When Pastor Dina Hubert appears on the raised platform of Cornerstone International Fellowship, the drum kit and electric keyboard are already hot. The congregation has been here in the little storefront church for over an hour, clapping and singing choruses led by a young man and two women who are both wearing orange. Handmade banners hang from the walls, proclaiming “Jesus is the Chief Cornerstone” and “Praise Him in Dance.”
Today is Ladies Sunday, which is why all the women in the room are wearing orange (“It’s just something we decided to do,” one of them says).
Pastor Dina is wearing a long black robe over her pink suit. Before the panel of mirrors that lines the front wall, she warms up her vocals and stomps her patent-leather shoes on the floor.
Backed by the keyboard and drums, she delivers an invocation that’s part musical solo, part half-time speech. She calls forward a woman who’s taken a seat in the back: “Please bring the prophet to the front. The prophet can’t be in the back. She can’t see!”
Pastor Dina emigrated to the United States from Panama thirty years ago, and her homeland is still in her speech. Noting that her mother was a preacher, Pastor Dina explains, “She trained me in the prophetic.” Her husband, Pastor R. Andy Hubert, is also from Panama. He plays the church keyboard on Sundays and cleans airplanes at JFK during the week. The two of them have been married for twenty-two years and have four children.
Pastor Andy says that God gave his wife a vision to name the church Cornerstone, and the couple founded the church four years ago.
Today, Pastor Dina is preaching from the Old Testament on how social foundations can get rocked by treachery. From an iPad perched on the pulpit, she reads from I Kings, chapter 18, the story of Queen Jezebel, who persuaded the king to slaughter the prophets of Israel, to worship a golden calf called Baal, and tried to kill Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in Jewish history. This is quite a jarring passage to cover on a Sunday morning.
The message here, says Pastor Dina, is about authority: the authority of parents over their children; the authority of prophets over kings; the authority of a pastor over her congregation.
Then, the sermon turns inward toward dealing with conflicts in the church.
What threatens the proper exercise of authority, she says, is “the spirit of Jezebel.” This spirit operates in anyone – man or woman – who seeks to manipulate, control, or undermine leadership.
“Jezebel’s specialty,” she says, “is to ensnare and convince people to follow her teachings, which would lead them to rebellion against God.”
The spirit of Jezebel is crafty, she warns. The spirit of Jezebel has the cunning of Judas in his betrayal of Jesus and the venom of a snake. Once infected with this spirit, members of a congregation may try to get close to the pastor, even while gossiping behind her back. They sound anointed, says Pastor Dina, but “by the time they finish talking to you, you are questioning whether you should belong to Cornerstone.” There were no sidelong glances in the audience, but, of course, one wonders what was going on. However, the threat seems more of a commentary on the problems that congregants face in the world at large than any specific problems that were noticeable within the congregation. Rather, the activities in the pew were those of a family get together.
In the pew in front of me, the mother of an infant passes her child to her neighbor. The child swaps laps several times before the service is over.
During the service, the pastors’ daughter Shakina Grace performs an interpretive dance to a song played over the crackly sound system.
A mother beams when Pastor Dina calls her forward and walks down the aisle at the end of the service to receive church membership.
Members of the congregation say that they are also thrilled to make this church their home. Keyisha Reed celebrates their joy in the church, writing on the church Facebook account this last August, “Indeed Pastor Dina always knows how to make us live, love, and laugh!”
A young woman named Sister Rifka joined the church two years ago, she says, because, “I knew that without God, I couldn’t make it on my own.”
Now, she attends weekly Bible studies and performs with the church’s dance troupe, Heaven’s Ladder Dance Studio. The group danced during the church’s community Soul Event in the summer. They handed out free clothing and food and evangelized in the street. Pastor Dina, she says, “is very passionate about souls coming to Christ.”
In light of today’s sermon, I ask Sister Rivka about prophets and prophecy. Prophecy, she says, is “God’s revelation through people. He’ll use an oracle who wouldn’t mind speaking what they hear God say.”
What has God revealed to this church?
“Our ministry is a move of God,” she says. “He’s here with us. He’s moving with us. This establishment was by God.” The small congregation draws confidence from the fact that the name and start of the church came in a revelation from God to Pastor Dina.
After about three hours, the service starts to draw to a close. Pastor Dina tells the congregation to pair up with someone nearby to pray. She asks us to pray to cast out the spirit of Jezebel.
Sister Itzel, who is seated in the row behind this reporter, takes my hands. The room starts to fills with voices.
Sister Itzel prays and then interrupts her prayer. “Excuse me,” she says.
She wants to give a word from the Lord to our Journey reporter.
“I feel like God’s trying to tell me that you’re afraid somebody’s watching you in your home,” she warns.
Truthfully, I reply that it’s never occurred to me that there might be an undermining presence at home. Sister Itzel listens.
At the front of the room, Pastor Dina is still revving in the pulpit while Pastor R.A. riffs on the keyboard.
Then, Sister Itzel resumes her prayers, but she has brought worry into the heart. I wonder, “Is she right? Have I at some time suspected that I’m under surveillance in my home? Am I under surveillance in my home?” The question made this reporter a little defensive.
From the pulpit, Pastor Dina provides some commentary to our prayers: “Jezebel comes to degrade the God in you, to make you doubt every decision you make.”
She explains, “A witch looks good; a witch wears a tie.” That seemed to let me off the hook. But the next claim rang psychology true to the moment. “A witch comes to change your mind about what God is saying to your life.”
The pastors lays out more warnings, “The spirit of Jezebel comes to kill. To divide you from your children and take your wife.” The women who have lost husbands listen attentively.
“If you don’t know the Word,” Pastor Dina advises, “you can’t fight that spirit.”
Pastor Dina closes out with an unusual altar call.
In the Gospels, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?,” it’s hard to know what he’s driving at. What sort of paranoia – or prescience – makes him look over his shoulder like that?
The pastor tells the congregants to learn from Jesus. The beleaguered leader of a new sect, tracked by the Pharisees, plagued by the scribes, and conspired against by someone among his disciples – is it possible he’s hoping to sniff out a rat?
Article done as part of a Journey Workshop with Bethel University.
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