Pastor revered by many, criticized by some
He drives a black Rolls-Royce, flies to speaking engagements across the nation and Europe in a $5 million private jet and lives in a $1 million home behind iron gates in an upscale Atlanta neighborhood.
Dollar seems to have it all and says his followers can, too – riches on earth as well as in heaven.
”We settle for being broke, for being poor, for being in debt,” the 38-year-old pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park said in a recent sermon. ”I’ve heard people in church say, ‘I may not have this, I may not have that, but praise the Lord when I get to heaven on the other side.’ Well, honey, God wants you to get it on this side.”
But now Dollar is wrestling with more temporal matters. He’s been cited for contempt of court in the Evander Holyfield divorce. He’s appealing the contempt charge issued in December by a Fayette County Superior Court judge after Dollar refused to give a deposition in the boxer’s divorce case.
Janice Holyfield’s attorneys want Dollar to account for what they say is at least $4 million that Holyfield has given to the church and to Dollar personally. They also want a record of Dollar’s counseling sessions with Evander Holyfield.
Dollar said testifying in a divorce trial would destroy the trust between a pastor and parishioner, an issue he addresses in Journal-Constitution ads this weekend. In September, Dollar vowed he would go to jail before relenting.
”I realize there are a bunch of high-strung people that have got the love of money on their mind, but they just messed with” the wrong person, he said in a sermon.
In December, 100 Fulton County police officers were admonished by the county’s ethics board for accepting $1,000 apiece from Dollar. Dollar sent the money to recognize the officers’ service to the community. But the gesture was criticized because it came a month after two traffic tickets Dollar had received were downgraded to warnings.
A fiercely private man, Dollar has refused repeated requests for an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But in interviews with 25 people, including Dollar’s relatives, childhood friends and former and current church members, two clashing portraits of Dollar emerged.
Supporters see Dollar as a compassionate man who helps the needy and a spiritual visionary whose message of prosperity is twisted out of context. Detractors characterize him privately as ”Cash-Flow” Dollar, a high roller who often refuses to let members touch him and whose church requests access to their W-2 forms.
At World Changers
Dollar’s church, off Old National Highway in College Park, sits in a neighborhood solid by fast-food restaurants, auto repair shops and modest homes – some are neat little ranches, but others have plywood boards where windows once stood.
The World Changers campus sits on a slight hill, its gleaming dome rising over the area like a golden spaceship. The parking lot looks as large as a stadium’s. Other buildings ring the church, from a day care center to a large former strip shopping center that has been renovated into office space for World Changers.
Inside the church is a lobby befitting a five-star hotel. Chairs are scattered about on baby blue carpet thick enough to muffle the sound of the stadium-size crowd arriving for a Sunday service.
The congregation is metro Atlanta’s second-largest, with 20,000 members. In the sanctuary, rows of cushioned seats, enough for 8,000 people, face a stage big enough to hold an orchestra.
At the end of each row rests a white plastic container, as big as a mop bucket, for offerings. There are no visible traditional Christian symbols – no cross, no image of Jesus, no stained-glass windows.
Once the faithful sit down, they hear gospel music by a large choir, dressed in baby blue robes and backed by a full musical combo, including drums, keyboards and bass.
Then come the videotaped testimonials in which church members talk about how they received unexpected financial blessings after following Dollar’s advice. The testimonials flash on the arena-sized screen over the stage and at least a dozen small overhead television monitors scattered about. In one, a couple hugs and the man talks about how they didn’t have enough money for their wedding until they began following Dollar’s ministry.
Then Dollar’s wife, Taffi, introduces her husband as one who talks ”face to face with God, like Moses.” She warns that ”every tongue that rises up against” her husband will ”be struck down.”
Dollar enters from the back of the sanctuary like a rock star. His video image dwarfs him despite his linebacker’s build. He wears a handsome three-piece charcoal pinstriped suit, exudes confidence and speaks with a forceful baritone.
