When I first met Bishop Walter "Sweet Daddy" McCollough back in 1980, I couldn't quite get over his style. A preacher man with glittering jewelry, long fingernails, long hair and an almost hypnotic influence on his congregation made me suspicious.
And there he was, speaking in Washington before a packed house inside the United House of Prayer for All People, one of 175 churches he has in 25 states around the country, telling the congregation how it all began for him.
McCollough said he had been the chauffeur for his predecessor, Bishop Charles M. "Sweet Daddy" Grace, and while they were out driving around New Bedford, Mass., Grace told him to stop the car. " 'I want you to get out and stand on that corner and tell it,' " McCollough recalled Grace telling him. "Well, I got out, took my coat off and rolled up my sleeves and started preaching. I felt all alone. Sweet Daddy was sitting in the car and nobody was around. Then people started gathering to see what all this was about and when a big crowd had gathered he stepped out of his car and took over."
Foolishly, I wrote McCollough off as one of those preachers who used smooth talk to succeed. In turn, McCollough wrote me off as an ignorant skeptic. Turned out the bishop was right, so when I learned he was being honored last week by the National Urban Coalition for 25 years of distinguished service, I went to make amends.
"Look," I said to his older son, Charles McCollough, "I just want to congratulate the bishop." The younger McCollough whispered my request into the bishop's ear. The bishop looked at me, recognized me, and shook his head -- no way. "Aw, come on, bishop," I begged. The bishop waved me away with his hand, like swatting a fly. And that was that.
"Sorry," said his son. "The bishop is a peach out of reach."
So be it. The bishop doesn't talk to me anymore. But that won't stop me from giving the man his due. Where I once snickered at the sight of his congregation handing him dollar bills before entering the church, I now must concede that he is something of a financial wizard.
It took a few years, but it has now become apparent what was being done with that money. McCollough and his 3-million member church now have 158 apartment buildings -- with 32 more planned -- and 12 stores, including the McCollough Plaza strategically located near a planned Green Line Metro stop.
All of the churches are paid for, usually with cash.
Says Charles McCollough, "The bishop believes that you can't dedicate something to the Lord that you don't own."
The McCollough Seminary, parsonages for church ministers, day care centers and homes for the elderly are among structures built through the church construction program. The McCollough Scholarship College Fund provides grants to hundreds of young people, and each congregation has extensive athletic, recreational and music programs.
Indeed, his is an amazing story of a man who joined the church in 1939, became a Boy Scout and later chauffeur to Daddy Grace. He was born in Great Falls, S.C., and has lived in Washington for 50 years. He started out driving taxi cabs in this city while his wife of 50 years, Clara McCollough, worked in the family-owned dry cleaners, helping save money for 18 years until they finally bought the property where the church is headquartered at Sixth and M streets NW.
When he accepted his award last week, McCollough proved to be a man of few words when it comes to speaking outside the church -- so I didn't feel too badly about his refusing to talk to me. "All I can say is give me more land to build on," he quipped. Then he took his seat as the audience applauded.