The Cult of Ole

The amateur detectives plopped onto couches, waiting to see their handiwork on national television. Nervous? A bit. Excited? Oh, yeah.

For months they'd been sleuthing. Diving in dumpsters, following trails of documents, going undercover, telling lies if necessary, all in the service of God.

And of their leader, a tall charismatic man named Ole Anthony. Many of those curled on the sofas in the office of the Trinity Foundation had been with him for more than a decade. They were idealistic young Christians, drawn in by his energy, brilliance and demand for complete transparency. They'd given up their money, their careers and, for some, their own wills to follow Anthony, just as he followed Jesus, albeit in his own idiosyncratic way.

No one who met Ole (pronounced O-lee) Anthony ever forgot him. Though his blond hair had turned white, his eyes were still the same piercing blue, and they zeroed in on listeners with a ferocity that could be unnerving. Everyone in the room had come under his withering glare at one time or another and they loved him for it, or said they did.

They lived on "the Block," a row of old prairie-style houses off Columbia Avenue in East Dallas, where they studied, ate and worked together. Some had taken a vow of poverty and worked as "Levites" for Trinity, an odd fusion of church, shelter and public foundation dedicated to its role as a religious watchdog.

One major goal of Trinity from its beginnings in the 1970s was to keep tabs on televangelists who exploited the nation's airwaves--the prophets of profit fleecing the flock. And they were about to nail a triumvirate: three high-profile Dallas preachers living large on OPM--Other People's Money.

Everybody hushed when the opening scenes of the one-hour Primetime Live special came on. It was November 21, 1991, and Diane Sawyer was about to make their leader famous.

They had gone after W.V. Grant, Larry Lea and Robert Tilton. But their primary target was Tilton. The rubber-faced televangelist promoted a prosperity theology that Anthony deemed not just fraudulent but blasphemous. Tilton promised to pray for his viewers' needs if they sent him a prayer request. A monetary "seed" would speed the blessing. On TV Tilton shouted, "MAKE YOUR BEST VOW!" God would certainly return a hundred-fold. Tilton and his show, Success-N-Life, had a huge following on religious television.

From the vantage point of a hidden camera, ABC viewers followed as Anthony went in undercover with a producer to interview a man who worked with Tilton's direct-mail operations in Tulsa. Anthony was posing as a minister about to get his own TV talk show.

The man revealed how to build "a big-money ministry like Robert Tilton's." The keys: new names, give them a freebie and pressure people to mail back. Then Diane Sawyer revealed the dynamite evidence Anthony and his acolytes had found while dumpster-diving outside Tilton's bank: thousands of prayer requests stripped of their money and thrown in the trash. Anthony, handsome and eloquent, called it an egregious violation of trust.

The program was a powerful indictment of a callous and greedy preacher. As it ended, Sawyer gave special credit to Ole Anthony and the Trinity Foundation. Anthony and his followers exulted. Many were crying--including Anthony.

"It was awesome," Anthony recalls. "The one aspect of the program that everybody remembers is when Tilton crossed over the sleaze line. They remember the prayer requests in the trash. A producer at ABC told me it was the No. 1 topic on talk radio for weeks."

Among the handful of people at Trinity that night, Doug Duncan was thought to be Anthony's heir apparent: tall and well-spoken, as dark as Anthony was blond. At a press conference in December 1988, Anthony and Duncan had together launched the Dallas Project, a challenge to America's religious groups to end homelessness by taking at least one person off the street. The proposal had grabbed nationwide attention. That would be eclipsed by what happened this evening.

"I was into investigating the televangelists," recalls Duncan, who did trash runs and went undercover in two churches. "I thought they were polluting Christianity with a false gospel."

Within months of the broadcast, Tilton's ministry would implode. As contributions dropped, he pulled back his TV operation. Members began leaving the Farmers Branch church in droves and Tilton was forced to lay off some of his 800 employees.

Back at Trinity, Anthony was basking in media attention. Journalists from around the world descended on Columbia Avenue looking for dirt on other televangelists. They found a unique community that seemed above the fray of religious money-grubbing, a pure form of Christianity that emphasized laying down self in the service of others.

In the last 15 years, Trinity has investigated scores of religious groups, from mega faith-healing star Benny Hinn to an obscure sect that screams the devil out of people. One result of their efforts was a prison sentence for W.V. Grant on tax evasion. Just last week Anthony was on radio talking about Bishop T.D. Jakes' opulent lifestyle.

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Glenna Whitley