“I tell people if I’m a drug dealer I’m very successful because I’ve lived on a hill for 22 years and I’ve never been arrested,” Lawrence said.
Added Darlene: “Lawrence never smoked a cigarette or had a drink of alcohol. He wouldn’t know a drug if it was right in his face.”
The rumors, ongoing sources of speculation on Internet message boards, demonstrate the passions that the Bishops stir in people. They are the objects of anger and scorn, adoration and devotion.
Reason for the rumors
Lawrence, 68, said he and his wife are controversial because of their strong stands against abortion and gay rights.
“We are not against (gays), but we are against lifestyles that go against the word of God,” he said. “If we don’t believe what he believes, we might as well turn that (church) building into a hay barn.”
Plenty of believers subscribe to the Bishops’ conservative, racially inclusive brand of Christianity. Solid Rock has some 3,500 members on the rolls, many of whom attend at least one of three weekly services in a sanctuary built for 2,100. While most area churches tend to draw either blacks or whites, Solid Rock claims a 50-50 racial mix. Services blend African-American gospel, country music, evangelical fervor and high-tech production values.
Nationally known R&B and gospel singer Shirley Murdock of Dayton said she was attracted to Solid Rock from her first visit, about 15 years ago. She became close friends with the Bishops, “my spiritual parents,” and starred with Darlene and two other women in a Christian cable TV program called “Sisters” from 2005-2009.
“It’s like what I imagine heaven must be,” Murdock said of Solid Rock. “Nobody cares what color you are, what clothes you wear, what’s your social status. (The Bishops) just really love God. People with great big hearts — that’s what I see when I see the Bishops.”
The couple met in a Hamilton church 50 years ago, when Lawrence was 17 and Darlene was 15. Two years later, Darlene dropped out of high school and married him.
Lawrence, who hails from tiny Zag, Ky., already was dealing in horses. Darlene was from a strict Pentecostal upbringing that forbade women from cutting their hair and using makeup.
Darlene said as newlyweds they lived in a one-room apartment without any plumbing and she worked in a music store for $14 a week while Lawrence got his business going. Over the years, the couple had four children.
By the mid-1970s, Lawrence’s business as a horse breeder and auctioneer was booming, but he said he was drifting away from God and his family. “I’d done well, but I wasn’t really happy.” One day, he said, he opened a Bible at random to Matthew 6:33: “(S)eek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” The incident rekindled his faith and, in 1978, the Bishops founded the Middletown Evangelistic Center, the forerunner to Solid Rock.
About the same time, Darlene said, there were news reports that authorities arrested some Texas ranchers on charges they were running drugs from Mexico. She said the rumors about drug involvement by the Bishops started then. A Butler County prosecutor’s spokeswoman said the Bishops have never been charged with any crime, and the county’s chief humane officer, Julie Holmes, said she has investigated several animal-cruelty complaints against the couple’s LB Ranch and found only healthy horses.
Church on the move
Outgrowing its Middletown building, Solid Rock in 1992 relocated to its sprawling campus off Interstate 75 in Monroe, right next to the Traders World flea market. The church features Spanish-style architecture similar to that of the LB Ranch across the highway.
Lawrence said he built the ranch over a period of years and it was financed by his horse business, not by church proceeds.
Located on 60 acres about 20 miles south of Dayton, Solid Rock Church isn’t tied to any denomination. The Bishops said they are ordained through the church, but not by any other religious order.
Lawrence said in a recent sermon that he won’t read USA Today because it’s too liberal and that America is “turning into a socialist country.” Many likenesses of the Bishops are in evidence at the church, including a photo of them with George W. Bush.
The gospel-tinged “Fire Choir” performs throughout the 90-minute service and the worshipers are on their feet most of the time, swaying and singing along.
Solid Rock has a sanctuary resembling a theater, complete with balcony, a gymnasium with electronic scoreboards, a weight room for the Firm Believers exercise group, a separate “children’s church,” a racquetball court and a coffee bar where people can buy the Bishops’ books, CDs, DVDs and other merchandise. The 62-foot King of Kings statue rose from a reflecting pond behind the Lawrence Bishop Music Theater, which features the Lawrence Bishop Band and has hosted artists including Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs. The church website says the athletic facilities and an arcade room are “available to tithing members.”
