And a preacher, searching for words to express the grief of the congregation, spoke tenderly, then emotionally, about their longtime bishop, now lying in an open casket before them.
“He was not a weak man, but he was a meek man,” Apostle C.D. Baptist told a swaying crowd that numbered in the thousands. “I speak of precious, precious, precious `Daddy’ Madison! Clap your hands and give God the glory!”
At that, what had started as a somber goodbye to Bishop S.C. “Precious Daddy” Madison by members of Charlotte’s United House of Prayer for All People kicked into a joyous, night-long celebration of his 17 years as their spiritual leader and father-figure.
Madison, who was born in Greenville, S.C., lived in Charlotte as a teenager and pastored one of his first churches in Salisbury, died Saturday at 86. Since his election in 1991, he had led the predominantly African American denomination that has about 1.5 million members in 25 states.
Charlotte’s ornate 57,000-square-foot Mother House, its entrance draped in black curtains and ribbons, was the second stop in a cross-country procession that started Wednesday in Augusta, Ga., and moves tonight to Newport News, Va.
On Saturday, mourners in New York City will line up across from the fabled Apollo Theater to view Madison’s body at the Mother House at 125th Street and Eighth Avenue — known to United House of Prayer members as “Honey Harlem Heaven.”
The Monday funeral will be at God’s White House, the denomination’s church in Washington.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police estimated that more than 5,000 mourners were on hand Thursday night to file past the casket and get their last glimpse of Madison at the church on Beatties Ford Road.
Most squeezed into the huge sanctuary, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, as the brassy “shout” bands played and choirs sang. Others gathered in an overflow chapel one floor below, watching the service on closed-circuit TV. Still others lined up outside to wait their turn to see Madison, dressed in gray bishop’s garb, his bearded face and the gold crucifix around his neck visible under the glass atop the casket.
United House of Prayer officials asked reporters not to interview mourners, but Lonnie Harry, 61, wearing white gloves and a fez identifying him as an usher, looked like he wanted to talk about his loss.
“An awesome man … one of the people you should meet in life,” said Harry, a truck driver who’s been attending the United House of Prayer all his life. “When I heard he passed, it was a hurting thing. Like losing a mother or a father.”
During the service, Madison’s image was everywhere — on the hand-held fans, on ribboned buttons worn by some of the women, in the programs, and framed on walls, hanging next to the only other two bishops the Pentecostal-style Christian denomination has had.
United House of Prayer for All People was founded in 1919 in Massachusetts by Bishop C.M. “Sweet Daddy” Grace. A native of the Cape Verde Islands and former cranberry picker, Grace was a charismatic and controversial figure whose first followers were poor country blacks emigrating to the city, looking for a church home. Over time, Grace, who had shoulder-length hair, amassed coffers bulging with $25 million.
Even today, the United House of Prayer pays cash to build its many churches, including the Charlotte Mother House, estimated to have cost between $10 million and $12 million.
Before Thursday’s service, a trio of ministers speaking for the denomination said they still don’t know the cause of Madison’s death.
“He died in his sleep,” said Apostle Zane Crawford, a pastor in Detroit who attributed it to exhaustion from traveling nonstop at an advanced age.
He got sick shortly after spending Easter Sunday in Charlotte and Easter Monday in Salisbury, Crawford said.
A successor will be elected — after 30 days of official mourning — during a May general assembly in Washington.
The likeliest candidate: Apostle C.M. Bailey of Augusta, Ga. He was appointed by Madison to be the denomination’s senior minister — a title Madison himself had when he was elected to succeed Bishop W. “Sweet Daddy” McCollough.
On Thursday, the ministers wanted to talk about Madison’s accomplishments — including building more than 100 sanctuaries and offering spiritual nourishment to his flock.
Said Crawford: “This bishop and the other bishops we’ve had — our daddies — have in some incredible way made themselves available to every single member of the church.”