Longform

LET US PAY

part 1 of 2
On a Sunday in July, three elderly women huddle in the foyer of the Happy Church, their eyes squeezed shut, their heads fiercely nodding in affirmation, their voices murmuring "Yes!" as Pastor Wally implores God to drive cancer out. Out!

In addition to expelling demons, Pentecostal preacher Wallace Hickey, an elderly white man crowned by a stylish, white toupee, speaks in tongues, composes rhyming prayers and warmly welcomes strangers.

After Pastor Wally attempts to exorcise cancer, the three women join the thousand or so other congregants inside, where live music is happening. Keyboards, sax, guitars, singers. Professionals backed by a sixty-member choir of congregants. Sweet soul music.

Just a few minutes later, as the music really gets funky, the flock's eyes squeeze shut again as they are told by Pastor Marlene--a young, attractive black woman--to reach for their wallets. "Well, church, it is time to give!" she says. "We are of God! We are of God! We are of God! We pay to him. We owe him. I know you're able."

The principle is simple: You've got to give if you want to receive. And that means money. They call it "sowing the seed."

Envelopes, not hymnals, are tucked into the backs of the auditorium's chairs. The ushers approach with brown plastic tubs, and the flock open their eyes long enough to stuff checks and cash into the envelopes and pass them to the aisles. They are told to pray, so their eyes squeeze shut again. Pastor Marlene turns her attention to God and says, "We're giving and sowing seed. Show them how You will bless the 90 percent while they give the 10 percent. In Jesus's name. Amen."

Only after the "offering" does the real star of the Happy Church take the stage. It's Pastor Wally's wife, Marilyn Hickey, a small, slender woman now in her early sixties. No feminist in principle, she nevertheless runs the entire show. She believes in miracles, blessings and healing. After preaching the Gospel for decades, she's now a minor television personality, globetrotter, chair of the board of regents of Oral Roberts University and overseer of a nonprofit, multimillion-dollar electronic ministry that includes the Happy Church. It does seem like a miracle.

And she wants to pass it on. "I want to pray for people who have any kind of miracle problem," she says. She tells her congregants that she healed a ten-year-old Detroit boy who had cerebral palsy. And she tells them about her own health problems and miracle cures.

"They told me I had an enlarged heart at 23," she says. "Now it's fixed."
There are people--other evangelical Christians, in particular--who would agree that Marilyn Hickey no longer suffers from a big heart.

Records obtained by Westword show in detail how the Hickeys have raised $75 million in the past five years on God's behalf here and overseas. The largest portion of that money flows in response to direct-mail appeals that use such items as holy oil, miracle prayer cloths and starving foreigners as props. The rest comes from church members, telemarketing, a school, a bible college, correspondence courses, overseas excursions, books, tapes and videos, all of it peddled via television and a magazine called--what else?--Outpouring.

Of course, the Hickeys are small-time compared with, say, Focus on the Family, which rakes in $100 million a year. But Focus, based in Colorado Springs, releases financial figures and belongs to the self-policing Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. The Hickeys and their Greenwood Village-based company do not. And the size of their revenue surprises the watchdogs who track televangelists for a living and thought that Marilyn Hickey, though notable for being one of the few women televangelists, was just a small blip on their radar screens.

Nonbelievers scoff at those who send money to the Hickeys and other "faith" evangelists in return for promises of miracles and blessings. But the emotional and spiritual power drummed up by the Hickeys is real. It's heartfelt. And that's why some Christians view it with alarm.

"Being a member of Marilyn Hickey's electronic church is like being married to a rubber dolly," says the Reverend Ole Anthony, whose Trinity Foundation in Dallas helped expose Pastor Bob Tilton on national TV a few years back. "She is just another one of the heresy teachers. It's heresy because they teach that God rewards greed. They're dominating the airwaves. The real hook is that if you give, then you will get. And you will get a whole bunch. They're teaching people to play a heavenly lottery, to go to a spiritual Las Vegas."

Little of the money that comes in goes back out in taxes, since these fundraising ventures are under the aegis of a church. Some of the money is earmarked for perks such as "pastoral" housing allowances, which are tax-free to the administrators who receive them. But while the Hickeys have approved additional allowances for church higher-ups in the past few years, they have slashed their staff and landed in hot water with federal Department of Labor officials for failing to pay overtime to lower-level workers. It turns out there are many things the Hickeys will not subsidize: They even raised the prices in their employee cafeteria to force it into the black.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy