Flock, friends split on pastor

Divided: Passions run deep about Joyce E. Perdue, who has been sentenced for her role in illegally bringing young Estonians into the state

Prison: A woman has been sentenced in the forced labor of Estonian immigrants .

August 15, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Joyce E. Perdue seemed to be conducting a sermon in federal court last month, holding her hands outstretched toward spectators, crying and pleading for forgiveness.

The emotional appeal didn't surprise those who know "Pastor Joyce." They said she often uses preaching -- its rhythms and tears -- to garner sympathy and capture attention.

Since the inception of the Word of Faith World Outreach church in Columbia in the late 1970s, Perdue has been its dynamic pastor, leading her flock down a path that ended in a federal courtroom.

Federal authorities and other detractors, including her daughter, portray Perdue as a pastor who used the pulpit to support a lavish lifestyle, including a mansion in western Howard County that also served as a church. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit visa and immigration fraud and was sentenced to 27 months in prison for her role in illegally bringing young Estonians to Maryland and, authorities say, exploiting them financially.

"My mother was looking for a way to make money," said Tracy Busch, 33, Perdue's daughter. "She's hurt people. So many people have seen how she acts and been turned off from the Lord."

Even as Perdue was sentenced, some supporters clung to a different image. Associate Pastor Robert C. Hendricks recalled the woman he met in the 1970s, when he was 17, searching for a better relationship with God: "She made the Bible come alive. She's a visionary."

Free pending an appeal, Perdue, 55, evokes images of Jesus' persecution to explain her feelings about the prosecution.

"I think it was a lynch mob," she said, "because we're believers."

The daughter of an engineer and housewife, she graduated from high school in Pennsylvania. She moved to Columbia when her father got a job at nearby Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Perdue made mistakes early on. She had an affair with a married man resulting in the birth of her daughter, Tracy.

Then she married an Army sergeant and was divorced nine years later. In 1977, she met Donald Perdue through a Christian singles group she founded. Within months, they were married and attending a Bible school in Oklahoma -- at her parents' expense.

They returned and established the Word of Faith in Columbia and began holding services at the Slayton House Interfaith Center.

After about two years, the church changed locations several times. The congregation grew to about 150. Perdue and her husband alternated services, with Perdue conducting emotional sermons one week and her husband holding a more subdued service the next.

Most former church members remember a constant drive for money as the church slowly grew.

By the mid-1980s, Perdue's dynamic personality and desire for control began clashing with her husband's, friends said. She removed her husband and took control of the pulpit. Perdue said her husband was suffering from severe depression and could no longer handle his obligations.

Eventually, the Perdues separated. The church fell into disarray, and members left for more stable congregations. Later, after mending their differences, the Perdues traveled to Estonia to preach and set up churches.

By 1992, the Perdues began drawing Estonians to services on the streets and in an auditorium.

In 1996, church leaders returned and began recruiting young Estonians. Church leaders say they wanted to teach the Estonians about God and send them back to build churches. The Estonians immigrated on religious and student visas, which prohibit work, but after arriving in 1997 they began laboring at menial jobs under contracts obtained by businesses controlled by church leaders.

After a stint at a small home in Severn, the group moved to a 10,000-square-foot home in Woodbine bought by Perdue's parents.

But the church's struggling cleaning and installation businesses weren't getting good contracts because Perdue had few corporate references. One friend suggested that Perdue and her laborers begin cleaning recently vacated apartments.

Perdue's daughter, Busch, was struggling with drug addiction and began living with her mother in Woodbine. Though Perdue says she acted out of compassion, Busch recalls another motive -- to help her mother make money. A few months earlier, Busch's boyfriend had given Perdue several contacts, Busch said.

Busch left Perdue's home and began contemplating whether to turn her mother in to authorities because of the dozen Estonians working illegally. Last summer, she called federal agents.

Agents with the Immigration and Naturalization Service watched the house and then approached an Estonian at a bookstore one morning. In August 1998, agents raided the home, and Perdue, Hendricks and church administrator Elizabeth Brown were indicted in December on immigration fraud charges.

The three pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit visa and immigration fraud in May. Hendricks received a two-year prison term and Brown one year in prison, with a recommendation that she be assigned to a halfway house.

Perdue no longer holds services for the public at her Woodbine home. She conducts a religious program on an AM radio station. She says her only crime was ignorance of immigration law.

"Only according to the will of God will I spend any time in prison," she said. "Only if God absolutely wills that. Of course, wherever I go in the future, no matter where I go, I'm ministering all the time."

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