Tuxedo Park – “Jesus had the same story I had,” says Bishop E. Bernard Jordan. “He was born to a family that was poor, and he overcame all the odds by becoming rich in every way.”
Jordan grew up in a three-bedroom apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the son of a construction worker. Today, the 44-year-old minister with a high school education lives in a $3.6 million, 27-room mansion deep inside the wooded confines of wealthy Tuxedo Park.
He got there by forming his own church 20 years ago when he was only 23 years old. His Zoe Ministries began humbly in a church member’s house in New Jersey. Over the years, preaching a gospel of prosperity and self-empowerment, Jordan built Zoe Ministries into a multimedia enterprise that collected $2.8 million from its loyal following in 2001.
“We live to give,” Jordan teaches his followers to say.
And give they do. Encouraged to “sow seeds” of prosperity, followers attending Jordan’s services in Manhattan and, since July, at the church’s new retreat in the Sullivan County hamlet of Woodbourne, donate or pledge sums of as much as $10,000 – contributions that they expect to bring them greater wealth.
“You sow money, you’re going to reap money,” explains the bishop, seated on a red velvet couch near the foyer of his three-story mansion.
Jordan calls himself a prophet, as much a conduit for God’s word as Old Testament seers Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah. He has been prophesying since he was 15, he says, ever since God told him to in a dream.
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He has written four books of books of predictions and offers his followers personalized prophecies, either spoken to them at services as they hand in their yellow tithing envelopes or recorded on cassettes they can buy.
Musical celebrities have come to Zoe Ministries to hear Jordan preach. Joseph Simmons, better known as Run from the ground-breaking 1980s rap duo, Run-D.M.C., was so enthralled that he became a minister in the church. He is now the Rev. Run.
Jordan is also a friend of fellow minister and 2004 presidential candidate Al Sharpton. They are close enough that for the last six years, Sharpton and his family have rented a half-million-dollar house that the bishop and his wife, Debra, own in Brooklyn.
Jordan makes no apologies for his mansion and fleet of cars, which includes a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes-Benz SUV. For him, wealthiness is next to Godliness – a way to “fulfill life’s purpose” and help others.
“We’re not taking any vow of poverty,” he tells his flock.
The air outside the Zoe Ministries retreat in Sullivan County was hot and thick, a steam bath. About 100 people of all ages, dressed in their Sunday best, sat on wooden folding chairs on the grass under a large tent with yellow, white and baby-blue stripes.
Dawn Witherspoon, a Zoe singer with black-framed glasses and blond hair in corn rows and a ponytail, stood before the crowd on a plywood rostrum, microphone in hand. Next to her was Bishop Jordan, big and serene, wearing a black, hooded robe with a large crucifix around his neck.
Witherspoon was explaining the good fortune that befell her and her husband when she pledged $10,000 to the church – after having already pledged $25,000. Her phone “exploded” with singing gig offers, she said. Then, she and her husband got the condominium they wanted, even though they no longer had money for a downpayment.
“Faith will do – ” she began.
” – what money can’t do,” the bishop finished.
“That was only after the pledge,” Witherspoon said.
Parting with her last $500 seed was hard, she recalled. “I cried all the way up the aisle.” But soon afterward, as the bishop had predicted, she landed a TV appearance that singers dream of: She was a finalist in VH1’s diva competition.
“I just thank God, because it was after the seed,” she said.
Jordan faced the audience and said, “The word works.”
“The word works,” the crowd repeated.
“The seed works,” Jordan said.
In October, Zoe Ministries bought the former South Wind hotel in the Catskills for nearly $1.2 million. Situated on 107 acres of countryside near the tiny hamlet of Woodbourne, the resort consists of a large main building and seven smaller guest houses, housing 88 rooms altogether. The property includes a private, 27-acre lake.
Zoe Ministries sows few seeds with the government. As a religious organization, it doesn’t have to pay taxes. That means no income tax on the $2.8 million it made in 2001, for example, and no property taxes on the Tuxedo Park mansion, which it owns. Taxes on the house this year would total $46,250.
But the church chose not to claim a property-tax exemption for the retreat and will pay almost $24,000 in taxes this year as a result. Jordan said that decision was made after he learned that many other properties in the economically depressed area were also tax-exempt because of religious affiliations.
“I told the church, ‘We’re here in the community to give, not take,’ ” he explained. “We want to give to the community. It needs help.”
Zoe Ministries began welcoming members to what is now the New Holy Ground Retreat Center of Miracle Mountain over the Fourth of July weekend. Then, in August, it held the “Nehemiah Revival,” a two-week tent meeting.
One hot, muggy Sunday during the revival, Dave Grindley, a church member from Babylon, Long Island, sat on a park bench in the shade at the retreat, keeping an eye on two of his young children while waiting for the service to begin.
Grindley, who has been going to Zoe services regularly for five years, said he grew up religious in Jamaica but stopped going to church for a while after he came to the United States because he thought the preaching he heard was based on “very shaky doctrine.”
That changed after his wife, Sabrina – the sister of Debra Jordan, the bishop’s wife – introduced him to Zoe Ministries and Bishop Jordan.
“I am very, very impressed,” he said. “Right now, there is no better teacher that I can rely upon.”
Skeptical at first, Grindley has become a firm believer in Jordan’s prophetic ability.
“It’s as if we’re walking into what he’s pointed out to us,” he said. “He has wiped out the skepticism in me.”
Grindley, who fixes elevators for a living, said he sometimes signs over his whole paycheck to the church. “You do it,” he said, “and everything still seems to be taken care of.” Donating to the church has forced him to re-evaluate his spending priorities and jettison unnecessary expenses, such as CD purchases.
Church spending, however, is not dispensable.
“This,” he said emphatically, “is imperative. This, I would not live without.”
“A week’s pay is a cheap price,” Grindley said. “If the day comes when I could give $100,000 to this place, it would be a small price.”
The service began at 1:30 p.m. and lasted more than three hours. The Rev. Harold Lovelace, a peppy white minister from Alabama who sounds like Ross Perot with a bellyful of Jesus, preached for over an hour to a rapt, mostly black audience. People took notes, applauded and called out, “Amen!”
Rain pounded the tent off and on throughout the afternoon. Few people left their seats, except to give testimonials. Clifford Branch – “Brother Cliff,” a very large man seated behind a keyboard – played soft background music and accompanied three women singers on rousing gospel hymns.
Sowing commenced a little after 4 p.m.
“Give, and it shall be given to you,” Bishop Jordan said. Two young women raised their hands to sow a $10,000 seed. Jordan moved on to smaller amounts, an auction in reverse. “Who else will join me in a $200 seed?” he asked in his mellow voice. Hands went up. “That’s five, that’s six…” he said. Ushers handed out yellow tithing envelopes. “If you quench a prophet’s thirst,” Jordan said, “you will get the prophet’s reward.”
The two women donating $10,000 came to the front of the audience to offer a testimonial. Latrice Grant spoke. “When I did the first $20,000 seed,” she began, “it was just lawsuit after lawsuit.”
“In other words,” the bishop said, “the challenges set in.”
“But your grace told me to just stand,” the woman said. “I love you, your grace.”
Brother Cliff played softly on the keyboard.
“They had about 10,000 other things they can do with that seed,” the bishop said. “But they’re feeling something.”
A man held up a pledge card. “Making a $10,000 pledge, right there,” Jordan said. “Thank you.” He asked who had already sown $10,000, and at least two dozen people stood.
“If you can be trusted with 10, then I can trust you with 50,” he said. “How much money can God trust you with?”
More than two dozen people stood on line with envelopes by the time the bidding bottomed out at $20. One by one, they handed their money to the bishop and he spoke to them. Some were diverted to other church prophets, men and women in clerical garb who stood in front of the stage like a wedding receiving line. One church member, a heavy-set, middle-aged woman, jumped up and down with her hands over her mouth as a prophet spoke to her with his hands raised and eyes cast upward.
As the line dwindled, Jordan left the tent with an assistant holding an umbrella over his head. Brother Cliff and the singers kept going. Minutes later, the bishop returned, and everyone joined hands in a circle and sang a final hymn.
Later, Grant, one of the two women who donated $10,000 that day, described how her life had changed since she joined the church 2½ years ago. “I started owning properties and getting involved in business relationships,” she said. Grant, who lives in the Bronx, said the bishop convinced her to leave her $85,000-a-year job with a SoHo venture capital firm to start her own business. A year ago, she opened a mortgage brokerage.
Archdeacon Wesley Ingram, a Zoe minister sitting next to Grant, said of Jordan: “He’s going to say things that provoke you to be independent, to be productive. He’s a motivator. He’s an inspiration.”
“He does inspire,” Grant concurred.
Jordan was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, but from the second grade on he was bused to predominantly white schools in Bensonhurst, an experience he says was traumatic at times. His father was a construction worker who didn’t go to church, his mother a school crossing guard and Sunday school teacher who did.
He says he heard his calling early in life. One night when he was 15 years old, he says, God told him in a dream that he could prophesy. Around the same time, he says, a minister stopped him as he was returning from a prayer line and said, “You’re going to be a preacher.”
In 1983, Jordan, who had been preaching at a church in Iselin, N.J., started Zoe Ministries and began holding services in the living room of a worshipper’s home in nearby Westfield. Zoe is Greek for “eternal life” or “the God kind of life.”
Jordan soon moved services to the Ramada Inn in New Brunswick, N.J., and then transferred in 1984 to the Doral Inn hotel at 49th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. In 1987, Zoe Ministries bought a building in Brooklyn and moved services there. But the church returned to the Doral Inn after about three years, Jordan says, because it was more centrally located and attracted “a better quality of person.”
It was there that a despondent Joseph Simmons found Zoe Ministries in 1990 as the riches and fame he earned with Run-D.M.C. dwindled. Jordan says he mentored the rapper with books and tapes and watched him turn his life around: “We really walked him through some of the darkest moments of his life.”
In 1991, Jordan started televising his sermons on a show called “The Power of Prophecy.” He gave up the show after six or seven years, he says, because “television has just gotten so expensive. There isn’t the return.” Today, his sermons can be seen 24 hours a day in streaming video on the church’s Web site, www.zoeministries.com.
In 1993, Zoe leased an inconspicuous, 400-seat theater on the ground level of an apartment building at Riverside Drive and 103rd Street. That is where the church remains, holding services on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Jordan says his church has about 400 members who attend services and another 20,000 supporters around the world.
Jordan is a big man, over 6 feet tall, with a patchy beard and his hair in corn rows. He is warm and approachable, and seems laid back to the point of languor. And yet he says he usually stays up working until two or three in the morning and rises around seven.
“People who change the world don’t get very much sleep,” he says.
Jordan considers himself largely self-educated. He says he took classes at the Manhattan Bible Institute and the Tabernacle Bible Institute in Brooklyn and later received a Ph.D. from Friends International Christian University in Merced, Calif. for his “life experience” and a book he’d written on mentoring.
Jordan says his non-denominational church resembles Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity. Much of his preaching is recognizably Christian and draws upon the Bible, which makes it jarring to hear him condemn religion – by which he appears to mean religious dogma.
“Religion tries to control you,” he says in an interview at his house, “and keep you from the freedom to think individually.” For this reason, he says, “Religion is not good for African Americans.”
Jordan says his true passion is helping people find themselves, build self-esteem and succeed in life.
“I love developing people,” he says. “We don’t shape lives. We point people to the change within them that can occur.”
He promotes entrepreneurship, urging followers to start their own businesses. This sounds like secular teaching, but Jordan considers it part of Christianity. “The Bible said you should be the head and not the tail,” he explains. “You will never be wealthy working for someone else. Why do you need to be operating on slave wages when you can have daily bread?”
Money occupies a large part of his teaching. “We don’t need to preach to these people about Jesus,” he says. “They have Jesus.” What they don’t have, he says, is the “abundant life” that Jesus lived. “The ‘abundant life’ is to be prosperous in all areas of life.”
Sounding like Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character from Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie “Wall Street,” Jordan says, “We teach people in my church to say, ‘Money is my friend.’ “
He shuns the idea that being poor is virtuous.
“It is error,” he says emphatically. “That’s what we come to expose. That is not the message of Christianity.”
Look at Jesus, he says. He turned water into wine. Multiplied the loaves and fishes. Got 12 men to quit their jobs and follow him.
“That’s prosperity,” Jordan says. “Jesus was rich, naturally as well as spiritually.”
Mother Teresa? “A very rich woman. She could command the audience of certain people. That’s wealth.”
People may condemn materialism, but there’s nothing wrong with it, Jordan says. “There’s nobody more materialistic than God. Look at the earth,” he says, spreading his arms.
In short, being rich is good. “Number one,” Jordan says, “it makes you comfortable, comfortable to fulfill your life purpose.” It also allows you to help others. “You see, it’s very selfish to say, ‘I just want enough money to live my life and pay my bills,’ because then you can’t help anybody else.” He looks around at his mansion. “This is not for me,” he says. “How much of this house can I live in?”
Change for change
It’s 8:10 on a Tuesday night. Show time at 310 Riverside Drive.
A two-man band kicks in with a rollicking gospel number. Brother Cliff is on the keyboards, accompanied by a drummer. Witherspoon and another singer stand at the microphones and belt out the first song.
“This is the day that the Lord has made.”
The singers clap and sing tight, sweet harmonies. Witherspoon starts punching out notes to make you drop to your knees.
“Jesus is the rock! Jesus is the rock of my salvation!”
The mood is joyful, exuberant. About 25 people have arrived, and half of them are standing, swaying, swinging their arms, clapping and snapping. One woman beats a tambourine. Video cameras roll in the back of the theater and the balcony.
The musicians segue from one song into another. Witherspoon is bringing down the roof. “Hallelujah!” she shouts over the music. “You’re an awesome God! Hallelujah!”
People in the audience raise their hands and shout, clapping and cheering.
After 20 minutes, the curtains part in mid-song, and there stands Bishop Jordan, Lovelace and some of the church prophets. Jordan, wearing a gray suit, fuchsia shirt and clerical collar, sings along with a wireless microphone.
“We lift our hands/We lift our hearts/As we offer this praise unto your name.”
People repeat the refrain as Witherspoon testifies at full volume, as though Jesus has lit her soul on fire.
The service begins. Lovelace delivers a scorching sermon in which he condemns dogmatic religion and advocates belief in a forgiving, compassionate God instead of a punitive one.
“I’m convinced he forgives them all!” he exclaims, sweeping his arm sideways.
Many people have pulled out notebooks and are writing, including Jordan, who is sitting on a throne onstage, the Zoe ministers seated next to him. From the stage and audience come the constant shouts of “Amen!” and “Come on!” and “Jesus!”
“This God that we serve is marvelous!” Lovelace shouts as he concludes his sermon. “Thank God that he had a program to save everyone! Stand and praise the Lord! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
The audience stands and cheers.
Jordan picks up the message. “You’ve been given a God of wrath, a God of anger, until you’re serving a God of anger,” he says. “Heaven is not a place where you’re going to need anger management.”
Brother Cliff plays something soft and sweet, an organ sound.
“There are theology schools down the block,” Jordan continues, “where they can teach you the history of Christ. It’s not the history you need to know. It’s the mystery –”
“Oh, come on!” a man shouts.
“– of Christ.”
“Jesus, Jesus,” a woman murmurs, writing in her notebook.
Soon, Jordan begins saying, “Change for change.” Audience members rise and walk to the stage at the front of the church, where they dump handfuls of coins onto huge mounds of change already cascading down the sides of the carpeted steps.
“Change for change,” Jordan repeats, strolling back and forth onstage with one hand in his pocket. He created the ritual so people with little money to spare could donate, too. The slogan “change for change” reinforces the message that giving the church money will help donors change their lives.
“Isn’t it good to know that God still has prophets today?” Jordan asks.
The audience claps.
“Amen. Isn’t it good to know that God has a company of prophets?”
A preacher from Guyana, a skinny man with a shaved head, swimming in a gray suit, takes the microphone and speaks with rising passion.
“Jesus!” he tells the crowd. “You have a bishop! You have a prophet!”
One hand holds the microphone, the other is raised high. He rocks back and forth.
“The fire of God is present tonight! The consuming fire! The fire! I feel the fire!”
Next, Run takes a turn. As a singer, he rapped about his Adidas sneakers. Now, he preaches about the big bucks he makes off Phat Farm sneakers. He owns 15 percent of Phat Farm, the successful clothing company his brother, the hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, created and runs.
“That company is worth $100 million in less than two years. The sneakers are just exploding, and exploding, and exploding.”
His brother doubted Zoe Ministries at first, but feels differently after seeing Jordan’s predictions come true, Run tells the crowd.
“That’s why he sowed $10,000 last week,” he says. “He believes now. Jesus proved it. Jesus proved the prophet to be right.”
He talks about his $2 million house and the riches he regained since meeting Bishop Jordan. Then he recalls his former depression and how he felt lost, even as Run-D.M.C. toured with the rock band Aerosmith at the height of his duo’s popularity.
Suddenly, he shouts:
“I landed on my feet!”
The audience cheers.
Run leaps, again and again, shouting into the microphone.
In between sermons, Jordan has begun tilling the soil.
“When we get down past our last, we borrow to give,” he says. “What do you do when you can give no more? You give.”
