Group: ‘Ministry’ targets sick, needy

Are you one of the area residents who recently received a curious “Jesus Eyes Prayer Rug” in the mail with the suggestion of divine blessings if only you would send money?

The come-on might seem bizarre, but it is said to be a lucrative direct-mail campaign.

Most people will just throw the letters in the trash with the other junk mail, but one organization says a few – the poor, the sick, those in spiritual crisis or otherwise desperate enough to grasp at any hope – will send money.

A lot of money.

“By their own estimates, it’s up to $40 million to $50 million a year now,” said Ole Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation, a religious community in Dallas, Texas, that for years has been tracking the operations of the man responsible for the prayer-rug campaign, James Eugene Ewing.

Ewing, believed to be near 70, lives in Century City, Calif., but the prayer-rug campaign is run under the name of Saint Matthew’s Churches and carries a return address of a post office box in Tulsa, Okla.

As a federal nonprofit group, the organization filed tax returns through 1999, when it showed $26.8 million for the year in direct public support.

Then the organization declared itself a church and, as such, was no longer required to file returns.

‘Heaven lottery’

On the GuideStar Web site, which provides information to help consumers evaluate charities, the information about Saint Matthew’s seems routine.

“Since it was founded, Saint Matthew’s Churches has been active in publishing, giving out, and mailing the Gospel, all free of charge,” it says, and claims the “mother church” has the capacity to seat 1,600. In the absence of tax-return information, according to the Web site, such information is provided by the organization.

The address of the church is given as 515 S. Main St., Tulsa – the address of Ewing’s attorney, J.C. Joyce. A telephone message left with the firm of Joyce and Pollard, seeking information about Saint Matthew’s Churches, was not returned Monday.

Anthony said Saint Matthew’s has no church, but instead rents other churches for photo shoots. Ewing has worked with some of the biggest televangelists in the country, Anthony said, and wrote the script when Oral Roberts said in 1987 that God would “call him home” if he didn’t raise $8 million.

Ewing, said Anthony, was born in poverty but now lives like a king.

“He’s from Kaufman, Texas, which is 30 or 40 miles southeast of Dallas, and he has a seventh-grade education, but he’s a genius at direct mail,” Anthony said. “He invented the concept of seed faith, which is kind of a heaven lottery where God is going to give (money). It’s now all we see on radio and television, but it’s the worst perversion of Scriptures you can imagine.”

Business plan

Anthony, 67, said his organization got into the business of tracking Ewing in 1991, when many of the homeless people who came to his group for help complained of being bilked by direct-mail scams. He said he could not persuade federal or state authorities to investigate, and was told it was simply a “Southern cultural phenomenon.”

Anthony launched his own investigation, which included going through the trash at the organization’s office in Tulsa and elsewhere. In addition to business records, group members discovered thousands of discarded prayer requests, he said.

They also found a business plan, Anthony said, which said the organization gets a whopping 8.6 percent on direct-mail campaigns. The average for most such campaigns, he said, is 1.5 percent, but Ewing has managed to increase the effectiveness of his direct-mail efforts through computer analysis.

“They are not only targeting areas that are economically depressed, they target racial groups as well,” Anthony said. “They target blacks and Hispanics. They take U.S. census data and computer programs to identify the poorest neighborhoods, down to a three- and four-block square area, then send out a direct mailing addressed to ‘Dear Friend or Occupant.’ The latest information we have is that they are sending out about a million of these a month.”

The eyes have it

The “prayer rug” is an 11- by 17-inch paper with the face of Jesus in purple, and resembling the direct-mail equivalent of the Shroud of Turin.

“Look into Jesus’ Eyes (and) you will see they are closed,” the instructions say. “But as you continue to look you will see His eyes opening and looking back into your eyes. Then go and be alone and kneel on this Rug of Faith or touch it to both knees.”

The prayer rug, the letter says, should be returned within 24 hours so that it can “bless other homes.” The recipient is warned to keep the letter hidden and not discuss it with others, and the letters sometimes contain other items, such as golden coins, communion wafers or sackcloth billfolds.

The Missouri attorney general’s office has received at least 20 complaints about the prayer rugs, according to spokesman John Fougere.

None of the complaints have been from the Joplin area, he said. While the office often mediates when consumers have valid complaints, no action is expected in connection with Saint Matthew’s.

“In this particular case,” Fougere said, “it appears to be something we usually don’t mediate because there’s no requirement for donations.”

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Source

(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Joplin Globe, USA
Mar. 21, 2006
www.joplinglobe.com

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 22, 2006.
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