About a half-hour into the service, an assistant pastor booms to the congregation: ”It’s opportunity for prosperity time!”
The congregants wave money-filled envelopes in the air and yell in joy as ushers pass the white buckets down the row to collect the envelopes.
After more singing, Dollar preaches. His style mixes Pentecostal fervor, motivational aphorisms and humor. Sometimes he’s easygoing, even conversational. But when he gets worked up, he peppers his speech with words like ”Negro” and its pejorative cousin.
He relentlessly attacks the idea that Christians should limit material possessions. Christians have for too long let the ”devil’s crowd” get all the money, power and real estate, he says.
Then he tells congregants to say, ”I want my stuff.”
”I want my stuff,” they repeat, laughing.
Many who knew Dollar as a youth never imagined him as a pastor.
Known as ”Little Cref” by childhood friends, Dollar grew up working-class. His father, C.A. Dollar Sr., was one of the first black policemen in College Park.
Dollar Sr. was a tough, no-nonsense man – about 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds – who coached youth football and baseball teams. Dollar’s doting mother, Emma, managed a College Park elementary school cafeteria.
Dollar Jr. was a natural leader. Friends and an ex-teacher recall a loquacious teenager who was the only black pupil in his College Park elementary school, a ferocious middle linebacker in high school and a student government president who made excellent grades.
”He was not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a good guy,” said Anthony Benton, a lobbyist with Atlanta’s city government who attended Lakeshore High School (now closed) with Dollar. ”I could see his charisma back then. He was very opinionated – a very strong personality.”
Dollar graduated in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in education from West Georgia College in Carrollton. Dollar also met his wife, Taffi, at the college. They have five children, three girls and two boys.
After graduation, Dollar became a teen counselor at Brawner Psychiatric Institute in Atlanta.
A series of events soon tested him.
In 1985, Dollar’s father shot a fellow officer and said it was an accident. Dollar Sr., then a 20-year-veteran of the force, said he and Officer L. Kendall Hall were horsing around in the radio room. Hall, however, accused Dollar of deliberately shooting him and filed a $5 million suit against him and the city of College Park. The suit was settled out of court.
A year later, C.A. and Emma Dollar divorced after 42 years of marriage.
The same year, the younger Dollar founded World Changers. The first service was held in the cafeteria of the now-closed Kathleen Mitchell Elementary school in College Park. It was a far cry from today’s $6.5 million gold dome.
Dollar says he was called to preach by God while in college, but resisted because he thought himself unworthy, according to several members of his church. He finally relented, he has said, after being overwhelmed by God’s love while attending Bible study.
In a rare interview with a metro television station in February, Dollar said he never thought much of preachers.
”I didn’t like preachers driving their Cadillacs and their shiny suits,” he told WXIA reporter Karyn Greer.
Today, his congregation is the second in size only to the 23,000-strong New Birth Missionary Baptist. His sermons are broadcast in every state and in seven countries on the Trinity Broadcast Network, an international Christian television network.
Dollar lives in a $1 million home owned by the church in the Guilford Forest subdivision in southwest Atlanta. World Changers purchased another $1 million home on 27 acres in Fayette County in December. The church has amassed a fortune in real estate, mostly in College Park.
Dollar, now often accompanied by bodyguards in public, used to be accessible, said Marla James of Lithonia, who said she was one of the church’s first members but no longer belongs.
James said Dollar attended church picnics where he played basketball and tennis with members. She says the pastor even wrote her a personal letter of encouragement after she told him she was moving out of state.
Money wasn’t a big part of his message then, James said.
”I don’t remember the main topic being about prosperity,” she said. ”It was more about your life as a Christian and what God can do for you.”
When James returned to the Atlanta area in 1991, the church had swelled into the thousands. She called, hoping to meet with Dollar.
”They told me it would be a year before I could have an appointment,” James said.
As World Changers grew, so did Dollar’s emphasis on prosperity. Dollar has no degree in theology. Much of his prosperity message, according to church and his family members, is based on the teachings of friend and spiritual mentor Kenneth Copeland.
