The Faithless

Page 5 of 9

"Once she sent that out," Carol Davidson recalls, "it took less than 24 hours for Pastor Combs to set up a mandatory meeting."

At the meeting, two trustees confirm, Combs asked if the board had received the letter. Then, rather than address the questions Helweg had raised, Combs asked an odd question.

"Did you let your wives see it?" (Some of them, Davidson included, had to say yes — as if a woman like Carol Davidson wouldn't have insisted on it!)

Then came a directive. If they'd received the letter by e-mail, they were to erase it, Combs said.

If they'd been printed, they were to go into the shredder.

"If you all can't do that," the pastor announced, "your resignation ought to be on the table."

"We were shocked," says Ralph Hill, a trustee who was at the meeting. "The things Roberta was asking for — as a trustee of the corporation, that's your duty." But Combs, Hill says, just sputtered about how this wasn't the way they would do business. He refused to address the subject further.

After the meeting, Combs asked Ron Davidson to come to his office.

"Carol's been spreading a lot of discord," he said, according to Ron Davidson. "I'm going to have to caution you that this is not right."

In her statement, the church's attorney, Tiffen, says that Combs was acting at the urging of some church members "upset about a handful of people sowing discord." The members, Tiffen wrote, "told Pastor Combs that unless he could deal with the dissenters, they could no longer continue participating in the life of the church."

As Ron Davidson would learn that day in Combs' office, the pastor was ready to "deal" with him and Carol. He told Ron Davidson something that Davidson had never expected.

"I'm removing you as secretary of the board," the pastor told him. "I'm removing you both from the mission board. And I'm removing you both from the choir."

Choir practice used to be every Wednesday. And so that next Wednesday after the mandatory trustee meeting, Ron Davidson got up and read a letter to his fellow choraliers. He explained that he and Carol had been "removed" from the choir, but that they didn't intend to step down until they received notice, in writing, from Pastor Combs.

The next week, when they showed up for practice, there were Combs and several trustees.

Before practice could begin, one of the trustees explained where the Davidsons had failed: They never got permission to ask their questions.

In the book of Matthew, the trustees reminded the choir members, Jesus instructs his followers not to run around ratting each other out. If someone has messed up, Jesus tells them, they should confront that person directly.

If that doesn't solve the issue, they should go back, with supporters, and give the sinner another chance to make things right.

The Davidsons, the trustee explained, didn't follow that formula. That's why they were being kicked out.

Until that point, Ron says, "there had been a lot of people leaving church, but it was very hush-hush." But the bizarre presentation at choir practice threw the floodgates open, and the singers peppered the church officials with questions. Who should the Davidsons have gone to with their concerns? Could this happen to other people?

And then, one woman said, "I'm going to play the devil's advocate. What if Ron and Carol don't step down? What if they insist on singing on Sunday morning?"

Then, the leaders responded, the whole choir will be barred from singing.

The Davidsons didn't sing. Carol is feisty, but she isn't that feisty.

They kept going to church, and Ron Davidson says he fully intended to meet with the trustees and try to work things out. But then, on Tuesday, before he could begin making arrangements, David Eagles was removed from his position as head of the lay ministers and kicked out of the church.

Eagles is a black man with a sonorous voice and erect posture. He chooses his words carefully, and not just because he is talking to a reporter. He's used to counseling the sick, the distraught, the destitute. He seems more comfortable listening.

Until he was fired, Eagles was an ordained — but unpaid — minister for the cathedral. It was he who handled all the calls that came in from people needing a pastor to pray with; it was something he was happy to do. (And a good thing, since Combs apparently wasn't.)

In August, he'd gotten a call saying the choir wanted to get together to pray for a musician who was going through hard times. Eagles agreed to attend — but soon found himself answering a call from Combs, who asked what the prayer meeting was about.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske