Facing major surgery and embroiled in his fourth sex scandal, Bishop Earl Paulk stood confidently in the pulpit of his 7,700-seat south DeKalb cathedral in late October.
Only a few hundred worshippers occupied the maroon seats on the main floor of Chapel Hill Harvester Church. Sections of the semi-circular sanctuary were roped off so congregants would sit near the front for the television cameras. The ceiling rose majestically over two almost empty balconies.
Norma, Paulk's wife of six decades, sat to his right.
But gone were some of his most faithful followers.
They had helped Paulk, 78, build his little church into a flock of 12,000 that caught the attention of presidents. Then they had stood by him as the church hemorrhaged members and money after two scandals that drew national attention.
They had believed him when he denied allegations of adultery and child molestation by saying his accusers were under demonic influence.
Now, they are his accusers.
Cindy Hall, 44, was the first baby born into the church that Paulk founded in 1960. In 2003, she burst into tears over dinner and told her husband, Greg, "We have to get out of there." She says Paulk coerced her into an 11-year affair that included having sex with his brother.
Mona Brewer, 45, taught in the church's school and delivered gospel solos on Sundays with raw passion. Paulk himself set the date for her marriage to one of his closest friends. Two years after the wedding, she says, Paulk betrayed that friend by manipulating her into a sexual relationship that lasted 14 years.
Her husband, Bobby Brewer, 58, a former pastor at the church, had spent his life under Paulk's leadership. Paulk called him his "spiritual son." Over half a century he gave Paulk his loyalty, his time and considerable sums of money.
His relationship with his mentor ended dramatically in 2004 when, as a wronged husband, he punched Paulk in the face.
The Brewers are suing the bishop and his church, saying the bishop used his religious influence to seduce Mona. Hall is expected to be a witness on their behalf.
Louis Levenson, the lawyer representing the Brewers, said he expects a trial filled with sordid revelations. "There's never been an opportunity for various allegations to be aired," Levenson said. "It's time for that to happen."
Paulk denied the Brewers' allegations in court papers. But Dennis Brewer, his Texas attorney (no relation to Bobby and Mona) acknowledged a sexual relationship between the bishop and Mona Brewer.
"About nine years ago, there were two or three incidents wherein she was the aggressor," he said in a telephone interview.
The lawyer said the bishop had "absolutely not" had a sexual relationship with Cindy Hall, and that Don Paulk, the bishop's brother who is also his client, "absolutely denies" having sex with Hall.
He said he thinks Hall and Mona Brewer are "writing a book or want to ... be movie stars."
In leaving the cathedral, the Halls and the Brewers altered much more than their Sunday morning routines. Both couples lived in a nearby neighborhood heavily populated with Chapel Hill members. Their children attended the church's private academy. They socialized almost exclusively with other Chapel Hill Harvester families, including the Paulks. And, all four worked at the church.
They have changed almost every aspect of their lives.
The sense of community was a critical part of the success of Chapel Hill Harvester.
One of the country's first great independent megachurches, it gained an international reputation for combining liturgical arts, such as dance and drama, with cutting-edge social ministry.
Now, both the church and Paulk are weakened.
In November, the bishop underwent 15 hours of surgery to remove his bladder, prostate and part of his colon. He suffered several setbacks and was later rehospitalized.
His lawyer said on Friday that Paulk is "sick, very, very sick."
But on this Sunday in October, Paulk preached as if he were still addressing the throngs. He spoke with his customary mixture of authority and affection, peppering his homily with "sweetheart" and "darling." The light gray suit over his clerical-collared shirt matched his hair, brushed back off a high forehead.
God, he proclaimed, has found his "remnant" - a word from the Book of Revelation denoting the Christians who will survive persecution by Satan in the end times.
He urged parishioners to dig deep as ushers passed the tapestry offering bags.
"We just have a very small staff now," he said. "We'd like to see that they've got a little food on the table."
Almost a quarter-century before, Bobby Brewer was sitting in the front pew of a crowded church when Paulk interrupted the sermon, leaned over the wooden lectern and pointed.
Bobby, he said, the Lord's calling you into the ministry at this time. Get your house in order.
