Page 9 of 13
On December 10, Saundra's phone rang. It was Prince Albert Williams.
"I'm puttin' you out of the church," he announced.
"Putting me out of the church? Into what?" Saundra asked, thinking she was being transferred to another church.
"Out of the AME church, period." he said. "As far as I'm concerned, you put yourself out. You started another church."
Saundra hung up the phone and called Bishop Byrd. He confirmed that she was being kicked out of the AME church. Confused, she hung up. Then she called him back. "What did I do?" she asked.
"P. Albert says you started another church," he told her. She had to be out of the church and turn in her keys by that Saturday.
That night, she sat on the edge of her bed, crying. She felt her connection with God had been severed.
"The whole bottom fell out of my life that night," she remembers. "I was just empty. I sat there thinking, 'I must've done something really bad.'" She wondered why it was so much worse to preach at a fledging non-AME church than it was to sexually harass an AME minister.
Saundra's cupboards were empty, and she hadn't been paid in three weeks. There was no money for groceries or for Christmas presents. There wouldn't be a tree. She called Bishop Byrd again, crying, and he wired her $500 to buy food.
In the following weeks, she had to explain to her son what had happened to her job and their church. On the night he had planned to go Christmas caroling with the youth group, he sat by the window with his coat on for an hour. She told him the church van wasn't coming, but he did not believe her. After that, Rickey Jr. was furious at Prince Albert Williams.
"I thought he was a friend of our family, but I guess not," says Rickey Jr., now fifteen. "That made me pretty upset. I saw how it hurt my mom."
Saundra soon accepted the offer to pastor the church formed by the members who had split off from Mariah Walker, and they named the church Community Fellowship Church of Jesus Christ. The small nondenominational church at 39th and Cleaver II Boulevard would not offer her anything comparable to the financial security she had at the AME church. But at least she could continue pastoring.
The stress of losing her church, hearing that people were speculating about why she had been dismissed and the secrets about the sexual harassment she had gone through were wearing on her. To help her get past it, in 1997 she started speaking to women's ministerial groups about her harassment, hoping to help other women who had been abused.
After one such talk, a woman who also was a minister approached her. The woman, the Reverend Brenda Smith, told her that twenty years earlier, when she was a young Sunday school teacher, Prince Albert Williams had grabbed her breast in the lobby of Allen Chapel -- the same church where he had grabbed Saundra's breast in 1996. Smith, too, had raised a fist in defense, but unlike Saundra, she had punched Williams.
Smith had been a member of the church from the time she was eight years old but was so traumatized by the assault that she stopped going to church for a while. After Smith began ministering and tried to get ordained in the AME church, she heard rumors that Prince Albert Williams was trying to block her ordination. She believed it was because, after all those years, he was angry that she had hit him.