James Eugene Ewing, Founder of St. Matthews Churches: the Religious Direct Mail Monster

(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?

While His Air Force Buddies Chased Girls, He Chased Dollars

Gene Ewing, Milton Baker and a man named Darwin Fulmer formed a Texas Corporation called Camp Meeting Revivals (CMR) in January 1958.[1]  At some point, while Ewing was still in the Air Force, he and acquaintance, Duane Snyder teamed up as street evangelists.  While in the service, Ewing moonlighted as a tent evangelist. According to his writings, he relied on a 30-by-40 tent which he would regularly erect on the outskirts of San Antonio.[2] As the 1960s progressed, four “Reverends” (Ewing, McElrath, Luce and Snyder)  and one woman (Doris Ratliff), [3] were running CMR, whose name was later changed to Church of Compassion (COC) in 1971. [4]

1960’s: Staged Resurrections That Would Make Professional Wrestling Proud

During the 1960s and with less frequency during the 1970s and 1980s, Gene Ewing and his associates traveled around the country holding tent-revival style meetings in auditoriums and stadiums (numerous independent references).[5]  During this same period direct mail campaigns were established.

According to former employees, these camp-style meetings were very lucrative and usually involved a “raising the dead[6] ceremony to impress illiterate, poor crowds.[7]  During Ewing’s sermon, he would give a cue and a casket would be carried in and brought on stage.[8]  Ewing would skillfully work the crowd to a fever pitch and on cue, an employee would press a button releasing a compressed air horn backstage at which point a woman dressed in white would rise out of the casket.[9]  A lawyer who once represented Mr. Ewing has claimed that on one occasion, a prostitute that McElrath had been with the day before was the woman who rose from the casket.[10]

The lawyer recalled this particular crusade took place in Detroit’s Cobo Hall.  The night before, McElrath and a woman who was “very, very skimpily clad,” picked up the attorney at the airport.  The place was “rocking, with maybe 10- or 15,000 people . . . . All of a sudden this dirge began . . . all the lights went off; here came all these guys bringing a real casket. . . . Leading the group was McElrath with this clerical collar and bible.”   . . . “The lid of the casket creaked open, (and) out steps the floozy from the night before (i.e. the woman with McElrath).  She’s got this angel’s outfit on and this Halloween halo on her head.  People were screeching and fainting,” he said.  “It was astounding.”[11]

These “resurrection” services went on throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s, filling stadiums with 40-50,000 people on several occasions. Ewing would also use these crusades as photo opportunities to get shots of the large crowds for the ministry’s publication, known as World Compassion Magazine.[12] Still, these kinds of events, lucrative as they may have been, came with lots of overhead and scrutiny. What’s more, along the way, Ewing and his merry band stumbled into a less public way to fill their pockets. And though this new method wasn’t exactly undercover, it did come in the more private space of mass-mailed envelopes.

From Filling Tents and Arenas to Filling Mailboxes

Never satisfied with the amount of money coming in, Ewing and his organization were always looking for more ways to continue and enhance the flow of money into his and his partners’ pockets. In the ‘60s, he began developing and perfecting mail campaigns directed at poor and often rural areas of the country.

The styles and appeals varied, but when one was particularly successful, it would become part of a stable of formulas that would be used again and again, sometimes with changes and refinements to keep them fresh to the audience and the money flowing to Ewing and his fellow grifters. In many ways, it was a modern-day version of the traveling snake oil salesmen but without the need for the snake oil or the traveling. It was all words, pictures and cheap trinkets, along with some computer generated “personalization,” as the techniques became more advanced.  These sordid mailings continue to this day. The video embedded above features mailings from the past couple of months.

An Airplane For Your Thoughts:

Authoring Oral Roberts’ “900-Foot Jesus” and “God’s Going to Kill Me” Campaigns

Ewing also used his talents to design and create mail-marketing campaigns for other prominent televangelists.  In 1968, Oral Roberts hired Ewing as a direct mail consultant.[13]  Oral Robert’s ministry revenue more than doubled as a direct result of Ewing’s ideas.

