HE LOOKS SO healthy, you can almost see why some people called his recent heart attack a hoax. Which is a hard thing to say about a man of God. Yet the Rev. Carlton Wadsworth Veazey has faked a coronary before and lived to tell about it. He did it then, more than 10 years ago, to save his tail. Now, they're saying, he's using the same charade in an attempt to save his job. It's typical of the talk surrounding the man these days.

They say that he has uncontrollable corporeal urges. That he consorts with women not his wife. Women of the church and women of the world. That's the most grievous in the catalogue of sins they recite as they try to bring him down. Veazey and his supporters call it hogwash, with the exception of one major transgression, which he openly confessed, and which the church saw fit to forgive.

Nevertheless, Veazey's opponents now want to skewer him. But they also say they want to avoid a scandal. And so the campaign against him is conducted in whispers, and in vaguely worded "complaints" and "epistles," an approach that is either kind or clever, depending on which side you take.

In any event, certain trustees and deacons at Zion Baptist Church are up in arms. After 32 years of Veazey's leadership at one of the largest, oldest and most prominent churches in Washington, they want to throw him over.

Plenty of others stand faithfully behind their pastor, and accuse the rebellion's eight ringleaders of attempting a "corporate takeover" of the church. Zion's multi-million-dollar property stretches along both sides of Blagden Avenue in Northwest Washington's pricey Crestwood. Its buildings are modern, well kept and completely paid for. Its congregation is torn between the stern spiritualism of Veazey and the bottom-line barrister style of Trustee Board Chairman James Christian, who many see as a leader in the drive to oust Veazey. Among some members, there's also concern about Christian's alleged attempt to borrow $50,000 from Zion's operating account last year to meet his law-firm payroll. (Christian, a former D.C. Democratic Party chairman and partner in two recently failed law firms, refused repeated requests for an interview.)

There's a defiant bounce to Veazey's bowlegged walk as he leads the way to his modest office in the rear of the church. And a certain youthfulness that disguises his 57 years and offsets the steel gray of his close-cropped hair. He's a magnetic man with boyish hints of the truly formidable figure he must have cut as a 24-year-old, fresh out of Howard University's Divinity School, when he was asked to pastor this prestigious, historic church.

There is gravel in Veazey's voice as he looks down at the blood-red carpet, shakes his head and says: "They want to destroy me, and they don't care if I was on welfare the next day. I spent my entire career in one place, at this church. Most churches now, like most jobs, they're looking for people who're younger. And not only that, I had a heart attack. ... And they're saying, in spite of that, 'We don't want you, and we're not going to give you anything. You just make it the best way you can.' And these are people who purport to be spiritual people, on this board."

Zion's members are scheduled to vote a week from today on whether Veazey stays or goes. If he is ousted, the church has offered to pay his salary for six months and maintain his health and life insurance for a year. Veazey has sued the church for breach of contract, leading his opponents to snidely suggest he doesn't trust God will deliver justice.

"Neither side's hands are clean," says pediatrician Bette Catoe Strudwick, a Veazey supporter who has belonged to the church for 35 years. "I always thought I'd be buried from Zion, but now I think I might outlive it. ... This is the demise of a church."

A Flock in Need

People in the religion business have a joke about Baptists. "They say that Baptists multiply by division," according to Clarence G. Newsome, a Baptist who is dean of Howard's Divinity School. It has to do with the die-hard democratic nature of Baptist congregations, combined with their tendency to choose pastors who have strong personalities. As such, Baptist churches that thrive are "visible miracles," says Newsome. And those that fracture and split are commonplace.

That's why the archives of Zion, which was founded in 1864, are full of documents boasting of its integrity. On its 70th anniversary, for instance, the 1934 program bore this note: "During her entire history Zion has never been without a pastor more than eleven months and never has friction within divided her ranks nor driven her to the courts for adjustment."

Founded by nine former slaves who came from the Fredericksburg, Va., area, Zion had its first three sanctuaries in Southwest. In 1958, urban renewal forced the church to abandon its handsome edifice on F Street between Third and Fourth streets, a site now occupied by a ramp to the Southwest Freeway. Membership dropped from some 2,000 to 300 faithful, who worshiped in the auditorium of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA while seeking a site that was affordable.

That's where Veazey entered, choosing to serve his internship with a flock that was verily in need of tending.

"He became a part of the Zion family very quickly, very earnestly," Aubrey Ballard, a member of the committee that in 1960 selected Veazey as the church's seventh pastor, told a film crew documenting Veazey's ministry.

Less than two years later, Veazey moved his congregation into the newly built soaring structure on Blagden Avenue. The plans had been laid by the preceding pastor and Veazey says now he would have chosen another site. The church fought zoning battles with the neighborhood over a facility for the aged it tried to construct across the street, and most of the surrounding residents were already "churched," making growth more difficult. But Veazey met the challenge, and soon surpassed the booming membership level Zion had enjoyed in Southwest.

In those early years of his pastorate, Veazey also was prominent in secular affairs, serving as a Nixon appointee to the pre-home rule D.C. Council, helping ministers Leon Sullivan and David Eaton establish the Opportunities Industrialization Center, running Mayor Walter Washington's Manpower Council. In the '70s, he was able to command the presence of President Carter for one of Zion's anniversary celebrations. He continued to claim an insider's role in city politics into the '80s, thanks to a boyhood friendship with Marion Barry forged in his native Memphis.

On the surface, at least, Veazey's ministry seemed to be going along swimmingly until one autumn day in 1991, when a mother and daughter held hands and jumped from the window ledge of their ninth-floor Connecticut Avenue apartment. The daughter, although badly injured, survived. The mother -- Veronica Nelson -- died of massive head injuries. During the investigation that followed, it became known and was widely reported that Veazey was extramaritally involved with the 48-year-old former schoolteacher some 10 years before.

Zion's elders already knew about Nelson. In 1984, she was convicted of extortion after she tried to get Veazey to pay her $20,000 for photos of the two of them embracing in the nude.

Veazey told his Board of Church Administration that he had been set up by Nelson, and bamboozled into her Takoma Park bedroom, where two men forced him to disrobe and pose for pictures. He admitted, however, to a prior "one-day" affair with Nelson.

Veazey told the FBI that he "faked a heart attack" to escape from Nelson and her strongmen. The men took him to Holy Cross Hospital where, according to an affidavit, "Veazey continued the masquerade of having a heart attack."

"He was forgiven," says Genevieve Johnson, 94, a lifelong member of the church.

"It's understood that no pastor is perfect," says Newsome. "In fact, the strength of a pastor's leadership is predicated by the fact that he or she is no more perfect than any other person sitting in the congregation. That said, Baptist churches over the years have been known to be very quick to forgive."

Forgetting, apparently, is another story. There was little press coverage initially of Veazey's tryst with Nelson, and the resultant trial. Her suicide, however, appeared to be the last desperate act in a series. She had been calling reporters at newspapers and magazines, radio and television stations, and even supermarket tabloids, attempting to sell her story of Veazey's seduction. Nelson had been a fugitive from justice ever since her extortion conviction. She avoided serving her time by employing a number of aliases, such as Countess Beauchamp. A psychiatric evaluation in the court record said she suffered from paranoid and delusional tendencies. She seemed unable to make a living, and on the day she jumped, was about to be evicted.

As the story of her death was told again and again, Nelson seemed to finally have at least one of her dreams fulfilled. And some of the most upright of Veazey's flock began to hang their heads.

'A Cancer of the Spirit'

About six months after Veronica Nelson jumped, 59 Zion officers signed and circulated an "Epistle of Concern." They called for renewal, saying the church was "suffering from a cancer of the spirit" caused by "the personal behavior of our pastor." They accused him of "showboat{ing}" and having a "tendency to quick anger" and "unseemly acts of vindictiveness." They asked him to cut back on the length of his sermons and step up the quality of their spiritual studies.

"And lovingly," they wrote, "we seek to help him to remain true to the scripture which exhorts: 'A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior ...' "

The accusatory epistle was adopted by a vote of 159 to 80 at a church meeting last July. It recommended drawing up a contract with the pastor for the first time in church history and rewriting bylaws to clearly shift power from the pastor to the trustees.

Two months later, Veazey attended a Baptist convention in Atlanta, where he had a heart attack. He said that for 10 days he was under intensive care at Emory University's Crawford Long Hospital.

Veazey later provided the church with a letter from his cardiologist of five years, Joseph A. Quash, which attested to the pastor's "mild coronary artery disease" and documented his heart attack in Atlanta. It was received with skepticism by some of Veazey's opponents, and during a church meeting one prominent deacon denounced the letter as a fake that had been "cut and pasted" together. Quash, who recently examined a church copy of his letter, says it was the same document that he wrote last fall.

"I rested during the month of September," Veazey says. They "circulated the rumor that I didn't really have a heart attack. 'How do we know? We don't have the records. We need a doctor's report.' It was very hurtful. I have to admit I was very disturbed. I went back {to Zion} and preached about what a church should be. ... Right after that sermon they got together, about eight people, and developed a resolution asking for my resignation. Based on spurious stuff. They went back and resurrected that thing 10 years ago... ."

