Give Till It Hurts

You've got to hand it to Charles E. Blair. Thousands of people did, to their everlasting regret.

This Sunday, June 8, Blair will celebrate fifty years as the pastor and guiding light of Calvary Temple, which, under his stewardship, has become one of the largest and most successful non-denominational churches in the country. At a special brunch in his honor at the Colorado Convention Center, he will be praised by brother-in-Christ Pat Robertson and applauded by thousands of devoted followers.

Blair's half-century in the pulpit has been nothing short of miraculous. How else to explain the transformation of an obscure Assembly of God church with only 32 adult members into a thriving evangelical powerhouse that has its own school, a television ministry and missionary work around the globe?

Some of Blair's miracles, though, probably won't receive much attention on Sunday. It's a miracle, for example, how Blair and his cohorts managed to raise millions of dollars for an ill-conceived nursing-home project without ever telling the investors, many of them elderly true believers of modest means, how risky the venture really was. It's a miracle that Blair managed to avoid jail time for his part in the scheme, despite being convicted of seventeen counts of securities fraud. A miracle, too, that he remains one of the most beloved and respected figures in the evangelical Christian community--despite the collapse of his empire in bankruptcy and scandal, despite the string of broken promises and lame excuses he's offered to the people he bilked.

Over the years Blair has managed to rebuild his church and his reputation. Some of the investors in his Life Center project have forgiven the debt. Others have accepted partial recompense from bankruptcy proceedings or from an out-of-court settlement reached in a lawsuit six years ago. Quite a few have died, still waiting for Blair to deliver on his pledge to repay all investors in full--a pledge he first made 22 years ago.

True, Blair has made attempts to help out some investors, liquidating personal assets in the process. But he's also helped himself to funds that were supposed to repay folks impoverished by his huckstering, thereby compounding his original sin. And he has never publicly acknowledged the degree of his guilt in the affair, preferring to speak vaguely of past "mistakes" and failure to properly supervise his underlings. As a group of Christian mediators put it more than a decade ago, "His public response to the problem has been to trivialize his own fault in it, which is really a form of denial."

So while the faithful commemorate Charles Blair on Sunday, let us not forget his victims, either. For some people, Blair's misdeeds may seem like ancient history--a history he keeps revising--but for those who paid the price of his miracles, it's a story worth remembering:

1947: The Central Assembly Church of Denver hires a 26-year-old traveling evangelist, Charles Eldon Blair, as its new pastor. The baby-faced preacher from Oklahoma has grand plans for his struggling flock; in his first seven years on the job, the church becomes an interdenominational juggernaut ("All Faiths Welcome"). Membership swells from 58 members to more than 1,200, and annual income multiplies from $12,000 to $200,000, allowing Blair to launch a television program and to invest in Cherry Creek real estate with an eye toward building a bigger church.

1955: One of the fastest-growing churches in the country, the rechristened Calvary Temple moves into new digs at University and Alameda, courtesy of Sears Roebuck & Co.--which provides the land, along with $68,000 in cash, in exchange for a block of houses along First Avenue owned by the church and badly needed for development of the Cherry Creek shopping center. Sears gets its parking lot, and Blair acquires a reputation as a religious leader of exceptional shrewdness.

1965: Swimming in success, Blair leads Calvary Temple on a bold new mission--one that he says came to him in a dream. He proposes buying an abandoned chiropractic center in east Denver and converting it into a four-tower, six-story nursing home and senior citizen complex. The project, known as Life Center, will be financed largely through the sale of interest-bearing certificates sold to private investors through two foundations. From the pulpit, Blair solicits donations from his flock and his burgeoning TV audience, stressing the magnificent blessings that would come to those who contribute to the Lord's work.

1971: With only two of the four towers opened, an attorney and an accountant warn Blair in separate memos that Life Center is operating at an enormous loss. By the end of the third quarter, both the Center and the Charles E. Blair Foundation are legally insolvent. Yet Blair and his team of crack salesmen persist in peddling $4 million worth of securities to investors, promising a return of up to 8.5 percent. Many of the investors are elderly followers of Blair's, who sink their entire nest eggs into the project in hopes of having first crack at the apartments for seniors planned for the still-uncompleted complex.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast