TULSA, OKLA. -- When the Oral Roberts mortality play reached the midpoint of its scheduled three-month run here, Marilyn Clark was confused and anxious. Cartoonists, editorial writers, talk show hosts, professors of theology -- even some of Clark's friends -- were ridiculing Roberts, world-famous faith healer and religious empire builder, for saying that God would call him home by April 1 unless he raised another $4.5 million for his medical missionary teams.
Clark, a native of New Hampshire, whose state motto is "Live Free or Die," was certainly accustomed to bold declarations. And as an evangelical Christian whose husband, Thomas, is a seminary student at Oral Roberts University, she had no doubt that true believers could hold telephone-style conversations with God. Still, she said, there was something about Oral Roberts holding himself hostage -- Your Money or My Life| -- that "was so unusual it was hard for anyone to grasp, Christian or not."
In search of answers, Clark turned to prayer.
"I said, 'Dear God, what in the world is going on here? I don't understand this latest move,' " Clark recalled last week as she sat in the studio audience of "Richard Roberts Live," an evangelical variety show hosted by Oral's son and heir apparent, Richard, a sweet-singing second tenor who looks like a cross between Pat Boone and Wayne Newton.
"And the Lord said to me, 'Don't worry, Marilyn. Go with the flow. I am not calling Oral home. He just needed to wake his people up. That is all. He is waking his people up.' "
Clark said she pressed onward, inquiring as to how she herself could be awakened, how she might better serve Oral Roberts at what he was calling "the make or break point" of his long career.
"And the Lord told me to contribute $100 to Oral Roberts, beyond our normal tithes," Clark said. "He said to plant that $100 as a seed and watch good things grow. We don't have much money, and my husband needs a part-time job, which is hard to find in Oklahoma right now. But the $100 would be the seed for him to get a job."
Did it work?
"Nope. Not yet," she said. A large woman with a radiant smile, Clark bounded to her feet and started clapping and swaying with the rest of the audience to the catchy beat of "Don't Let the Devil Get You Down." Seated again, and whispering, she added: "But you know sometimes you have to obey the Lord and help yourself, too."
The word in Tulsa these days is that Oral Roberts is going to get the money and make it through his latest crisis, his feet still planted on this mortal soil. A reprieve seems to be in the works -- thanks to the legions of followers such as Clark who look upon Roberts as not just someone who can make them well when they are sick but as someone who can bring them money when they have little.
But even if Roberts, who turned 69 last month and appears to be in fine health, beats heaven's clock in this dramatic money drive, trying times await him on Earth. His troubles are centered here in Tulsa, where over the last 20 years Oral Roberts Ministries has constructed an awe-inspiring empire that now seems to have stretched far beyond its fiscal means, even for a founder and leader whose daily watchwords are "Expect a Miracle|"
The signs are everywhere. On the Oral Roberts University campus, where 4,500 students live, money shortages last year forced administrators to close the dental school and swap the law school -- books, students, professors and all -- to a Marion G. (Pat) Robertson-affiliated academy in Tennessee.
The nearby City of Faith Health-Care Center, a massive complex that includes a 60-story diagnostic clinic, 30-story hospital and 20-story research center, has never lived up to the expectations that Roberts had for it 10 years ago when construction of the $250 million facility began. "The City of Faith will be different from anything the world's ever known," Roberts said then. But so far it seems quite familiar. Like so many other office complexes in the depressed energy states, it is nearly empty.
The research center, where in 1983 Roberts said God told him a miracle cure for cancer would be found -- if his followers, known as partners, donated $240 apiece to the cause -- has contributed nothing of significance to the cancer-research effort, according to national experts. Several floors are empty.
The hospital, which was supposed to have 777 beds by 1988, has less than 140, and two-thirds of the patients are from Tulsa, contradicting Roberts' promise that City of Faith, where medicine and prayer are merged, would not compete with others in a region that has a glut of hospital beds, but rather would attract ailing partners from around the nation. Operating expenses have outpaced patient revenues by about $1 million a month.
The diagnostic center is also underused, featuring enough empty rooms, in the words of one physician there, to house the homeless of Tulsa. In the visitors' center, a 13-story section that looks like the interior of a Hyatt hotel, the main attraction, a three-dimensional film called "A Miracle Place," which is supposed to reveal City of Faith's unique offerings, has been closed for repairs.
Across the street is the Healing Outreach Center, which is not quite what the name implies. It is essentially an admission-free theme park of the Bible as interpreted by Oral Roberts. Although it is only about one-tenth completed, and is short of funds, the "Journey Through the Bible" opened last summer with exhibit rooms recreating Creation, the Garden of Eden and Noah's Ark.
In Noah's Ark, visitors sit in a dark room that resembles the inside of an old, musty wooden boat. From speakers in the ceiling come voices ridiculing Noah.
"Noah| Oh, Noah| What are you doing in there?"
"Hah, hah, Noah."
"Rain? Where's the rain, Noah?"
"How are you doing in there with all those animals, Noah?"
Suddenly, there are rumbling noises, the walls and floors of the exhibit room start to shake, and the mocking voices turn desperate and pleading. Too late.
From the ark, visitors move to a peaceful, carpeted chamber where they listen to the voice of Oral Roberts.
"Seedtime and harvest. Seedtime and harvest. What you plant will multiply and grow into a harvest," Roberts says in a deep, soft voice. "That's an absolute principle of God. It never changes. We call it seed-faith."
Seed-faith is the key to understanding the theological underpinnings of a man who could claim that God would call him home unless he raised a specific amount of cash. His faith is based on the concept that if you do things the way God wants them done, God will make you rich.
It has worked for Roberts and his wife, Evelyn, who travel in a private jet, wear expensive clothes and jewelry, own homes in Tulsa and Palm Springs, Calif., belong to country clubs in both places and have access to a $2.4 million mansion in Beverly Hills purchased by the university's endowment fund.
The literature of Oral Roberts places little emphasis on characteristics normally associated with the devout: humility, sincerity, grace, modesty, meekness. He believes that people are saved not by grace but by the works they accomplish with money. Many of his books and pamphlets are devoted to the accumulation of wealth through his concept of seed-faith. They include "How to Get Into the Flood State of God's Financial Supply," "If You Need to Be Blessed Financially, Do These Things" and "Receiving Your Miracle Through Seed-Faith Partnership With God."
According to those works, the only reason people are poor is because the devil is stealing their money. If they give money to Oral Roberts to do God's work, God will pay it back with interest.
"Not a trickle. Not a stream. Not a river. But a FLOOD|" Roberts writes. "A trickle, a stream and a river can all be contained. But a flood cannot be contained. And that's the magnitude of the blessings we're going to receive from God when we give tithes of all. When you give tithes of everything you are . . . there's no way your billfold can stay thin."
Where Roberts differs from most Christian theologians is in his Biblical interpretation of God's wealth. Roberts translates it into financial wealth and makes cash the currency of giving and taking.
At the prayer tower on the Oral Roberts University campus, members of the Abundant Life Prayer Group pray 365 days a year for donors to the university. They pray that the giving of donors shall be returned threefold. On their television shows, Oral and Richard Roberts recite testimonies of people who gave them $100 and got $300 back within weeks, of business people whose failing stores turned around after they donated to the Oral Roberts Ministries. This is all part of what the Rev. Wilbur J. Wiseman, pastor at Tulsa's First Presbyterian Church, calls "the Oral Roberts chain letter" -- an approach, Wiseman said, that "ignores the spiritual essence of giving and makes it a selfish act."
Roberts' latest strategy, saying that God will call him home unless he reaches his fund-raising goals, can be better understood in the context of seed-faith, a concept that Roberts said he learned from his favorite apostle, Paul. According to Roberts' interpretation, Paul was also on the verge of being called home by God unless his followers provided more money. In terms of his operation, the funds Roberts seeks for medical missionary teams will not solve his problems. But by performing good works in Zaire, Kenya and Nigeria, Roberts believes, he will be rewarded later, and somehow the hospital, the healing center and the university will prosper. The medical teams are his seedbeds.
Last Wednesday, Richard Roberts left Tulsa for a trip to Africa. He said he will meet with leaders in South Africa, Zaire and Kenya, where the first medical healing center is to be built with a $3 million donation from a wealthy partner from Fort Worth.
Richard Roberts paved the way for the medical teams with a healing mission to Africa four years ago. He planted the seed in Nigeria, and the first harvest was unusual but somehow fitting. The ORU basketball team, which yearns for national recognition, gained the services of Akin Akin-Otiko, a graceful 6-foot-6 forward from Lagos. Akin-Otiko and the rest of the Titans, as the ORU athletic teams are known, play on a home court where the sidelines shout: "Expect a Miracle|" Last Monday night, against Evansville, they lost on a last-second shot, the fourth time that had happened to them this season.
"One thing about Oral Roberts," muttered one partner, bedecked in a bright blue Titans warm-up jacket. "You can always count on an exciting loss. It tells you this team's a lot closer to death than its founder."