Their complaint said Veazey causes "embarrassment for Zion in the larger community"; that he uses the "pulpit as his soapbox for spewing forth vindictiveness and ill-feeling not worthy of a Man of God"; that he has "implied that confidences conveyed to him by virtue of pastoral counseling are possibly no longer secure"; and more.

They cited no specific examples of Veazey's alleged offenses, but used such charged language that some church members on both sides of the controversy conclude it must be personal.

"When you're pastor 32 years, you have made some mistakes and you have ruffled some feathers," Veazey says. "And these {eight} people, all of them, at one time or another, have had some kind of bone to pick or some kind of run-in or confrontation with me."

The eight signatories to the original complaint against Veazey decided as a group not to comment for this story, said Christian, so as not to appear to be trying him out in the world before the church decides his fate next week. Many church officials declined to discuss the schism, while others did not respond to phone messages.

Veazey lists his disputes with the eight:

James Christian used to be a protege of the pastor's. "I don't know what happened, except he began to feel he should be running the church," Veazey says. "He tried to do certain things to try to undermine me. I called his hand on it several times. I said, 'You have to understand I'm the pastor and you're the chairman.' ... He has this power thing. He says church is nothing but politics. He has a need for power. He's a short man. I'm not saying all short men are like that, but ..."

Then there was the matter of the loan from church coffers that Veazey and Trustee Vice Chairman Genevieve Johnson said Christian sought.

"Just before the epistle came out, Mr. Christian suffered reverses with his law firm," Veazey says. "Same law firm as Bob Washington {Washington, Perito & Dubuc}. ... Christian always called me about anything of a business nature. But this particular time, about a year ago, he calls the treasurer of the church, Edward Hightower. 'Ed, how are we fixed for funds?' At the time we had over $140,000 in the bank. ... He said, 'I wonder if I can get $50,000 from the treasury. I need it for about two weeks to make payroll.' Mr. Hightower is old enough to understand his responsibilities. He said, 'Well, Jim, I don't know. Have you talked to the pastor?' ... I waited for two days to see if he would call. {He did not.} ... I said, 'Jim, why didn't you call me about that matter of wanting to get money? You know that's not right.' ... I said, 'Why can't you borrow it from a bank? Why can't Bob Washington borrow it?' Well, I think he was taken aback, because after that he took on a whole new attitude."

Clifford Allen, Veazey says, "one time was telling me, 'When you go somewhere, I need to know where you're going.' That was years ago. I said, 'What?' He said, 'Well, you know, I'm a deacon, and when you go out of town, I need to know where you're going and how long you're' -- I said, 'I've been here 27 years, and don't you ever challenge me about where I'm going and what I'm doing.' He never quite got over that."

Inez Lewis, chairman of the Board of Deaconesses, Veazey says, "doesn't even know why she's fighting me. ... I went down and I said, 'Inez, why are you fighting me? What have I ever done to you?' 'You ain't never done anything to me. You've been good to me. Some people say you don't speak to them. Say you've changed.' "

Leroy Fykes, Veazey says, "wanted to start a $200,000 youth program. And maybe one of the things that I will admit is maybe -- I don't want to say shortcoming, but something people pointed to, the fact that sometimes, emotionally, the way I talk can sound pretty sharp. I said to him, 'Fykes, you're talking about a $200,000 youth program! Where are we going to get the money?' I was pretty short with him."

Robert Owens, Veazey says, "I thought was one of my best friends here. ... Just before that epistle came out, I had a five-hour meeting with the deacons, deaconesses of the church, some 60-odd people, and answered questions they had. Bob Owens was chairing the meeting. ... He said this: 'We've heard from our pastor, he's answered our questions.' ... Bob Owens prayed up there and told the Lord we're closing this out and we're letting this go and we're throwing this away in the sea of forgetfulness and we're not going to entertain it any longer. ... Less than eight days later, he and Jim Christian had signed this thing complaining about there being a cancer in the church."

Alvin Darby, Veazey says, interrupted a speaker at the planning of an anniversary celebration for the pastor. "He made the statement, 'We don't need a history lesson.' And I saw him afterwards and I said, 'I resent that. You might not need a history lesson, but you're talking about my life and times.' He said, 'Well that's just too bad,' or something. And I told him, 'Well, you know, Brother Darby, if you feel like that, I don't know why you are serving as a deacon.' Well he blew that out of proportion, and we had a reconciliation on that."

Lewis Norris, Veazey says, "struck up a friendship, he and his wife with my family. And I don't socialize a lot with members, but once in a while I will go to dinner or something. But they started this thing of having us over the first of the year. ... Well it reached a point where my wife and I thought it best that we stop that, because going over there we were subjected to gossip about members, and I wouldn't participate in that. ... He got up in the meeting and said, 'We used to have dinner, but all of a sudden that stopped.' "

Earl Henderson, Veazey says, "is my wife's mother's cousin. He's in the family. He's 88 years old. ... He doesn't know what's going on here. He's a puppet. ... They have massaged him and cultivated him and brought him along. ... It's pitiful. Christian and all of them just get him to sign stuff. 'Sign right here, Earl, 'cause we want to help our church, don't we? Yeah.' I can't even get angry with him."

Testimony

There is church, and then there is "playing church." There are prophets, and there are false prophets.

The year before Veronica Nelson jumped, there was a big bash at the Omni Shoreham Hotel celebrating Veazey's 30th year at Zion. Along with lobster bisque au cognac, accolades were served up from every kind of local politician imaginable. Then-NAACP Director Benjamin Hooks was the keynote speaker. A video version of Veazey's life was shown on a big screen, complete with comments from church leaders.

James Christian seemed sincere as he faced the camera to say: "Reverend Veazey is so giving, that he really jeopardizes his own personal health and welfare. He doesn't think of himself; he always thinks of other people first ... getting up out of his bed at 2 and 3 o'clock in the morning to go to someone else's aid."

Then it was Inez Lewis's turn to say that Veazey "has feelings for other people even at the risk of having his own feelings hurt. And of course he's benevolent, and he will always look after his church family."

Eighteen months later, those two signed the complaint that was adopted by the church board in March as a vote of no confidence in Veazey. It charged that the pastor "demonstrated an unwillingness to even pray with his flock in the time of spiritual crisis."

More seeming incongruities were to come.

Psalms 127

Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it; except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.

On his first Sunday back in the pulpit after his heart attack, which happened to be Deacon's Day, Veazey began with that passage, from Psalms 127. For some of his key opponents, the sermon was the last straw.

"I have seen holy people, you know the kind, that when they get close to you, they make you feel like you're not living right," Veazey preached in his thundering, scolding style. "You know the kind, that are always telling you what the Bible said, like you don't have a Bible, like you don't know what God is saying to you. ... And brothers and sisters, I could call the roll this morning in Zion Baptist Church about that. Amen. I'm not going to do it, 'cause you would be eternally angry with me. But I know a lot of folks. You see, one thing, when you're pastor 32 years, and believe me, right in this head, I know more about people out there and up here than anybody in this church. Y'all might as well say amen. I know more about you, I know what you have done, I know what you haven't done, I know your weaknesses, I know your strengths. I know you. And if I know you, don't try to impress me. And then you're going to try to fool God too? Praise God. God knows what you're all about."

Some of pastor's flock took those words as threats.

"In other words, he was saying, if you start talking about me, I'm going to start telling about things you've told me," one of Veazey's opponents said anonymously. "Who wants to go to your pastor in deep despair, and then six months later, you hear it from somewhere else?"

Yet Veazey supporters, such as Paul Thomas, say they heard no such threat. And at church meetings, members say, the only example cited of a confidence betrayed involves Christian's reported attempt to borrow church funds. And according to Veazey, "That wasn't a violation of confidence, it was a surreptitious kind of thing. In fact, it's something I should have brought to the church's attention, but I didn't bring it up."

Instead, Veazey preached on that Deacon's Day about the proper makings of a church.

"Jesus walked into the temple, the holy place of God, and there he turned over all the tables and he beat them out of the temple," Veazey said, launching into a pedantic series of rhetorical questions. "Why? Because they were buying and selling, and they had turned the temple into a house of thieves. Now what I'm saying, brothers, is we better be careful about what we do to God's church. ... Do you know people join the church just to network to get a job? I know y'all are awfully quiet, but I'm going to preach. Amen. Do you know some people join the church just to find a boyfriend? ... A husband or wife? ... To help their business? ... To get up on the social ladder? Now here's the worst one. And I know y'all won't like it 'cause y'all said the pastor ought not to say that kind of thing in the pulpit. But do you know that some people join the church to hustle the church? Believe me, I have seen it. Right here."

At that point on a tape of the sermon, a buzz of speculation and horror can be heard building in the pews. And it hasn't subsided.