Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Passing Of A Legend (in his own mind at the very least)

I heard today that Oral Roberts passed away yesterday at the age of 91. I mention this not because I was a follower or a fan but because I grew up in Tulsa, OK where Roberts' ministry is based. Tulsa is also the home of Oral Roberts University.

When I was growing up, Oral Roberts had an evangelical broadcast every Sunday. I don't know if it was syndicated* or not but I never watched. The reason I remember the man is that he had a way of extending his reach beyond the Sunday Broadcast.

Roberts was one of the first televised evangelical preachers. Most of what I remember about his broadcasts was that he often talked about faith healing, which I believe is possible but not to the extent he claims - especially not what he claimed personal responsibility for, and appeals for money. I think it was him that I once heard say, with closed eyes and face toward heaven, "I feel
someone's arm healing. Someone who is listening tonight. Someone in the audience has an arm that is feeling better. I want you to reach that arm deep into your pocket..." In all honesty, I cannot tell you if the part about reaching deep into the pocket was real or not (the first part was and similar proclamations were common) or if it was inserted into my memory by my opinion of him.

Four things about his ministry stand out in my mind. One of them relates to his son, Richard, but we'll get to that in a moment.

First is Oral Roberts University. The university in and of itself is not terribly remarkable but the campus has one interesting feature: The Prayer Tower. The Prayer Tower stands prominently in the center of campus like a miniature space needle. It is visually interesting (click the link for a picture) but I once had the opportunity to see beyond its decorative purpose.

During a church retreat, presumably in an effort to learn more about other religions, we took a tour of the prayer tower. We went up into it and saw that the outer edge is lined with rooms (prayer rooms) into which Pilgrims (for lack of a better word) can go to pray. The unusual part was that there were phones outside each room that visitors could pick up to listen to the pilgrim praying and, I would think, join in. I guess for the faithful it is something important but it has always stuck in my mind as weird.

Second is the City of Faith hospital. The hospital was wrought with controversy before ground was ever broken. The hospital was built adjacent to the university campus. The city council noted that, at the time, there was not a need for a medical facility in that area of town and made requests that it be relocated to a more appropriate section. Roberts apparently needed to have his creation close to home base. (check the link, it has some information on the events that Tulsans got to poke fun at while the CoF was being built - including the infamous 900-foot Jesus)

The hospital tower itself is beautiful. Its golden facade stands tall and shines in the sun. It can easily be seen from several miles away when traveling NE on interstate 44 from Oklahoma City. I once had an opportunity to go inside (I think on the same church retreat) the lobby while it was still operating as a hospital and it was a monument to true opulence and excess. At the time, the 60-story center tower was only complete up to the 32nd floor or so and the 60th story was complete but everything in between was still under construction. If memory serves, those floors never were completed while it was a hospital.

Now, the CityPlex Towers are mostly office space but they once housed the Tulsa office of Cancer Treatment Centers of America which, in my opinion, did more good overall than the hospital ever did.

Within six years, the City of Faith was bleeding money and Roberts told his television audience that he had had a vision that if he did not raise $8 million by a certain date, God was going to "call him home," meaning he was going to die (this was event #3). The fundraising was down to the wire but an anonymous donor pledged the remaining amount. I don't remember the actual amount but it was significant. And, yes, he had that kind of power over people. Some Tulsans wanted his efforts to fail just to see whether or not his vision was true. Being as he reached the age of 91, I guess God wasn't near as ready to call Oral home as he had thought.

Finally Oral's son, Richard Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University at the time, was accused of misuse of university assets (money). I recall seeing a television interview with him regarding his expenditures (which may not have been related to the ORU scandal). The reporter asked Richard why, if the ministry was in need of money (which they were constantly asking for), was he building a multi-million dollar mansion? Richard's response was that a member of the congregation had donated the funds to build the house. The reporter countered by asking why Roberts had not requested that the money be put into the ministry rather than a house that he did not need. Roberts just insisted that the money was specifically for the house. This went back and forth a bit but the gist of it that I came away with was Roberts saying, "But it's MY money."

There are many other stories and jokes and incidents I could relate but let's just say it was interesting growing up in the midst of all of this.

To all of Roberts' followers: I do not belittle the man's passing. He was somebody's husband, father, friend, leader and inspiration. He will be missed. It is not my intention to shed a negative light on him but to share my memories of him and his ministry which tend, unfortunately, to be largely cynical. I am certain that he did good works and there are people in this world today that wouldn't be where they are without him. That just isn't the side of him to which I was exposed.

* I accidentally misspelled that sindicated - I found it somewhat Freudian.

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