On many Sundays, attendance at Overshadowed Ministries in Coventry Township is barely more than a handful.
The Rev. Bill Davis attributes that to his 19 years as assistant minister for Ernest Angley at Grace Cathedral in Cuyahoga Falls.
“I don’t get much of anybody in because I was associated with him and people think I’m a quack,” he said during an interview at the church earlier this month.
″... My reputation is ruined. At first, it was, ‘Why did you leave there?’ Now it’s, ‘Why did you go there?’ ”
The public perception of Angley changed after a six-part Beacon Journal series in October 2014.
In individual interviews, 21 former members of the church told the Beacon that Angley is running a dangerous cult where pregnant women are encouraged to have abortions, childless men are encouraged to have vasectomies and Angley personally examines the genitals of the male parishioners before and after their surgeries.
They also said he turns a blind eye to sexual abuse by other members of his church, and consistently threatens and intimidates his flock into following his instructions, bullying them into life-changing decisions that often split up families.
Angley said the former members were lying.
Some ex-followers also questioned his use of the donations that were flooding in, such as Angley paying an estimated $26 million for a Boeing 747-SP, an aircraft so large that it literally won’t fit inside any hangar at its home field, Akron-Canton Airport. Angley uses it only once or twice a year for overseas mission trips.
Some big donors who had left the church expressed buyer’s remorse, including an Akron man who gave $80,000 over a five-year period. “I was guilted into giving,” he said. “It was brainwashing. I was manipulated.”
The series was born when one disgruntled church member gave the Beacon Journal an audio recording of a Sunday service in July 2014 during which Angley, responding to rumors of homosexual activity, admitted that he routinely examined male genitals but strongly denied being gay.
He said much the same thing to the Beacon Journal in an interview for the series.
“I’ve helped so many of the boys down through the years,” he said during a 90-minute conversation in his office. “They had their misgivings. Sure, I’d have them uncover themselves, but I did not handle them at all.
“And I would tell them how [a vasectomy] would work. And they’d have to watch it. I’d have some of them come back to me that I felt needed to. And I would tell them, I would look at them, their privates — I, so I could tell how they were swelling.”
Until now, the Rev. Davis, 86, had not spoken publicly about Angley for a quarter of a century.
Davis grudgingly agreed to talk when he was told the Beacon had a copy of a 1996 audio tape he made of a telephone conversation between him and Angley in which Angley admitted to a sexual encounter with an employee of the church.
As one of Angley’s closest associates for nearly two decades, Davis is in a unique position to offer insight into the famous televangelist.
Sitting in the office of his small but attractive church at the corner of South Arlington and Warner roads, he explained why he joined Angley, why he stayed for so long and why he left.
It begins with Davis’ long, rocky journey to spirituality.
Growing up on a farm near tiny McConnelsville, southeast of Columbus, Davis cowered under an alcoholic father who was so abusive, both verbally and physically, that he ran away from home at the age of 14.
Davis became an even tougher version of his father — a big, reckless, hard-drinking, brawling, know-it-all who beat up more people than he can count.
His first stop was Zanesville. “That was a rough town then, like old Chicago,” he said. “A bunch of hoodlums, really.”
Another stop was Louisville, Ky. “I’m in a fast crowd down there. We’re passing the bottle. [One man in the group] had lost his girl, was an illiterate, had lost his job, got into it with a bartender and got him down on the floor and stomped his hands and broke his bones and just messed him up real good.
“So he’s sitting there, bitter, drinking away. ... He said, ‘I ought to take this pistol and blow my brains out.’ I said, ‘Frank! You know where you’d go if you do that, don’t you?’ He said, ‘You believe in all that stuff?’ I said, ‘I sure do.’
“Well, the next thing you know he took that pistol and put it right to his head and shot himself.”
Davis was running in those kinds of circles because the abuse he suffered as a boy pushed him into an almost perpetual state of rage.
He shakes his head. “I hurt a lot of people.”
“My father was a powerful man. Handsome. Big man. I was proud of him when he wasn’t drinking. When he got drinking he got so vicious. ... I said to myself, ‘When I become a man, I’m going to whip that so-and-so.’”
When the opportunity finally arose, Davis didn’t hold back.
“He came to the house where I was at. He didn’t know I was sitting there drinking, and I was just seething.”
His father didn’t initially notice him. The younger Davis pounced on him and beat him up.
“It was awful,” he said. “It was horrible what I did to him.”
Davis knew his life was a mess and that he needed to do something. He finally figured out what he needed in 1965, when he read the best-selling book “The Cross and the Switchblade” by pastor David Wilkerson.
“I was in terrible, terrible mental condition, an alcoholic, in and out of jail. I read the book and for the first time I believed there was hope for people like me.”
