Bathed in sunlight streaming through a stained-glass window of Jesus, Gwen Robinson held the hand of one man of God as she listened to the words of another.
"Marriage is founded on sincerity and understanding, which leads to tolerance, confidence and trust," the chaplain told Robinson and her groom, Bishop Anthony Glenn Owens. "The past is that -- past. Buds are yet to blossom; with care and trust, the best is yet to be revealed."
But for Robinson, the worst was yet to be revealed. And with her bishop, she learned too late that the past was not really past.
Owens had promised to make Robinson "first lady" of his New Dominion Church ministry. The title turned out to be a cruel joke.
Robinson wasn't Owens's first "first lady." But she made it her mission to ensure that she would be his last.
It was a muggy June day in 2002 when Robinson met the bishop.
She had just bought a newspaper from a box in the lobby of Houston's Sun Suites hotel when a tall black man in red jogging pants and a T-shirt, his head cleanshaven, walked up behind her.
"Would you mind buying me one of those newspapers?" he said in a smooth, playful voice.
The divorced mother of two was in town to interview for a clerk's job with the local court.
She had just been through a couple of hours of typing tests and questionnaires. She wasn't in the mood.
"How dare you," Robinson said. "You should be asking to buy my newspaper."
Undaunted, the man introduced himself. He was A.G. Owens, a bishop presiding over a fellowship of more than 100 nondenominational churches. He was relocating his ministry, New Dominion Churches Inc., and its record label from Kansas City, Mo., and was taking employee applications in his suite upstairs.
He handed her a slip of paper with an 800 number on it.
At 39, Robinson had recently retired after 20 years in the Air Force. She and her teenage daughters had been living with Robinson's parents in her home town of Pickens, Miss., while she looked for a job.
A couple of days went by, and the court didn't call. Robinson pulled out the slip of paper Owens had given her.
When she went to his suite the next day, about 50 people lined the corridor, many holding demo tapes and rehearsing gospel tunes. Inside were desks, computers and phones. There even were bodyguards.
Robinson left the interview thinking, "This has got to be legit."
Back in her hotel room, the woman with the master's degree in criminal justice did a little background check, just to be certain. Sure enough, New Dominion was listed with the state of Missouri as a nonprofit corporation in good standing.
When Owens called later that day to offer her a job as chief administrative assistant, she accepted.
Owens offered to give his new staff member a tour of her future office and the employee homes he was building. Throughout the tour, Owens talked about his vision for his church.
The 30-year-old pastor who had a fondness for wearing flashy jewelry and shiny suits wanted to build shelters for the homeless and affordable housing for needy families. He envisioned "a church without walls."
This was the spiritual element that had been missing from her first marriage, Robinson thought. This chance meeting was the sign of "God's favor" for which she'd been waiting the last decade.
On June 29, 2002, Gwen Robinson became Gwen Owens, bishop's wife.
Owens was suffering from complications caused by diabetes, and the newlyweds moved to Gwen Owens's home town in Mississippi while he convalesced.
Within weeks, the bishop had registered New Dominion as a Mississippi corporation and had entered into a handshake deal to pay $32,000 for an old brick clothing store building in sleepy, downtown Pickens. Building owner Henry Reed allowed the preacher to hold services there while Owens waited for his "board of directors" to approve the funds.
Being a small town, people were curious about a new pastor, and attendance at the first services was respectable. Owens put on quite a show, waving his arms and sometimes rolling around on the floor.
But for all of his fervor, the church seemed to be going nowhere.
After the couple left Houston, all the trappings of Owens's office seemed to evaporate. There were no more office assistants, no more bodyguards.
"Why aren't any of your other churches contacting you?" his wife asked one day. "What happened to your organization?"
Owens told her his lawyer had contacted him.
His predecessor had been accused of laundering money, he said, and the Internal Revenue Service had put a lien on the church's assets. He showed her paperwork that indicated the ministry had at least $500,000 in the bank.
By then, the Pickens congregation had shrunk to just a handful of members, mostly immediate family.
Suddenly, the bishop announced that he'd had another vision. God wanted him to pull up stakes.
New Dominion would take his ministry to Atlanta.
It was like Houston all over again, only this time Gwen Owens was seeing it from the inside.
The couple moved into the Extended StayAmerica hotel near Interstate 85 in Duluth, just north of Atlanta. When he filed his incorporation papers in Georgia, he gave the hotel's address and telephone number.
But Owens soon began procuring a residence more befitting his status.
The bishop had signed a contract on a $4 million Duluth home that was owned by an Atlanta Braves coach. The columned, 12,000-square-foot Georgian-style home had a three-car garage, a pool house and a complete home theater.
But when it came to his place of worship, Owens was a little less particular.
Sunday services were held in the third-floor conference room of the Country Hearth Inn, a motel in a drug-infested section of the Atlanta suburb of Norcross. On March 16, 2003, Owens held his "1st Family and Friends Day Extravaganza."
He invited big-name preachers and gospel groups. He also invited old acquaintances from his days as a lowly preacher to come see what his hands had wrought.
One of them was Pastor Ceola Singleton.
"This is the one," Owens told Singleton as he presented his "first lady." When he stepped away to mingle with other guests, the Alabama preacher woman stared at Gwen Owens for a moment, then asked her a loaded question: "How much do you know about him?"
Before she could reply, the bishop returned, and Singleton clammed up.
The women sat together throughout the day's two services. When a guest evangelist began preaching on the deceit of men, Singleton nudged Gwen Owens in the ribs.
