From the pulpit of Harvest Life Changers Church to a sofa in his Woodbridge home, Bishop Lyle Dukes can’t stay away from his bride of 26 years, pastor Deborah Dukes.
“You are once, twice, three times a lady,” crooned Dukes, doing his version of the Lionel Richie song, during a service last Sunday that was designated “First Lady’s Day.”
As he walked toward Deborah, Dukes stopped abruptly, turned around and headed back to the podium.
“I am going to leave that alone,” he exclaimed as members of the congregation laughed.
From the tribute to Dukes’s wife to requesting that worshipers fan out across the area to commit acts of love and kindness, this has been Show Some Love Week at Harvest Life Changers Church. On Valentine’s Day, the church hosted “Marriage Enrichment Night” to help worshipers cultivate strong unions.
For the Dukeses, love goes much deeper than sweet songs and church-sponsored events. Even though they preach together as leaders of an 8,000-member congregation and are in the midst of building a $50 million sanctuary, the couple find the time to stoke the flames of a romance that began in the hallways of the District’s Dunbar High School.
“Our honeymoon has never ended,” said Lyle Dukes, looking into his wife’s eyes as they sat on a couch at their home last Sunday. But Deborah joked that their daughter, son-in-law and grandsons, Malachi and Jeremiah, spend more time in their house than they do, given the demands of their ministry.
The Dukeses are part of small group of power couples who lead some of the largest churches in the Washington area. These are megachurches with multimillion-dollar budgets, hundreds of ministries and thousands of worshipers who attend services in shifts. Their leaders include the Revs. Grainger Browning Jr. and Jo Ann Browning, who co-pastor the 8,000-member Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, and Bishop Alfred Owens and pastor Susie Owens, who lead the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in Northeast Washington, which has more than 7,000 members.
“This ministry has to be grounded in love and communication and caring enough about the other person that you are willing to make sacrifices for their well-being and advancement,” said Grainger Browning, a former history teacher from Boston who accepted the call to preach while the couple were dating.
Jo Ann Browning said their relationship goes beyond love. “It is the understanding that God has put us together to be married and to be in ministry from the very beginning. I prayed and fasted for when he was called to the ministry, and he prayed and fasted for me when I struggled with the call,” she said.
“Our faith and love for God and to serve people is part of where we are going and why we do what we do. Even though we have our differences, we are just going down the same streets.”
Jo Ann said she and her husband try to leave church matters at church and make their home “a place of refuge and relaxation. I will come home and cook and call everyone to the table. Marriage, mothering and ministry was always the order for me.”
Occasionally, those who know the couple try to goad them into competing with each other, Grainger Browning said. They’ll say, “ ‘Wow, your wife really preached today. She is going to take your place one day.’ But you have to make it clear that you are not in competition, but cooperation” with each other.
The Dukeses have one of the largest churches in the area, but they started out on different paths. He graduated from the University of Virginia and was later commissioned as an Army officer, and she was working as an estate planner when they married in May 1986.
After receiving the call to minister, the couple founded Harvest Changers Life Church in 1995 with 10 people, at first meeting in a classroom at Potomac High School in Woodbridge. In 2001, Harvest moved from the high school to its current location, which was a furniture store renovated to become a church.
Today, the church has more than 100 ministries, a congregation in Nakuru, Kenya, that meets in a new 2,000-seat sanctuary and a television ministry that has made Lyle and Deborah Dukes popular in spiritual circles across the country. On Sunday, Lyle Dukes announced First Lady’s Day.
“I love this woman. She is the love of my life,” Lyle Dukes told the congregation. “We may have been married [almost] 27 years, but we have known each other over 30 years. In high school, we were best friends. We not only have destiny together, we have history.”
Quoting from John 3:16 and 1 John 4:11, Lyle Dukes told the audience that they love “without condition” and “as an example to others.”
This week, the Dukeses have told congregants to go out into the community and commit five acts of love, and on Feb. 23 the church will conduct an outreach effort called “Harvest Hits the Street.”
After the sermon, Lyle Dukes welcomed people to the altar, and Deborah Dukes offered a prayer. The couple slowly moved across the front of the altar, shaking hands and offering prayers, hugs and words of encouragement.
About their team ministry, Lyle Dukes said: “I am the evangelist. I get them in the church, but once they are there, she is the nurturer.”
The Dukeses take turns preaching on Sundays, and Deborah Dukes also directs choirs. She tends to follow her intuition. “We don’t plan stuff; it just happens,” she said. “If I see something, I will feel it in my heart and say [to myself], ‘Do I need to go down there? Do I need to hug that person?’ It just comes like that.”
Lyle Dukes jokes about his wife being the star of the preaching duo, but “there is no competition between us,” he said. “We complement each other.”
“It is our desire to touch people, and at the same time we really want to work on ourselves,” Deborah Dukes said.
The mutual support extends beyond church. Lyle likes to run marathons, and, at the end of a race, he looks for Deborah to be there. One of Deborah’s passions is to visit nice restaurants, and Lyle goes along.
“Normally, we eat at restaurants because I don’t cook here,” Deborah said in the couple’s home as she served baked chicken and macaroni and cheese from a Bob Evans Restaurant.
“I like hanging out with this guy,” she said. “We are always together, and my happiness and my wholeness is because we are together. He’s a keeper.”