Tanning for Jesus

The deeply tanned preacher's daughter sits by the side of the pool in her tiny bikini on a brilliant summer day, her legs dangling in the clear blue water. To her right, boats pass slowly on the sparkling Intracoastal Waterway past multimillion-dollar mansions. At her left are two young and poor pregnant black girls sitting silently in deck chairs.

"I'd say God has blessed us for the time being," says 24-year-old Alexandra Billington, her dark hair dangling on sun-dripped shoulders.

Just as the words are leaving her lips, a white pleasure craft glides by the church building where Billington and the pregnant teens live, its name emblazoned on the side: Greedy, with the G fashioned as a dollar sign.

It may not seem like your typical church setting, but, then again, the Calvary Chapel never claimed to be a typical place of worship. And it certainly never signed a vow of poverty. Just a few months ago, it made news when it raised $103 million in a pledge drive that church leaders boast is the greatest single take by a church in U.S. history.

There are some wealthy folks among its 20,000 members, including billionaire heir H. Wayne Huizenga Jr., who talks up the church everywhere he goes. And, of course, the Fort Lauderdale-based chapel has a well-known and charismatic frontman in Bob Coy, Calvary's star pastor.

It's more than a church; it's a real estate venture, whether church leaders like to admit it or not. Calvary has numerous properties in Broward County worth something in the neighborhood of $100 million. Its sprawling main campus on Cypress Creek Drive is estimated to be worth $50 million alone.

And one of its newest acquisitions is the two-story waterfront triplex on Riverside Drive in Pompano Beach where Billington, a recent graduate of Kent State University; some other church folks; and several at-risk pregnant teen girls have been blessed to sleep and sun.

The church has either bought or is in the process of buying the triplex, an empty lot next door, and five condo units down the street for almost $4 million. Its stated goal: To house a program for pregnant teens.

But at present, Calvary Executive Minister Mark Davis says the church is keeping only three pregnant girls — foster kids the church gets from the Department of Children and Families — on the property and isn't allowed, by city code, to keep more than four.

That comes out to about $1 million per pregnant teen, making it perhaps one of the most expensive ministries per capita in American history.

Told you the church had money.

"All we're doing here is changing lives," Billington says. She glances at the two very quiet pregnant girls sitting on the deck in shorts and T-shirts. "These girls are getting saved."

But she knows that, no matter how idyllic the place may seem, trouble lurks outside the gates.

"People want to stop it," she says, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand. "That's how Satan works — the enemy sees something awesome going on and then tries to destroy it."

Enter Anthony Sofia. He's a 52-year-old Italian bull from New York who lives down the street in one of those condos the church has acquired. Even as Billington talks, he stands, quite literally, not far from the triplex gates, commiserating with a couple of other neighbors who live in million-dollar-plus homes nearby.

None of them likes what Calvary is doing.

Sofia doesn't want to destroy the church, but he has good reason to want to give it a smackdown. The church, after all, is evicting him.

"What is the Lord doing to me?" he asks. "Who's throwing me out? God or Satan?"

Executive Minister Davis says he's evicting Sofia for failing to pay his rent. Sofia says it was agreed that he would hold his rent payments in escrow until the condo — which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Wilma and still has huge holes in the walls and is missing a ceiling — is repaired.

Sofia says he's outraged that the church has lied to him and is now throwing him onto the street. But he is far from the only unhappy neighbor. Numerous residents, in fact, have complained to code enforcement about the church's putting a ministry for at-risk teens in their residential neighborhood. And hundreds of people have signed a petition to have the program shut down. From the petition:

"The turnover of people from week to week shows that this is not a family of any sort, and it is obvious that there is a violation of code here. This residence is being used as some sort of a boarding facility for rehabilitating purposes. Although we want to help and support all people of need, this is not the place for this type of activity. This will drastically reduce the value of our homes, lower the quality of our neighborhood, and could be a threat to our children."

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman