Ebbing Empire : Televangelism: With his medical center closed, layoffs in his ministry and contributions down from their all-time high, Oral Roberts may have reason to wonder: Have the miracles stopped?
It is a famous and controversial vision. In 1980, evangelist Oral Roberts claimed he saw a 900-foot-tall figure of Jesus towering 300 feet above the beams and girders of the City of Faith medical center he was building here. The Christ figure, Roberts reported, stooped and lifted the unfinished buildings, declaring, “See how easy it is for Me to lift it.”
Roberts took the apparition as an affirmation that the medical center, strapped for lack of construction funds, would be completed. Others saw it as source of humor. A poster showing the City of Faith with a street sign warning of a “900 ft. Jesus X-ing” was soon popular in Tulsa, one indication that the city’s most famous resident is far from sacrosanct here.
Now, nearly a decade after beholding the gigantic Christ, Roberts may wonder if his revelation was indeed some sort of cosmic joke. The pioneer of the electronic church who for decades operated on a scale that was bigger than life is being forced to think small, at least by his standards. Things have gotten so tough that Roberts, often ranked second only to Billy Graham as America’s best-known evangelist, is purportedly modifying his own life style. His ministry already has sold four Mercedes automobiles and three vacation homes in California, valued at more than $4 million, to raise cash. And now his Tulsa home, that of his son, Richard, and three others owned by the Roberts organization--all hidden in a fenced nine-acre compound--are on the market.
“Really, God has thrown him a very bad curve,” said the Rev. Warren Hultgren, a Roberts friend and pastor of the 6,500 member First Baptist Church here.
“He out-dreamed his reach,” said Jenk Jones, Jr., editor of the Tulsa Tribune and a longtime Roberts watcher who compared the evangelist’s recent string of money-saving moves to radical surgery. “It’s like a body with a degree of gangrene and they keep whacking pieces here and there,” he said. The 71-year-old Roberts, he added, may be “increasingly aware of his own mortality and I think he’s darn concerned over what he’ll leave behind.”
Jones, whose paper has investigated the Roberts organization many times, said Roberts’ troubles stem partly from an unwise use of money, particularly to support an upscale life style. “I don’t think I’d call it hanky-panky. I think I’d call it extravagance--at least nonjudicious use of money,” he explained.
Roberts has never been shy about asking for money, or from adopting flamboyant tactics to get it. Although the 900-foot Jesus figure prompted widespread derision, Roberts endured even greater ridicule two-a-half years ago when he announced that “God will call me home” unless he raised $8 million to provide scholarships for medical students at Oral Roberts University--part of a sprawling complex in south Tulsa that includes the university, the medical center and a television studio-auditorium. Roberts got his money but much of the nation howled with laughter and jokes about death threats from God proliferated.
All in all, Roberts is going through a round of “embarrassment and disappointment and failure that he has not experienced before,” said Rice University sociologist William Martin, who studies electronic ministries. Martin cautioned, though, that Roberts’ latest moves may be window-dressing to better attract money to his coffers. “I would tend to be skeptical of almost anything he says,” he said.
Yet the fact remains that over the last couple of years Roberts has drastically downsized his empire, including the television ministry that once dependably raised millions upon millions of dollars for his projects. At his peak Roberts brought in more than $85 million a year. Estimates now are that Roberts’ donations are running about $2 million a month, perhaps a bit more. Whatever the figure, the income is not enough to sustain the diverse needs of a university, medical center and a ministry with a global mission to save souls.
“Oral has been in a much more competitive fund-raising environment for a decade and he did not take that into account for a very long time,” said David Edwin Harrell, Jr., author of “Oral Roberts: An American Life,” the definitive biography of the evangelist. More and more lately, Roberts has “had to turn back, essentially, to the people who understand him,” Harrell added, referring to the hard core of believers in Roberts’ charismatic ministry.
In fact, Roberts now seems to lurch from one fund-raising crisis to another, claiming to need $8 million, then $11 million and, most recently, $25 million to keep his ministry and Oral Roberts University afloat. The most dramatic and visible setback came just this Monday as the massive City of Faith medical center released its last patient, dropping the curtain on one of Roberts’ biggest dreams.
From the beginning, Roberts fought strong opposition to the medical center project, originally envisioned as a Mayo Clinic for the Southwest. Local doctors argued that Tulsa had more than enough hospital beds. Roberts was eventually granted a license, but for only 294 beds of the 777 he had planned for the $150 million center. Even at that reduced level, the hospital was seldom more than half full. Ironically, the only functioning Roberts operation now on the center’s grounds is a faith healing center linked to a gravel parking lot by a rickety wooden sidewalk.
In addition, the medical school that operated in conjunction with the City of Faith also will be closed at the end of the academic year. The medical school closure follows the phase-outof a dental school in 1985 and the transfer of the university’s law school to fellow evangelist Pat Robertson the same year.
