TV evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff is making a robust recovery. Disgraced and bankrupted in the 1980s, he is now back on television, and late night viewers across the country can watch him administer his own brand of medicine.

"Smite that cancer. Smite that arthritis," he bellows into the camera, slapping the forehead of an awestruck woman, who judders and falls to the floor.

His message hasn't changed, but the audience he is aiming for has. A white man who once preached mainly to southern whites, Popoff is seeking to jump-start his ministry by repackaging himself for an African American audience, buying time on the Black Entertainment Television network and highlighting testimonials from black supporters in his TV shows and fund-raising appeals.

In the quest to reinvent himself, Popoff has company. In the last year, evangelists Robert Tilton of Word Faith Church outside Dallas and Don Stewart of Phoenix, both of whom watched their followings all but disappear after investigations of their ministries by state and federal agencies, have joined dozens of other preachers to become fixtures on BET.

Only a few years ago, the television evangelist was thought to be an extinct species, a cartoon relic of the '80s. A study by Steve Winzenburg of Grand View College in Iowa showed that by 1992, television evangelists had lost 75 percent of their original viewing audience. But with evangelists such as Popoff buying time on cable TV, paying $3,000 for half-hour slots, that is starting to change.

In their new survival mode, the preachers are turning to what they see as a reliable audience for the prosperity gospel: the black community. And by selling themselves as men who have suffered, who have been unfairly punished by the system, they hope African Americans will identify with them.

"If they're going to begin rebuilding themselves anywhere," said Lawrence Mamiya, a professor at Vassar College who studies black churches, "they know the black community is a better place than any."

But their decision to target blacks, and to use BET to do it, is beginning to draw criticism from those who say that preachers with a long trail of disillusioned followers have no place on a network that holds itself out as a model of entrepreneurship for the black community.

"It's a serious ethical question for {BET President Robert} Johnson," said Jeffrey Haddon, a professor at the University of Virginia who studies television evangelists. "A network that pats itself on the back by saying it serves the black community ought to stop selling time to people who take advantage of them."

Michelle Moore, a BET spokeswoman, said the cable network does not see it as its responsibility to monitor the content of shows it has no role in producing. BET merely sells blocks of time to Rosenheim Associates, an independent contractor that buys television time for religious shows and "infomercials," she said.

Moore said the network does have guidelines for determining who should be able to buy the time, but she declined to discuss them with a reporter. When told about criticism of certain evangelists' shows, Moore said no viewers had complained to the cable network.

None of the preachers was convicted of any charge, and no new allegations have been brought. But James Randi, a documentary filmmaker who investigated Popoff in the 1980s, says nothing has changed.

"They're still the same people. All the old mechanisms are still in place; only the words are a little different."

The preachers say they are neither doing anything wrong nor tailoring their pleas to take advantage of disadvantaged African Americans. "To say they're poor and too stupid to know better is just demagoguery," said J.C. Joyce, Tilton's Tulsa-based attorney. "There are always religious bigots who will accuse my client, but he has proved them wrong every time."

Representatives for Popoff and Stewart would not answer specific questions about their ministries. "The press is not very dependable, and no one here will speak to you," said a spokeswoman for Stewart who declined to give her name.

Ultimately, the tale of the preachers' rise and fall may be less a testimony to scandal than to the persistence of human vulnerability and need, and the men who step in to alleviate it.

Two years ago, a concerned Rev. Imagene Stewart, head of the African American Women's Clergy Council in Washington, called a meeting about BET's television preachers and their impact on local churches. In an informal survey, she found many of the most devoted followers of the TV preachers were elderly women, too infirm to go out, the "sick and shut in," as the church calls them. She also found they preferred to get their gospel from white ministers.

"It's like they've given up on their own people," said Stewart. "They figure the prosperity they never got from a lifetime of black church they can get from half an hour with the white preacher."

Ida Masters, 83, a black Washingtonian, still goes to church when she can but also tunes into "Reverend Bob," as she calls him, meaning Robert Tilton. She's not a faithful watcher like her younger sister, Evelyn, she explained one afternoon in the supermarket, as she picked out the choicest cucumber. She only watches when she can't sleep.

She knows about his "troubles," as she calls past allegations that he deceived his followers by throwing away their prayer requests unopened. But she also knows he looks "tired, like he's been through a lot." She's never gotten around to sending him money, but she might. It's not so much that she believes his prosperity gospel will make her rich, she explained, because she's too old to care about that. It's just that she believes he has something to say to the "young people in our community."

Some of the younger ones are already listening. Luther Taylor is a 32-year-old security guard who works the swing shift and regularly tunes in to Tilton after he gets home from work. He finds it funny, "all that burnin' and healin'," he says in a mock preacher's baritone.

