Consider the rise and fall of one the denomination’s most promising stars.
“Paul had warned those Ephesian elders about an invasion of false teachers. He said, ‘Watch out now, because fierce wolves shall come, not sparing the flock.’ Well, those wolves had come. And deceptive teachers had slithered into the sheepfold.” These were the words of Darrell Gilyard, a young, handsome black pastor, as he stood before the Thomas Road Baptist Church—a mega-church founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
In 1989, the vision of this pastor with creamy cocoa skin, decked out in an immaculate steel-gray suit, streamed through the airways on the nationally syndicated broadcast of Falwell’s Old-Time Gospel Hour. As the cameraman cuts to the audience, grown men blink furiously as Gilyard’s voice rises and falls into a soft, gravely tone and moves them to tears.
The man had an undeniable star quality. Gilyard’s mentor, former SBC president Paige Patterson, dubbed him one of the “most brilliant men in the pulpit.” It was that natural charisma and talent that led SBC leaders like Patterson and Jerry Vines, another SBC president, to promote Gilyard.
But when Gilyard stood at the pulpit at Falwell’s church that day in 1989, he already had a dark history with parishioners. A 1991 Dallas Morning News story exposed many of the alleged indiscretions that marked Gilyard’s early career. According to the article, Gilyard had been forced out of a Dallas Baptist church in 1987 amid accusations of sexual impropriety. Yet Gilyard would still have a four-year run as pastor of Victory Baptist Church, another Dallas church.
The same news article included the accounts of several women who said Gilyard sexually abused them—in their homes, the church, even at the base of the pulpit—and they came to Patterson with the allegations. But they say Patterson refused to help them, at times refusing their phone calls or telling them that unless they had proof, he would not see them. Some women said he asked them to refrain from talking about the abuse. In press accounts at the time, Patterson said he was “dealing with a man of special gifts and talents” and that he was “unwilling to call anyone guilty until I had demonstrable evidence that these allegations were true.”
That “demonstrable evidence” wouldn’t come until 1991, when, as the Dallas news account detailed, Gilyard admitted to Patterson that he had committed adultery—even though many of the women’s allegations seemed much more akin to rape than consensual sex. It was then that Patterson finally cut ties with his protégé—but not before he personally prepared the goodbye speech for Gilyard to deliver to Victory Baptist.
Still, there were other congregations waiting for Gilyard.
Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Florida was once a flock without a shepherd—at least, that’s how they describe themselves. But that changed. “God sent a young man to preach for us...a young man from Dallas, Texas, of national prominence,” the church history reads as it describes Gilyard.
Little did they know that the man who would become their pastor in April 1993, a man who the congregation dubbed their “Moses,” had a trail of victims that snaked westward all the way back to Texas. The people packing the pews at Shiloh—a congregation that impressively grew to more than 7,000 members under 14 years of Gilyard’s leadership—must have fallen hard for him.
His tale of trial and tribulation, a touching story of redemption, was always a crowd pleaser: It was the struggle of a black orphan who grew up on the streets and even lived under a Florida bridge during his teen years. The story was so powerful, in fact, that Falwell peddled The Darrell Gilyard Story, a biographical video that chronicled Gilyard’s rise to fame after a hard-knock life, on his television show.
Too bad it was a lie. Gilyard’s tale of woe unraveled when a Florida woman came forward and said that she raised Gilyard from early childhood to adulthood. Despite reports that their pastor had lied about his past, Gilyard’s parishioners remained steadfast in their devotion.
Even after Gilyard was arrested on Jan. 14 after a woman told the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office that Gilyard sent obscene, sexually explicit text messages to her 14-year-old daughter, the Shiloh website still boasted, “God is doing great works through Pastor Gilyard.... So let us rejoice and thank God for sending us a ‘Moses’ to lead us to higher heights!” Gilyard resigned Jan. 4—10 days before his arrest—and pleaded not guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct.
The Patterson-Gilyard connection is hard for SNAP members to stomach. As is Gilyard’s connection with Vines, who mentored Gilyard as a young seminary student. When the two crossed paths again three or four years ago, Gilyard asked Vines for forgiveness for his past troubles. Vines not only forgave Gilyard, but SNAP says he also lent credibility to the man by preaching at Gilyard’s church.
“What’s unbelievable is that [Patterson and Vines] don’t see how morally reprehensible this is,” Brown says. “They’re blind to it—they’re blind to their own complicity in this horror. And to the contrary, I think they honestly believe that they are doing good and doing the right thing, which was probably true of Catholic bishops as well.”
In January, SNAP sent a letter to trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where Patterson now serves as president, asking them to temporarily remove Patterson from his position to investigate claims that he failed to warn churches that Gilyard was a serial predator. “I think you’ve got to wonder—this happened 17 years ago—why have there not been other Southern Baptist leaders and ministers to call Patterson out for this?” Brown says. “Why does it take a young mother there in Jacksonville, Fla., who finally speaks out about Gilyard [to expose him]? Why were there not other leaders in this huge denomination who called him on the carpet for this?”
Patterson has characterized SNAP’s claim as “misinformed and inaccurate.” He claims that he’s fought to bring more awareness to clergy sex abuse—what he calls one of the greatest tragedies of the modern era. “Throughout my 50 years in the ministry…I have never turned a blind-eye to clergy sex abuse...and in the classroom and in the pulpit I have steadfastly fought and will continue to warn and fight against it,” Patterson said in a press release following SNAP’s call for an investigation.
But it seems that Patterson never extended those “steadfast” warnings against sex abuse to the string of churches where Gilyard took the pulpit. And as much as Patterson had helped Gilyard, he certainly didn’t expend as much energy—if any—dimming Gilyard’s rising star.
In a press statement, Patterson now says he exercises “no control over autonomous churches anywhere” and that he has “no influence [on churches] not affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Religious leaders the Scene interviewed say that even if pastors don’t feel they have a professional obligation to warn churches of sex abuse allegations against a new pastor, as men of God and as human beings they have the moral obligation to protect people in the pews.
Burleson says denominational distinctions shouldn’t make any difference when it comes to protecting people from known sexual predators. “If [Gilyard] went to a Christian church, if he went to a Methodist church...we would inform that church regardless of the denomination.”
Burleson describes Gilyard’s decades-long run of abuse as a shameful indictment on the church and says that the ease with which predators are able to bounce from pulpit to pulpit is a big part of why he’s involved in lobbying the SBC for change. But he knows it won’t be easy.
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