Inside the dominion of an insular church

The Philadelphia Inquirer/September 9, 2003
By Kristen A. Graham

Bishop Kenneth Shelton ends the Labor Day service at the church's 133-acre farm in Cherry Hill. The leader of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, who arrived in a Rolls-Royce, is also known as Bishop Omega.

Past the ranchers, Colonials and split-levels of an ordinary Cherry Hill neighborhood, the gate sits: a long, black iron stretch, tall under a brick arch.

Two sergeants-at-arms stand in front, gold badges gleaming. They peer inside an approaching car, scan, and nod politely.

A rare visitor can pass.

So the visitor enters a different world - the insular, complicated, joyful realm of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith.

Though the small church rarely crops up on scholars' radar screens, its long, sometimes strange history in the region lends mystery to what goes on inside.

Based in Philadelphia and boasting 70 congregations and an active worldwide membership of about 5,000, the church is a conservative Christian body whose members ascribe to a strict code of behavior.

Women must wear long dresses and hats and may not be preachers, and congregants are required to tithe their income and make additional "love offerings" of cash. They object to Christmas and Easter as holidays based on pagan festivals. Titles such as "prince," "duchess" and "dame" are used.

A fundamentalist sect that bases its teachings on Scripture, the church's members, like others in Pentecostal-type faiths, speak in tongues and believe in faith healing, though members may seek medical aid.

The church owns the 133-acre farm in Cherry Hill, one of the last privately owned pieces of undeveloped ground in the sprawling township, an idyllic spot where members gather three times a year for fellowship and electrifying worship. For the rest of the year, it lies idle.

To the legion of faithful members - who are encouraged not to study other religions - the sect is merely about positive things.

And when Bishop Kenneth Shelton, known as Bishop Omega, begins preaching, everything else fades away.

In some ways, it seems as if there are two churches: the congregation of contented worshipers, and the congregation that has often erupted into bitter battles.

There are at least two splinter congregations in the area, one in Germantown and one in Darby Borough, and a long history of leadership battles, some of which have spilled into the courts.

Bishop S.C. Johnson founded the church in 1919 with five members in a North Philadelphia storefront. Radio helped his fundamentalist church grow, and the growth continued when Bishop S. McDowell Shelton took over in 1961.

Now the church's headquarters occupies a block-long complex known as Apostolic Square, which includes a sanctuary with seating for 5,000 and an assisted-living facility, at 22d and Bainbridge Streets in Southwest Center City. Church assets are estimated in the millions, and include land, luxury cars and a 10-room penthouse on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. All were paid for in cash provided by the church membership.

Omega, according to court documents, was paid a salary of $250,000 in 1999. He travels the world on evangelical "goodwill missions," taking a group of aides with him.

Shelton, his high-living predecessor, amassed a fortune and assembled what he referred to as "the Royal House of Shelton," several boys he adopted and showered with the trappings of a lavish lifestyle.

When Shelton - known among members as "The Blessedness" - died in 1991, three of his sons battled to succeed him. After almost a decade, Kenneth Shelton, the youngest, won.

Each Labor Day for as long as anyone can remember, the faithful have trooped to the Old Orchard section of Cherry Hill, near Route 70 and Springdale Road, for a picnic and service, the culmination of their annual national convention.

According to property records, the parcel is worth $1.3 million. According to township sentiment, the church is a quiet, cooperative neighbor.

Patricia Russell, a fourth-generation member and church employee, stepped from her car last week and surveyed the vast land, in a corner of the township's posh east side.

"This is one of Cherry Hill's best-kept secrets," she said. "You can't see it from Route 70."

During the Great Depression, the spread was purchased as a place for church members to grow food. Families who found it impossible to find work elsewhere tended the land.

"Years ago, when I was a child, it was a real farm with vegetables and animals," said Russell, who works in the Office of Protocol and Apostolic Succession. "Now Cherry Hill is encouraging us to try to develop it."

Church leadership is not interested in development of the land. Though no longer farmed, it is the site of Omega's private dwelling - an auxiliary residence, apart from the Art Museum-area penthouse and his Media home.

Moving toward the hive of activity, Russell greeted dozens of people, many wearing tags proclaiming them as being from churches in Washington state, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina.

"Peace be to you," she called. "Blessings."

Near the pavilion under which services were held, Russell showed off the grounds, where members milled around, buying and eating homemade cakes, fresh corn on the cob, steaming plates of chicken and pigs' feet.

"It's been this way since I was a little girl," said Mother Ozzie Woods, a member since 1957, dipping a piece of fish into a cavernous deep fryer.

At one table, products catered to children were sold. My Personal Apostolic Journal read the cover of one brightly colored book for sale. It bore a photo of Omega.

Russell looked at the choir, about to take the stage.

"When the music starts," she promised, "the mood will change."

And it did. Things went from slow and happy to feverish and ecstatic.

Seated in the open-air sanctuary, Russell leaned over and whispered.

"We usually stand when he comes in," she said, eyes fixed on double white doors that swung open to admit the revered bishop, newly delivered from his Rolls-Royce.

He had intended to ride his horse up from the house, but the threat of rain was too great, Russell said.

Two burly men - the only people on the stage not dancing - stood behind him, looking out at the crowd of more than 2,000, many standing on the dusty ground surrounding the worship pavilion.

Omega sang and danced and marched down a side aisle, taking a woman's hand and dancing with her. Cameras flashed, and a handful of video cameras recorded his every move.

Stylish in sunglasses and a black suit over a crisp white shirt open at the collar, the bishop bopped along with the opening song. Backed by a full band and choir, he writes and arranges most of the worship music.

From the moment he took the stage, the place was joyful in a horns-blaring, hands-in-the-air, people-dancing-in-the-aisles way.

Around him, thousands were enraptured, and Omega knew it, dancing, laughing and moving confidently across the stage.

The world, he told the congregation, "will say that preachers are beguiling or bewitching you. But this is from the Bible, and there is no beguiling or bewitching in God."

The 44-year-old preacher's message was simple - conservative ideas delivered in a most modern way, tongue firmly tucked in apostolic cheek.

On why "saints" - how the congregants refer to themselves - are not obligated to employ lazy people, even if they are churchgoers: "If you're perpetually late, you are one fired Christian. Love you! See you in church!"

At one point, a serpentine line of people - nearly everyone at the service - walked past Omega, seated in a high-backed wooden chair. They dropped fistfuls of dollars into a gleaming gold offering plate at his feet.

After the ushers collected and took the money away, the band broke out in song again. Then the bishop thanked the crowd for coming and disappeared through the double doors.

The saints' energy was palpable.

Longtime member James Strong, who directs the Office of Protocol and Apostolic Succession, described the feeling.

"You never hear him talk about condemnation," Strong said, smiling. "It's about exhibiting love."

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