But he watches for two reasons: When he was young his grandmother took him to a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal church in Georgia, and Tilton serves as something of a childhood memory. Also, his wife watched the show with him when they were both unemployed, and the next day he got a job. So while she thinks the show is "silly," superstition made her send the preacher $25 out of her husband's first paycheck.

So it is that the white preachers are connecting with the black community by spinning their past misfortune into gold. "At their peak they were arrogant and cocky," said Winzenburg. "But after the scandals they tried to present themselves as humbled by the mistakes they'd made. The message is, I'm a sinner just like you, and by the grace of God we can all become successful again.' "

In the world of television, white preachers seem familiar to a black audience. There are two or three nationally known black television evangelists, among them Fred Price, but most TV evangelists are white. And while the African American preachers generally adopt a sophisticated, buttoned-down approach, their white counterparts mimic the flamboyant, heated style of black southern preachers.

Though the tone is different, Winzenburg and other skeptics complain that the evangelists' appeals are just slightly altered versions of the methods that brought them scrutiny in the 1980s. The prosperity gospel is aimed at people out of work, low on cash or in debt, critics say, and it exploits people's hopelessness. "They go there because they think they're poor and vulnerable," said Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based watchdog of religious media. "And it literally sickens you to think they might take advantage of them."

Tilton, Popoff and Stewart first gained prominence in the mid-1980s when television evangelist titans Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were hobbled by personal and political scandals. These three avoided their predecessors' mistakes. Harping on moral issues had made the earlier superstars vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy when they were caught in extramarital dalliances, or siphoning off the ministry's money to live luxuriously.

The new breed stayed away from the Ten Commandments. They focused on the "gospel of prosperity" instead.

Sinners who turn to God will be rewarded with riches, went the message, and the first step to proving your faith was by showing support for the preacher before you, in the form of a check. "I want you, right now, to make a vow of $1,000 -- T-H-O-U-S-A-N-D," Tilton would holler to the TV camera.

At Tilton's peak, his pitch could be heard on 235 U.S. television stations, making him the largest buyer of infomercial time, and earning his ministry $80 million a year. At his peak, Popoff was gracing 90 television and radio stations and taking in $550,000 a month.

It was not long, though, before media scrutiny caught up with them. Popoff fell first. In 1986, a team of freelance investigators made a well-publicized documentary suggesting the evangelist was faking his visionary powers. In the documentary, investigators played a recording of his wife, who was seated backstage, transmitting details about audience members through a small listening device tucked inside her husband's ear. The gimmick allowed Popoff to claim he had special knowledge descended to him through the Holy Ghost. Fifteen months later, Popoff was off the air, and had filed for bankruptcy.

Tilton's downfall occurred a few years later, after a 1991 ABC expose showing that thousands of prayer requests and personal letters sent from faithful viewers were being thrown away unopened while Tilton sunned himself in one of his three multimillion-dollar homes. The FBI launched a fraud investigation, his wife divorced him, and several angry followers sued. Tilton sued ABC, but the suit was dismissed. Eventually, the civil suits filed against him either were settled or dismissed and the federal investigation never produced any charges. But by then his mass market ministry had folded.

As evidence that they haven't changed their methods at all, critics point to Popoff. In the documentary exposing his tactics, Popoff is shown at a 1986 revival meeting in California walking up to an elderly follower, Billie Johnson. The producers then cut in Popoff's wife's voice. "Mrs. Billie Johnson. She wants to get rid of her walker," his wife tells him through the transmitter. But Popoff continues to act as if this information -- Johnson's name, address, illness -- came to him spontaneously. "God is burning that arthritis out of her body," he shouts, as he tosses Johnson's walker far away, over the sea of heads.

In the documentary, the producers later track down Johnson and show her the image with the superimposed voice of Popoff's wife. Johnson is crushed, disillusioned. "I didn't know she was telling him those things," said Johnson, still using her walker. "That really makes me believe less in him." Yet even today, Popoff continues to show that same original clip where he is "healing" Billie Johnson on his late night show on BET.

Tilton is also making the same kinds of claims on his new show as he did in the past. "God said, Bob, listen to me. I'm not going to send you to the people who are making it, but to the people who are not making it,' " he says. "If you pay your vows," he continues, "God will decree" you will emerge from your financial or emotional rut. He then tells viewers that they should send in donations of "$1,000, $500, $100, whatever," in a check made out to Robert Tilton. Joyce, Tilton's attorney, insists there is nothing fraudulent about these tactics: "He prays for you, he reads the mail, he does everything he says he does."