"It was what I had prepared my whole life for," Brewer said.
When the call of God came that Sunday in the voice of Earl Paulk, Brewer closed his lucrative real estate business and joined the church staff.
Paulk and his church were flourishing at the time.
A Christian rock-oriented youth group called Alpha was pulling more than a thousand teenagers into the church every Monday night. They and their parents filled the pews for three services on Sunday mornings.
Other worshippers were drawn in by TV services, broadcast with cameras that Bobby Brewer said he bought with $50,000 of his own money.
The congregation, which reported more than 1,500 members and a budget of more than $1 million in 1980, was adding an average of 1,000 names a year to its rolls.
In the 1980s, Paulk - who had previously admonished worshippers to get ready to be raptured into heaven - claimed to have a revelation that Christians must establish God's kingdom on Earch. Church members were sold "K" license plates and key chains. Brewer wore a "K" lapel pin.
A "kingdom church," Paulk explained in his 1984 book "Ultimate Kingdom," is built on "kingdom relationships" between individuals or within communities willing to submit to spiritual authority.
At Chapel Hill Harvester, that authority was Earl Paulk.
Brewer and other church members consulted him on many aspects of their lives, from work to romance. In 1987, when Brewer wanted to marry fellow staff member Mona Manning, he valued Paulk's judgment so much that he asked Paulk's permission.
She was a charming brunette who had come to the church at 19, four years after a religious conversion that followed the deaths of her sister and a friend in a car accident.
Both Brewer and she were divorced from spouses who hadn't supported their deep involvement with the church. In each other, they found partners of equal dedication.
After their marriage, the Brewers threw themselves into Paulk's next great venture - the building that would be the brick-and-mortar symbol of the kingdom. It would be a state-of-the-art behemoth on a 64-acre campus off Flat Shoals Road in southern DeKalb County.
As construction and finances fell behind, Bobby Brewer led other volunteers in laying carpet and planting trees to save money.
For Paulk, the cathedral culminated a career that brought recognition by three presidents: Ronald Reagan invited him to a prayer breakfast; Jimmy Carter included his church in his ambitious Atlanta Project; and George Bush named his public housing ministry one of his thousand points of light.
Paulk's quotes about trust, spiritual authority and obedience - not quotes from Scripture - would adorn the entranceway.
A standing-room-only crowd gathered in the fall of 1991 to hear him proclaim it "a place of destiny."
Matters were about to deteriorate drastically.
In 1992, six women accused Paulk, his brother and two nephews - all ministers - of sexual manipulation. In seducing them, the women said, the men had talked about "special" or "kingdom" relationships not bound by earthly interpretations of morality.
One of the six, the bishop's biographer and ghostwriter, Tricia Weeks, said in interviews at the time that she had had a two-year affair with him.
Newspapers from Boston to San Francisco ran articles about the scandal, and the women were featured on the television program "A Current Affair."
Paulk denied having a sexual relationship with Weeks and scoffed at a sexual interpretation of kingdom relationships. He painted her as mentally unstable or under the influence of evil.
But, in the midst of the 1992 scandal, he admitted an adulterous affair 32 years earlier.
Bobby Brewer never considered that Paulk might be lying about Weeks.
"I am ashamed to say this, but I never gave Tricia Weeks one ounce of credibility," he recalled later.
Brewer stuck by his mentor. When the church's offerings fell perilously, he said, he underwrote loans to meet the payroll.
Although he had stopped regularly selling real estate when he went on the cathedral staff, Brewer was living well off real estate investments. As he had made business decisions that benefited the church and built up the area around it, his own wealth accumulated.
He said he helped pay for a new Lexus for Earl Paulk and bought a Ford Crown Victoria for Paulk's wife.
He began giving the double tithe he had always contributed - at least 20 percent of his income - directly to a separate ministry set up by the bishop rather than to the church.
In 1998, Brewer built a home for himself and Mona on property adjoining land he had sold to Paulk for a house behind the cathedral. The proximity seemed providential a year later when Brewer rescued the bishop's wife, Norma, from a fire that destroyed the Paulk house. He earned a citation for heroism from the DeKalb County Fire Department.
He tried to attend every function where Paulk would appear.
"I felt like if Jesus is on the planet and he's got something to say, I want to be around to hear it," he said.
His faith in Paulk would be tested again.
By 2001, the church had gained new members and seemed to have recovered from the 1992 scandal. But a new one was breaking.
Jessica Battle, a college student who had been a dancer in the church's arts ministry, filed suit in DeKalb State Court alleging that Paulk had molested her from the time she was 7 until she was 11 years old. Battle also accused him of forcing intercourse on her when she was 17.
Battle's grandmother, Lynn Mays, an influential pastor on staff, defended Paulk and blamed Satan for her granddaughter's lawsuit.
Although Brewer had known Battle since she was born, when the choice came down to her word against Paulk's, his loyalty lay with Paulk.
Brewer claims in his current lawsuit that he lent $400,000 to Paulk to help settle the Battle lawsuit in 2003.
The settlement didn't solve the church's problems, though. Again, as in 1992, members left and offerings fell.
To help the church overcome the financial fallout, Brewer led the effort to refinance the remaining $13 million debt on the cathedral to lower the payments.
He was in the midst of that work in February 2004, when he went to a basketball game at the church's private school.
As he watched the game with Mona, Paulk walked up. Brewer offered his seat, but the bishop said he couldn't stay.
Brewer looked back at the game - the church's team was winning - then glanced at his wife. She was obviously uncomfortable.
Lately she had seemed emotionally fragile. She had quit her job at the church, but had never given him a good reason.
Brewer noticed the way the bishop's hand touched her shoulder, then he saw the look in Paulk's eye.
Later that morning, he met Mona on the front porch as she returned from her daily walk.
He was concerned, he told her. Was there something going on with Earl Paulk?
The tearful account she gave Bobby - and later repeated in a deposition in the lawsuit and in interviews - reached back to 1989, when the Brewers had been married about two years and Mona, not yet 30, was teaching at the church academy:
One day in the church offices, she told her husband, Paulk had said he felt "impressed of the Lord" to get to know her better. She felt honored. She stopped by his offices the next day as he had asked, and they chatted about themselves.
He invited her to come again the next week.
Soon after her next visit, a church official gave her a "word of knowledge" - a prophetic statement - that she was about to start a new relationship that would benefit her greatly.
A month later, Mona said, she was asked to meet Paulk in the parking lot at South DeKalb Mall.
He took her to his house, she said, explaining that his wife was gone and that he wanted to talk to her without interruption. This time, after they talked, he kissed her on the mouth. She was shocked but didn't protest, she said.
The next day, Mona said, the church official told her that the bishop was dying and his wife was not treating him well. Without him, the kingdom message would die and God would have to start all over. Mona had an opportunity to save the bishop's life, the church, and the kingdom of God.
At their next meeting, Mona said, Paulk took her through a garage underneath his house into a basement bedroom where he told her he was going to have to love her.
She was scared to death.
At that moment, she said, "I realized what the whole thing was leading to."
But, she said, she obeyed him - as she had been taught - when he told her to undress.
It was Sept. 12, 1989.
She remembered the date, she explained, because Paulk had asked her to mark that first sexual encounter as their anniversary.
The following Sunday, Paulk preached that when you are in despair, God will send you a resurrection.
Later, he told her she was his resurrection.
Over the years, she said, she and Paulk often met in parking lots, and Paulk asked her to crouch down in the car to avoid being seen.
She started wearing the shorter skirts and high heels the bishop liked, and eventually she cut her long, rich hair - which Bobby loved - because Paulk told her frequently that she was a short-hair girl.
And, she said, at Paulk's insistence, she had sex twice with a visiting evangelist who came into town for counseling.
At first, she said, she met Paulk once a week; later, more frequently.
She cleaned his house, fed his horses and helped with his wife's dinner parties.
She prayed that God would make up for her absence with her own family.
Although she had been having sex with Paulk herself, she said, she believed his denials of accusations by Weeks in 1992 and Battle in 2001. She thought she was saving the world. Why would he need another woman?
But as the years wore on, Mona told her husband, she started to question whether the relationship with Paulk was really blessed.
