After sharing his secret, pastor seeks forgiveness

Sykes acknowledges a child out of wedlock.

Published April 26, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- He first noticed her while preaching at a friend's church near West Palm Beach. After the service, the Rev. Manuel Sykes asked the woman's pastor for her phone number.

"The first thing I said was, 'Why me?'" said Sheila Wright, a 37-year-old single mother. "I know his educational background and I know he has all these degrees and I know he's somebody -- why's he asking about me?"

She had high hopes for the relationship with Sykes, prominent pastor of the 500-member Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg and head of a local seminary. Being a pastor's wife -- the church's first lady -- would bring prestige.

But when Wright became pregnant, Sykes made it clear he had no long-term intentions. Instead, she said, he asked her to keep it quiet.

On Wednesday night, 14 months after the child was born, and a day after the St. Petersburg Times asked him about the baby, Sykes assembled his congregation.

The secret was out.

Before the hastily called congregation meeting Wednesday, Sykes had told a few in his inner circle, which included church elders. He said they concluded that it was a private matter and didn't need to be shared with the congregation. His new wife and children from his other two marriages also knew.

Sykes, 50, says he knows he was wrong to engage in a physical relationship, even though he was single. He says he thinks he has let his congregation down.

"I think we all sin, everybody, but the outcome is not always visible. But my feeling has always been, if I can't garner your respect and I am not suitable to lead you as a human being with all my frailties, I can accept that," he said.

The church will forgive him, said Carolyn Hobbs, 66, who has attended Bethel Community since she was 13.

"We obviously expect more of people in a leadership position, but we just all have to remember that we all are human," said Hobbs, a former St. Petersburg Times marketing employee.

Sykes is a terrific pastor, 76-year-old congregation member Dorothy Harris said after learning about the child.

"It's not for me to judge him no how," she said. "It's between him and his God."

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The first time Sykes and Wright slept together was at his cousin's house in Miami.

Wright, a lab assistant, thought a serious relationship was developing.

"He was playing the game, like most men do, and I'm thinking, we were together the one time, maybe there's a possibility," Wright said.

A few weeks later, Wright called him and said she wanted to see him. She drove up to Tampa, where they had dinner at Red Lobster and stayed at a fancy hotel, she said.

Their son, Saint Christopher Sykes, was conceived that Saturday night.

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After that night, Wright says Sykes' calls became less frequent.

When she called him to tell him she was pregnant, she said, she hoped he would do the right thing.

"But I know a lot of children are born out of wedlock, so that's not a reason to really marry a person," she said. "But I would think that with him being a pastor, he would say, 'Okay, I know what I need to do.'"

Instead, she said, he asked her to have an abortion. Sykes disputes that.

"I said, 'What are you going to do? Because I'm not going to marry you because of a child,'" Sykes said. "I think my words were that, if you're going to do anything, it's 12 days, this is the time for you to think about it."

"I was more ambivalent about a 12-day pregnancy than I would have been" had she been further along, he said.

"Honestly, I was still operating in unbelief and really she's had two other children and has not been married to either of the fathers. I felt that what she was trying to do was to reel me in."

At one point, he also asked Wright to consider giving the baby to his adult daughter, who is married and has been unable to conceive.

Wright said no.

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Saint Christopher Sykes, a toddler who loves baked potatoes and broccoli, was born by caesarean section on his father's birthday, Feb. 7, 2006.

Wright allowed Sykes, who was present at the birth, to name him.

"I decided that though he came out of sin, that would not be his destiny," Sykes said. "So I chose a name that was opposite to the circumstances under which he was born."

On the way to the hospital, Sykes asked for a paternity test, which proved he was the baby's father. Wright said he also asked her to keep the baby a secret.

After seeing an April 2 article about Sykes' battle with prostate cancer in the Times, Wright became angry when he said he had only three children.

Wright said she's tired of keeping secrets.

"I'm going to be honest about everything because it's balled up in me," said Wright, who has two other children, 7 and 17, with different fathers.

For his part, Sykes said he never asked Wright to keep their son a secret.

"I told her that I need to be careful," Sykes said. "I shared it with the people I thought was appropriate."

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Sykes married his current wife, Cleopatra Fowler, 33, in December, a few weeks after he met her in the Bahamas.

The couple hope to share custody of Saint with Wright, who lives in a townhouse in a gated community in West Palm Beach.

Wright says she wants Sykes to have a relationship with Saint. She didn't want him to keep trying to be a father in secret.

She doesn't resent his new marriage, she said, she just feels Sykes misled her.

"I was vulnerable, because I had just gotten out of a bad relationship. He's somebody. A pastor, anybody would trust him. Now I know better. We learn from our mistakes, even if you're a man of God," she said.

Sykes says Wright is the one who was misleading.

"Sheila knew from day one we didn't have a relationship," he said. "Sheila hatched a plan that didn't work. This is Part Two. If I can't have him, then I'm going to destroy him."

Sykes says he just wants to move on.

And some experts say he can probably do just that; it is a tradition of the black church to forgive.

"In general, the black pastor is a highly revered figure who represents the moral and human ideal in the community," said Robert Franklin, distinguished professor of social ethics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

"However, people recognize that they are human and congregations extend grace and forgiveness to pastors who are contrite and sincere. Consider the grace extended by the entire black community to Dr. King and to Rev. Adam Clayton Powell."

Shavon Gonzalez, 41, a minister in training at Sykes' Bethel Community Church, said she had heard rumors about a child.

"We all make mistakes," she said. "I look up to the pastor as a sort of David. He has been through a lot. He's made a mistake. He tried to deal with it privately. I believe the congregation is going to stand by him."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or moore@sptimes.com.