Lucrative ‘seed faith’ mail ministry has Tulsa ties
Once a traveling tent-revival preacher, the Rev. James Eugene Ewing built a direct-mail empire from his mansion in Los Angeles that brings millions of dollars flowing into a Tulsa post office box.
Ewing’s computerized mailing operation, Saint Matthew’s Churches, mails more than 1 million letters per month, many to poor, uneducated people, while Ewing lives in a mansion and drives luxury cars.
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The letters contain an alluring promise of “seed faith”: send Saint Matthew’s your money and God will reward you with cash, a cure to your illness, a new home and other blessings. They often contain items such as prayer cloths, a “Jesus eyes handkerchief,” golden coins, communion wafers and “sackcloth billfolds.” Recipients are often warned to open the letters in private and not discuss them with others.
The approach reaped Ewing and his organization a gross income of more than $100 million since 1993, including $26 million in 1999, the last year Saint Matthew’s made its tax records public. And while much of the money is spent on postage and salaries, Ewing’s company receives nonprofit status and pays no federal taxes.
Though Ewing claims it is a church, Saint Matthew’s Churches, once called St. Matthew Publishing Inc., has no address other than a Tulsa post office box. It has two listed phone numbers in Tulsa and both are answered by a recorded religious message.
The organization is not related to other Tulsa-area churches named St. Matthew’s, though many of them have received calls asking to be removed from its mailing list.
Ole Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit religious watchdog group, has tracked Ewing’s organization for years. The foundation was largely responsible for exposing televangelist Robert Tilton in 1991 after Antho ny said he found prayer requests sent to Tilton in Tulsa trash Dumpsters.
At the time, Tilton and Ewing shared the same Tulsa attorney, J.C. Joyce. Saint Matthew’s Churches is incorporated at Joyce’s downtown Tulsa law office and the organization paid Joyce’s law firm more than $2.6 million for legal services during three years, records show.
Anthony has also obtained documents that describe how Ewing and his organization use demographic data to target the poor.
“He capitalizes on the isolation of the loneliest and poorest members of our society, promising them magical answers to their fears and needs if only they will demonstrate their faith by sending him money,” Anthony said.
“He is, quite literally, the father of the modern-day ‘seed-faith’ con cept that fuels the multibillion-dollar Christian industry known as the ‘health-and-wealth gospel.’
“The only ones becoming rich are the men like Ewing.”
Joyce, who has represented Ewing for decades, said Ewing, 70, would not agree to an interview for this story. He said Anthony’s characterization of Ewing and his faith is inaccurate and that Anthony “is not credible.”
Joyce said seed faith “is a biblical principle that is preached by thousands.”
“The Bible is full of admonitions to give.”
Joyce said the church has services in a Presbyterian church that it leases in New York City and that Ewing preaches during some of the services.
The pastor of the church, the Rev. Leslie Merlin, said she had never heard of Ewing but that Saint Matthew’s Churches conducted services there.
Ewing, who did not attend divinity school, was ordained by the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches.
Ewing was born in Texas in 1933, the son of south Texas sharecroppers, according to his mailings. After serving in the Air Force, he chartered Camp Meetings Revivals in Dallas in 1958. He described the organization as “educational, charitable, missionary and evangelistic.”
Ewing’s tent-revival crusade grew quickly. A full-page ad in the 1963 Tulsa World announced a “deliverance revival: Gene Ewing coming under one of the world’s largest tents.”
Ewing kept a decidedly lower profile several years later when he returned to Tulsa to meet Oral Roberts.
Donations to Roberts’ ministry had plummeted after Roberts built Oral Roberts University and joined the United Methodist Church. His top advisers were seeking a buyer for the ministry’s corporate airplane.
The Rev. Wayne A. Robinson, then the vice president of public affairs for the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, called Ewing about the plane. Robinson was the executive producer of Roberts’ television shows and editor-in-chief of his publications. He also was the ghostwriter for Roberts’ autobiography.
Ewing expressed interest in the plane, which was dispatched to California to pick up Ewing and several other associates.
“I brought them in to see Oral,” Robinson recalled. “I was expecting the appropriate deference of these guys to Oral, the big man. About the first thing Gene said was, ‘Oral, you are in trouble, and I can help you.’ ”
Ewing, who had little formal education, was about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, wore expensive clothing and jewelry and a blow-dried hairstyle, Robinson said.
“He had all the things you can think of of people who had made it and come out of poverty: the most expensive silk suits, alligator shoes, coifed hair.”
Ewing spoke in broken grammar and one of his model letters contained 17 misspellings, Robinson said. But Roberts “recognized that this person had something to say, and he was willing to listen.”
During a second meeting with Roberts, Ewing laid out his seed-faith philosophy.
