The Resurrection of Robert Tilton

On the trail of the elusive (yet surprisingly TV- friendly) Pastor Bob, fallen man of God and new South Florida resident

"After all the headlines and all the investigations and all the audits, they couldn't find one damn thing that this man or this ministry had done wrong," says attorney J.C. Joyce. "There never was any dirt on Robert Tilton. In the end it was all a pack of lies. But there hasn't been any story about that, has there?"

While church members in Dallas may believe that Tilton has vanished from the face of the Earth or is busy doing God's work in some Third World backwater, he is in fact alive and well and living in the world's capital of second chances, South Florida.

As recently as last summer, Tilton stated that church revenues totaled an astonishing $750,000 to $800,000 per month, court transcripts show. This at a time when Tilton had been off the air for nearly two years. Only a small portion of church revenues ($20,000 per month) come from leases on church-owned property, Tilton said.

Anthony, the Trinity Foundation leader and Tilton nemesis, claims the physical church in Farmers Branch is little more than a money-losing prop designed to repel IRS scrutiny of Tilton's tax-exempt status, a charge Tilton's lawyer vehemently denies. At any rate, 130 hardscrabble parishioners don't generate $750,000 to $850,000 per month. So where does the money come from?

The answer is Tilton's mailing list, which once contained 880,000 names and addresses. Just as national political campaigns depend on mailing lists of potential contributors, they are the crucial, invisible keys to American televangelism.

According to former Word of Faith church members, Tilton once employed hundreds of minimum-wage "prayer warriors" to answer his toll-free hot line. When viewers called in, their names and addresses were entered in computer banks. The master list was then used, as it is today, to generate mass mailings to the faithful -- and more pleas for money -- over and over again.

"Do you need more money?" reads an envelope received by a California resident a few months ago. A pair of pennies is visible through a cellophane-covered aperture.

Inside the envelope is a message from Tilton: "Take the miracle request prayer sheet that I have enclosed with the coins and carefully write down the areas of your life (especially financial) where you want me to release my anointing on your behalf ... and then WRITE A CHECK FOR THE BEST POSSIBLE GIFT THAT YOU CAN GIVE!! Make it a widow's step-of-faith and give the devil a black eye by placing the biggest, largest, most generous gift (that would defy natural reason) into God's work."

Tilton includes instructions to pray over the coins and send them back with a check. "Your two token coins will be placed in my New Testament Treasury Chest for me to bless every day," he writes. "I will then send you an anointed miracle coin to use as your miracle reminder and as a point of contact to carry with you wherever you go."

The mailings are accompanied by testimonials from victims of peptic ulcers, layoffs, cigarette addiction, deadly spider bites, rebellious children, infertility, insomnia, and AIDS. Their lives turned around after they sent money to Tilton. Take "Robert," for example, a miracle recipient identified by first name only:

"Everything was crumbling around me," Robert explains. "My two best friends had just sued me. My landlord had served me with an eviction notice. I was jobless and flat broke. I wouldn't answer the telephone because I knew it would be a bill collector.

"I was cowering in a chair with all my curtains closed. Heartbreaking love songs gushed from the stereo .... I lit a joint.

"Robert Tilton was praying [on TV]. I can't explain it but I heard him say, 'You. Right there. You're smoking a joint.' I dropped the joint and he said, 'You just dropped it.' I started crying. I KNEW IT WAS GOD TALKING TO ME."

The mailings come with trinkets such as seeds or sand or salt packets. A Dallas woman received a small strip of red polyester. "Right now this cloth is plain fabric," Tilton wrote, "but after I send it back to you it will be a Miracle Cloth saturated with the presence of God."

As Jim Moore, owner of an Oklahoma printing company that handles Tilton's outgoing mail, explained to a hidden news camera in 1991: "It's all about names and addresses."

Mailing lists grow stale when the TV screen stays dark too long. Now, though, it is bright once more. Tilton's toll-free prayer line is up and running, and his Tulsa, Oklahoma, P.O. box awaits a hoped-for onslaught from the faithful.

Every weekday between 11 a.m. and noon, a fiberoptic telephone line the size of a human hair carries the voice and image of Robert Tilton out of a small TV studio in Miami Beach. The signal runs under city streets and across Biscayne Bay until it reaches WPBT-Channel 2, a public television station in North Miami. Comtel, a for-profit affiliate of the station, beams Tilton's brand-new Success-N-Life show up through the heavens to transponder number one on a satellite owned by Hughes Communications and known as Galaxy 9.

Unless you own a satellite dish, you can't see Tilton's show in South Florida. Instead you must move to Los Angeles, Nashville, Detroit, or Atlanta, where Success-N-Life began airing on various cable channels in April. Two months ago Tilton moved into the New York market and now appears there as well twice each day.

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