The Bishops encourage congregants to tithe — donate 10 percent of their earnings to the church — but say only about 25 percent do so. The Bishops said they are the biggest givers at the church.
Ron Carter, Solid Rock’s administrator, said more than 3,000 people attend three weekly services at the main church, which has annual revenues of $4.5 million to $5 million, with another 500 attending Solid Rock South east of Cincinnati, which has revenues of about $1 million. The church allocates no less than 20 percent of its revenues to mission work outside the church, including churches in the Philippines and an orphanage in Brazil, Carter said.
The Bishops began receiving salaries from the church about five years ago, he said. Those salaries aren’t reported publicly. But Internal Revenue Service forms filed by Darlene Bishop Ministries show that Darlene makes $250,000 a year for speaking engagements around the country. She said most of the proceeds go toward the Darlene Bishop Home for Life, a home for troubled women on the Solid Rock grounds.
Sharing the wealth
In 2007, the last year for which complete IRS records are available, Darlene Bishop Ministries made more than $1.3 million and paid salaries of $75,00-$84,350 to three of the Bishops’ adult children, Lawrence Bishop II, Julie Hooks and Renee Kim. Darlene said their salaries are paid by proceeds from merchandise sold at her speaking engagements. Gross profits for this merchandise in 2007 were almost $249,000. The couple’s remaining child, Jana Mitten, is a paid employee of Solid Rock, as is Julie Hooks’ husband, Leroy.
Lawrence and Lawrence II are musicians who receive honorariums for their own on-the-road ministries and sell music CDs.
IRS records show the trustees for Darlene Bishop Ministries are Darlene as president; Shawna Halsey, Darlene’s executive assistant at Solid Rock; and Darlene’s friend and secretary Arlene Parker, a former “Sisters” co-star. In a sworn deposition in a civil lawsuit over the death of her brother, Darlene said Parker is chief financial officer of Darlene Bishop Ministries, gets free room and board with the Bishops, and receives monthly donations from Solid Rock to Parker’s own ministry, called Answering the Call. IRS forms show Parker made $80,500 from Answering the Call in 2008.
While the Bishops’ ministries are a family affair, Darlene is locked in a bitter feud with adult children of her brother, Nashville hit songwriter Darrell Wayne Perry, who died of throat cancer May 15, 2005. Although the courts have ruled against them, the children continue to claim Darlene abused her position as executrix of Perry’s estate to deny them money while enriching herself and her immediate family. They also claim Darlene, who cared for Perry in her home in his last years, contributed to his death by encouraging him to seek faith-healing instead of medical treatment.
“She was jealous of my father because he was more successful than she was,” said Bryan Perry. “She thrives on fame and stardom and shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue. I’m ashamed that the same blood runs through our veins.”
In one of her books, Darlene claims God cured her of breast cancer in 1986. In the 2006 deposition, she acknowledged she was never medically diagnosed with the disease, but believes she had it. The Perry children alleged in a lawsuit that Darlene used that story to convince her brother to eschew medical care until it was too late.
Darlene said she encouraged Perry to see a doctor, but he refused. “All of (his children’s) accusations against me were not warranted.”
The feud was covered by media outlets from the New York Times to Geraldo Rivera.
“It hurt me. It hurt me tremendously,” she said of the rift and the four-year court battle that ensued. But “I’m not going to allow anything to make me bitter. My conscience is clear.”
Darlene said she is turning over the running of the estate to Perry’s son, Justin Jones, after a final court hearing on Monday.
The Bishops say they’re looking ahead. They’re raising funds to replace the bust of Jesus — their website includes a pitch for donations — and this time the statue will be full-bodied and made of limestone.
They also hope to continue to expand the Solid Rock congregation.
“Every service, we see lives change,” Darlene said. “That’s our heart, to help people.”
Staff Writer Denise Wilson contributed to this report.
Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2264 or tbeyerlein@Dayton DailyNews.com.