He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want.
Prov. 22:16 (KJV)
Miracles happen to those who believe in them.
The Prosperity Gospel. The teaching finds its roots in the Book of Luke, ch.6 v.38 KJV wherein it says “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again”. Again, in the Book of Mark, ch.10, v.30 KJV we are told “But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands…” This biblical assurance of real-time rewards in return for alms has been used for centuries by churchmen and others to encourage people to donate freely to the work of the church and, not infrequently, to the churchmen themselves.
In recent years no one has used this appeal more successfully, more lucratively than the mass-media mavens known generally as televangelists. Over the last 60 years or so the organizations of such preachers as Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Pat Robertson and John Hagee have attained fantastic wealth by way of donations from devout followers. For all the star quality of these latter-day shamans however, one of the most successful money-raisers in the ranks is among the most obscure – the Rev. Gene Ewing of Beverly Hills CA. This reclusive marketing guru and one-time Texas tent revivalist, whom the Trinity Foundation has dubbed “God’s ghostwriter” today runs a multi-million dollar marketing empire whose primary function is to operate direct-mail solicitation campaigns for televangelists. Over the years his work has swelled the coffers of such notables as Rex Humbard, Robert Tilton, “Rev. Ike” and W.V. Grant, Jr. It is claimed that around 1970 his fund-raising campaign rescued Oral Roberts’ ministries from imminent bankruptcy.
In addition to his consulting work to financially-challenged ministries, Ewing also has a church of his own design, called St. Matthew’s church. While St. Matthew’s actually does seem to have a brick & mortar house of worship – a former Baptist church in Houston TX, purchased in 1994 – the main thrust of Ewing’s organization is by mail. Utilizing sophisticated data-mining techniques and U.S. census information St. Matthew’s church-by-mail organization targets the poorest and most needy neighborhoods for these campaigns, sending up to a million letters per month. The letters often contain trinkets – tiny vials of “holy oil”, costume-jewelry crucifixes, a “prayer mat” with a stylized picture of Jesus that appears to open its eyes if one stares at it long enough, a novelty “check” drawn on the Bank of Heaven; and blatant suggestions that if the recipient sends a donation to St. Matthews he may receive financial rewards from God in return.
Apparently, people do donate. In 1999, the last year St. Matthew’s made its financial records public, donations were $26 million. Since that time the U.S. Court of Federal Claims has affirmed that St. Matthew’s is a tax-exempt institution and is not required to publicly disclose its finances. There is no reason to believe it has undergone a reduction of revenue.
It must be said, that the operations of Rev. Ewing and St. Matthew’s Church appear to be entirely legal under U.S. law. There is no mail fraud, no extortion, no tax evasion. Caveat Emptor applies. The letters make various platitudinous statements such as “We pray that you will bless someone in this home spiritually, physically & financially. And please Dear Lord, Bless the one who’s (sic) hands open this letter. Make good changes in this one’s life and give them the desires of their heart. We pray over and bless this letter in your Holy Name. Amen.” Recipients are told to open their letters in private, in a “room or somewhere where you can be alone with the Lord” (and presumably away from the prying eyes of family members who might have better financial sense).
The letters from St. Matthew’s do not demand money, but they contain veiled warnings that if one does not donate, the promised benefits may not accrue to them. People are told to “Whisper the name of Jesus three times as you write your name on the back of your Faith Check.” The solicitations also contain supposed testimonials from others (identified only by initials) that have been blessed by giving.
A “Mrs. F.L.C.” claims God sent her $28000 after she sent money to St. Matthew’s.
“Y.G.” said she had only $50 to last until payday, but that after using the Prayer mat, she was blessed with $46,888.20.
“M.C.” of Michigan writes “I have been blessed with a grocery store and three homes!”, while one “P.M.”, also from Michigan says “Dear St. Matthew’s since I’ve been requesting prayer I’ve been getting money. Please continue to pray for me”.
And so on. The money continues to roll in to the P.O. Box in Tulsa that St. Matthew’s uses for all return mail. From there, according to a former employee who was fired after questioning the morality of what was being done, the letters travel to a well-staffed mail handling operation where checks and cash are removed and the return letters and prayer requests are placed in large bins, ostensibly to be prayed over by Ewing and other “bishops”. In reality, according to a 2005 civil suit filed in a California federal court their final destination is the incinerator.
On a Personal Note…
This writer became aware of the Rev. Ewing’s machinations a year ago when approached by a relative whose oldest friend – a retired educator, 90 years of age – suddenly appeared to be broke; savings evaporated, monthly pension check gone without enough left to pay living expenses. Implicit in the sudden financial drain were a number of letters from something called “St. Matthew’s Church” of Tulsa OK. Would the writer do a bit of research on this organization, find out if it was legitimate?
The writer would…and did, and the results of that research were distressing. Reams of testimonials appeared from people who had been taken in only to realize too late that far from being blessed with financial rewards; their faithful giving to St. Matthew’s had left them in worse straits than before. Journalists have written exposé’s, the IRS has weighed in, the Better Business Bureau has investigated, and still the money machine rolls on fueled by the well-intended donations of people too innocent or too unwary to know better. An information packet was prepared and presented to the elderly party in question who promised to stop sending money, a request was sent to St. Matthew’s to have the name dropped from their mailing list. The letters continued to arrive, and it is unclear at this time whether the aggrieved party has been fully able to ignore their blandishments. Short of acquiring power of attorney, there is nothing else to be done.
If anyone who reads this knows of friends or relatives who might be vulnerable to this particular money-mongering scheme…the devout elderly, the poor or shut-in, especially those without internet access, it is strongly recommended that they be shown a printed copy of this article, or printouts from the accompanying links. Local churches and seniors groups should sound an alert. It will not completely dry up the fountain of funds accruing to Ewing and Co., but it might just save someone you care about.
Wikipedia entry for St. Matthew’s Churches
Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Report for St. Matthew’s Churches
Rip-off Report; Consumer Complaints on St. Matthew’s Churches
A 2007 story in the Houston Press
An expose` from the Tulsa World, reprinted by the Trinity Foundation
St. Matthew’s Churches’ website