Copeland, a nationally known televangelist based in Fort Worth, Texas, also has provided Dollar with financial backing, according to J. Lee Grady, an editor with Charisma Magazine, one of the country’s most prestigious Christian publications.
Copeland – a former personal pilot for Oral Roberts – is a major figure in the decades-old ”word of faith” movement, which emphasizes speaking in tongues and healing. It was popularized by Kenneth Hagin Sr., a pastor who stressed the power of affirmations spoken aloud to bring wealth and health to the faithful.
”That message has almost been mainstreamed in a lot of African-American churches where you hear … that poverty is not of God, and he wants you to have a nice car,” Grady said.
The ”word of faith” movement emphasizes tithing, or giving 10 percent of one’s income to the church. In his sermons and books, Dollar says God wants people to prosper, but a person must tithe.
”God isn’t going to supply that need if you haven’t sown a seed,” Dollar declared during a recent sermon.
A man of vision
Dollar’s supporters believe strongly in his message.
”I know a lot of people say negative things about him, but he’s only saying that God wants his people to prosper and not be in need,” said Cheryl Swanier, a Columbus native who has never met Dollar but watched his broadcast for the past year.
His fans also say he gives money without fanfare to hundreds of needy people and, under his direction, World Changers has reached out to help poor neighborhoods like the Red Oak housing project in College Park.
”I’m not a great fan of his theology,” said the Rev. Wayne Pugh of the Abundant Life Ministries in Marietta, ”but he’s taught principles of self-help and success to people who are poor and sick. He’s a man who gives people hope.”
D.J. Lett has attended World Changers for seven years. She said Dollar helped her understand basic Christian concepts and makes the Bible come alive. She also said her life changed when she began to follow his teachings.
”My income doubled when I started paying my tithes consistently,” said Lett, an IBM saleswoman from Marietta.
She said her annual income went from $22,000 when she was self-employed to $46,000 over a three-year period after she began tithing. She said she was able to buy a house and help other family members financially.
”With me being blessed, I can bless somebody else,” she said.
The claim that Dollar compels members to turn over financial records is ”a bald-faced lie,” she said.
And a frequent criticism – that the church refuses to help nontithers – isn’t true either, Lett said. Tithers simply ”have priority,” she said.
People are not allowed to touch Dollar during services, she said, simply because ”the anointing is flowing at that point.”
She said the church purchased a Rolls-Royce for Dollar’s use because ”he deserves the best.”
Dollar’s message amounts to ”a Christian version of the lottery,” said Hank Hanegraaff, host of a nationally syndicated radio show and author of ”Counterfeit Revival,” a book that claims tactics used by cults are replicated in some churches.
Hanegraaff said he has listened to sermons by Dollar and has studied the teachings of Copeland.
”It preys on the poor and ill-informed,” Hanegraaff said. ”You have someone who can’t make their mortgage payment but the promise is if you give to God, God is going to supply the funds to you.”
Hanegraaff said such churches have a high turnover rate because people burn out under the pressure to tithe. Many followers of the prosperity gospel eventually abandon all organized religion.
The Rev. Joseph Roberts is one of the few Atlanta pastors who would speak about Dollar. He occupies one of the most prestigious pulpits in America as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church.
Roberts said he believes Dollar’s emphasis on prosperity obscures the heart of the Christian gospel – denying one’s self to serve others.
”When I think of the life of Dr. King,” Roberts said, ”he might have been among us today if he had just looked for prosperity because he would not have gone back to Memphis knowing the opposition that was going to meet him there.”
Demetrius King of College Park, who is no relation to the civil rights leader, joined the church in 1991. He said he left two years later after Dollar humiliated him. During a Sunday morning service, Dollar asked church members who tithed to stand. King remained seated.
King said Dollar pointed to him and the others who were seated and said they were blocking the blessings of the church.
Evelyn Williamson, who joined the church in 1993, said she was instructed during a class for new members to turn over her financial records. She refused. When the power to her home was turned off, Williamson said, she called the church for financial assistance.
