The Lord's Player
The Rev. H.H. Lusk gave his church 40 years. His church forgives his 18 felony charges.
Thursday, December 6, 2001
Today is Sunday, Nov. 18, and it''s Lusk''s 40th Pastoral Anniversary party. The scores of families from Lusk''s congregation who show up at Seaside''s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, and the scores of others who follow their own pastors from nearby churches, all of them are here for Lusk and his wife Bettye, the First Lady of Bethel.
It''s 3pm and the hundreds haven''t shown up yet as the Anniversary Committee and other volunteers set up for the big day. Pastor Lusk, dressed in a double-breasted light gray suit, is shuffling around in the back of the church unfolding metal chairs and setting them in rows. He''s in a room off to the rear of the high-ceilinged church sanctuary. The wide sliding doors that partition off the more cramped back room are spread wide for the huge crowd that is expected. Lusk fills the void with every sort of chair on hand: folding metal chairs, cushioned chairs with wheels, office chairs, plain wooden chairs.
"Get ready, there''s gonna be a lot of people here today," he says.
Two other men are pushing chairs into the room from down a hallway near the kitchen. One of them, the church band percussionist and Lusk''s godson, Cameron, asks, "You think that''s it, Pastor?"
"I want them all," he says. "You want them all?" Cameron asks. "I want them all," Lusk replies. With that, Cameron goes back down the hallway to look for more chairs.
The plan had been for Pastor Lusk to hold a press conference prior to the anniversary celebration. That''s what the faxed invitation had said. But the pastor was particularly sheepish as he unfolded the chairs, and he soon leaves the set-up crew and heads for his office tucked up on the second floor. He doesn''t wait for the press. It''s soon clear why.
One of Lusk''s inner circle, Shalon Thomas, has arrived. Her family goes way back with Lusk. It seems there''s been a problem with the press interviews. The pastor''s Los Angeles lawyer, David Dudley, found out about the press conference plan and put the kibosh on it.
Earlier in the fall, when Lusk was in the midst of a preliminary hearing at Superior Court in Salinas, Dudley had allowed the press to talk to the pastor provided they didn''t ask any questions specific to his case. After all, Pastor Lusk faces serious felony charges. If convicted, prison is distinctly possible.
Shalon Thomas says it may be OK to talk to the pastor informally, but the press conference with the television news cameras and all that is canceled.
The reticence is understandable. The district attorney''s office spent five days in court in September and October building a case against Pastor Lusk. While the church family prepared for the anniversary party, deputy District Attorney Joe Buckalew was preparing a detailed brief full of reasons why Lusk should be put on trial. The brief was filed in Superior Court on Nov. 26. The court transcript is already more than 800 pages long.
The state has accused Lusk--a community leader, civil rights activist, long-time power-broker and beloved church patriarch--of being a fraud and a thief. He faces 18 felony counts. His home, office and the church were raided for evidence in July. Among other things, investigators reportedly found a .38 revolver in the pastor''s safe.
Prosecutors have accused him of lining his pockets with $1 million in taxpayer money meant for youngsters in the childcare program that''s been run as an offshoot of the church since 1968. They say he crafted a crooked deal using public money from the state Dept. of Education to acquire a big, fancy S500 Mercedes Benz, then made a deal to use the car as collateral for an equity loan, which he pocketed.
Beyond the charges of small-time corruption, prosecutors also allege that Lusk allowed the non-profit status of the child care center to be used to acquire significant parcels of subsidized housing in southern California, which were then sold for millions over three years in the late ''90s.
At the beginning of the proceedings, prosecutors dropped a bombshell. They said Lusk tried to hire a hitman to kill three witnesses. They said that when he couldn''t find any killers in the Monterey area, he sought assassins in Los Angeles. Although he has not been charged, investigators found enough to convince a county judge to freeze Lusk''s assets.
One of the three witnesses, in a separate civil court action, has filed a sexual harassment suit against Lusk. She claims the pastor, her employer, ordered her to fellate him and threatened to fire her if she wouldn''t.
But today, at the Pastoral Anniversary, all talk is of the 40 years he''s led this church. Over that time, he says, he''s helped people pay rent when they fell behind; he''s bought shoes for little kids so their self-esteem wouldn''t be damaged; he''s inspired awe in Jesus Christ.
His good works gave him power. He met with Martin Luther King, Jr. He monitored voting in South Africa. He''s got Nelson Mandela''s autographed photo. He met with President Clinton. He received the Congressional Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Community, State and Nation from Rep. Sam Farr.
All the years of glory and love and all the excitement of the Pastoral Anniversary might obscure the looming trouble that awaits him in court--and maybe prison--but for the theme of the day''s proceedings, which is printed on the bottom of the event program:
"When the odds are against you and the call comes." (Ephesians 6:13)
Lusk likes to say that when he showed up in Seaside in 1961, the town was nothing but "sand dunes and shacks and jackrabbits." The black community of the Peninsula was segregated in a small patch of Seaside. It was poor. There were no full-time black schoolteachers. No black salespeople. No black banktellers. Most folks were in the Army at Fort Ord or working in the laundry or mess hall at Fort Ord.
Forty years later, a vast church family has grown and prospered. Today, they''ve come to show their thanks, support, devotion and love. As they walk through the front door off Imperial Street they are met with a large wooden cross, with the words "I will be lifted. Gather all men," carved into it. Tacked to the walls in the hallway are small biographical posters of Wynton Marsalis, Michael Jordan and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Another sign reads, "This is the House that Faith Built."
The schedule for the party covers two whole pages in the spiral-bound program. Gospel music consumes the bulk of the schedule. Introduced by their respective pastors, seven visiting choirs are to sing two songs apiece. The singing groups, a mix of old and young, have come from Baptist churches in Seaside, Salinas, Marina, Monterey and Pacific Grove.
One group, in yellow and blue gowns, lines up and greets comers filing through the foyer. Soon the church is bursting with worshippers. Beside the choir groups, a very large church family is gathering, as if for a reunion. Everybody knows one another. Nobody can walk three feet without a smile and a wave or a hug and a kiss or a handshake and a few words.
It''s a swirl of motion of families and women with babies on hip, of teenage girls in packs of three and four and toddlers who scamper around, circle back then break out again. Young men in plaid shirts and afros loiter in the back. Kindergartners perch calmly on the folding chairs with slightly smaller children on their laps.
White-gloved ushers with nametags keep control of the foot traffic passing through the open spaces. When there''s praying, which tends to be loud and sustained, the ushers shut the doors and keep the sanctuary still.
One of them is a middle-aged man named John Farve who regards Lusk like a father. In October, when he heard the Weekly wanted to talk to his pastor, he sat in on the interview with five or six others. He didn''t speak at all until the very end. When he did he said that when he was a boy Lusk watched over him. The Pastor showed him care. Because of Lusk, he said, "I always knew I had a home."
Another supporter, Kevin Logan, joined the church five years ago after 18 years in the Navy. He loves the Pastor not so much for what he''s done for him but for his sisters. Logan''s family has lived on the Peninsula for 22 years. All four of his sisters worked for Operation Shoe-Strings. Because of the opportunity they had, Logan says one has gone on to become a sports nutritionist and another runs her own childcare center in Las Vegas. For Logan it''s Lusk''s guidance that made these good things happen.
He says few in the flock have "cut and run" since the Pastor''s trouble began. The believers have stuck by their leader. Logan is proud of the church and of his Pastor.
As for the embezzlement charges, Logan doesn''t believe them. "It''s just not in him to take food out of a child''s mouth," he says.
In the good seats up front are the older ladies, dressed in the best of Sunday best clothes of bright colors and ornate hats. Many of them arrive with a pocketbook on one arm and a Bible and a tambourine under the other.
With a long black plume in her hat is Joann Price. She was born and raised in Pacific Grove after her mother moved to the God-fearing enclave in 1928. Price has attended some of Lusk''s court proceedings, and she showed up to rally for him at Seaside City Hall on an evening back in late September.
Price, who is 64, recalls that as a girl she couldn''t get into the Monterey chapter of the Girl Scouts. Now, because of Lusk''s leadership, she says, blacks have opportunity where there was none. "Now we can work anywhere we want, if we qualify," she says.
Price raised five children on her own in Seaside, where she''s lived since 1955. She''s known Lusk for all the 40 years he''s lived here. She worked as the administrative secretary for Operation Shoe-Strings from 1968 to 1982.
"He has helped me several times," she says. "He gave me money for food. He gave me money for my gas and light bill. He gave me money for rent. He''s my pastor and that''s what pastors do. They help people in need."
She says when she was young she believed ministers could do no wrong. But she''s learned they''re human, that everybody makes mistakes. She says she finds the corruption charges against Lusk "incredible," but says: "We don''t know. Only him and God knows." About the sexual harassment claim and the hitman accusation, she says: "That''s a bunch of crap."
All the attention paid to the expensive Mercedes doesn''t bother her either. "My pastor has always had nice cars," she says. "When he came here 40 years ago, he came here in a Cadillac."
A television reporter has shown up. He wants to talk to Lusk but Lusk is upstairs. The reporter had gotten word about the press conference but not the word that it had been canceled. His cameraman sets up in a front corner while the reporter waits on a folding chair in the back.
It''s too late. The church is full and a singer cries out, "Oh how I love Him!" As the singer pauses, a voice calls out to him from the back of the sanctuary, "Take your time!" The energy in the room flows together. Those on the altar are urged and encouraged by those out in the seats.
The singer goes on, "I adore Him! I love Him!"
Lusk appears through a door on the right of the sanctuary and walks across to the other side. The TV reporter gets up to follow him. But Lusk and his wife are immediately escorted down the aisle by church members. Everyone stands and claps as they are walked down toward the altar.
They vanish off to the left. It will be hours before Lusk addresses the gathering. A deacon has taken the microphone. "This is a great moment in history to be alive today," he says. "Despite what''s going on on earth, God is still alive and doing well, extremely well. Just look around. Our pastor has been with us through thick and thin. Our lives have been made richer by him. If you live on this Peninsula, you have been touched by either her or him. Now it''s time to give it up and show some love and gratitude."
The love and gratitude are vast and deep and have stamina. Through the night, the singing gains and gains momentum. With each successive choir, when it seems like a song has reached a climax, it builds further. Taken by the rapture, singers on the altar and in the pews gesture in ecstasy. Young women with long, tightly braided hair stand up with hands raised and eyes closed but turned to the sky, smiling brightly. "Set me free! I love Him!" they sing.
Some older women and men stand up and wave with both hands, shaking their heads. Some open and close their hands, as if to grab some of the glory that rolls from the altar in booming waves. The energy and sound are impossible to witness and at the same time harbor any ill will in your heart. How could you? Everyone is smiling. Everyone is overflowing with joy. It''s all positive and hopeful and optimistic.
And full of dread. Pastor Lusk is in big trouble and everyone knows it. The charges against him are serious and ex-tensive.
The complaint filed in Superior Court on Aug. 3 contains 18 felony counts. The charges include forgery, grand theft, embezzlement, falsification of accounts, filing false tax returns and conspiracy. The complaint is the result of a year-long investigation and was revealed in July when Lusk''s home and offices were raided. Newspaper articles at the time portrayed a bewildered Lusk and his stunned family.
According to court testimony, the state Department of Education, which regulates Operation Shoe-Strings, found some irregularities during an annual audit. An investigation began, a complaint was filed and Lusk was arraigned in August in Salinas. He pleaded innocent and hired the Los Angeles attorney David Dudley.
In the 17-page complaint, the case against Lusk is laid out in 64 examples of "overt acts." Prosecutors allege that from July 1996 until June 2000, Lusk inflated the number of children enrolled in Operation Shoe-Strings. The complaint says children were reported to have spent more time at the facility than they did--kids who spent half a day at the facility were said to be there all day. From 1996 to 2000, the complaint alleges, this scheme resulted in $866,283 in overpayment by the state to Lusk''s organization.
The prosecution also claims that Lusk overcharged the state $100,800 for rent for the childcare center. That money was put in the church checking account, which Lusk and only Lusk controlled. The money was then allegedly directed "to himself and others for Lusk''s personal benefit and use."
In 1998, the state says, Lusk applied to the state department of education for $177,000 to pay for a mobile building for the childcare center. In 2000, he received $70,200 from the state. Some of that money then was allegedly transferred to other accounts. Some of the money intended by the state for housing kids was alleged to be used for childcare center payroll.
In 1999, some $50,000 from the Operation Shoe-Strings account was allegedly moved to a non-public corporate account. On the same day, Feb. 9, 1999, the state says, Lusk wrote a $50,000 check on the corporate account for a $50,000 cashier''s check, made out to Autobahn Motors in the South Bay Area. The complaint says "Lusk tendered the $50,000 cashier''s check to Autobahn Motors for the purchase of a 1995 Mercedes S500."
Then in May, "Lusk arranged with Cardinale Motors to ''refinance'' the 1995 Mercedes," according to the complaint. Cardinale Motors is alleged to have "represented to a finance company that the 1995 Mercedes was being sold by Cardinale Motors to Lusk, when, in fact, Cardinale Motors never owned the 1995 Mercedes."
From that transaction Lusk allegedly took a $27,662 check from the finance company, got a $3,400 refund from Cardinale for the down payment, another $2,542.18 refund for tax and license costs, all of which was put in Lusk''s personal bank account, except for the $9,662.82 he sliced off the top as cash. In one of the murkier aspects of the case against Lusk, the state alleges that from December 1997 to July 2000 he allowed the non-profit status of Operation Shoe-String (OSSI) to be used "to secure mortgage loans for the purchase of HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) properties in Southern California." The com- plaint says that "OSSI, through Lusk, obtained title to over 50 real estate properties," without notifying either the department of education or the state tax board.
In 1997/98, the state says, Lusk made property sales of $729,000 through HUD. In 1998/99 it was sales of $3,743,000 and in 1999/00 the state says he generated sales of $3,261,772. For using the OSSI name, the state says Lusk was paid thousands of dollars by a partner in southern California named J.W. Smith.
Finally the complaint alleges that during 1997 to 2000, some $50,000 in payroll checks, payable to an employee, "were never received by the employee nor otherwise accounted for." The same arrangement was alleged to have been undertaken with another employee, for $25,000.
Contacted last week, the District Attorney''s office won''t talk beyond what''s in the public record and what transpired in court. It''s a policy county prosecutors have to protect the rights of the people they''re pursuing.
Lusk''s attorney David Dudley is not so silent. He says his client may be guilty of sloppy accounting but not of any felonies.
"He''s a man who''s completely innocent of any criminal charge," Dudley says. "Innocent people are prosecuted and prosecuted vehemently everyday in this country."
Should this case go to trial, Dudley promises Pastor Lusk will take the stand.
The music goes on and on until offering time. Again the deacon takes the microphone: "The only sound you should be making is with the pocketbook in your hand."
The ushers begin conveying sections of the church up the altar, each person gripping a check or a collection envelope. The deacon says, "It''s not a sense of duty but love."
In the biggest announced gift of the night, Bishop W.W. Hamilton of the Victory Temple in Seaside drops what''s said to be a $10,000 check into the brass dish.
"It is more blessed to give than receive," says the deacon.
Soon the evening reaches the point where Pastor Lusk''s most famous son, Herbert H. Lusk Jr., is to take the pulpit. He''s the featured speaker, and the event program includes a brief biography on one of Monterey''s most cherished sports heroes.
Herbert is the famous "Praying Running Back" who played for the Phi- ladelphia Eagles from 1976 to 1979 and earned his nickname for kneeling in the endzone after each of his touchdowns. He''s now the pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia. A friend of President George W. Bush, he''s somewhat of a national figure for his speech on faith-based initiatives at the 2000 Republican National Convention.
As it turns out, Herbert Jr. wasn''t able to make his father''s 40th Anniversary party. He says he wasn''t able to attend because of the deaths of two prominent members of his congregation, which he says numbers 2,000 from an original 17 back in 1982. He says it was his father''s teachings that told him to stay with his flock. "Everything good I know, I''ve learned from him."
Instead of Lusk of Philadelphia speaking, Pastor Fleetwood Irving of the Second Baptist Church in Vallejo takes the pulpit and leads the church into a long fiery diatribe, flavored with song and chorus, that compares Lusk to a "good soldier."
"Can I get an eyewitness?" is the refrain.
Lusk stands off to the side, smiling broadly. Everybody is smiling.
Irving has everyone whipped into a fury and the church is singing together at the tops of its lungs. Irving has his jacket off. "God has smiled on me. He has been good to me! Yeahh! Yeahhhh!" the organ cranks up and whips Irving into a finale that finally winds down a performance of many false endings.
Irving''s conclusion marks the end for many in the church. Folks start to file out. In a few minutes the room has only a fraction of those it did more than four hours ago when it all started. There are big gaps in the pews that not long ago were packed with women fanning themselves ceaselessly.
It''s 7:55 at night and Lusk finally takes the pulpit.
But before he can speak, his wife Bettye does, from off to the side of the altar. It''s hard to hear, even in the nearly empty church. Babies in the back cry.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being here today...there''s no other place I''d rather be," she says.
Then Lusk speaks, in a tone so low that women sitting near the rear of the sanctuary help each other with the parts they hear. "What did he say?" they ask and whisper back and forth.
He speaks in fragments. He is clearly humbled. "I''m sincerely honored to be your minister, your pastor, your friend," he says. "I make no promises to anyone but God...I''ve started all over again."
"I don''t want to be rich. I don''t want to be famous. I just want to be close to the Lord...I''ve learned more about God in the last six months than I have in the last 40 years.
"Nobody could have taught me this lesson but God...He strips you of all your pride. He strips you of everything."
So quiet. Growls.
Lusk''s is a solemn anticlimax to the otherwise rollicking night.
He taps his chest and says, "I know who I am...I thought I was smart but I was stupid...I''m not the same as I used to be. You can talk to me now."
Then he stops and turns to one of the pastors behind him, who takes the microphone and says, "Pastor Lusk has asked us to pray for him. I know the hour is late. It may be our last time. I don''t know."
With that the other pastors surround Lusk at the center of the altar and put their arms on his shoulders, arms and chest. Off the altar to the left, the pastors'' wives form a ring around Bettye. They have their heads down. A player starts on the piano.
Another pastor takes the microphone and begins to pray at a fast clip. As they do, Lusk sways side to side with his eyes closed, the other pastors standing still and supporting him while one leading prayer calls on God.
"...In your name, Father. In your name, Father. You will hear every prayer in the name of Jesus..." And Lusk sways back and forth, eyes closed.
In early January , David Dudley will be back in a Salinas courtroom arguing with the county prosecutor Joe Buckalew over whether Pastor Herbert Hoover Lusk deserves to be put on trial for embezzlement, forgery and conspiracy.
And then it will all be about him again.