In September 2003 - 14 years after their sexual relationship began - she built up the nerve to break it off.
When she and Paulk had walked down to his barn together to feed his horses, she said, she put her finger in his face and told him that he had tricked her. Their relationship was not of God. It was wrong. And what they had done to Bobby was wrong.
The bishop's main concern, she said, was that she keep quiet.
She planned never to tell anyone, even Bobby, what had happened.
She felt so ashamed that she contemplated killing herself, she said, but couldn't face the possibility that her children might think they were somehow at fault. She would even fantasize ways of taking her life.
About five months later, on her walk through the neighborhood, she met Cindy Hall, who had been the first child born into Paulk's ministry.
For years the two women had shared the limelight as featured singers at Chapel Hill. Hall and her husband, Greg, had left the church. Mona had wanted to check on her.
I know what they did to you, Hall told Mona. You're not the only one.
Here is Hall's account, given to Mona Brewer and in a deposition and interviews:
In 1983, when she was working at the church, Hall said, she was called to a church office. She thought she must have said or done something inappropriate.
Paulk, sitting in a big rocking chair, told her she was a special handmaiden of the Lord who had been placed in his life for a special cause - serving the kingdom of God.
He prayed for her. Then, Paulk held her face in his hands and kissed her.
When he let her go, she said, he said he intended to make love to her.
She thought he must mean something spiritual. In those days, Paulk often preached about kingdom relationships.
She knew, at 22, not to question the spiritual authority of the bishop, who was then in his 50s.
She had been born under his leadership. Her parents had urged him to start a new church back in 1960 after he left Hemphill Church of God amid rumors of adultery. They assumed he was being falsely accused.
Paulk had prayed over her and his daughter Beth when they were children, saying he was symbolically "covering them in the blood." If you were covered in the blood - referring to Jesus' death on the cross - nothing could harm you.
She had admired and feared Paulk all her life.
She consented without question when she was asked to meet Paulk in a parking lot.
When they were alone in his car, he asked her whether she trusted him. She said she did.
It was a mantra at the church that "the kingdom of God is built on trust."
Paulk drove into his basement garage. In an adjoining bedroom, he pulled up the skirt of her sundress and removed her panties.
She was frightened but passively went along.
When it was over, she felt stunned.
She told him that all her life she had been taught adultery was wrong.
When she had married Greg Hall in 1980 - in a wedding complete with twelve bridesmaids in buttercup dresses - Paulk himself had pronounced them husband and wife.
Now, he told her, he and she had a special gift of love outside holy matrimony.
She could hardly comprehend what he was saying.
Soon, they would have sex every Saturday morning during his wife's hair appointment.
Even then, she always called him "Bishop."
The relationship took an emotional toll. In church, inexplicably, she would start to cry.
Eventually, Hall said, Paulk began telling her about having sex with other women - including Mona Brewer - and introducing her to the idea of being with other men.
In 1992, when his brother Don Paulk stepped down from the pulpit briefly after confessing adultery, she said, Paulk asked her to have sex with him to make him feel better. Once, the brothers took turns with her.
Soon after that, her intimacy with the bishop began to taper off.
By the mid-1990s, they were no longer having sex. But she and her husband, Greg, continued to attend the church, and Cindy stayed on the staff. She even helped Norma, Paulk's wife, write an advice book called "Stand By Your Man."
But as the Jessica Battle case proceeded, Hall said, she became convinced Battle was telling the truth.
Over dinner at an Olive Garden restaurant in early 2003, she burst into tears and told Greg they had to leave the church.
Later, she told him why.
She had been gone for almost a year when she ran into Mona Brewer in 2004.
Tell Bobby everything and get out, she advised.
It was Friday. Mona decided she would tell Bobby after church on Sunday.
The next morning she went with him to the basketball game.
Bobby Brewer was shaken by his wife's revelation that she had been sexually involved for 14 years with a man who was his father figure, spiritual leader, boss and friend. The pain was so great, he said later, that he went numb, unable to bear it.
"It was like a giant puzzle," he said. "All of a sudden, every piece fell into place. Things I had not understood made sense."
He now felt he knew why Paulk had sometimes seemed possessive and overbearing with Mona when they were together, and why Paulk had insisted that the Brewers build a house next to his in 1998.
For a week after their conversation, Bobby worked with Paulk every day, arranging the refinancing of the church. He was reeling from his wife's revelations, but determined to save the cathedral he had helped build. As he sat in meetings with Paulk, his emotions ran the gamut from fury to depression, but he kept them in check.
Once the refinancing papers were signed in early March 2004, he was ready for a showdown.
He invited Earl and Don Paulk and their wives to his house, implying he was about to make a significant donation. He asked James Powers, another minister at the church, to come as a witness.
Mona was knitting to calm her nerves.
When everyone was in place, Bobby read a passage from Proverbs: "He who commits adultery ... destroys himself. ... For jealousy arouses a husband's fury and he shows no restraint when he takes revenge. ... He will not accept any compensation."
He then accused Paulk, in the coarsest terms, of sleeping with Mona.
He said he hoped the bishop would acknowledge his sins, apologize and repent. Instead, he said, the bishop replied that he had lawyers.
Livid, Brewer stood over Paulk and grabbed his lapels.
Don Paulk tried to intercede with his arm cocked. Brewer threw a punch that knocked him into the kitchen.
Then, Earl Paulk stood up. Brewer swung his fist into the bishop's nose and Paulk fell to the floor.
Don Paulk came back; Brewer hit him again.
After the Paulks left, Mona cleaned up the blood.
The Brewers filed suit in DeKalb Superior Court on Aug. 31, 2005, accusing Paulk of misusing his position as Mona's spiritual leader to manipulate her into a sexual relationship. They also claim Paulk owes them $400,000 for a loan to help settle the Jessica Battle suit.
In court papers, the bishop denies owing the money.
Dennis Brewer, the Paulks' lawyer, said neither Earl nor Don Paulk, who is also named in the suit, would be interviewed. Only he, the lawyer, could speak for the church, he said.
The Paulks' lawyer confirmed their confrontation with Bobby Brewer, saying in a telephone interview that Bobby Brewer "beat the hell out of both of them."
The lawyer accused the 58-year-old Bobby Brewer, whom he describes as "a weightlifter, in his mid-40s," of demanding that the Paulks give him $1 million and 25 acres of property. Brewer says that's a lie.
Cindy Hall said she is not a party to the Brewers' suit because of the length of time since her relationship with Paulk and because she lied under oath when she was being deposed for the Battle case. At Paulk's request, she said, she denied having sex with him.
Mona Brewer said she is pursuing the suit "for all the victims." She has agonized over the impact her revelations might have on her children, she said, but wants to reveal the truth.
The situation has divided the congregation and split some families.
On Internet blogs, in online chat groups and in conversations, current and former members debate how blame should be distributed among Paulk and the women.
The cloud of scandal has cost Earl Paulk his position as head of the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, a group representing 240 bishops in 29 countries.
And, in Atlanta, a group of pastors issued an apology last fall for their inaction in the past "to all who have been betrayed, victimized, abused, and wounded by sexually inappropriate actions of Earl Paulk."
The Brewers' attorney has asked for a DNA test on Paulk, suggesting that he may have fathered children out of wedlock. Paulk is contesting the motion. His lawyer said in a letter on file in DeKalb Superior Court that Paulk does not concede that he fathered any such child, but if one exists, he may want joint custody.
A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 13 on motions in the case.
On the Sunday before he left for medical leave, Earl Paulk, in a long white robe and purple sash, preached that God was using the scandal to draw attention to the church.
Last Sunday, Don Paulk told about 300 congregants at a 9 a.m. "charismatic Mass" that his brother was showing a "spark of light" and a "will to live" that, he hoped, may signal the bishop was "on the road to a full recovery."
"A lot of people rejoice in the demise of the saints," Don Paulk said. "I like to think we have among us true Christians. ... We're not perfect, we make mistakes, but we forgive one another."
Bobby Brewer has spent most of his life under Paulk's leadership, but he said he can't figure out who the bishop really is.
"I've got two people in my head," he said. "One, I revered and admired as a spiritual father. Then I've got the other guy over here more perverse than any other human being I've ever seen or read about."