Bishop John L. Meares, a white Memphis faith healer who came to Washington more than half a century ago and started what is now Evangel Cathedral, one of the region’s largest black congregations, died May 23 at his home in Upper Marlboro. He was 91 and had congestive heart failure.
Bishop Meares first preached in the District in the summer of 1955, when he held a tent revival meeting in what became a parking lot for RFK Stadium. From those early roots, his ever-expanding evangelical congregation migrated to a converted horse stable, a renovated movie theater and finally, in 2001, to a $22 million sanctuary in suburban Upper Marlboro.
Over the years, the 4,200-member church has drawn attention for putting on lavish Broadway-style musical productions and for drawing high-profile evangelists — including T.D. Jakes, Oral Roberts and Charles Blake — to its pulpit and annual conference of pastors.
But Evangel Cathedral is perhaps most known as a Sunday-morning anomaly: an African American congregation led by a white son of the South.
Bishop Meares said he was called to the nation’s capital in part to heal its racial tensions. To many of his followers, he made strides toward bridging the rift that has so deeply divided black and white Washington.
“He didn’t preach on race or racism — he preached Jesus. Black and white worshipped together freely,” said Bishop Alfred Owens, pastor of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in the District, who said he converted to Christianity at 13 in Bishop Meares’s church. “The color line was washed away.”
Evangel Cathedral was dogged, however, by allegations that its white leaders — including Bishop Meares and his two pastor sons, Virgil and Donald — funded its multimillion-dollar expansion on the backs of low-income, inner-city black congregants.
In the early 1970s, the church moved from the York Theater in Northwest Washington to a newly constructed $3 million, 1,800-seat sanctuary in Northeast. About that time, a black activist group marched into a Sunday service at the church and spoke out against religious organizations that “steal from the poor.”
In the 1980s, as the church scouted for a new location in Prince George’s County, former followers of Bishop Meares’s alleged that he and his sons had ordered congregants to tithe $5,000 each or risk a curse from God.
Further details emerged in 1986, when nine former followers filed a lawsuit against the Meares family alleging fraud and emotional abuse. Told to sacrifice for God, the congregants had mortgaged their homes, signed over child-support checks and maxed out credit cards — all in an effort to help the church pay for its new home.
At the ensuing trial, plaintiffs played taped recordings of Bishop Meares’s exhortations to give. “The Lord has said in five months this people would give $5 million,” he said during a Sunday service.
A D.C. Superior Court judge dismissed the case, telling plaintiffs that their evidence “won my heart, but not my head.” However aggressive the Meareses’ techniques, the judge said, the family’s fundraising did not constitute fraud.
Bishop Meares maintained that he had only expressed God’s wishes. “Giving is an act of worship,” he told The Washington Post in 1986. “We are not here to bend anybody’s will.”
That year, the church bought a $295,000 home for Bishop Meares and his wife. The church also paid $1.5 million cash for more than 400 acres in Prince George’s, which became the site of its new building.
Bishop Meares installed his son Donald as senior pastor in 1989, and the younger Meares continues to lead the church.
Donald Meares said the church has thrived because of smart business decisions, such as using some of its acreage to build housing developments. “We are here today because of sound management,” he said.
John Levin Meares was born Jan. 21, 1920, in Largo, Fla. At 18, he enrolled at the Church of God Bible School in Sevierville, Tenn., where he met a fellow student whom he later married.
Besides his wife of 66 years, Mary Lee Bell Meares of Upper Marlboro, survivors include three children, Donald Meares, Virgil Meares and Cynthia Meares, all of Upper Marlboro; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Bishop Meares was ordained in the Church of God in 1943 and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee four years later. He also received a doctor of divinity degree from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla.
He started Church of God congregations in Athens, Tenn., and Memphis before he was invited to preach at a revival in Washington by evangelist Jack Coe.
The revival drew thousands of black Washingtonians, who gathered in the summer’s wet heat for ecstatic celebrations of prayer and healing. When Bishop Meares decided to stay in the city, the church he started gained a reputation as a center for seemingly impossible phenomena.
“I would watch the miracles of the crippled and blind as they were prayed for,” Bishop Meares’s son Virgil once wrote, “and I knew as a child that God was for real. I especially liked it when someone would have one leg shorter than the other and as prayer was offered, the leg would become the length of the other one.”
Bishop Meares was expelled from the predominantly white Church of God in 1957 for what church leaders said was insubordination. He maintained that he was pushed out because he had dared to preach to black folks.
The church dwindled in the aftermath of the 1968 riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, but then roared back to life in the early 1970s as Bishop Meares created a Christian Training Institute that offered self-help courses, counseling, Bible study and academic classes.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Bishop Meares served on an international committee that sought to build bridges between Pentecostal and Roman Catholic leaders. He traveled widely, expanding his church’s missionary programs with the help of the International Evangelical and Missionary Association, a fellowship of hundreds of Pentecostal churches.
Consecrated as a bishop in 1982, he often described the church he created in Washington as a spiritual garden, an inner-city refuge. “God is a creative God,” he once told The Post. “When he breathes upon us, we become creative.”