Bishop S.C. “Sweet Daddy” Madison, leader of the United House of Prayer for All People on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith, kneels silently before the enormous mirror that dominates the altar at the church’s golden-domed Shaw headquartersknown as God’s White Houseand prays. From high above, severe portraits of the heavy-browed bishop and his deceased predecessors, Bishops W. “Sweet Daddy” McCollough and C.M. “Sweet Daddy” Grace, gaze out at the sanctuary. Bishop McCollough, looking down his nose through spectacles, seems angry; Bishop Grace, with shoulder-length hair and a tiny curlicue mustache, is rendered in a softer, otherworldly glow.
This Friday evening, May 23, a thousand or so people dressed in their finest clothes have gathered from across the country in the main body of the church to honor these men. The parishioners fill the pews and stand in the aisles and at the back of the church. Hundreds more wait outside, unable to get a seat. Memorial Day weekends are high holidays at United Houses of Prayer, member churches of a national, predominantly African-American Christian denomination with a pair of holy trinities and a religious fervor that, in this evening’s cramped conditions, seems almost dangerous.
Madison, dressed in a snug gray three-piece suit, stands slowly and turns to face the assembled masses. He gestures toward the 20-piece brass bands on both sides of the church; with blasts from trumpets, trombones, and sousaphones that all but flutter the bishop’s long white hair, the adoring and over-packed house explodes. It’s a little after 9 p.m., and the festivitieswhich are to include a Saturday parade and a Sunday-morning service for 5,000 in D.C.’s new convention centerhave officially begun.
A long decade ago, controversy surrounding Sweet Daddy Madison’s succession threatened to split the church in two. Some members seceded or were purged. But there’s no apparent lasting damage to the churchthere are no empty pews, and no lack of enthusiasm for the bishop, on this evening. Like Sweet Daddy Grace, who in founding the church claimed to have “given God a vacation,” Madison is said to be blessed with divine power. His appearances, around three per year in the District, draw adherents from hundreds of miles around.
“He’s the sugar,” declares Annie Bouler, a slight, elderly woman from Virginia, one of the few who still wear hats to the House of Prayer. Described by a passing minister, Elder Arthur Jackson, as “a pillar of this church,” she says she’s attended every Memorial Day celebration since 1935. “Yeah, there’s a big celebration coming this weekend.”
Indeed: When the bands die down, the bishop, seated now in a white satin rocking throne, kicks up his legs and jerks backand the bands burst back to life. Madison gleefully employs this straightforward I rock/you rock symbolism several times to keep things going. Alternately, he gets up to dance, a cocked-elbow shuffle-and-clap that’s nothing for an 81-year-old to be ashamed of.
Vendors work the congregation, selling Sweet Daddy lapel pins, tambourines, mini-fluegelhorns, and, mercifully, fans. On the altar, the synchronized flappings of a team of attendants keep the bishop cool and the mirror unfogged.
In luxury, the bishop observes a revue prepared in his honor: the Madison Smooth Steppers from Buffalo, a full-throated diva from San Francisco, a choir from Dallas, and a church-filling performance by the Voices of Harmony from D.C.’s own H Street House of Prayer congregation. Hundreds of worshippers carry handheld tape recorders, capturing bootlegs.
After the performances, the congregation files forward, segregated by gender (men first) and age (kids last), to place a “love offering” in a large basket at the front of the altar. Madison has already made one pass, at the evening’s inception, parading in from the back of the church surrounded by his blue-beret-wearing security detaildancing left and then right to accept bills from congregants who waited all day to get seats along his path down the center aisle. After the love offerings have been collected, additional birthday and Easter gifts are proffered for United House of Prayer’s “CEO, prophet, and king.”
The collections are followed by a long and very literal public accounting, with breakdowns of the past year’s giving by church; it’s probably the evening’s low-energy point. The bishop lives well, to be sure, but he spends on the church, too. Under his reign, almost all Houses of Prayer have been newly renovated and are flush with real-estate assetsto the tune of tens of millions in D.C. alone.
The church is guarded about its affairs. Photographers are unwelcome, and interviews are discouraged. “We’re just here to” a man from Boston, who declines to give his name, says after the service, before a stern nod from the bishop’s security detail cuts off the conversation.
Well after midnight, after a sub-ceremony in which some brothers became elders and some elders became apostles, the bishop himself prepares to ascend the pulpit. With a long night behind him and a long weekend ahead of him, Madison requests a shout from his elders and apostles, thanks the assembled, and that’s it. The crowd disperses through the back and out onto M Street, to the sound of two brass bands. CP