The Resurrection of Robert Tilton

Dogged by grabby ex-wives and financial scandals, a Texas prophet-for-profit brings his TV act to Miami Beach

The segment on Tilton was by far the most damning. At its heart was the accusation that Tilton never saw the vast majority of prayer requests and personal correspondence sent to him by faithful viewers. On the air Tilton promised to pray over each individual miracle-plea. But ABC said it found thousands of those requests dumped in garbage bins in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Checks, money orders, and in some cases cash, food stamps, and even wedding rings sent by followers had been removed for deposit at a nearby bank.

Tilton and his lawyer claimed the Dumpster documents had been stolen by enemies of the church and then planted in the trash.

Within weeks the first of a dozen lawsuits had been filed by outraged followers. One of the plaintiffs, Mary Turk, said she had avoided seeking medical treatment for colon cancer because she believed doing so would indicate a breach of faith in God. Meanwhile, reporters from a local TV station in Oklahoma claimed to have discovered thousands more Tilton prayer requests at a recycling plant. The requests were promptly impounded by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Tilton repeated his claim that the trashed prayer pleas were part of a plot against the church.

Texas Attorney General Dan Morales launched a fraud investigation of Tilton's ministry, and the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service subpoenaed the church's records the day after the ABC broadcast. Tilton called Morales "a flea." Morales countered that Tilton was "raping the most vulnerable segments of our society -- the poor, the infirm, the ignorant ... who believe his garbage."

Eighteen months later the screen went dark. By the time Tilton announced the cancellation of Success-N-Life, the show had lost as much as 85 percent of its audience. Contributions to the ministry had dropped from seven million dollars per month to two million dollars, according to Tilton's attorney, J.C. Joyce. "It is a matter of the media," Joyce said, addressing reporters. "You are responsible for what has happened to this church." Tilton himself referred to reporters as "devils."

The publisher of The Door, a religious humor magazine, also had some thoughts on the uses of broadcast media. "If there's a lesson televangelists have learned in the past decade, it's that those who live by media manipulation may die by the same," wrote Ole Anthony, whose Dallas-based Trinity Foundation assisted ABC in its expose. Tilton, Anthony noted, had simply been brought to the sharp realization that "technology could be a two-edged sword."

Instead of dying, the story broadened. In recent years it has included libel suits filed by Tilton against both ABC and the Trinity Foundation. (He lost the former and dropped the latter.) Meanwhile the Dallas press corps chronicled Tilton's two rancorous, high-profile divorces and the accelerating decline of his local congregation.

These days the trip to Tilton's Word of Faith Family Church is an unsettling one. The structure squats near the confluence of two interstates in Farmers Branch, a suburb of Dallas long devoid of farmers. High on the facade, careful observers will note, the prairie wind whistles through a broken pane of stained glass. Bob Wright, a caretaker pastor put in place by Tilton in the spring of 1996, parks his white Jaguar a few yards from a disused satellite dish the size of a sharecropper's shack.

Inside the high-tech tabernacle, thick curtains seal off empty balconies that once held thousands. Tilton's appointee preaches to a combination of poor blacks and elderly whites numbering about 130. The service is a desolate mix of hymns followed by Wright's wandering exhortations and, finally, a tepid dose of faith-healing during which parishioners move to the front, receive the laying-on of hands, and slump to the carpet for a few moments. There's a money plea that winds things up, but no mention of the absentee landlord. A few months ago, according to one attendee, the congregation took up a collection for Tilton's lost scuba gear.

"Not even the church staff seems to know when Tilton will appear," wrote the Reverend George Exoo, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and magazine columnist who visited the church in September. "About once a month he touches down in Dallas, the rest of the time leaving Pastor Bob Wright to rebuild the crowds. It's not working."

"The donations probably did not cover the light bill for the night, let alone the restoration of the beleaguered church," Exoo noted. "My guess is that the Big Executive has already canceled the show."

Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. To judge the health of Tilton's mass-market ministry on the basis of church attendance in Dallas is a fundamental misapprehension of how his operation actually works. It also fails to recognize the context of Tilton's troubles. Lost in the chronicle of his battles with the media, the Texas state attorney general, and various civil plaintiffs is the fact that Tilton has all but won the war.

Last summer a $900,000 jury award against Tilton was overturned on appeal. Eleven other lawsuits have been dismissed, dropped, or settled out of court. Investigations of fraud in Tilton's ministry by state and federal authorities have ultimately failed to produce any conviction. And Tilton has rid himself of the second of two wives whose allegations of physical abuse and drunken debauchery made for colorful headlines but in the end were never proven in court.

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