilinged foyer was thick with smoke. He grabbed a garden hose, kicked in the plate-glass doors and sprayed water on the flames. Overcome by the fumes, he left and returned again and a third time. Firefighters arrived to finish the job. The state fire marshal opened an arson investigation.

"We're interviewing anybody that will be able to help us resolve the fire," Deputy Fire Marshal Will Pusey said. He said investigators had not established a connection between the sex allegations and the fire.

Church members came early to Bible study Wednesday evening to pray. Some sat in metal folding chairs in the dimly lit room; others strolled about, eyes half-closed, palms raised, murmuring.

After a pair of songs and an offering, Lawson directed the congregation to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter Six: the portion of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches his followers the Lord's Prayer.

Lawson parsed the prayer line by line, until he reached the words, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." He said that debt could be translated from the Greek as fault. Other translations read, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

It is one of the most challenging passages in Christian Scripture. A common interpretation is that God will forgive a person's sins only to the extent that that person forgives the sins of others.

Here, for the first time in his message, Lawson alluded to the fire.

"I know half of you have said you want to whup someone," he said. "But when you think about what's happened, it's only wood and steel and Sheetrock and wallpaper."

He smiled and said, "Now I'm getting mad."

When the laughter died down, he started again.

"Seriously, when they did what they did, do you really think that they thought of the effect it would have on so many people?" he asked. "When we get angry, we've got to realize one thing. We need to release them. And that means forgive them, and then let God forgive us."

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