Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich

Published on
by
The New York Times

Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich

by
Laurie Goodstein

Donors streamed forward at the Southwest Believers’ Convention this month in Fort Worth. (Michael Stravato for The New York Times)

FORT WORTH — Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland
and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted
the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by
following the Word of God.

Private airplanes and boats. A motorcycle sent by an anonymous
supporter. Vacations in Hawaii and cruises in Alaska. Designer
handbags. A ring of emeralds and diamonds.

“God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to
you,” preached Mrs. Copeland, dressed in a crisp pants ensemble like
those worn by C.E.O.’s.

Even in an economic downturn, preachers in the “prosperity gospel”
movement are drawing sizable, adoring audiences. Their message — that
if you have sufficient faith in God and the Bible and donate generously, God will multiply your offerings a hundredfold — is reassuring to many in hard times.

The preachers barely acknowledged the recession, though they did say it was no excuse to curtail giving. “Fear will make you stingy,” Mr. Copeland said.

But the offering buckets came up emptier than in some previous years, said those who have attended before.

Many in this flock do not trust banks, the news media or Washington,
where the Senate Finance Committee is investigating whether the
Copelands and other prosperity evangelists used donations to enrich
themselves and abused their tax-exempt status. But they trust the
Copelands, the movement’s current patriarch and matriarch, who seem to
embody prosperity with their robust health and abundance of children
and grandchildren who have followed them into the ministry.

“If God did it for them, he will do it for us,” said Edwige Ndoudi,
who traveled with her husband and three children from Canada for the
Southwest Believers’ Convention this month, where the Copelands and
three of their friends took turns preaching for five days, 10 hours a
day at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

The crowd of more than 9,000 was multiracial, from 48 states and 27
countries. There was no fee to attend. There were bikers in leather
vests, pastors, blue-collar workers, professionals and plenty of
families with children.

A large contingent came in wheelchairs, hoping for miraculous
healings. The audience sat with Bibles open, flipping to passages cited
by the preachers, taking notes on pads and laptop computers.

“The folks who are coming aren’t poor,” said Jonathan L. Walton, a professor of religion at the University of California,
Riverside, who has written about the movement and was there doing
research. “They reside in that nebulous category between the working
and the middle class.”

Sitting in Section 316, eight rows up, making peanut butter and
jelly sandwiches on a Bible at lunch time, was a family who could
explain the enduring loyalty the prosperity preachers inspire.

Stephen Biellier, a long-distance trucker from Mount Vernon, Mo.,
said he and his wife, Millie, came to the convention praying that this
would be “the overcoming year.” They are $102,000 in debt, and the bank
has cut off their credit line, Mrs. Biellier said.

They say the Copelands rescued them from financial failure 23 years
ago, when they bought their first truck at 22 percent interest and had
to rebuild the engine twice in a year.

Around that time, Mrs. Biellier first saw Mr. Copeland on television and began sending him 50 cents a week.

Others who bought trucks from the same dealer in Joplin that year went under, the Bielliers said, but they did not.

“We would have failed if Copeland hadn’t been praying for us every day,” Mrs. Biellier said.

The Bielliers are now among 386,000 people worldwide whom the
Copelands call their “partners,” most of whom send regular
contributions and merit special prayers from the Copelands.

A call center at the ministry’s 481-employee headquarters in Newark,
Tex., takes in 60,000 prayer requests a month, a publicist said.

The Copelands’ broadcast reaches 134 countries, and the ministry’s income is about $100 million annually.

The Bielliers were at the convention a few years ago when a
supporter made a pitch for people to join an “Elite CX Team” to raise
money to buy the ministry a Citation X airplane. (Mr. Copeland is an
airplane aficionado who got his start in ministry as a pilot for Oral
Roberts.) At that moment, Mrs. Biellier said she heard the voice of the
Holy Spirit telling her, “You were born to support this man.”

She gave $2,000 for the plane, and recently sent $1,800 for the
team’s latest project: buying high-definition television equipment to
upgrade the ministry’s international broadcasts.

Mrs. Biellier said some friends and relatives would say the preacher
just wanted their money. She explained that the Copelands did not need
the money for themselves; it is for their ministry. And besides, even
“trashy people like Hugh Hefner” have private airplanes.

“I remember Copeland had to once fly halfway around the world to
talk to one person,” she said. “Because we’re partners with Kenneth
Copeland, for every soul that gets saved, we get credit for that in
heaven.”

But while a band primed the crowd, Professor Walton called the prosperity preachers “spiritual pickpockets.”

“To dismiss and ignore the harsh realities of this economic
crisis,” he said. “is beyond irresponsible, to the point of
reprehensible.”

The Copelands refused an interview request, but one of their
daughters, Kellie Copeland Swisher, and her husband, Steve Swisher, who
both work in the ministry, spoke for them.

Mrs. Swisher said the ministry gave away “a minimum of 10 percent of
what comes in” to other charities. Her father’s current favorite, she
said, is a Roman Catholic orphanage in Mexico.

The ministry has resisted providing the Senate investigation with
all the documents requested, she said, because the Copelands did not
want to publicly reveal the names of the “partners.” The investigation,
which could result in new laws, is continuing, a committee spokeswoman
said. Among those being investigated is Creflo Dollar, one of the ministers at the Copelands’ convention.

Mr. Swisher said that even in the economic downturn, the ministry’s
income going into the convention was up 3 percent over last year. Asked
if they had adjusted the message for the economy, Mrs. Swisher patted
the worn Bible in her lap and said: “The message they preach is the
Word of God. The Word doesn’t change.”

At the convention, the preachers — who also included Jesse Duplantis and Jerry Savelle
— sprinkled their sermons with put-downs of the government, an overhaul
of health care, public schools, the news media and other churches, many
of which condemn prosperity preaching.

But mostly the preachers were working mightily to remind the crowd
that they are God’s elect. “While everybody else is having a famine,”
said Mr. Savelle, a Texas televangelist, “his covenant people will be
having the best of times.”

“Any time a worried thought about money pops up in your mind,” Mr.
Savelle continued, “the next thing you do is sow”: drop money, like
seeds, in “good ground” like the preachers’ ministries. “Stop worrying,
start sowing,” he added, his voice rising. “That’s God’s stimulus package for you.”

At that, hundreds streamed down the aisles to the stage, laying envelopes, cash and coins on the carpeted steps.

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