In a massive ceremony this week, the pastor of a 24,000-member Prince George's County church was consecrated as the leader of a group of ministers who split from a 200-year-old denomination to chart a new spiritual course for their flocks.
The Rev. John A. Cherry--who stunned officials of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church when he angrily broke from the denomination two months ago--dropped to his knees, raised his hands toward Heaven and received the title "episcopal pastor" of the newly incorporated From the Heart Church Ministries.
"Are you born of God's Spirit and filled with His Spirit, with evidence of speaking in tongues?" asked the Rev. Frederick K.C. Price, a Los Angeles-based pastor and television evangelist who officiated at the event. "And are you fully persuaded that you have been called into this office according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ?"
"I am fully persuaded," Cherry responded.
Thousands viewed the Sunday evening ordination service, which lasted nearly four hours and featured a huge choir accompanied by an orchestra and church leaders dressed in ceremonial robes.
Those who could not crowd into the sanctuary on Piscataway Road in Clinton saw the ceremony via satellite on a television screen in the church's Temple Hills chapel on Norcross Street. Still others watched on monitors set up in overflow rooms at both churches.
After his consecration, Cherry ordained about three dozen pastors--most of whom serve former AME Zion churches in the Washington area and elsewhere--into From the Heart Church Ministries. He placed his hand on each of their heads, saying, "Take now the authority in the Church of God to preach the Gospel, celebrate communion, solemnize marriages and execute all of the rights and privileges of this office."
This "re-credentialing," Cherry said in a statement published in the ordination program, "will have a ripple effect in the Body of Christ."
Cherry, who speaks infrequently to the media and declined to be interviewed, was thrust into the national spotlight in 1995 during President Clinton's State of the Union address. The president asked Cherry and his wife, Diana, to stand, and he praised them for their church's marital and family programs.
Cherry, whose father and grandfather were AME Zion ministers in Alabama, later told reporters outside his Temple Hills church: "The last thing I wanted to be was a minister. I ran from it."
A former furniture salesman, Cherry, 59, said that at one time, he used drugs, his marriage was in trouble and his life was "turning south." But in 1981, he had a conversion experience and turned his life to God. That year, he founded Full Gospel AME Zion Church, the predecessor to From the Heart Church Ministries.
At first, 24 people gathered in a former home-decorating store in Suitland to hear Cherry's rapid-fire sermons and to experience speaking in tongues, healing and other "fruits of the Spirit." The church and its outreach programs grew rapidly, eventually attracting new members at the rate of 200 or more a month.
Today it is a "megachurch" with two chapels, a 10,400-seat building under construction at Wheeler Road and Southern Avenue in Temple Hills and a Lear jet for the pastor's travels. The membership list is computerized, and weekly tithes are deducted automatically from some members' bank accounts.
Despite his church's success, Cherry often has been at odds with the denominational hierarchy.
Regional AME Zion Bishop Milton A. Williams said that for years, Cherry has violated denominational policy by ordaining ministers, a practice reserved for bishops. "He has a lot of independent churches, about 25 to 30, that look to him as their leader," Williams said in an interview. "He does not have cover of this church to do this."
Cherry also estranged himself from church leadership by teaching congregants to speak in tongues during worship services--a practice not sanctioned by the AME Zion Church. Speaking in tongues is "plainly repugnant to the Word of God," said one AME Zion pastor, referring to the Articles of Religion, the church's book of discipline.
According to Cherry, AME Zion leaders are "robbing" people by not teaching about tongues. "You have the right to be filled with the Spirit of God! You have the right to speak in other tongues! You have a right to be healed!" Cherry boomed in a sermon last Sunday.
Now on his own, Cherry no longer asks for the blessing of the AME Zion Church, which was founded in 1796 after black Methodists were denied the sacraments and full participation at an all-white church in New York City.
"As we are totally liberated through the setting apart of spiritual leadership according to the Word of God, scores of other churches and ministries will now experience the liberty Christ has promised us," he wrote in the ordination program.
Cherry also explained that as episcopal pastor, a term synonymous with bishop in the AME Zion Church, he is being "set apart to take authority . . . of the natural and spiritual affairs" of From the Heart Church Ministries.
Cherry's decision to leave AME Zion goes back to May, when about 200 clerics and laymen were selected as delegates to denomination's General Conference next year in Greensboro, N.C. This is the Charlotte-based church's governing body, which meets every four years, but Cherry wasn't selected by his peers and was upset, according to Williams and other ministers.
On Sunday, in a sermon before his installation as episcopal pastor, Cherry disputed that account. Instead, he said he had been "persecuted" by some pastors in the AME Zion movement for nearly 20 years and left the denomination because "God told me to get out of Zion."
Even though Cherry got out of Zion, he has gone to court to retain the right to use his church's old name. Meanwhile, however, Williams has established a new Full Gospel AME Zion Church, which has been meeting Sundays at Colony South Hotel in Clinton under the leadership of an interim pastor, the Rev. Staccato Powell.
"We are now being sued over our using the name," Williams said. "It's ridiculous."
AME Zion leaders have privately vowed to challenge Cherry's claim to all of his church's property and financial assets. But the pastor told his flock last Sunday that they need not worry about him or his ability to wage a holy war.
"If you see me in a fight with a bear, help the bear because I am going to win," he said.
CAPTION: The Rev. John A. Cherry, head of a 24,000-member church in Prince George's County, is consecrated as "episcopal pastor" of From the Heart Church Ministries. Also shown are, from left, Betty Price, the Rev. Frederick K. Price, Diana Cherry and the Rev. John A. Cherry II. The sanctuary in Clinton where the ceremony took place is below.