“Gene laid out one of the most sophisticated fund-raising campaigns I had ever seen. He said, ‘Oral, I want you to write your supporters and tell them you are going in the prayer tower, and you are going to read their prayer requests and pray over them.’ He stayed there three days. I forget how many hundred thousands of letters we had, but it was huge.”
Robinson said that on Ewing’s advice, Roberts responded to the letters with a letter outlining seed faith.
“You give and you get from God. It was a kind of prosperity gospel,” Robinson said.
Roberts was so happy with Ewing’s advice that he gave Ewing the plane, Robinson said.
The next year, income to Roberts’ ministry doubled, to $12 million from about $6 million, Robinson said.
Despite the prosperous times, Robinson said, he was unhappy in the job and soon quit. Today, he is a pastor of the All Faiths Unitarian Congregation Church in Fort Myers, Fla.
Once Ewing rescued Roberts’ finances, other well-known evangelists came calling, Robinson said.
“Once he did it with the biggest man of all, then all the others were just tickled to get on board.”
Robinson said that after he left Roberts’ ministry, he had a chance meeting on an airplane with Tulsa-based evangelist T.L. Osborn, who had also sought Ewing’s services.
“He said, ‘We were down to counting pencils and paper clips until Gene came along.’ ”
A certain flair
Ewing’s flair for effective, dramatic direct-mail appeals won him jobs writing for evangelists including Tilton, Rex Humbard and “Rev. Ike.” In many cases, the letters are identical but contain different signatures.
The Trinity Foundation, which obtained copies of the identical letters, has dubbed Ewing “God’s Ghostwriter.”
“We had nine different televangelists essentially sending out the same letter,” Anthony said. “He (Ewing) makes most of his money by selling these packages to televangelists.”
Anthony said one Ewing letter, written for Humbard, brought in $64 for each copy mailed. Another mailing by Humbard contains a “sackcloth billfold” and asks recipients to mail a “seed offering” of $19 to a Boca Raton, Fla., post office box.
A similar letter from Tilton also contained a “sackcloth billfold” but encouraged recipients to return a “seed of faith” of at least $709.00.
Joyce said Ewing has written for many other evangelists.
“Pastors preach other people’s sermons all the time,” he said.
Tulsa evangelist Billy James Hargis became friends with Ewing in the 1970s, said his wife, Betty Hargis.
“We were having some difficult times here in Tulsa. He advised my husband on some things and mainly since that time it’s been a friendship,” she said.
Betty Hargis said she and her husband receive Ewing’s mailings.
“When he does something, he does it right, first class and showy.”
While writing pitch letters for other evangelists, Ewing continued to build his own empire.
In 1971, Ewing bought a Dallas church and named it Cathedral of Compassion. A two-page ad announced the church opening, which was attended by boxer Joe Louis and a bevy of celebrity preachers and politicians.
Three years later, Ewing moved his Church of Compassion to an elaborate former theater in Los Angeles. Ewing lived in a mansion across the street from singer Pat Boone, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.
Joyce said the home wasn’t a mansion and that it was Ewing’s office.
Ewing later changed the organization’s name to Rev. Ewing’s Evangelistic Ministries Inc., or REEM, a religious, direct-mail operation that received tax-exempt status.
In 1978, Ewing and an associate, Ray McElrath, incorporated an advertising company and a data processing company to provide printing and mailing services to nonprofit religious groups. The companies were incorporated in Tulsa but kept offices in California, records show.
Nine months later, the two incorporated Church by Mail Inc., with a downtown Tulsa address. The IRS called the organization “virtually identical” to REEM.
In its application for tax-exempt status, Church by Mail stated that “it conducts regular worship services, usually without the congregation physically present.”
The company sent mailings to more than 3 million homes in 46 states.
The mailings included the “Gold Book Partnership with God” still used by Saint Mat thew’s today. The book contained a year’s worth of monthly coupons. Recipients were instructed to “tear out a coupon and mail it with a ‘faith money payment’ to Rev. Ewing each month.”
Church by Mail’s net mail revenue in 1980 totaled just more than $3 million and it reported contributing $100 to charity. Despite the hefty revenue, Church by Mail reported a deficit, mainly because of the complex financial arrangements between the organization and Ewing’s for-profit companies.
Ewing and McElrath’s advertising company loaned more than $2.1 million to Church by Mail in 1980 and accrued more than $200,000 in commissions, the court records show. In addition to salary from Church by Mail, both were paid salaries by the advertising company, which also employed their sons, the records show.
In court filings, the IRS argued that funds generated by Church by Mail “inure to the benefit of private individuals.”
“Ewing and McElrath sit at the top of a very lucrative set of organizations which they totally control without interference,” the IRS brief states.
