Mother Avis Collins stands before a packed sanctuary at her church and welcomes the faithful.
“Good morning!” she says and is greeted by a chorus of replies. “Today is the day the Lord has made. I welcome you all to fellowship with us. I’d like to ask all the home folk to rise and visitors remain seated so we may greet you.” Most of the crowd rises. “If you’re visiting us today, we hope you’ll consider making this your home congregation.”
In the decade since starting her church, Avis has seen it grow from a small storefront in downtown Duluth to a majestic cathedral with a sanctuary that can accommodate more than five hundred, which houses an eighty-person choir and a twenty-piece electrified fellowship band. The 24-hour call center affiliated with the church has a full-time staff of forty individuals, there to see to the spiritual needs of people throughout the community, and their online ministry reaches across the United States, Canada, and even into some European nations. Avis is recognized as an influential figure in her community and is regularly sought out for interviews and spiritual guidance.
Once the choir has finished their number, Avis rises again and opens the Bible in front of her on the podium. “Our scripture today is very familiar to most of you, Matthew 25:14-30.” Some in the congregation respond knowingly. “That’s right. The parable of the talents. The Lord reminds us that ‘For unto every one that has shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he has.’ Friends, the Lord is looking out for his faithful. He’s not asking you to hide your good fortune under a rock. He wants you to get it out there and start making it work for you. That’s why we ask you to give, so that you may receive.”
The crowd responds warmly, and the ushers pass around the offering plates. Since adopting this interpretation of scripture, Avis has seen her own fortunes rise, moving from a modest studio above her storefront church into a palatial McMansion in a gated subdivision in Suwanee. Each morning, a driver arrives to deliver her to the church, where her lunches are catered by the top restaurants in the area. Long a believer that God rewards the faithful, she’s seen her position as an affirmation of this belief.
Despite the outreach, the influence, and the assurances she gives her parishioners each week, however, Avis feels unfulfilled in her chosen avocation. She realizes doubts come with the job, but her concerns go beyond simply questioning her calling. Each night, when the workday is done, she heads back to her home alone, without so much as a cat or dog to keep her company. Hoping to find answers to her doubts, she’s taken to studying the early history of the church and the many conflicting systems that claimed to be “the truth” including Orthodox and Gnostic texts, as well as studying the material contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls and portions of the Bible that weren’t deemed to be official canon. She’s found many divergent viewpoints she finds hard to refute.
In addition to her personal misgivings, Avis finds herself constantly dealing with the church’s many detractors. Throughout its growth as a congregation, the Apostolic Awakening Fellowship has fallen under scrutiny from the IRS who questions their religious exemption, believing them to be more of a religiously oriented business rather than the classic definition of a church. This is due in part to the fact that they’re not affiliated with any of the mainstream religious organizations, but mainly because of the many products they sell, from essential oils and scented candles, to prayer blankets, Bible translations and concordances, and music videos and recordings of the choir and fellowship band. The church’s annual income from these activities regularly exceeds a million dollars, which causes many outsiders to question the church’s true mission. Given their successes, a number of high-profile business and political figures have taken positions on the official board, guiding the direction the church has taken, and often insisting on certain concessions from Avis’s ministry.
One group in particular, The Templeton Foundation, has donated much money to the cause, and supplies the church with flyers and tracts to distribute. This has earned Felix Templeton, head of the foundation, an important seat on the board of Apostolic Awakening, where he usually dominates the decision making. Felix is the oldest son of Herbert Templeton and his first wife, who was gifted a good deal of his father’s assets a few months before Cairo Enterprises acquired the company’s debt and ousted Herb as president. Contrary to his father’s wishes, Felix refused to return any of the money to Herb in the quake of Cairo’s acquisition, placing his father on a very tight allowance. This left Herb with barely enough to sustain himself in the manner to which he’d become accustomed, particularly after his second wife divorced him and took the house and half his remaining assets. Instead, Felix channeled the money into supporting conservative causes and candidates favorable to the interests of his wealthy business associates. Finding a conservative congregation headed by a black woman pastor seemed to Templeton like a gift from the heavens and Felix has taken full advantage.
For her part, Avis tries to remain above the fray, allowing subordinates to handle the day to day business of the church. Distancing herself from the nuts and bolts of the operation followed a notable misstep in 2009, where she commented harshly on what she termed as “sodomites” in a quote for a news report about the PRIDE Festival in Atlanta, which drew protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Following these challenges, at Templeton’s suggestion, the church instituted a public relations fellowship, which clears all requests for statements, and carefully monitors any outgoing missives for content, as well as largely shielding Mother Avis from unscripted press appearances. Over time the fellowship has become the main buffer between Avis and those outside the church.
In 2011, a new line of inquiry develops as the church seems increasingly involved in local politics, with Mother Avis stopping just short of endorsing specific candidates. Her close association with Ned Branch, who announces late in 2011 that he’s running for a House seat on the Republican ticket brings another level of concern, particularly when it’s revealed that Lonnie Jenkins, a conservative operative connected to the Branch campaign, has signed on as a consultant to the public relations fellowship. Members of the church’s staff recognize Jenkins as Templeton’s eyes and ears within the hierarchy.
Lately, however, some of Avis’s studies into alternate church orthodoxy have been creeping into her sermons, much to the disdain of some of the conservative organizations that fund the church and have seats on the board. In particular, her mentions of an “inner light” and “divine spark” that exists in all have elicited comments from board members who question her divergence from preaching about a stern but loving heavenly father who expects total loyalty from the faithful, and who rewards its followers with riches on Earth and in Heaven. It’s been stated in several recent meetings that she runs the risk of “endangering the spiritual growth of the congregation” if she fails to preach the standard line. This has led to increasing tension between Avis and several board members, in particular, Felix Templeton.
At her last meeting with Templeton, which she attended with Lonnie Jenkins, Templeton floated a list of right-wing candidates for local office he wanted Avis to endorse from the pulpit.
“I haven’t agreed to endorse any candidates other than Ned Branch,” Avis said. “And I’m only endorsing him in public statements, not directly from the pulpit.”
“We’re going to need your support to help sell our slate of candidates to the faithful,” Templeton said.
“Sell? That’s an interesting way to state my involvement,” Avis said.
“A poor choice of words on my part,” Templeton said. “We just need you to guide your parishioners toward making the right choice.”
“You mean your choice,” Avis said. “I know Ned Branch, Mr. Templeton. I don’t know these other individuals.”
“You only need to know they’re working toward a common goal. They reflect the values you’ve always tried to instill in your followers.”
“Like rolling back the Voting Rights Act. How is that a common goal?”
“You’ve been a good friend to our movement so far, Mother Avis. It would be a shame for that to change at this crucial point.”
“That sounds rather ominous,” Avis said. “How, exactly, would this change things?”
“You enjoy a lot of support from our organization,” Templeton said. “If we suddenly felt our goals were no longer in sync with the messenger, we might need to find another messenger.”
“Are you suggesting you would try to remove me from leadership of the church I founded?”
Jenkins leaned forward. “I think we’re getting away from the point here, folks. There’s no need for any misunderstandings.” He said to Templeton, “Why don’t we take a breather on this and I’ll meet privately with Mother Avis in a few days to clarify our views.”
“That’s acceptable,” Templeton said. “I’m sure once she sees the larger picture, she’ll understand what we hope to accomplish here.”
“Perhaps she will,” Avis said with her eyes trained on Templeton.
Her meeting with Jenkins is scheduled for Tuesday. Now, facing the congregants, she beams as she says, “It brings me immense joy to stand before you today to let you know that you are cherished in the eyes of the Lord. His arms encircle you, drawing you into his glory. The riches of the kingdom are spread out before you and this doesn’t just mean material wealth, but spiritual. The Lord is preparing his kingdom for all who accept his judgment and follow his commandments. All that’s required is for you to believe. If you have but the faith of a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains. I come to you today to let you know the kingdom awaits us all. We must prepare the way of the Lord.”
Many in the crowd show their approval by holding up their hands, or proclaiming, “Amen!” As she looks out upon them, Avis wishes she could still be as assured of the message she’s delivering as she tries to sound.