Prayers, cash flow into Tulsa

Tulsa World/May 13, 2007
By Ziva Branstetter

Mailings from Saint Matthew’s Churches often contain pennies, tiny prayer rugs and other items that the recipient is urged to send back.

Each month, thousands of Americans receive envelopes postmarked from Tulsa filled with biblical trinkets such as a Bank of Heaven check listing God as president and Jesus as vice president.

And each month, thousands of recipients send back cash, checks and their handwritten prayers to the organization, Saint Matthew's Churches.

One religious watchdog group, the Trinity Foundation, estimates the pitches bring up to $6 million every month.

Though Saint Matthew’s letters list only a Tulsa post office box, the letters and money flow back to a downtown Tulsa office building owned by the group’s attorney, J.C. Joyce.

There, in the basement of a building housing Joyce’s law firm, a staff of 17 employees work up to 12 hours each day opening the letters, taking out cash and checks and depositing the rest in trash cans called “holy bins.”

The facility features heavy security, with cameras, thick steel doors and is accessible only with special elevator keys. One worker’s job is simply to bundle the large stacks of cash using a money-counting machine.

“It’s almost laughable if it weren’t so sacrilegious,” said Dick

McClure, who worked for a company called Bixby Mail Inc. in Joyce’s building. Records list Joyce as a corporate officer of Bixby Mail Inc., which was incorporated in 2001.

Day’s total: $86,000

McClure, 67, of Sand Springs, said he took the job to make some extra income in March but quit several weeks ago because he had concerns about where the money was going. He said his job was to open thousands of letters to Saint Matthew’s each day and note on the envelopes how much had been sent. He said one deposit slip he saw listed that day’s total as $86,000.

“You pull out all of the marketing material and you put it in what they call a holy bin. It’s like a trash bin. People may have prayer requests on there; it doesn’t matter . . . What they want to know is who gave it and how much.”

Joyce, who allowed the Tulsa World to tour the operation, said Saint Matthew’s Churches does not ask anyone to send money and has done nothing wrong.

He said Bixby Mail Inc. “doesn’t have anything to do with the church” and merely opens the mail. Joyce said most large ministries have similar operations to handle funds.

“This church believes that they are compelled to publish the Gospel before there can be the second coming of Christ,” said Joyce, who has also represented evangelists Oral Roberts and Robert Tilton in the past.

All prayer requests are sent to Saint Matthew’s offices in California, where they are prayed over daily, Joyce said. He said employees there read each prayer request.

Mail-based ministry

“Yes, it is a trash barrel but it isn’t trash. Every single piece of mail is read.”

Joyce said Saint Matthew’s is primarily a mail-based ministry, though he said it does have churches in New York and Houston.

Pete Evans, an investigator with the Trinity Foundation, said: “Those may be legitimate churches but the only connection they actually have with the mailing operation is as a cover for the actual corporation that earns $6 million a month so it can retain its church status.”

For years, law enforcement officials and charity watchdogs across the nation have fielded complaints about Saint Matthew’s Churches. Authorities in Oklahoma receive many of them, since Saint Matthew’s letters bear a Tulsa post office box.

The organization has no live phone number, only a recorded prayer line. It is not related to Tulsa-area churches named St. Matthew’s, though many of them have received calls asking to be removed from its mailing list.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s office has received 15 complaints since 2006, records show.

The Internal Revenue Service granted the organization tax-exempt status in 2000, after a 17-year court battle.

‘Gospel missionaries’

Saint Matthew’s has gone by various names in its history, which dates back about four decades.

On its Web site, Saint Matthew’s states its “sacred literature . . . crosses the paths of atheists; communists; drug dealers; criminals; the lunatic fringes of society; those who hate the United States, God and Christianity and those who hate us because we are gospel missionaries.”

Joyce declined to release records showing what Saint Matthew’s does with the funds, saying: “It’s not anybody’s business.”

Unlike other nonprofits, organizations classified as churches by the IRS are not required to file a 990 form stating how much they receive or how they spend their funds.

In 1999, the last year Saint Matthew’s filed a public 990 tax form, the organization reported $26.8 million in revenue. It reported spending $4 million on salaries, $989,000 on legal fees, $817,000 for housing and $649,000 for travel.

The man behind Saint Matthew’s is the Rev. James Eugene Ewing, a former traveling tent revival preacher. Evans, the Trinity Foundation investigator, said Ewing lives in a Beverly Hills townhouse and “lives a reclusive but extravagant lifestyle.”

Monthly coupons

The foundation, based in Dallas, has tracked religious fraud and televangelists since 1980.

Evans said Saint Matthew’s uses Census data to target “the poorest, most illiterate members of society.”

“A lot of these people are foregoing food to send their social security money or small government assistance money they are receiving,” Evans said.

Joyce said Saint Matthew’s has won numerous lawsuits and court actions. He said no one is obligated to send money and will be removed from the mailing list upon request.

In court filings, Saint Matthew’s has referred to the Trinity Foundation’s founder, Ole Anthony, as “a religious zealot who has made a career out of attacking religious organizations.”

“People ought to get off these people’s backs,” Joyce said.

Ewing is said to be the founder of the “seed-faith ministry,” which preaches that giving money to God will return money and other blessings to the giver. He has also been called “God’s ghost writer” because his letters have been used by numerous other evangelists, including Tilton and Roberts.

Saint Matthew’s mailings often contain items such as pennies, tiny prayer rugs or “blessed cloths” that the recipient is urged to send back. One staple mailing — the Seeds of Success Biblical Seed Harvest Plan — has 12 months’ worth of coupons similar to a monthly payment book.

Caer Rider, a Santa Fe, N.M., resident, said she has received about five mailings from Saint Matthew’s in the past few months. She said she has asked to be removed from the mailing list.

“They were the kind of things where they are pretending they are not asking for money, but they are.”

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