Divine Wrath

By Michele McPhee | Boston Magazine |

Eugene Rivers is famous for talking tough. But now the pugnacious minister is accused of going well beyond idle threats. How he crossed the line—and why he’s planning to leave the post that helped propel him to power.


The two men were standing over Gerald Jones when the transit police arrived. Jones was already on the ground, his face covered in blood, as he was kicked and punched again and again. Jones would later tell police that he’d simply been crossing the catwalk at the Ashmont T station when he was jumped. One of the alleged assailants, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound man named Melvin Minard, had pulled out a knife, according to a police report, and warned Jones that if he didn’t keep his mouth shut, he was going to die. A confidential MBTA police report filed later that day states that Minard had delivered another message to Jones: “This is for Eugene.”

The Eugene in question, Jones would later tell transit police investigators when they interviewed him at the hospital, was the Reverend Eugene F. Rivers III, architect of the fabled Boston Miracle and founder of the Ella J. Baker House, a Dorchester nonprofit that, among other things, pairs at-risk youth in need of mentoring with former offenders who have seen the light. Offenders like Melvin Minard, who was employed as a Baker House youth advocate on the afternoon in October 2004 when he allegedly assaulted Gerald Jones, sending him to the Boston Medical Center. Jones told the police he was convinced that Rivers himself had set him up for the attack, which has gone unreported until now.

The beating, Jones believed, was retribution for a complaint he’d filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in 2002. A repeat offender recently released from his latest stretch in jail, Jones was living with other ex-convicts in a halfway house on Columbia Road that was used to help reintegrate former prisoners into society. In his MCAD complaint, Jones claimed that Rivers had kicked him out of the house because he was a Muslim. Being forced out of the residential program, Jones wrote, had left him homeless. In a Globe article published at the time, Rivers denied any official connection to the halfway house and called the accusation “groundless.” The commission ultimately dismissed Jones’s complaint.

Rivers hung up on me when I contacted him for this article; his wife, Jacqueline C. Rivers, leader of the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation, an outgrowth of the local antiviolence movement that Rivers and other Boston clergy started, also told me her husband would have no comment.

Rivers, who spent time in a Philadelphia gang as a youth, has always maintained something of a fighter’s edge. A firebrand street preacher, he calls for African Americans to take responsibility for their own problems, and is unafraid to tangle publicly with other black leaders. His outspoken opposition to gay marriage, combined with his interest in fusing religious teachings and social programs, made him the darling of the political establishment after President Bush took office. Politicians haven’t been shy about lining up Rivers’s support, showering the Pentecostal minister and his causes with faith-based partnership grants. “Gene is nothing if not brilliant,” says Janis Pryor, who worked in the 1990s as a political and media consultant for the Ten Point Coalition. “If the money was sitting over there in the right wing of politics, he was going to go get it. The right wing was hungry for someone like Gene. His words fulfilled their needs and they were willing to pay him for that role.” Between 2000 and 2004 alone, Rivers collected $4 million in state, federal, and private funding for the Baker House. (All told, nearly $10 million in faith-based grants went to the state’s black churches during that period.)

The money kept pouring in despite Rivers’s propensity to land himself in trouble with his hot temper. In a 2004 interview with Boston magazine, he acknowledged that, at one time or another, he had “got into it with almost everyone known to man.” But that was all in the past, he said; referring to himself in the third person, he professed that “Rivers has finally decided to behave.” Some of the reverend’s former associates, though, might question that assessment. The alternative view is that Rivers has come to resemble the very threat he has for so long railed against: a leader who uses intimidation—and, allegedly on at least two occasions, outright violence—to maintain control.

Rivers’s behavior has become so erratic that he has finally outlived his usefulness to his political patrons. It was not the attack on Jones—or the one in which men reputedly associated with Rivers beat a 15-year-old boy so severely that it put him in intensive care for four days—that has led some of the reverend’s powerful supporters to turn their backs on him. The turning point, it seems, came with the news that in January a Baker House staffer allegedly raped a 17-year-old client of the facility in a bathroom there. The victim later claimed that Rivers had tried to talk her out of reporting the rape. Rivers told the Globe in August that “it was astounding to hear the accusation made. I never challenged her version or account. I just wanted to understand it.”

The ensuing uproar—and the loss of funding that came with it—led the Baker House to elect a former prosecutor, Matthew Machera, to head its board of directors. Machera has set about conducting a “top to bottom” review of the nonprofit, and is expected to release his findings this month. The most important order of business, however, has already been decided. Though the reverend’s attorney, Frederick Dashiell, denies it (and adds that Rivers has been asked by the Machera review panel to refrain from speaking to the media until the beginning of the year), two sources say that Rivers has agreed to step down as head of the Baker House as soon as this month. “He essentially said he was going to let the board of directors run the place,” says one former associate, who recently bumped into the minister and his wife on the street.

“In his desire to help these young men, and no one is saying that Gene does not want to help these kids, because he does,” says Janis Pryor, “somehow he ended up selling his soul. Remember, this man lives by two things: The Godfather is his model of power. And his code is ‘It’s all about the money.’’’

Marlon Brando’s Godfather character was such an influence on Rivers that for years he kept a poster of the film hanging on the wall of a Baker House conference room. Staffers who displeased Rivers were dubbed “Fredos,” after the Godfather’s hapless middle son, who wound up getting whacked in a fishing boat for betraying the family. Anyone Rivers bestowed that nickname upon was “taking a boat ride and never coming back’’ to the Baker House, Pryor recalls.

In any case, plenty of former staffers have gone on to big things: accomplished people like Larry Mayes, who is now Boston’s chief of human services; Mark Scott, who served for a time as a director in the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives; and Pryor herself, who now works in the private sector and is writing a book.

While Rivers can be ruthless in the office, it is his alleged dealings on the street that would have most pleased his role model. According to his critics, the minister’s tactics sometimes seem more North End than north Dorchester. “Rivers would do the intimidation thing, let people know that he had the ability to beat people,” one of his former enforcers tells me. “He would send his people after pastors he had a beef with, and those people would be ordered to say, ‘Do you want a problem with Eugene?’’’

Rivers has employed a number of tough former convicts at the Baker House, men like Willie Dunn, who provided the .22-caliber gun that a fellow Orchard Park Trailblazer gang member used in 1991 to spray a Roxbury staircase with bullets, killing two boys aged 11 and 15. Dunn served five years for his role in the slayings, twice escaping while in custody. There was also Andre Norman, a gang member who spent more than 14 years in prison for armed robbery, armed home invasion, and armed carjacking. Dunn and Norman became protégés of the minister, whose own house was shot up in 1994, reportedly by a heroin dealer who had been pushed out of a Dorchester park by Rivers and other clergy. The reverend, his wife, and their two children were sleeping inside at the time, but no one was hurt.

Six years ago, Rivers is said to have accused 15-year-old Kuron Cox of throwing eggs at his house. The boy’s mother, Sharon Cox, had been a member of the Baker House’s Azusa Christian Community church, and she participated in a prison ministry for women out of the Baker House. At one point, she had asked Rivers to step in and handle her unruly son, and Kuron lived for a time with the Rivers family. Though Kuron denies he threw the eggs, three former Baker House staffers and members of Kuron’s family tell me they believe Rivers dispatched two men to deal with the teen’s perceived disrespect. Kuron was assaulted so badly, his family says, he spent four days in the Boston Medical Center intensive care unit. The allegation that Rivers had been involved wasn’t made to police at the time, says Kuron’s stepfather, Phillip Cole, because the family just assumed Kuron had been jumped by rival gang members—and Kuron himself, who had been known to get into trouble, wasn’t telling. But later, the family came to see the incident differently.

“Kuron was coming back with strange stories about the people at the Baker House,” Cole tells me. “We didn’t take him all that seriously because Reverend Rivers was a good man doing good work.’’ Cole now claims Rivers later admitted to playing a role in Kuron’s beating. (Rivers refused to speak to me.) Rivers, Kuron now says, is a man “who does evil in the name of God.”

Rivers has a reputation for playing rough with his fellow members of the clergy, too. “Eugene likes to be top dog and he doesn’t want any other dogs in the pound,’’ one Boston minister says of Rivers’s fractured alliances with the other members of the Ten Point Coalition. “Eugene doesn’t sleep much. If he gets a seed of something in his head about someone, it mushrooms into something really ugly. Then Eugene is sending his doom down on someone.”