She said a church minister refused her request and told her that if she had turned over her finances to God she wouldn’t need help. Williamson said she left the church after four months when church members refused to answer her calls.
Dollar also has attracted the attention of Ole, the founder of Trinity Foundation Inc., a nonprofit Christian group based in Dallas that investigates televangelists. Anthony gained attention in 1991 when he filmed televangelist Robert Tilton dumping hundreds of prayer requests in a garbage bag after removing the money.
Anthony said many former members of World Changers are afraid to speak out against Dollar because they are constantly reminded that they will be punished if they talk against a man of God.
But some aren’t afraid.
”He’s Satan wrapped in an Armani suit,” said Evelyn Williamson of Decatur.
Despite the legal troubles that loom over Dollar, those close to him say he is not dismayed.
”He’s a complete man of 100 percent faith,” said Dollar’s brother-in-law, Vic Bolton of Bakersfield, Calif. ”He doesn’t doubt at all what he’s doing.”
Dollar displayed that confidence during a sermon in September. He warned the congregation that disgruntled members would use his legal troubles to criticize World Changers. If he went to jail, Dollar said, he expected the congregation to come down and ”pray him out.”
During a more recent sermon, he quoted the prophet Isaiah, declaring, ”No weapon formed against me will prosper.”
”I don’t look at it like a scripture anymore,” Dollar said, his eyes blazing in determination. ”That’s my inheritance. I lay claim to that every day of my life that no weapon, although it may be formed – it will not work cq. It has no prosperity against a covenant child of God.”
– Staff writer Ralph Ellis contributed to this article.
Sdebar: List of properties held by pastor
The Rev. Creflo Dollar Jr. often compares himself to a CEO, and his church’s vast holdings reflect his entrepreneurial drive.
World Changers Church International’s big-ticket items – two private jets and a pair of $1 million homes – are registered in the church’s name.
It’s not uncommon for a church or synagogue to buy a pastor a home or car, said Michael Broyde, professor of law and religion at Emory University. But Dollar’s situation is unusual, he said.
”I can’t think of a pastor or a case that I’ve encountered where the synagogue or the church owned an airplane,” Broyde said.
WORLD CHANGERS PROPERTY
- Grumman G-1159 aircraft (also known as a Gulfstream Jet). Estimated value: $5.375 million
- Gates Learjet. Estimated value: $985,000. Sources: Aircraft Blue Book and Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.
- The World Changers Dome, built for $6.5 million in 1996
- Residence, 4695 Hamden Forest Drive in the Guilford Forest subdivision, 7,519 square feet, market value $1 million. Dollar lives in this home.
- Residence, 1181 Sandy Creek Road in Fayette County, 7,401 square feet on 27 acres. (House was built by former NBA player John Battle and R&B singer Regina Belle.) Market value of land and buildings: $1.27 million.
- Church office/retail space (former shopping center purchased by World Changers in 1995), 5925 Old National Highway, 24,520 square feet on 8.31 acres. Market value: $1.77 million.
- Residence, 2535 Burdette Road in College Park, 1,692 square feet. Market value: $66,200.
- Church building, Old National Highway, 16,400 square feet. Market value: $17,600.
- Church building, 5817 Old National Highway, 1,233 square feet. Market value: $57,600.
- Church building, 2500 Burdette Road, 10.36 acres. Market value: $555,700.
- Residence, 2595 Burdette Road, 720 square feet. Market value: $54,600.
- Church building, 2555 Burdette Road, 1,056 square feet on 9.7 acres. Market value: $133,400.
- Church building, Old National Highway, 20,000 square feet. Market value: $14,000.
Property belonging to Creflo and Taffi Dollar:
- Residence, 9357 Whaley’s Lake Trace, 1,699 square feet. Market value: $105,262.
Sources: Property assessment records and property records from Fulton, Fayette and Clayton counties.
Compiled by AJC News Research