That same year, Roberts gave Ewing an airplane and on more than one occasion he rewarded Ewing with generous commissions in return for the huge boost the ministry received.[14]   Roberts’ “900 foot Jesus” and “God’s going to kill me if I don’t get the millions I’ve promised him” are but two well-known examples of campaigns created by Ewing.  Ewing received $900,000 for one campaign and $1,400,000 for another.[15]  Tink Wilkerson, a close friend of Roberts, hand carried the money from Roberts to Ewing.[16]  The Oral Roberts ministry machine continued to rely on Ewing for years and “Ewing’s garish Midas touch often showed through in the ministry appeals.”[17]

California Scheming

In 1971, Ewing, McElrath and their employees moved their operation to Los Angeles and registered their “non-profit” corporation with the State of California. At this time, it was still known as the Church of Compassion. The church’s 1972 IRS form 990 shows it officially took in close to four million dollars that year.[18]  Reportedly, the magazine alone was bringing in more—around four to five million per month.[19]

That same year, the organization was paying massive amounts of money for its mailing campaign.  That year’s form 990, states that $912,000 was spent on mailing expenses.[20] One former employee says they were sending out 1.2 million or more mailings per month at this time.[21]

The mailings and magazines were bringing in more money than the crusades, but with less effort,[22]  leading Ewing and McElrath to cut back dramatically on the number of crusades.[23]  Ewing would recycle old pictures of old events in the magazine to make it seem as though they were still having frequent crusades.[24]

More Time in Court than in Church: The St. Mathews Story

Although Ewing’s organizations operated under various names through the decades, in 2000, his main operation began operating under the moniker of St. Matthews Church. A national comprehensive investigative report on January 7th, 2003 showed a phone for St. Matthews Publishing and Church to be located in the office of its (and Ewing’s) lawyer, J.C. Joyce, at 515 S Main, Tulsa, Oklahoma.[25]  A call to Tulsa information listed the same number and address for St. Matthew’s Churches (7/14/05).[26]  At the time, the number was answered by a lengthy recorded message.

As of early March 2022, Ewing’s name is mentioned on only one page of the Saint Matthews Churches website.  Unlike some of his televangelist clients who have spent time in prison such as W.V. Grant and Billy James Hargis, or been disgraced, such as Robert Tilton, Gene Ewing has managed to stay out of the public limelight.  Most people receiving the St. Matthews’ mailings have never even heard of him.

Another item that’s never appeared on the St. Matthews website is the substantial amount of litigation the church has been the focus of during the last 20 years or so. One lawsuit, brought by a former employee and whistleblower detailed much of the seedy side of the St. Matthews “Church.”

In August 1993, St. Matthews (then CBSHM) hired Valerija Kachavos, a computer programmer from Lithuania who spoke little English.  For the next ten years, one of Valerija’s jobs was to find key neighborhoods across the country using US Census data and her computer programming knowledge to search for more donors.  During this time, she acquired an intimate knowledge of the organization’s mailing operations; and she alleged drug usage by her supervisors, gun’s brandished in the work place, and threats to employees.

By 2002, Valerija had a better understanding of English and began to speak up against the activity within St. Matthews.[27]  After she began to confront her employers about this, they moved her out of the office to work in her home with a company computer, later claiming that same computer was stolen by her. Valerija was fired from SMC, August 23, 2002.[28]  September 27, 2002 she filed a charge of Discrimination with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing [29] , which subsequently issued a “right to sue” letter against St. Matthew’s churches. On August 22nd 2003, Valerija filed suit for wrongful termination.[30]

In October, 2005, the legal battle between Valerija Kachavos and St Matthew’s escalated when Ms. Kachavos and her attorney filed a civil RICO suit with a demand for a jury trial.[31] Valerija was under police protection for a while and eventually went into hiding as the court motions flew back and forth.  Attorney J.C. Joyce was included as a defendant in the lawsuit as well.[32]

Where in Hell is This All Headed?

Maybe it was the constant litigation that got to him, or maybe just old age, but Joyce died in 2021, which may explain why the address of the church changed last year as well. In prior years, Joyce’s Tulsa office was where the mail for St. Matthews went. Certainly, a lot of the secrets of St. Matthews went to the grave with him, but still his lifetime client and cash cow Gene Ewing lives on. At least we assume so as the hits from St. Matthews just keep on coming in a fashion that would make the Energizer Bunny jealous.

As Ewing used to say back in his tent revival days some seven decades ago, we all must meet our maker. But when he made those statements while taking people’s hard-earned money in the name of God to enrich himself, he surely must not have been thinking about his own such meeting. And now, at the age of 88, one would have to believe he must think more and more about the life he’s led and what it may portend for him in the next one.

Did he ever really believe in anything other than the almighty dollar? Did he just believe God to be simply a Santa Claus figure to be exploited in fanciful stories to gullible children? Does he really believe he’s served God in some way and is deserving of the riches in which he surrounded himself?

Whichever the case, Gene Ewing’s not nearly as talkative as his latest letters are in asking for more money. But what of the people who’ve provided him and his clients and sycophants with lavish lifestyles all these years? Will there at some point be an end to all this and a reckoning?

Thankfully, this is one of those cases in which the only answer is: God only knows.

[1] Camp Meeting Revivals Articles of Incorporation

[2] Howard Swindle, Tim Wyatt, “Mailbox Ministry—Direct-market evangelist brings in millions”, Dallas Morning News, March 10, 1996

[3] Church of Compassion list of officers

[4] Ibid.  (Church of Compassion list of officers)

[5] Dart, John. “Church of Compassion – a Multimillion Dollar Operation.” The Los Angeles Times.  September 1, 1974

[6] Allen, Henry. “The Night They Raised the Dead.” The Washington Post. March 21, 1981

[7] Conversation between confidential informant and Pete Evans, October 25, 2004)

[8] Allen, “The Night They Raised …” 3/12/81; conversation with CI (see footnote #7), and numerous other sources

[9] Allen, “The Night They Raised …” 3/12/81, and CI, etc.

[10] A lawyer who formerly represented Ewing met w/ Howard Swindle of Dallas Morning News & Ole Anthony, Recollections of their conversation are described more fully by Swindle in the following DMN article.

[11] Swindle, Wyatt, “Mailbox Ministry…”, Dallas Morning News, March 1996

[12] Timeline prepared by Tim Wyatt of Dallas Morning News in 1996 (judgments and liens)

[13] Harrell, David Jr. Oral Roberts, An American Life, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 285.

[14] Harrell, David Jr. Oral Roberts, An American Life, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 285

[15] See tab for email memo from Ole Anthony concerning the “bagman” informant, Tink Wilkerson.

[16] Ibid  See previously referenced email.

[17] Harrell, Oral Roberts, p. 413.

[18] Dart. “Church of Compassion – a Multimillion….” LA Times.  9/1/74, see article at footnote # 5

[19] Excerpt from handwritten notes from conversation between confidential informant and Pete Evans

[20] Dart. “Church of Compassion – a Multimillion….” LA Times.  9/1/74, see article at footnote # 5

[21] March 17th phone discussion with JW Doke, 87 year old confidential informant living in Hobart, OK

[22] Memo “Continued conversations with informant (w/ Evans)…”

[23] Memo “Continued conversations with informant (w/ Evans)…”

[24] Memo “Continued conversations with informant (w/ Evans)…”

[25] 1/7/03 National Comprehensive Investigative Report by Autotrack, subject James Ewing

[26] Memo of call is stored with file “Email info for Ewing Brief to the IRS”, page two.

[27] Valerija’s Conversations with Pete Evans

[28] Saint Matthew’s Churches v. Valerijaerija Kachavos was filed in the Superior Court of the State of California, case BC 294 616.  Motion to strike a SLAPP suit is included here, pages 1-8.  See page seven.

[29] Ibid., page seven

[30] Valerijaerija Kachavos v. Saint Matthew’s Churches was filed in the Superior Court of the State of California, case BC 301261—page one. A counter motion to dismiss lawsuit and impose sanctions is included here as well from Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith—Steven Gatley, filed on June 13, 2005, p. 1.

[31] RICO suit, Kachavos v Ewing(s), McElrath(s), Joyce, St. Matthews, etc. 10/3/05, pages 1-63

[32] RICO suit, Kachavos v Ewing(s), McElrath(s), Joyce, St. Matthews, etc. 10/3/05, pages 1