After the services, Gwen Owens walked Singleton to her car. Standing in the dusky light of the motel parking lot, Singleton told her young companion bluntly: "He's going to steal from you."
But that wasn't the most shocking thing Singleton had to say.
In the 11 years since she'd met Owens at her church, he would disappear for long stretches without a word. Each time he resurfaced, it would be with a different woman.
"And he would tell us, 'This is my wife.' " Singleton had never reached out to any of Owens's other women. Why, Gwen Owens wanted to know, had she chosen to tell her?
"You seem to be a true woman of God," the pastor replied. "God has work for you to do."
If Gwen Owens had really been living a lie for nearly a year, she decided she could live it a little while longer.
The bishop had talked a lot about Memphis. It was where he was born.
That seemed as good a place as any to start digging.
She contacted the court clerk's office in Shelby County, Tenn. According to the file, Owens had married Paulette Maria Miller in Memphis on Jan. 9, 2001 -- but there was no record of a divorce.
This would seem like a time for tears, but a black woman who's spent 20 years in the military develops a hardness. More than anything, she wanted to get to the truth.
She contacted officials in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Owens had once lived, and learned that he had been convicted of sexual misconduct in 1998.
He was still wanted for a parole violation.
Gwen Owens began following him. One day, she tailed him to a little strip mall off Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Norcross.
"New Dominion Churches Inc.," read the white block letters on the door. "Bishop A.G. Owens, pastor."
She had no idea this office existed. Owens contacted the police and informed them of the outstanding Alabama warrant.
On May 6, the bishop was arrested. Two days later, Gwen Owens, who had already spent more than $10,000 on this man and his "ministry," filed for federal bankruptcy protection.
The parole violation would keep Owens locked up for only a few months. But he had violated her trust, fouled the sanctity of marriage, "played with God."
A few months behind bars weren't nearly enough.
While Owens sat in the Tuscaloosa County Jail, his wife kept digging.
By July, she had unearthed six more marriage licenses in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee under Owens and Rodgers, his mother's maiden name, dating back to 1992.
She managed to track down five of the women and found they had a lot in common. Most were single mothers, several of them years older than Owens.
They were pretty but, like herself, a bit on the heavy side.
The stories they told were all too familiar.
The "bishop" had swept into their lives, charming them with his good looks and smooth talk.
He would tell them about his vision, and about the role God had assigned to them in helping him realize it. When the money dried up, he would say the church's funds were tied up in a court case.
One wife told Gwen Owens the bishop had left her $50,000 in debt.
But the women weren't the only ones footing the bills.
Gwen Owens also found a string of small businesspeople -- printers, limousine drivers, bodyguards -- her husband had stiffed for thousands of dollars. Kansas City limousine driver Sharlynn Baker let Owens rack up a $6,000 bill because he was "a man of God."
Baker later realized that by carting Owens around in a limo, she had become an unwitting accomplice -- lending him an air of credibility that leveraged even more favors.
There was something else the bishop's wives appeared to have in common, Gwen Owens learned. To the best of her knowledge, he had bothered to divorce only one of them.
Granted an annulment in September 2003, the newly restored Gwen Robinson gathered up all the marriage certificates and bounced and bogus checks, and went to the Gwinnett County police. Police issued a warrant charging Owens with one count of bigamy, involving Robinson and Paulette Miller, the wife from Memphis.
When police caught up with him two months later in Shreveport, La., Owens and his latest "wife" were checking out office space for his ministry's new headquarters.
Owens appeared in Gwinnett Superior Court on March 17, his iridescent suit exchanged for a pair of green jail coveralls. Robinson was there to ensure he didn't get off too easy.
Standing before the judge, the man who had claimed a divinity degree from Oral Roberts University was forced to admit that he had not even finished high school. The preacher who, in his literature, vowed to fight the devil that has "ruined families, broken up marriages, stolen our joy and happiness" admitted that he had violated one of the church's most sacred institutions.
The judge asked Robinson if she had any comments to make before sentencing.
She had read how Owens blamed a misreading of the Book of Mormon for his serial marriages and how he married older women in an attempt to fill a void left by his mother's death. She had also read how Owens had spent most of his waking hours in jail writing down what was described as "the life story of a traveling preacher searching for the love of his mother."
She just wanted to make sure Owens didn't profit from his crime. No movie, no book deal. The judge agreed.
The judge sentenced Owens to two years in prison and four years of probation. Robinson left the courtroom without giving Owens a second glance.
Owens's new ministry is among his fellow inmates at Wheeler Correctional Facility in Alamo, Ga. In a letter to the Associated Press, Owens, now 32, declined to be interviewed for this story, citing advice from "my legal team."
At least one of his other wives has vowed to pursue bigamy charges against him when he gets out of prison late next year. But Miller -- his sixth wife and the mother of his 3-year-old son -- is considering taking him back.
Gwen Robinson is keeping an eye on him.
The 42-year-old mother has emerged from bankruptcy and is trying to take something positive from the experience. She has begun consulting with women who believe they might be victims of bigamy.
She knows people must think her either stupid or greedy. Looking back, she wonders how she could have been so naive.
Her defense is that those people don't appreciate the place of honor a minister -- let alone a bishop -- holds in the black community.
They don't understand how it feels to have someone tell you that God has a role for you in his works.
"Maybe one day I'll wake up and feel the way people feel I should," she says. But for now, she doesn't think she has the luxury of such feelings.
"I know he's going to get out sometime," she says. "I want to make sure things are so messed up for him when he does that he won't be able to do this to anyone else."