ATLANTA – From the moment Paula White steps into the World Congress Center, she’s on: camera-ready makeup, designer suit, black stilettos and pocketfuls of pithy sound bites.
In town to promote her forthcoming book at the International Christian Retail Show last week, White meets no strangers. She introduces herself to gawkers, cameramen, interviewers and fans with hugs, including a waiter who passes along his admiration as he serves her lunch.
As host of the “Paula White Today” show, White broadcasts to millions of homes a day. An author, she also is a life coach on “The Tyra Banks Show” and hobnobs with celebrities. Her 22,000-member Tampa church, Without Walls, has been dubbed one of the fastest-growing churches in America. In Lakeland, Without Walls International purchased Carpenter’s Home church and now has a satellite church at that location, Without Walls Central.
White will cross another milestone today when she opens a center in Manhattan to host life-coaching seminars.
But as White enjoys a meteoric rise to the top of Christian evangelism, she must juggle mounting concerns at home.
In the last few months, Without Walls, which White leads with her husband, Randy, has been embroiled in controversy over allegations of a lack of integrity and questionable business dealings.
The accusations, brought to light by the media, former church members and disgruntled former employees, touched off a maelstrom of debate about Without Walls and its leaders.
While the Whites have been reticent, their supporters and detractors square off on Internet blogs and message boards. The church’s board of directors eventually issued a statement trying to bat down the allegations.
“Everything she does is a total act,” said Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas nonprofit watchdog group that monitors televangelists. “… She’s on this ride now that’s just going hot guns and big celebrity, and she’s going to fail miserably because the things that they’re doing are so outlandish,” noting her lavish lifestyle.
In keeping with her teachings that trials and tribulations make Christians strong, White responds in an e-mail to the Times: “My focus is the assignment and work of ministry that we have always done and continue to do with the fruit of that good work reflected across the nation and all over the world.”
Demerits into merits
As she sits with interviewers at the retail show July 9, White captivates them with the story of her troubled youth involving abuse, neglect and low self-esteem.
As White tells it, she was born Paula Michelle Furr in Tupelo, Miss. In her 1998 semiautobiography, she details an early life of country clubs and privilege. Her parents’ marriage, she said, began to unravel when she was 5, with her mother fleeing to Memphis.
Her father followed with an ultimatum: Give him Paula or he would kill himself. White’s mother refused, and later that night Donald Furr wrapped his car around a tree, ending his life, White says.
Her mother, Myra Joanelle Furr, sought refuge in alcohol. While Furr worked, White was looked after by caregivers, whom she said sexually and physically abused her for seven years.
White says she found God when she was 18 and living in Maryland. A stranger saw that she was broken and offered her the Christian plan of salvation.
At the time, White was a new mother to a baby she had out of wedlock. She had a brief marriage with the baby’s father, a member of a rock band. Eventually, she wound up at a local church sweeping floors and teaching Sunday school. That’s where she met a young visiting preacher. Randy White was pudgy and not her type, she says, but the two grew in love and married in 1990.
Some church members frowned upon the relationship, surmising that Randy, who came from five generations of preachers, should find a more suitable bride.
The couple moved to Tampa in 1990 and soon after started South Tampa Christian Center. They renamed it Without Walls in 1997 and set about building one of the fastest-growing congregations in the nation.
It wasn’t long before White’s popularity began to eclipse her husband’s. Though they lead the church together, she is sought after and travels around the country preaching.
“Clearly, they have branded her,” said Scott Thumma, professor of religion and sociology at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. “Her look, her products. They’re branding her face, her style, and it resonates in a lot of ways with folks.”
Obscurity to stardom
White says she received a vision of her future as a preacher shortly after her salvation. Her career got a megaboost when she met Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Dallas megachurch, the Potter’s House.
Jakes, who is black, helped catapult White to superstardom – particularly among black women – when he invited her to speak at his Woman Thou Art Loosed Conference in 2000. She launched her television ministry a year later.
Today, White is one of the most popular preachers on Black Entertainment Television and appears on several other networks including Spike TV and Trinity Broadcasting.
Her folksy, down-home delivery ranges from that of reserved theological teacher to charismatic, foot-stomping, finger-pointing preacher fluent in the call-and-response worship style of the traditional black church.
On a recent Sunday at Without Walls, White preached from John 2, where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding.
“Slap somebody right upside their weave and say ‘Get in the Flow,’ ” White told the audience, her voice rising as she introduced her sermon title. “Are you ready? Somebody say ‘Bring it on. Bring it on.’ ”
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Tonya Jones was mesmerized.
“She speaks to me,” said Jones, 39, a Tampa homemaker. “I like the way she brings the message in a way that I can understand.”
White also has been dubbed a prosperity preacher, a proponent of the “name-it and claim-it” gospel, which purports that people can receive financial, emotional and spiritual blessings if they donate. That message and her penchant for designer clothing and flashy cars have added to the cacophony of criticism.
White drives a Mercedes-Benz and flies around the country in a private jet. She lives in a $2.1 million mansion on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard and has a Fifth Avenue condo in Trump Tower in New York City.
The ministries took in $39.9 million in 2006, according to an audit of Without Walls and Paula White Ministries released in June by an independent Clearwater accounting firm. About $28.6 million helped promote the church’s programs, conferences and outreach efforts, the audit said. Other expenses covered management and fundraising.
White’s salary was not detailed, but her publicist says she has multiple streams of income outside the ministry. She donates to causes and individuals both inside and outside of Without Walls, her publicist said.
At the Christian retail show, for example, White told one of her assistants to send gospel artist CeCe Winans “another check” for her planned conference for girls. Winans beamed. White said she already had given the effort $25,000.
And for his 50th birthday in June, White sent Jakes a black convertible Bentley. It was intended to be quiet gift, White said, but an overzealous member of Jakes’ ministry shouted out the news at the retail show.
“Some people thought ‘Why would you do that?’ ” White later explained, saying that Jakes is her spiritual father. “I thought, ‘Well, why wouldn’t I?’ That’s not even an option.”
For all of her successes, White still describes herself as the messed-up Mississippi girl whose life God turned around. At times, she appears enchanted by her own stature.
White insists she has a message to give a public that is eager to receive.
“The key is balance. But I do what I do because, quite honestly, I am committed to our mission to transform lives, heal hearts and win souls.”