Bully at the Pulpit
While Greater Salem Church went $5 million in the hole and the building itself began to crumble, its pastor, Anthony L. Jinwright, and his wife, Harriet, were accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses per year and insisting everything was fine. The congregation believed their leaders, and they are still suffering for their faith
Bishop Anthony Jinwright is barely five feet tall, but that diminished neither the power nor the length of his sermons. Sometimes he dressed in casual clothes with a gold chain and hand-size bejeweled cross hanging down to his navel, sometimes in a tailored suit, sometimes in a minister’s robe. It didn’t matter; his audiences hung on his every singsong word. He’d dance or stomp behind his clear glass pulpit at Greater Salem Church, raising his hands to the beat of his message and increasing his volume to fire up the congregation. They’d mimic his gestures, and sometimes dress in matching T-shirts purchased to support one of the church’s many ministries. Often, his wife, Harriet, would take a turn at the pulpit, practically screaming her interpretation of the day’s theme.
Musicians added dramatic undertones to their words and backed the choir’s hymns, many of which were written in-house to mirror the sermon. When things really got going, the sanctuary floor would shake. Occasionally someone would “catch the spirit” and flail around or speak in tongues. Toward the end of his reign, the bishop’s sermons ran as long as it took for a predetermined dollar figure to be raised. At times, he would instruct people to line up according to the amount of money they were giving.
The pressure to tithe was so great that it wasn’t unusual for the church’s staff to discover empty envelopes or bad checks in the day’s donations, and sometimes people stopped payment on good checks. That infuriated Anthony, who complained to the church’s board, “When someone in the church is not tithing, the whole house is cursed.” As for the cash, that often went home uncounted with him and Harriet.
Meanwhile, the church, located on Charlotte’s west side across Brookshire Boulevard from a water-treatment plant, was bouncing its own checks. Anthony later testified in federal court that, during that time, the congregation wasn’t tithing faithfully enough and the church’s financial staff was clueless. The church’s bind, he believed, had nothing to do with the Jinwrights’ insistence that they each be paid six-figure salaries in addition to other monthly payments, including a five-figure housing allowance and lease payments for luxury cars, which were paid on top of a monthly auto allowance.
The Jinwrights also received monetary “gifts” from all of the church’s accounts for both of their birthdays, for their wedding anniversary, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, his pastoral anniversary, his retirement (which he was supposed to invest but rarely did), his daughter’s college tuition, for vacations, Louis Vuitton luggage, jewelry … and the list goes on.
While congregants voted on the church’s budget, most were unaware of exactly how much money the Jinwrights received because the line item for church salaries included the entire staffs’ and the gifts weren’t included. And, because he owned two funeral homes, was hawking a self-published book, and had established a for-profit ministry, there seemed to be no reason why he shouldn’t appear successful, especially since his sermons were in such demand that he had to travel around the country and to South Africa, the Bahamas, and Jamaica to preach at other churches.
Congregants were also unaware that the church often picked up the tab for those trips or that it paid the funeral homes’ cellphone bill. Nor did they realize that the church’s staff often performed work for Anthony’s other companies on the church’s time and using its supplies. Meanwhile, his businesses’ tax returns made it seem as though they were barely scraping by, despite the fact that, through the years, the bereaved could ride to their loved ones’ grave sites in one of the funeral homes’ Rolls-Royces, Cadillac limousines, or, for a time, a Maybach—a nearly half-million-dollar car so exclusive only sixty-three were sold last year.
Even as the church’s building began falling apart and its balance sheet sunk into the red, most in the congregation continued to have faith in their charismatic leader and his wife, whom he named copastor. Not even the couple’s indictments on federal tax evasion charges—which later earned them convictions and multiyear prison sentences—shook the most faithful “saints.”
But when the sheriff came looking for the church’s used vans, a few members of its board of directors decided they had to try to make things right. Their objections weren’t well received, says Larry Gandy, a former member of the board of directors and the budget committee. Faced with dissension, he testified during the trial that Anthony asked the board, “Why do you want to take food out of my mouth?”