He encourages his flock to dig deeper in their pockets.
“We’re not interested if you have it,” he says. “Because if you have it, there’s no mystery in it. If you have $100 on you, $200 on you, you have the power to give that. That doesn’t take much faith.
“The Lord says, if you pledge it, it’s going to come. The question is not, will it come, but can you be trusted?”
He asks for a $10,000 pledge.
“We got a hand there.”
More hands pop up.
The Episcopal residence
In 1996, the Jordans left Brooklyn and moved with their five children into the Frelinghuysen estate in Tuxedo Park, the gated community of multimillion-dollar manor homes nestled in the wooded hills of southeastern Orange County.
At the time, only three families had lived in the 11,000-square-foot mansion since it was built in 1900. The Frelinghuysen family bought it in 1906 and dwelled within its stucco and stone walls for 60 years. The Jordans paid $1.7 million for the house and 5.5-acre property.
After moving in, the bishop commissioned a team of Russian artists to paint elaborate art work on the walls and ceilings of the first floor, a job that took two to three years. Egyptian-themed murals cover the walls of the great room: ancient Egyptians hunting, fishing, moving a sarcophagus. One shows Jordan on a throne, as pharaoh.
Nearby, in a room with scarlet walls and gilded filigree on top, there is a ceiling painting of Jordan on a throne – as God – with his three sons hovering around him as angels. On the ceilings in the foyer and another room, there are baroque-style paintings of his children as cherubim, soaring across the heavens.
None of this quite compares to the living room.
Here, the four walls are covered with murals depicting New Testament scenes, each with Jordan as Jesus in the familiar iconography of medieval and Renaissance art. Two scenes show the Ascension: Jesus/Jordan ascending into heaven after rising from the dead. For a Nativity scene, the artists used Jordan’s baby picture to depict Jesus/Jordan in the manger.
Dozens of people in biblical garb crowd around Jesus/Jordan in each scene. For each figure, the artists reproduced from photos the faces of the 200 or so people who paid for the $1 million renovation of the mansion. Run, who bought the huge chandelier hanging in the center of the room, is there in the crowd. So is Sharpton.
“These are the people who believed in what we’re doing,” Jordan says. “This is our way of saying thank you to them and immortalizing them.”
Being depicted as Jesus doesn’t make Jordan uncomfortable.
“It’s not really me,” he says. “It’s me as the principle of Christ. We teach everyone that they are Christ.”
Jordan has a cluttered office on the second floor of the mansion, with shelves – also donated by Run – jammed with books from ceiling to floor. He tapes his personalized prophecies at his desk here, on a multitrack recorder. If the muse eludes him momentarily, he can stroll out onto a balcony that overlooks We-Wah Lake, one of Tuxedo Park’s three lakes, and the forested hills beyond.
Parked out front, among other vehicles, are a white Rolls Royce, a black stretch limousine, a yellow Hummer and a black Mercedes-Benz G500 SUV. The limousine, Jordan says, was bought purely for practical reasons: It was the best way to transport his family and staff to and from the city while paying a minimum of tolls.
The Jordans may not stay here many more years. The bishop said he plans to sell the Tuxedo Park mansion, which was appraised at $3.6 million in June of last year. He has already tried unsuccessfully to sell the house several times, at one point asking $4.7 million. It isn’t on the market now.
In the meantime, builders are finishing a two-story house for the family at the retreat in Woodbourne, a more modest abode than their current digs at a mere 3,360 square feet. The Jordans also have a penthouse apartment in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.
Jordan says he also plans to shed his luxury cars, a category that excluded his wife’s $48,000 Hummer and his $74,000 Mercedes.
“Now I just want to live to give,” he says, “to help people become.”
He plans to turn the Sullivan County retreat into a year-round center for learning and worship, a place where visitors from around the world can stay. In the past, the church has held conferences a couple of times a year in a variety of places, often at hotels in the city. But with its own 88-room retreat in the mountains, Jordan says, Zoe Ministries can hold these gatherings whenever it wants and spare guests the high cost of staying in a Manhattan hotel for several days.
Some church members are already gravitating to Sullivan County to live near the retreat. Around eight followers have bought homes in the area, Jordan says.
Lorie Von S. Braun, a longtime follower and one of the few whites in the congregation, says she plans to quit her counseling job in Brooklyn and leave behind her family in Elmont, Long Island, to live at the retreat.
“He is a prophet; he is the voice of God,” Braun says. “He is our Moses, and we are following him.”