Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude
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Black News and Black Views with a Whole Lotta Attitude

A New Interview With NYC's Most Controversial Bishop That You (May) Never See

I asked Bishop Lamor Whitehead about his robbery, his mental health and his lawsuits. Then the video mysteriously evaporated.

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Bishop Lamor Whitehead met with The Root last week, just days before his arrest on federal fraud charges.
Bishop Lamor Whitehead met with The Root last week, just days before his arrest on federal fraud charges.
Photo: Mary Altaffer (AP)

Bishop Lamor Whitehead strolled into The Root’s offices as he strolls everywhere: confidently, decked out in a tailored suit stitched together in a designer pattern. On this particular day—last Thursday—the pattern was Gucci, and his frame, about six feet or so, was consumed by it, from jacket and slacks (aquamarine) to belt (oversized double-g buckle) to eyewear (salmon frames).

Without too much preamble—we only had a half hour to interview him before Common showed up to plug his new Broadway effort—we sat down and started the process. There were ground rules, which any interviewer is leery of, but in this instance they worked: in exchange for a verbal commitment to just be fair to the man, Whitehead would answer any question we asked. Nothing—not his previous jail time, not the lawsuits in which he’s either the plaintiff or the defendant, not that infamous robbery in his own church (“I’m outside, they didn’t have to do that in the church,”) not even where he finds the money to support his flashy wardrobe (he owns real estate in Hartford, New York and elsewhere, he says)—was off limits.

I kept my end of the bargain, pulling no punches; he kept his and answered everything, though with a fair amount of filibustering and circular responses. There was a discussion of his mental health, which he brought up multiple times, unprompted. There was a discussion of his suicidal thoughts after he was robbed inside his church over the summer, which brought a wave of both notoriety and criticism of his flamboyant persona and his ministry.

There were tears, actual tears on the Gucci, during an exchange about the death of his father at the hands of NYPD officers when Whitehead was just an infant. There was a direct denial that he’d ever sold or been involved in drug activity, which is at the heart of his pending lawsuit against radio host Miss Jones. There was a full-throated denial of the allegations in a lawsuit filed by a former parishioner who says Whitehead scammed her out of a $90,000 retirement nest egg to make a deposit on a New Jersey mansion for himself. He never bought the home, says his arrangement with the woman was a business deal that didn’t obligate him to pay her back if things didn’t work out, and insisted she was never, ever a member of his church.

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It’s here that I have to pause for a note about journalism. Nothing is more important to an interview than timing. Not everyone has the same interview skills, but literally anyone can ask questions. What makes any sit-down relevant is its proximity to actual news, like when the late Ebony editor and National Association of Black Journalists president Bryan Monroe scored a sitdown with a reclusive Michael Jackson for the magazine’s December 2007 issue. Nobody knew that day that the King of Pop had only 18 months left to live, and that this sit-down would be his last with any U.S. media outlet.

Likewise, last Thursday was pretty unremarkable besides the wet, crappy Manhattan weather that left me nursing a cold I’m still fighting off. My expectation for the interview was that, at best, it’d be a good way to can some content for the slow news week coming between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. But nobody at the G/O Media studio had any idea that by Monday, Whitehead would be arrested by federal agents and charged with actual crimes related to the lawsuit he’d just talked to me about in detail. Now I was the last journalist to talk to him directly about the accusations, about his life and his ministry; all of a sudden, that interview was a lot more relevant, at the very least to readers who find themselves voyeuristic about the antics of somebody so colorful, and so shameless.

So of course your next question at this point is why are you reading my inexact recollection about a five-day-old interview instead of watching the actual thing? Bad luck and technology. In addition to Common and Whitehead, there were multiple other video shoots on the same day, a situation that normally calls for video to be immediately backed up to avoid it accidentally being recorded over, dumped or otherwise disposed of. But curiously, out of all of last Thursday’s shoots, the Whitehead interview never made it to the cloud. We’ve been told that every second of it has been lost, except that which I can recall from memory.

Given his newfound legal predicament, Whitehead might call that divine intervention. It’s generally a bad idea for defendants in federal criminal cases to put their defense on record before they make it to court. My first college journalism professor would probably have given me an F for not using my phone to at least secure an audio backup of the interview. As it stands, the result is the same.