“I prayed today that I would not cry. I’ve cried all the tears in my soul,” Roberts said at the press conference announcing the closings last month. Since then Roberts, who has had a long history of combativeness with the press, has largely retreated from the public eye. He is not giving interviews and the entire Roberts organization seems mute. The silence is not limited to Roberts’ supporters. Many old opponents of the evangelist and his controversial medical center also declined interviews or did not return phone calls.
Perhaps ominously for the Roberts organization, last month’s announcement of the shutdowns came only five weeks after Roberts’ son and designated heir to the empire, Richard, had announced the firing of 250 employees of the ministries operated by him and his father. The ministries’ most visible endeavors are the television shows “Richard Roberts Live” and Roberts’ “Expect a Miracle,” seen on about 200 stations nationwide. Last year, the two shows cut back the number of markets they reached, dropping a total of more than 120 stations.
And Oral Roberts’ decline may continue, some say. Roberts watchers here are wondering if he might even be forced to close down the 4,000 student university that bears his name. Roberts himself apparently is feeling some heat, having announced that he want to devote much of his time to increasing the university’s endowment. The total value of the land and buildings of both the university and the medical center is put at $500 million, all owned debt-free. The problem, however, is paying operating expenses for the university and the ministry, including expensive television time.
If the university should ultimately close--and some believe the odds are high that it will--it would mark a collapse surpassing that of Jim Bakker’s $100 million plus PTL Ministry. Bakker’s domain disintegrated in a 1987 sex-and-money scandal that led to Bakker’s conviction last month on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. Blamed by Roberts for tarnishing televangelism and for much of Roberts’ own fund-raising difficulties, Bakker is scheduled to be sentenced next Tuesday for crimes related to money-gathering for his Heritage USA theme park and Christian resort center near Charlotte, N.C.
“I think a lot of people would like to see the university continue,” said Jones, noting that higher education in Tulsa is limited. “I don’t harbor any illusions that it’s a great university but it’s a pretty good university.”
Whether or not the works of Oral Roberts eventually wither away, the man himself is not likely to be forgotten. He has been a national figure for more than 40 years, getting his initial dose of fame as a tent revivalist whose touch could sometimes heal the sick and afflicted. Throughout his career Roberts was among the first evangelists to expertly use print, radio and television to boost his ministry, in effect helping invent the contemporary media-evangelism that became such a prominent feature of the 1980s.
Biographer Harrell maintained that Roberts’ rise from dirt poor Oklahoma farm boy is a variation on the Horatio Alger story. As a young man, Roberts was drawn to Tulsa, a boom-town where fortunes were being made in oil and construction, he explained, noting that Roberts’ fortune simply was in religion rather than hydrocarbons or concrete. Roberts’ charismatic ministry tapped a deep spiritual yearning in the American heartland, Harrell said. “There are a lot of people who are trying to get connected with the transcendent whether it’s poor Okies or New Agers,” he said.
Even Roberts’ critics such as editor Jones credit him with much personal charm and “a great mind, a great ability to communicate.” Before he became trapped in his fund-raising spiral, Roberts was a community leader, “a real dynamic bulldozer” who had broad interests outside his own operations, Jones added.
Rev. Hultgren, a former golfing partner of Roberts, agreed that the evangelist has withdrawn from many of his activities, including sitting on the boards of a local utility and a bank. “I played golf with him for 20 years until he opened the City of Faith,” Hultgren said in his office here, a book-lined grotto sporting mementoes of 30 years of pastoring in Tulsa. “That’s when his schedule became complicated. He pretty much--I wouldn’t say isolated himself--but he’s not as much in the mainstream.”
Hultgren attributed Roberts’ more bizarre recent actions to a sense that his options have become limited as he enters his eighth decade. “Desperate people do desperate things,” he said. “I feel sorry for him, I really feel sorry for him. But he did the best he could and made a lot of mistakes along the way.”
Hultgren noted that Roberts’ latest troubles follow the devastating losses of two of his four children, a daughter in a 1977 plane crash and a son who committed suicide in 1982.
Throughout these emotional traumas, Roberts pursued his ambitions of expanding the university and building the medical center. On a bright day, the result is almost blinding as the gold-colored glass of the medical center and the university buildings across the road reflect and intensify the sunlight.
The university and medical center were carved out of a farm in what is now a well-to-do section of south Tulsa. The spires of the medical center, low-slung but massive university buildings and a bizarre, umbrella-shaped prayer tower are surrounded by pleasant residential neighborhoods and upscale shopping centers and hotels. But the surrounding developments do little to blunt the monumental impact of the university and medical center architecture. While the architecture has been praised by some, its critics dubbed the overall effect as “Six Flags Over Jesus.”
The gold-and-white color scheme and the futuristic designs of the buildings seem to hint that Roberts built his idea of heaven on Earth.
Rev. Hultgren believes that the buildings are testimony to Roberts’ faith.
“You look at those buildings out there, baby, the point is they’re there,” he said. “Whether God did it or he did it, they’re there.”