Five years later, with the IRS court battle still under way, Ewing incorporated Church and Bible Study in the Home by Mail, also listing Joyce’s Tulsa law firm as its address. Records show that organization was soon taking in millions from its direct-mail appeals.
Joyce said the name change had nothing to do with the court case.
Meanwhile, Ewing and McElrath lived opulent lifestyles. On his voter registration form, Ewing listed his occupation as ad vertising and gave a Beverly Hills address.
McElrath, who also claims to be an ordained minister, listed his occupation as advertising and gave an address in Marina del Ray, Calif.
Ewing, McElrath and their nonprofit and for-profit companies leased numerous luxury cars from a Tulsa auto leasing company during the 1980s in deals arranged by Joyce, records show. The cars included four Rolls-Royces, two Jaguars, three Mercedes sedans and a Ferrari.
Joyce said the auto leases were paid for through profits from Ewing’s for-profit company.
“Because he’s a minister he’s supposed to drive a Jeep?”
Records show both Ewing and McElrath were paid salaries of more than $300,000 in 1999, the last year the organization made its tax forms public.
Joyce declined to divulge recent financial information about the church and said it did not issue annual financial reports.
‘Good growth addresses’
Although Ewing and his companies spent thousands each month to lease expensive automobiles, Ewing was having trouble paying taxes, records show.
A federal tax lien was filed stating Ewing owed more than $10,000 in unpaid taxes from 1981 and 1989. Another federal tax lien sought payment of more than $346,000 owed by his company Twentieth Century Advertising Agency during 1982 and 1987, records show.
Joyce said the liens were released after the debts were paid.
In 1992, the IRS commissioner issued a final ruling denying tax-exempt status for Church by Mail Inc.
The ruling had no impact on Ewing’s Church and Bible Study in the Home by Mail, which brought in an average $26,000 per day by 1993, according to a memo obtained by the Tulsa World. The memo from McElrath to Joyce trumpets the success of the organization’s 1.1 million mailings each month.
“J.C., this growth program is working like a dream. . . . We are going to be able to get a much better selection of good growth addresses than we have ever been able to in the past thanks to a new program that we now have,” states the memo, dated Oct. 19, 1993.
“Using this new method of selection we are actually picking those geographic areas that we know respond the best to our growth letters. The size of each special area is about two to four city blocks. And thank God there are 10’s of thousands of them across the nation.”
Joyce said the the memo “is very much directed to the goals of the church in saving souls.”
Letters sent to the organization went to a Tulsa post office box, were opened in Tulsa and the funds deposited in a Tulsa bank, court records show.
A 1995 memo from McElrath to Ewing, Joyce and others states that the daily bank balance for Church by Mail and Church and Bible Study in the Home by Mail must be faxed to him by 11 a.m. It states that the report should include “estimates for all unopened mail including today’s.”
Joyce said after the letters are opened and the funds deposited, the prayer requests are sent to Saint Matthew’s California offices.
“The church prays over them five times a day, every day. They’ve got 100 people at times reading them.”
The Tulsa World obtained numerous letters written to Saint Matthew’s Churches and its predecessors.
One letter from Sister Lupe Martinez thanks Ewing for praying for her. Martinez states she is unemployed, 65 years old and living on a monthly pension check.
“I try my best to help your mission, whatever I could give,” the letter states.
A postcard filled out and returned by a boy from Detroit contains a note in a child’s handwriting.
“I am 10 years old. I only can give a quarter. Please don’t underrate me because of my age, I believe strongly in Jesus,” it states.
Some recipients of Ewing’s mailings sent him angry letters demanding to be removed from his mailing list.
A pastor from Tyler, Texas, wrote to Ewing, asking that a member of his church be removed from the Saint Matthew’s mailing list: “Rev. Ewing, I have written to you to stop sending these letters . . . as per her request. As her pastor, I am sending a copy of this letter to the state attorney general’s office to have the letters stopped.”
Joyce said Saint Matthew’s removes people from its mailing list upon request. He said there may be a lag time between the request and the removal because Saint Matthew’s uses a commercial printing company for its mailing services.
Some Ewing mailings contain a coupon that recipients can cut out, sign and state how much money they hope God will bring them. One woman filled out her name and stated that she needed $150 million while another simply wrote, “All I can get.”
Shirley Waldemar of West Hampstead, N.Y., gave about $80 a month to Saint Matthew’s Churches for about five months until she began to wonder who was behind the company.
“They would send you a little piece of cloth and it was supposed to be doing things for you, and I thought that was silly.”
Waldemar said she stopped sending money after she was unable to reach a person connected with the company on the telephone or find a street address for it in Tulsa.
“They purport to pray for people who are having problems. . . . They were basically just asking for money. . . . It did make you feel if you did not give, something bad would happen.”