As inflation is making homelessness worse, the great divide between the “haves and the have-nots” is now more apparent than ever.
Month after month, we write about the extreme wealth of many of America’s preachers and compare that to the poorer Christians who support them—sometimes surviving off macaroni and cheese to give their last dollars to one “ministry” or another.
Do these large ministries give back? Do they meet the needs of the poor surrounding them? Some do, most don’t. At least not in any significant way, from our vantage point.
One of the religious non-profit ministries we investigate has received over $1 billion in revenue in less than ten years while spending less than 5 percent of its total funding on helping the poor.
Ask one fellow, Larry Fardette, who, in his time of great need for his ailing daughter, contacted dozens of the ministries he supported asking for help.
(Photo: Pete Evans, President of Trinity Foundation)
How much is embezzled by “Christian” religious leaders? Researchers at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, which study this problem, produce an annual estimate which is published each year in the January issue of the International Bulletin of Mission Research.
This year’s estimate: $59 billion in ecclesiastical crimes. Meanwhile, $52 billion will be spent on world missions.
Let those numbers sink it. More money is stolen by religious leaders than is spent on world missions.
Is there a way to dramatically reduce this crime? Our non-profit foundation has tried to avoid suggesting any national legislation over the years, but that has to change.
(Photo: St Matthews Churches includes inexpensive items such as this tablecloth in mailouts to create a sense of obligation for the letter recipient to donate.)
How a Man You’ve Never Heard of Created the Unholy Grail of Televangelist Fund-Raising Letters and Keeps the Cash Rolling In Over 60 Years Later.
By Mike Renfro and Pete Evans
You’d certainly be forgiven if the name Gene Ewing doesn’t ring a bell. What this name does ring is the cash register. Gene Ewing is the behind-the-scenes J.R. Ewing of TV Preachers and their cash gushers. It’s a show that’s been going on for over six decades—mostly at the expense of the poor, elderly, sick and hurting.
His stock-in-trade for most of his career has been scripture-draped fund-raising appeals, replete with highly personalized pitches and promises for renewed health and prosperity. Predictably, it’s Ewing and his partners that have been the ones prospering. And if IRS records before they “went dark” and re-branded as a church are any indication at all, they’ve been prospering to the tune of millions of dollars annually—all pouring into a lawyer’s P.O. box, overflowing with cash, checks and cynically-abused dreams.
You can google him but you’ll struggle to find a photo of him from this side of the 1960s. Perhaps the only thing more mysterious and elusive than the man is the church from which his appeals emanate. And unlike many of his cohorts in televangelism such as Jim Baker and W.V. Grant, who both spent time in prison, Ewing’s always managed to avoid both the law and the limelight.
James Eugene “Gene” Ewing, Milton Ray McElrath (Ray), and until recently, their now-deceased lawyer J.C. Joyce have been the three main individuals consistently running what is now Saint Matthews Churches under many different names. How did this organization evolve into the money machine it is today?
A word from our president, Pete Evans, about why people fall for the prosperity gospel.
Desperation is a huge motivator. When you or someone close to you is dying or suffering, it’s natural to want to help in whatever way we can. Or, when finances become so strapped that you or a person close to you is in anguish, there is a desire to alleviate the suffering. So if a televangelist comes on television promising that God wants to heal and financially bless individuals, but God requires a gift first—care of the ministry of course; desperate people begin to grasp at straws and take desperate measures. It becomes a sort of heavenly lottery and plays on people’s natural greed as well. In desperation, people give to the ministry in order to get their invisible lottery ticket and “expect a miracle”.
The televangelists use a twisted and perverted version of one of Jesus’ parables—the parable of the sower and the seed. First, the true meaning of the parable: Jesus was talking about the seed of Christ in us—about his life in us and how it can be trampled on, choked out, or—best case—nourished.
Next, the perversion of the parable: the seed is your money; which, planted in the good ground will be multiplied by God via health, healing, or an exponential increase in wealth based on the amount one gives. To quote Hitler’s despicable propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” I would add, at least until the spell is broken. The Goebbels quote is often called “The Big Lie”.
In November, Fort Worth-based William Gallagher was sentenced to 3 life terms in prison and an additional 30 years, all to be served concurrently.
The 80-year-old Gallagher, who wrote “Jesus Christ, Money Master,” used Christian radio and meetings held in churches to promote his fake investment “Ponzi” schemes. Gallagher billed himself and his company, Gallagher Financial Group, as financial services experts. As of this writing, his Linked-In page still claims 11-50 employees.
Ms. Lori Varnell, chief of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Elder Financial Fraud team, told the BBC News that she wasn’t surprised Doc Gallagher would use Christian radio to dupe his victims. “Within the Christian community, there’s a high level of trust. Especially here in the Bible Belt,” she said. “Once you start speaking the Christian language, and using their words, their phrases, that will be a tell-tale sign to other Christians that you’re a Christian.”
Gallagher promised unusually high returns of 5% to 8% annually on investments and even provided fake financial statements to present to his investors. The BBC also reported his scheme amassed $32 million dollars.
Gallagher’s Christianity-cloaked scheme, also known as religious affinity fraud, deceived many trusting elderly investors—mostly between the ages of 62 and 91—and left a wake of financially destroyed victims, bereft of their life’s retirement savings.
One of televangelist Benny Hinn’s financial secrets was revealed in a recent court ruling: The prosperity gospel is not working for Hinn. World Healing Center Church (WHCC), better known as Benny Hinn Ministries, has been struggling with debt for 15 years.
In an April 7th United States District Court ruling, Judge Alvin Hellerstein granted summary judgment on behalf of Mail America Communications Inc. which sued WHCC for breach of contract. Before the lawsuit was filed in September 2018, WHCC owed the direct mail company $2,993,221.74.
Judge Hellerstein also required WHCC to pay 4% interest on the unpaid balance and attorney’s fees.
The judge’s amended order provides insight into the finances of Hinn’s organization and confirms rumors that Trinity Foundation investigators have heard though the grapevine. Hellerstein wrote, “For nearly 15 years, Defendant had been falling behind its payment obligations, with over $5.6 million in arrears by early 2012.”
After pleading guilty to embezzling church funds, Lara Ford, former business manager and staff services manager at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, has been sentenced to ten years in prison with the opportunity for early release after serving six months.
An August 26, 2019 updated police report indicated a “total loss of $1,377,14.76” … but the total continued to grow as the investigation continued. Ford’s attorney Lex Johnson told The Roys Report that more than $1.6 million was stolen.
According to the police report, Ford “made transfers to her own checking accounts once or twice a month for the past 7 to 8 years. The amounts were reportedly between $1500 and $1700.”
Ford used Automated Clearing House to transfer at least $363,834 from the church’s Allaso Ranch account and $324,313 from another church account to her personal bank accounts. The thefts were disguised as payments to vendors and refunds for children unable to attend the church camp.
Ford also stole cash from offerings and embezzled money from the church’s housing allowance account, which raises additional questions. According to the police report, Fellowship Church used Automatic Data Processing LLC (ADP) to manage “some of the church’s payroll, mainly the housing allowance about 30 employees receive.”
Is the clergy housing allowance being abused? Are non-clergy employees receiving housing allowances?
Ole Anthony, 82, president of Dallas-based Trinity Foundation Inc. and a thorn in the side of “prosperity gospel” televangelists, died Friday, April 16, 2021.
He was known as a fierce critic of TV preachers like Robert Tilton, Benny Hinn and Jan and Paul Crouch, and was often seen in news interviews critiquing their lavish lifestyles.
Anthony also served as the founding elder of a small congregation that modeled itself on first-century Christianity in lifestyle and mission, meeting in homes and gathering often. In the 1990s the foundation began the Dallas Project, taking homeless people into the homes of members and encouraging other religious groups to do the same. The church continues to provide low-cost housing for needy families on the East Dallas block where many of the members live.
After finding that some of these desperate people had been persuaded to give money to TV preachers, Anthony started to look into the lifestyles and fraudulent behavior of local pastors like Tilton and W. V. Grant.
Trinity Foundation eventually obtained a private investigator license and gained a reputation as a valued source for investigative journalists. For more than 30 years Anthony was a frequently interviewed expert on religious broadcasting, consulted by major newspapers, national TV news programs and the international press. Our foundation continues to be a resource for those investigating religious fraud worldwide.
From the early 1990s through the 2000s, Anthony and Trinity Foundation were involved in high-profile investigations (and lawsuits) involving Tilton, Grant, Hinn and the Crouches as well as many other TV preachers and megachurch ministries. From 2007 to 2010 the foundation assisted the Senate Finance Committee in its national investigation of televangelist abuses.
Besides monitoring religious broadcasting, Anthony led daily Bible studies in the East Dallas Christian community that was formed out of a study group he led in the mid-1970s. The resulting community was small, never exceeding 60 members, but its influence was wide.
The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the courts from hearing numerous court cases. A year ago, Trinity Foundation shared a list of eight court cases we are monitoring. Our list is growing as more lawsuits have been filed against religious organizations.
In May 2020, we reported that a panel of judges upheld televangelist Todd Coontz’s conviction of tax evasion. Then justice got delayed again. Coontz appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court which finally denied his appeal on February 22, 2021.
In 2018, Mail America Communications sued Benny Hinn, alleging the televangelist’s World Healing Center Church owed the publisher almost $3 million. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 7, 2021.
National Outreach Foundation Inc. (NOFI), one of the few non-profit organizations to have its tax-exempt status revoked by the IRS in 2020, has sued the federal government in US Tax Court.
NOFI is operated by a husband-and-wife team with no additional independent board members or employees. Therefore, no oversight is available for the organization.
In 2017, NOFI generated $62,185,730 in revenue and spent only $425,125 in grants to charitable organizations. Therefore, less than 1% of revenue was spent on charity. If NOFI were a private charity it would be required to pay out at least 5% annually of its total assets.
For months, Trinity Foundation has investigated televangelists receiving Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans. Our findings:
At least $78.6 million in loans were given to religious TV networks, independent religious TV stations, TV preachers, and churches/media ministries with national TV programs. The total would exceed $82 million if we include churches with 24/7 streaming channels in the same class as television.
Trinity Broadcasting of Texas received a loan of $3.3 million even though its parent organization may have close to $500 million invested in securities.