That may be what happened to the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, a former Rivers ally and cofounder of the Ten Point Coalition. In the summer of 2004, while attending a Black Ministerial Alliance meeting at the People’s Baptist Church in Roxbury, he was approached by Andre Norman, who stuck a finger in Brown’s face and growled, “I’m sending you a message: Don’t fuck with the women at the Baker House.’’ The minister had no idea what he had done to offend anyone at the organization, where he had been an active participant. “He was going to beat me up,’’ an astonished Brown later told people. After standing outside the packed church, puzzled by the incident, Brown walked back inside and told Norman, “Don’t ever threaten me again. If you do it again, I’ll call the police.’’

Another time, when Rivers and Brown were in a dispute over who would be the principal pastor at a conference in Washington, Rivers reputedly turned to an unlikely ally for help in dealing with his rival: Bernard Cardinal Law. To settle the spat, the cardinal summoned the two men to a sit-down at his residence on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton.

Janis Pryor says Law was another one of Rivers’s role models. “He called him the ‘Prince of Darkness,’” she says. “It was not at all a derogatory term. It was a compliment. Gene respected the way the cardinal handled power. Law knew how to use it, acquire it, deal it out. Gene admired that.’’

Rivers has certainly been adept at accumulating power of his own, and at exercising it. When Rivers’s house was shot up 12 years ago, one of the Boston police officers who responded was a young sergeant named Paul Joyce. Within the department these days, many people believe that Joyce owes his current position—he’s the superintendent overseeing all special investigative units—partly to Rivers’s influence with Mayor Tom Menino.

Back on that October day in 2004 when transit police responded to the attack on Gerald Jones at the Ashmont T station, they wound up chasing Melvin Minard down on foot and finding a knife, according to an affidavit the officers later filed. Minard was arraigned on three counts related to assault and battery, and one count of threats. In a confidential report on the incident, which was addressed to MBTA Deputy Chief Thomas F. McCarthy, transit police Lieutenant Mark Gillespie wrote: “You instructed me to call Eugene Rivers and notify him about the claim made by Gerald Jones.’’ The case against Minard was eventually dismissed when Jones didn’t show up in court. “We could not go forward because Jones’s testimony was necessary to prove Minard did it,” says Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley.

As part of the investigation into the alleged rape at the Baker House, sources tell me, a grand jury considered whether Rivers had broken the law by trying to dissuade the victim from reporting the assault. In the end, only the alleged rapist was charged. The DA spokesman says the grand jury investigation is now over. “A large amount of evidence was presented and an indictment was returned naming only Derek Patrick,’’ Wark says.

Regardless, it’s been a difficult year for Rivers. After the alleged assault became known to the state Department of Youth Services, the agency stopped sending clients to the Baker House and canceled its two-year, $65,000 contract. Over the summer, a furious Mayor Menino ordered an audit into the more than $500,000 in Boston Police Department grants that have gone to the Baker House, and has quietly disavowed his relationship with Rivers, all but assuring no more city money will be sent his way. And Governor Mitt Romney, who a month earlier had called Rivers’s work “essential” in quelling gun violence in Boston, decided to nix a $350,000 Baker House grant. Even the Bush White House, a staunch supporter of Rivers, has finally had enough. In September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told the Herald it was reviewing the $75,000 in federal grants Rivers has used to help run his programs.

Given the recent reversal of fortunes there, it’s hardly surprising that Rivers is ready to jump from the Baker House. Over the past few years, he has gotten increasingly involved with international causes—like the AIDS pandemic in Africa—and speculation is that he’ll use his resignation from the Baker House as an opportunity to complete that transition. (In October Rivers appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and spoke about the spread of the disease.)

But to Kuron Cox, the teen who says he was beaten six years ago after Rivers accused him of throwing eggs at his house, no matter where the reverend goes next, his legacy will always be defined by his actions here in Boston. “Rivers is straight-up Training Day,” Kuron says. “Only white people and government officials don’t know what he is. People in the neighborhood are real clear on what he represents.”