Outrageous!

This story is simply too outrageous. The pastor of a church in Houston refused to allow the family of a longtime member of his church to hold her funeral there, saying she hadn’t tithed. Never mind that the reason she couldn’t tithe was that she was too sick to attend.

Olivia Blair was a member of Fourth Missionary Baptist Church for over half a century until her death last week at the age of 93. Her daughter, Barbara Day, says that her mother’s last wish was to be buried at her home church. But when Day asked Fourth Missionary’s pastor, Walter F. Houston, to open the church for her mother’s funeral, Pastor Houston turned down the request because Blair hadn’t tithed recently, and hadn’t attended the church recently. According to Day, her mother was too sick to go to church for the last two years of her life, and been unable to support it financially. Much of that time was spent in hospitals and nursing homes. She spent her last few months in a coma. But according to Day, none of that mattered to a church that treated her family with less dignity than a department store would. “All they care about is getting money, money, money, money, money!” a tearful Day said.

Day was forced to find another church willing to bury her mother. After the funeral, she reached out to Tyrone Jacques of the Church Folk Revolution, a site dedicated to turning the hot lights on abusive preachers. Day said that due to escalating medical costs, Blair was forced to get by on $60 a month. She also said that the church ignored her mother when it was apparent she was no longer able to support the church financially. To her amazement, Day says that Pastor Houston told her that if a member is unable to support the church financially, it is the family’s responsibility to keep up that member’s tithe. Day also said that no one from Fourth Missionary checked on her mother or reached out to her during her illness.

Jacques drove from his home in New Orleans to Houston in hopes of getting Pastor Houston to relent. Pastor Houston replied that Blair was no longer an active member because she was anywhere from eight to ten years behind in her tithes. He refused to allow the funeral to take place at the church–even when  Jacques offered to foot the bill and hold it on a day when the church was officially closed. Then, to pile obscenity on top of insult and injury, Pastor Houston suggested that Day and her family really didn’t care about Blair because they never bothered to chip in to keep her membership active.

The really disgusting thing about this affair is that even if Pastor Houston is telling the truth and Blair was a decade in arrears on her tithes, that would have meant she was 83 years old when she last paid her tithe. Jacques asks the obvious question–what kind of pastor would subject an 83-year-old woman on a fixed income to such ugly, nakedly aggressive tactics? Jacques has gotten in touch with at least three other families who have been squeezed by this callous policy. He’s also launched “The Olivia Blair Project” to focus on the havoc overly aggressive tithing policies wreak on people, especially those living on fixed incomes.

I look at this, and I find myself seeing disturbing parallels with the tactics of big-time televangelists. A prime example of this came in 2009, when The New York Times dropped in on one of Kenneth Copeland’s “believers’ conventions.” Copeland told his flock that they should keep writing checks even in the midst of the economic quagmire. Another speaker, Jerry Savelle, even said they should keep giving when they’re on the verge of falling off the financial cliff. From where I’m sitting, the only difference I can see between this and what Day and her family had to endure is that Pastor Houston is doing it on a smaller scale.

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