MY hometown has made some unique contributions to American religious history.
Here in Detroit, Elijah Muhammad took the helm of the Nation of Islam after its founder disappeared in the 1930s. Muhammad is recognized with a street that carries his name. Similarly, Malcolm X, who became spokesman for the Nation of Islam during the 1950s and 1960s and is now recognized as one of the most significant black thinkers of modern time, is immortalized through Detroit s Malcolm X Academy grade school and Malcolm X Boulevard, which runs through nearby Highland Park.
Anyone familiar with his best-selling book The Autobiography of Malcolm X should recall that the fiery minister was once known as Detroit Red for the time he spent hustling in and around the community.
Lesser known, but equally intriguing, was the Rev. James F. Prophet Jones, who could reportedly speak amazing truths before they happened; attracted church members by the thousand; lived in a three-story, 54-room Detroit mansion, and owned five Cadillacs during the 1940s and 1950s.
At some point before their deaths, each of these men shared three things in common: access to wealth, influence over the minds and hearts of people, and contact with the criminal justice system.
Perhaps this is why I was more or less unfazed when I moved to Toledo in 1994 and later met the Rev. Slim. A native of Memphis, Charles Marvin Slim Lake followed his mother, Mary, this way in the 1970s and later evolved as a Gunckel Park street preacher.
Reverend Slim or Rev, as he is called by members of God s Church of the Streets, which he founded in 1990, follows in the path of nontraditional religious figures like Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm, Prophet Jones, Father Divine, Sweet Daddy Grace, and others who gained appeal through their flair for delivering the gospel.
An admitted former crack addict and dealer, who has been arrested numerous times, Lake started his ministry after he and a group of homeless folks were kicked out of a Toledo Baptist church.
Apparently tired of tolerating their unsettling presence among the suit-and-fancy-hat-wearing Christians every Sunday, this congregation supported the hiring of armed security guards who denied admission to him and his friends one winter morning.
Driven by the miracle he witnessed, in which his best friend Donald Jones was saved from death after Lake accidentally shot him, and determined to worship God that day, Reverend Slim was born. The self-proclaimed minister, who had grown up attending church and felt called to preach, began feeding the hungry and teaching them scripture in the park. By his count, they missed fewer than 10 Sundays in as many years.
As a Blade reporter until 1998, I interviewed Reverend Slim more than any other staff writer and occasionally dropped in unannounced at Sunday service or at the church headquarters in North Toledo. I watched men and women walk in off the streets and get money to pay bills, with little more than a grumble from Rev that they often hadn t re-paid their last pledges.
Despite occasional noise complaints about the outdoor services and what he called harassment from the city about licenses and permits, it was not terribly uncommon to see police patrolmen stopping to shake hands or share a laugh with Reverend Slim a man they believed did less harm than good to their community.
So it isn t difficult to understand why the story of God s Church of the Streets remains a mixed parable. With his recent fraud and loan-sharking convictions in Bowling Green, those who ve always dismissed him as a con man will likely continue to do so.
It s only right to consider, however, that Christian scriptures are filled with examples of imperfect men and women who were still used to perform the Creator s will, people not so different from Malcolm, Prophet Jones, or Reverend Slim. King David, a man after God s own heart, sent a soldier to die in battle so he could lie with the soldier s wife. Noah built the ark but also got drunk. Conversely, Rahab, the prostitute helped hide God s servants from their enemies.
Malcolm X was in prison for burglary before he led thousands of blacks off the streets and into mosques. Prophet Jones was accused of gross indecency but inspired his followers to maintain good health and discipline. Rev. Slim has a criminal history, yet he connects with recovering addicts, single mothers, and poor folks better than any other minister I ve observed.
While many of the most controversial religious figures have attracted questions about their use of money, Reverend Slim is known mainly for handing it out. Anyone who s ever seen his ancient God s Church of the Streets van or bus knows it isn t spent on vehicles, and the assistant prosecutor who accused him of buying houses never proved her charge. In contrast, it s not hard to find anywhere from five to 10 people waiting around after his Sunday service to be paid for their day s contribution.
No collection plate is passed; these are poor folks.
Reverend Slim once told me the cost of paying for help, buying groceries to feed dozens, and renting heat generators during the winter, before the church left Gunckel Park for 1043 Hamilton St., but I won t repeat it. I ve heard too many individual testimonies about how the ministry changes lives, and I wouldn t want to contribute to skepticism.
A hustler s only as good as the people he can trick, yet no dollar figure can trick a belly into thinking its full or a user into thinking she s drug-free.
Reverend Slim is the first to confess that his recent conviction is a result of sloppy paperwork, lacking the appropriate 501c3 status to hold fund-raisers but not committing fraud. The loan-sharking allegation came from a woman who he says took cash she never intended to pledge back to the church.
It ain t my money anyway, he says. It s God s money. I just distribute.
Reverend Slim is used to hearing doubts from those who don t believe such statements. He knows his approach to the ministry is different but calls it necessary, saying that Jesus Christ cared most for those who were forgotten or hated by society.
Although critics don t compare him to Jesus, Reverend Slim believes open minds can focus on his deeds, not just his methods. After hearing guilty verdicts in Bowling Green, he was, nonetheless, gratified that Wood County Common Pleas Court Judge Reeve Kelsey allowed him to remain free on bond until his Sept. 27 sentencing.
This man is a pillar in his community, Judge Kelsey said.
That s what God s Church of the Streets calls an open mind.
Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a former Blade staff writer now living and working as a freelance reporter in Detroit.