New jail ministry has controversial ties

Grace Gospel dedicated to spreading the word

The Standard Times/September 2, 1999
By John Doherty

DARTMOUTH -- The new church providing religious services at the county jails has ties to a controversial preacher who, a court ruled, bilked millions from a wealthy parishioner in Massachusetts.

Grace Gospel Church of Swansea has been providing religious services and coordinating the work of other Protestant congregations' volunteers at Bristol County jails since Aug. 1.

Some Protestant clergy have criticized Grace Gospel's conservative doctrine and worried aloud that the church was limiting the activities of some worshippers at county lock-ups.

Some are also questioning the church's affiliation with Baltimore's Greater Grace World Outreach.

That organization is headed by former Lenox preacher Carl Stevens, who a bankruptcy court judge ruled had improperly taken millions from an heiress to the Lechmere department-store fortune in the 1980s.

Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who awarded the Protestant services bid to Grace Gospel over the 40-church consortium which had been ministering at the jail before August, said he was unaware of any problems in Grace Church's administration.

"Nothing gave him any indication there was any wrongdoing," said Bristol County spokesman Bernie Sullivan. "Pending that, he's satisfied with our decision."

The 20-year-old Grace Church is listed on the web site of the Greater Grace World Outreach of Baltimore as a member. Greater Grace was founded, and is headed, by Carl Stevens, who for years ran The Bible Speaks program in Lenox, but left after allegations the church was cult-like.

Mr. Stevens was sued in 1987 by Besty Dovyenas, heiress to the Lechmere fortune, who claimed Stevens and the church brainwashed her and coerced contributions totaling $6.6 million.

Church members tried to persuade her to leave her husband and children and sign documents professing that God had prompted her to donate to Bible Speaks, she alleged.

Family members enrolled her in a cult deprogramming course before suing for the donations she had made.

A judge agreed with the heiress and ordered The Bible Speaks to give back the money in 1987. Bible Speaks declared bankruptcy that year and Mr. Stevens moved to Maryland where he founded Greater Grace.

The $4 million Bible Speaks Lenox property was awarded to Ms. Dovyenas.

Swansea's Grace Gospel spokesman Thomas Taylor said the Greater Grace and Grace Gospel no longer have any binding affiliation, and are "just friends."

Both churches hold similar views on Creationsism and have active ministry services to the poor and disenfranchised.

And both congregations actively establish international ministries to spread their message of faith and attract new members.

But Grace Gospel no longer sells the books and tapes put out by Pastor Stevens, he said Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said yesterday he was unaware of any past association between the Swansea church -- now receiving about $50,000 for religious services in the county's four facilities -- and Greater Grace.

Head pastor Gerald Martel did train with Mr. Stevens at the Bible Speaks' Lenox Bible-study college, and the two congregations feature youth exchanges and other programs, said Mr. Taylor.

In her lawsuit against her former church, Ms. Dovyenas claimed she was deprived of sleep and food, urged to leave her husband and children and was bamboozled out of millions.

Yesterday, Daniel Lewis of Greater Grace in Baltimore reiterated the organization's claims that the allegations are untrue.

"There were 16 lies in that court case," he said. "The Supreme Court had so many different cases on their agenda that year, that's the only reason we didn't get it overturned."

Appeals to Massachusetts courts failed to overturn the judge's decision.

Grace Gospel Church acknowledges that they have warm relations with the international group headed by Mr. Martel's former colleague.

But, according to Mr. Taylor, Grace Gospel made a formal announcement of disaffiliation with Greater Grace " a few years" back.

"Sometimes a friendship relationship can be seen as something else," he said. "We didn't want any confusion. Pastor Stevens hasn't been to our church in three or four years."

That letter of disaffiliation could not be located yesterday, he said.

Grace Gospel is perhaps best known outside its 1,000-member congregation for the annual billboards advertising "Hell's Flames and Heaven's Gates", a dramatic evangelical revival held in a tent in Swansea.

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