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Jericho City of Praise co-founder Betty Peebles dies; grew Pr. George's megachurch into social, economic force

By Hamil R. Harris and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 10:11 PM

Four decades ago, James and Betty Peebles gathered a handful of families to worship in a Northeast Washington public housing complex. From those early beginnings sprang the Jericho City of Praise, whose 19,000 congregants now pray on a sprawling suburban campus that supplements spirituality with community services that rival a small town.

Apostle Betty Peebles, who led Jericho City of Praise since her husband's death 14 years ago and spearheaded its transformation from a church anchored in urban Washington to a wide-ranging community center and commercial developer in Prince George's County, died Oct. 12 of cancer at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown, Md. She was 76.

Jericho City of Praise reached megachurch status - generally those that have more than 2,000 members - in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It continued to grow quickly as it caught a surge of suburban migration to Prince George's, one of the nation's wealthiest majority-black counties, and is now one of the region's largest congregations.

Jericho City of Praise was among an early wave of black churches across the nation that capitalized on that demographic shift, undergoing similar massive growth after relocating from the cities where they were founded to nearby suburbs.

Apostle Peebles's nondenominational church attracted newcomers with a suite of amenities reaching far beyond its 10,000-seat sanctuary, including an academy for students from pre-kindergarten through high school, a Christian college, counseling services and an apartment building for senior citizens.

"A lot of what they were doing was pretty innovative for churches, and people responded to this holistic understanding of the ministry," said Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary who studies megachurches. "I think that's part of why they grew."

Apostle Peebles distinguished herself not only as a visionary who saw the expanded role her church could play, but also as one of very few women to helm a megachurch. By 2004, she had become the only woman leading any of the country's largest 100 churches.

Her leadership grew out of the death of her husband, Bishop James R. Peebles Sr., in 1996. The pair began their ministry together in 1964, when they founded Jericho Road Baptist Church in a District basement. The first offering was $13 collected in a KFC bucket.

From there, they moved to Northeast Washington's Kenilworth neighborhood, where James Peebles built a cinder-block church that seated 35. The church continued to grow steadily, moving into a new building only to outgrow it and move again.

In 1995, the church bought 75 acres next to what would become FedEx Field in Landover and began building a $36 million complex. James Peebles, 63, died in the midst of construction; four months later, James Jr. - the Peebles's eldest son and the congregation's assistant pastor - died of a heart attack. He was 38.

Despite her grief, Apostle Peebles stepped into the role of senior pastor, overseeing the successful completion of Jericho City of Praise's campus. Over the past decade, she went on to expand that campus to more than 150 acres, adding a $52 million senior living center and a $9.5 million office building.

A gospel singer who preached on local radio and television, she combined spirituality with business savvy. For example, the church capitalizes on its proximity to FedEx Field by leasing parking spaces to Washington Redskins season ticket holders.

Jericho City of Praise managed to pay off its mortgage on the Landover property by 2004, and church officials publicly celebrated their freedom from debt by burning the bank papers during an extravagant ceremony attended by then-Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A week later, that triumph was tinged by tragedy when another of Apostle Peebles's sons - John R. Peebles, the minister of music - died at age 44 after a short illness.

She soldiered on, playing piano during rousing Sunday services and directing the 150-person choir.

"It was her life's mission to preach and teach the Gospel uncompromisingly," said her third son, Joel R. Peebles, who will now become the church's senior pastor. But "in a blink of an eye, she could move from being an anointed leader to being a compassionate mother."

Betty Poindexter was born in Washington on Oct. 5, 1934. She grew up going to Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Northwest Washington with her parents.

"I always knew there would be some kind of church ministry the Lord would lead me to," she told The Washington Post in 2005. "I just didn't know what it was."

She was a student at Cardozo Senior High School when she met her future husband, then a freshman at Howard University. They married in 1955.

In addition to her son, survivors include nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Apostle Peebles graduated from Howard with an accounting degree and got a job with the State Department. She worked for 23 years as a program officer in the department's Africa bureau as she helped her husband - a security guard at the Naval Observatory - build the church.

Before they found a brick-and-mortar place to worship, they performed as a team in and around Washington - James Peebles preaching, Betty Peebles singing and playing the piano.

Even when her husband was alive, Apostle Peebles was seen within the church as a powerful figure in her own right. She was ordained a minister in 1984. She was no fire-and-brimstone preacher, but over the past 14 years, Apostle Peebles was a charismatic and powerful presence before her thousands of congregants, a motivational life coach of sorts who laughed and cried during sermons.

"I can live with something somebody else is dying with," she said one Sunday in 2005, near the end of a three-hour service. "I can achieve the unthinkable. . . . That's because that miracle portion has been strategically, fearfully, meticulously placed in me for the glory of God in my life."

harrish@washpost.com browne@washpost.com

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