The Faithless

Page 7 of 9

But it's also clear that many people at Valley Cathedral are fine with Combs. And that's where things get hairy.

Sure, the Davidsons and their supporters were longtime members, and, until recently, were held in good stead. But the church voted to bring in Combs, and no one is claiming that vote wasn't by the book.

At heart, the battle for Valley Cathedral isn't so much civil war as an attempted coup d'état. And, as in any coup, Combs' side has most of the firepower, just by virtue of his job as pastor.

On top of the power given the pastor in the bylaws, after all, it can be hard to convince some Christians, no matter how unseemly a situation is, that God wants them to rise up in revolt against their pastor.

"We always support the pastor," says O.D. Randall, 78, who's been a member for 16 years and is also a lay minister. "He's done a good job — his preaching is very good. And if he's made some bad decisions, we still support him.

"The people on the other side are good people," Randall adds. "They've just got burrs in their saddle. They want to stir things up. Well, I'm not for tearing things down, I'm into building them up."

That perspective was evident at the church's annual business meeting in October. The ousted members had hoped to make a case to their former congregants about the need to remove Combs — but the meeting ended in total chaos. Combs repeatedly tried to stop the meeting, to close without new business, to limit debate. (A parliamentarian who attended the meeting at the request of one worried member was horrified.)

But those who raised the issue of Combs' leadership were greeted with heckles.

The Davidsons' son, Eric, had flown back from his job on the mission field in China to attend. When he took his turn at the mic, he spoke of King David and how, before he was king, he vowed not to raise a hand against "the Lord's anointed" — presumably, a reference to not attacking Combs.

But by that point, many in the audience were in no mood even for gentle Biblical parables. When Eric Davidson noted, "I am an apostle of the church," one woman called out, "Not for long!"

The discussion, ultimately, ended with shouting.

"You shut up!" one man screamed.

"No, you shut up!" a woman retorted. "You've been running your mouth this whole time and I'm sick of it!"

Another woman rushed to the front of the stage and began convulsing in sobs. "You should be praying for her!" one member shouted at another. "You should be praying!"

With that, the meeting was over.

The next day, one of the dissident members, Patience Hoag, sent an e-mail summarizing the meeting's improprieties. (It was she who'd hired the parliamentarian.) She was greeted with a lengthy reply, forwarded to more than a dozen other members, by the assistant church treasurer, Deborah Fitchie.

Fitchie and her husband David, a trustee, declined requests for comment through the church's lawyer.

"It made me ashamed before God that something so ugly took place in the House of God and that some Christians allowed themselves to become so hateful and disrespectful to our Pastor and to each other and to God's house," Deborah Fitchie wrote.

"One woman got up and left after the first ten minutes," Fitchie added. "As she passed by me she said, 'I did not come here for "something like this"' and she left. I wonder if she will ever come back to Valley or any other church."

She concluded, "You and your friend seemed to be more concerned about parliamentary procedures than you are about the souls of people that were damaged by what they witnessed."

Patience Hoag, who hired the parliamentarian to come to the business meeting in October, says she'd assumed that meeting would change everything. Once the congregation heard the truth about why some members opposed Pastor Combs, she assumed they'd flock to their cause — and Combs would be forced to resign.

Clearly, that wasn't going to be the case.

For Hoag, it was a rude awakening. "They've known most of us for many years, and they just brought Combs in two years ago from out of nowhere," she says. "And yet they're not going to believe us? It's like, all of a sudden, we can't be trusted!"

Indeed, soon after the meeting, Eric Davidson, Carol's son and the missionary who'd spoken up, got a rude awakening.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske