A registered sex offender serving as a pastor has been allowed to continue preaching at his Florida church and children are being turned away from services because he legally cannot be near them. Members of the local community insist the pastor's status means he has no business in the pulpit.
The situation is causing a great deal of controversy in the community, as many are outraged that the pastor, Darrell Gilyard, who was convicted and served a three-year sentence for abusing a 15-year-old girl in 2009 and sending lewd text messages to another, is still allowed to lead the congregation at Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
He can have no contact with minors, however, until he enrolls or completes a sex offender therapy program in order to be granted even supervised contact with minors.
This is why his sermons are "adult only" and parents are forced to leave their children at home if they want to attend services.
"We came because the children who we should be teaching and preaching cannot come out today," said Mikhail Muhammad, the leader of the New Black Panther party, a group of protesters who want Gilyard, who was only released from prison in December, to leave the church.
"The black ministers in the city of Jacksonville ought to be ashamed of themselves. How can you say you're a follower of Christ but you won't stand up and speak out against this injustice?," Muhammad asked. There have been several "ugly exchanges" between church-goers and protesters, the Guardian reported, as many are divided over whether a man convicted of such a crime deserves to preach in front of a congregation again.
"No minister, if guilty of sexual improprieties, especially with underage children, should ever be allowed to stand behind the sacred desk again. Let the truth be found and let justice be done," said pastor Jerry Vines, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Vines, along with Paige Patterson, a Texas seminary president, helped groom Gilyard into the ministry, a Jacksonville.com article reported. The convicted pastor had preached once on the Rev. Jerry Falwell's television ministry and another time from the pulpit of the denomination's annual convention, which helped him rise in prominence.
While in his 20s, Gilyard pastored Victory Baptist Church in Texas, one of the nation's 10 fastest-growing congregations, but left in 1993 after he was accused of sexual impropriety.
He then went on to Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, which had to settle a sexual misconduct allegation against him in 1996.
Despite his past, Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church has felt a beneficial effect from restoring Gilyard to the pulpit. His first service in January drew an estimated 150 people, up from a regular attendance of only five to 10, with dozens attending the most recent service on Sunday. Before being sent to jail, Gilyard reportedly spent 14 years preaching to thousands at Jacksonville's Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.
However, the accusations against Gilyard extend further than his conviction of abusing the 15-year-old girl. According to the Guardian's report, in 2004, Gilyard also admitted that he had fathered a child with a woman who had accused him of raping her during a counseling session – however, the pastor was never charged with a crime.
A website titled "Let's stop pastor darrell gilyard together," created by Tiffany Thigpen Croft, a wife and mother from Jacksonville, offers a long series of sexual crimes allegedly levelled against the pastor.
"We have a convicted, confessed, and known child/woman abuser. A man that used his position for 3 decades to manipulate his way into positions of trust and to ultimately become sexually perverse with girls and women. Not only did he seduce some, but let's not forget that he took (by rape) from those that said no," Croft writes in a blog post.
"He twisted young girls into thinking he was the 'only one' that could really love them, sending text messages, 'counseling' with them behind closed doors, calling at odd hours...to young, innocent, naive, young teen girls. And he forever has altered the course of their lives...please do not underestimate the damage that has been done to hundreds (over 3 decades)," she adds.
The blog acknowledges that Gilyard is considered a talented pastor who speaks well at sermons, but Croft questions the ethics behind allowing a man accused and convicted of sexually abusing a teen to influence the community again.
Gilyard has defended himself against such claims, stating in a text message to Florida Times Union that everyone deserves a second chance.
"Somehow I will prove that life isn't over when one has committed a crime for which he receives this heinous label," Gilyard said. "You don't have to languish on the fringes of society."
He also shared fears he had over returning to ministry, recognizing that his presence at the church might cause tensions in the community.
"I'm happy to have that dark part of my life over," he concluded.
There was no representative from Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church available for comment at the time of press.