Preaching a gospel of cash, and reaping plenty from believers

 FORT WORTH, Texas — Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God.
       Private airplanes and boats. A motorcycle sent by an anonymous supporter. Vacations in Hawaii and cruises in Alaska. Designer handbags. A ring of emeralds and diamonds.
       “God knows where the money is, and he knows how to get the money to you,” preached Gloria Copeland, dressed in a crisp pants ensemble like those worn by CEOs.
       Even in an economic downturn, preachers in the “prosperity gospel” movement are drawing sizable, adoring audiences. Their message — that if you have sufficient faith in God and the Bible and donate generously, God will multiply your offerings a hundredfold — is reassuring to many in hard times.
       The preachers barely acknowledged the recession, though they did say it was no excuse to curtail giving. “Fear will make you stingy,” Kenneth Copeland said.
Many in this flock do not trust banks, the news media or Washington, where the Senate Finance Committee is investigating whether the Copelands and other prosperity evangelists used donations to enrich themselves and abused their tax-exempt status. But they do trust the Copelands, the movement’s current patriarch and matriarch, who seem to embody prosperity with their robust health and abundant crop of children and grandchildren who have followed them into the ministry.
       “If God did it for them, he will do it for us,” said Edwige Ndoudi, who traveled with her husband and three children from Canada for the Southwest Believers’ Convention this month, where the Copelands and three of their friends took turns preaching for five days, 10 hours a day at the Fort Worth convention center.
       The crowd of more than 9,000 was multiracial, from 48 states and 27 countries.
        Stephen Biellier, a long-distance trucker from Mount Vernon, Missouri, said he and his wife, Millie, came to the convention praying that this would be “the overcoming year.” They are $102,000 in debt, and the bank has cut off their credit line, Millie Biellier said.
       They say the Copelands rescued them from financial failure 23 years ago, when they bought their first truck at 22 percent interest and had to rebuild the engine twice in one year. Around that time, Millie Biellier first saw Kenneth Copeland on television and began sending him 50 cents a week.
       Others who bought trucks from the same dealer in Joplin that year went under, the Bielliers said, but they did not.
        “We would have failed if Copeland hadn’t been praying for us every day,” Millie Biellier said.
       The Bielliers are now among 386,000 people worldwide whom the Copelands call their “partners,” most of whom send regular contributions and merit special prayers from the Copelands.
       A call center at the ministry’s 481-employee headquarters in Newark, Texas, takes in 60,000 prayer requests a month, a publicist said. The Copelands’ broadcast reaches 134 countries, and the ministry’s income is about $100 million annually.
        The Copelands refused an interview request, but one of their daughters, Kellie Copeland Swisher, and her husband, Steve Swisher, who both work in the ministry, spoke for them. Kellie Swisher said the ministry gave away “a minimum of 10 percent of what comes in” to other charities.    The ministry has resisted providing the Senate investigation with all the documents requested, she said, because the Copelands did not want to publicly reveal the names of the “partners.” The investigation, which could result in new laws, is continuing, a committee spokeswoman said. Among those being investigated is Creflo Dollar, one of the ministers at the Copelands’ convention.
       Steve Swisher said that even in the economic downturn, the ministry’s income going into the convention was up 3 percent over last year. Asked if they had adjusted the message for the economy, Kellie Swisher patted the worn Bible in her lap and said: “The message they preach is the Word of God. The Word doesn’t change.”
       At the convention, the preachers — who also included Jesse Duplantis and Jerry Savelle — sprinkled their sermons with put-downs of the government, an overhaul of health care, public schools, the news media and other churches, many of which condemn prosperity preaching.
       But mostly the preachers were working mightily to remind the crowd that they are God’s elect.     “Any time a worried thought about money pops up in your mind,” Savelle continued, “the next thing you do is sow”: drop money, like seeds, in “good ground” like the preachers’ ministries. “Stop worrying, start sowing,” he added, his voice rising. “That’s God’s stimulus package for you.”
       At that, hundreds streamed down the aisles to the stage, laying envelopes, cash and coins on the carpeted steps.
  

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