He could identify so strongly with the characters in the book that he traveled to New York City, where its author was running a mission.
″[When] I went into that mission I was still full of arrogance and anger.
“David Wilkerson’s brother came up to me and started talking to me. I said, ‘I didn’t come here to see you.’ I was very rude, confrontational. But underneath I wanted help.”
Davis was in his early 30s, but his odometer felt closer to 50.
“My first wife and I were escorted into a chapel. I’m standing there, just seething with frustration and anger. Seemed like it got magnified as I stood there.
“In walks David Wilkerson. He’s a small man. When I was younger, I was a good-size man. He walked up to me real quick and he knew exactly how to deal with me.
″ ‘It’s a wonder to me someone didn’t stab you in the back a long time ago.’ I thought, ‘A little twerp talking to me like that?’ I wasn’t used to that.
“He said, ‘If you want saved, get on your knees RIGHT NOW.’ It just stunned me. I did. He took me over.
“He prayed for me and instantly I was delivered from the desire for alcohol and cigarettes. I’d been in mental hospitals and through all kinds of treatment, but I just couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with this problem called alcoholism.”
Three days later, Davis realized he hadn’t smoked a cigarette since the meeting. Hadn’t even thought about it.
“I wasn’t even conscious of how much I had submitted to be willing to be helped. ... It was miraculous.”
When Davis came back to Ohio, he attended some “nominal” churches but couldn’t connect.
“I’m not against any church if they’re helping people. But I didn’t fit in. No one was prayed for, no one was helped like me. I just felt ill at ease.”
He was looking for what he had found in New York: a pastor who could take hold of people and transform them.
When he heard about Ernest Angley and Grace Cathedral, he headed to Akron. The year was 1967.
“I came up and he was praying for the sick and so forth, and people were getting help. Really, they were. I thought, ‘This is where I want to go.’ ”
Davis became highly active in the church and got to know Angley well. Inspired by Angley’s mission, he became a minister and headed south to take over a deteriorating church in South Carolina.
Davis and Angley stayed in touch, and when Angley’s wife died in 1970, Angley invited Davis to preach at her funeral.
Seven years later, Davis was losing interest in his South Carolina church and wanted a new challenge. So he phoned Angley and asked if he needed an assistant minister.
The two men grew so close, Davis said, that he could almost finish Angley’s sentences.
Although they have only spoken twice since Davis left 23 years ago, his overall respect for Angley remains intact.
“God invested a lot in the man. He’s intelligent. He’s gifted. He’s industrious. He’s not out here playing golf. He doesn’t take vacations. He’s on 24/7. I never saw a work ethic like it.”
Davis himself built quite a following. He and Angley had radically different approaches, but the styles complemented each other.
“He was more heavenly minded. And I was kind of where the rubber hits the road, and people could relate to me. It was an unusual blending of opposites, and that’s why we got along so well with the people.”
Over the years, though, Angley “gradually changed to where he would lie. It shocked me. I felt sorry for him.”
The relationship bottomed out in 1996 after Davis was told by a Grace Cathedral employee that Angley initiated sexual encounters with him five times. When confronted by Davis, Angley admitted he had been in bed naked with the man.
Everything changed after that. Suddenly, Davis said, Angley viewed him as a “mortal enemy.”
“He just went beside himself in trying to destroy me to protect himself so he wouldn’t lose his people. I had a lot of influence there. See, I was there for about 19 years and people really seemed to take up with me. In fact, the crowds really increased when I took over on Sundays. ...
“He’s an anxiety preacher. He’s just fueled with fear. I didn’t know that at the time when I confronted him. ... I confronted him in a very sharp way. I didn’t know that it stunned him so much that he would be so afraid.”
Davis told Angley he wouldn’t reveal the secret, and told him why.
“I said, ‘If you think I’m going to tell all this and have Mrs. Hodge’ — a dear member of the church that worked in his home — I said, ‘If you think I want her to hear about this and fall out of the pew, you’ve got another thing coming.’ ”
Over time, Davis’ faith enabled him to forgive both Angley and his abusive father.
As tough as it was with Angley, forgiving his father was “harder times 10.”
Davis realized, while studying to be a minister, that he had to try to make things right with the person he had once loathed.
“I called him. Remember, he’s a bad hombre, and he still had that fight in him. I said, ‘Dad’ — I don’t remember ever calling him Dad — ‘I just wanted to tell you I love you.’ That was hard to say.
“There was a pause. He went, “I love you, too, Bill.′
“It was beautiful. We were never the same. I adored him and he adored me. All that was behind us. He never brought it up, I never brought it up.”
Bill Davis didn’t want to bring any of this up. But given the circumstances, he said, he owed it to himself and everyone involved to tell the story truthfully and fully.
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