The most politically influential Christian in America is a controversial Florida preacher many evangelical Republicans may never have heard of: Paula White, a Florida televangelist.
“Inside this little blond Barbie package is a pit bull!” White recently said of herself. And that pit bull, who has known Donald Trump for about 15 years, is now chair of the president’s Evangelical Advisory Council—a powerful board of Christian leaders advising the administration on everything from political appointments and judiciary nominees to legislative priorities.
White has led prayers at both the Republican National Convention and the inauguration. When Trump met in February with prominent conservatives to discuss appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, White sat at the president’s immediate right. She also opened a Rose Garden ceremony last week and stood behind the president as he signed an executive order on religious liberty.
Unlike the Obama Administration, Trump will not release visitor logs, so it’s unclear how frequently White has met with the president and his staff. But in January, she described herself as “a person that can walk into [Trump’s] office pretty openly and freely and pray over him.” Last week, on the eve of the National Day of Prayer, White sat at Trump’s table at an intimate private dinner with religious leaders, also presenting the president with a framed page of the King James Bible from 1611 A.D., a gift from the Museum of the Bible.
White rose to this prominent position despite decades-long concerns from Christian leaders, religious watchdogs and journalists.
Those critics claim White uses her pulpit to emotionally and spiritually manipulate her congregants, who are mostly black and low- to middle-income, aggressively pressuring them to donate to the church. Congressional investigators have also looked at her lavish lifestyle, which includes million-dollar properties, fancy cars and frequent travel.
— Dan Scavino Jr. (@Scavino45) May 4, 2017
White has insisted her behavior is ethical, saying disgruntled former employees slandered her. But she did not seem to want Heat Street looking into these allegations.
In response to my questions, White turned to the law firm of Martin Singer, a bare-knuckles lawyer whose A-list clients have included Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen and Bill Cosby. In a letter, White’s lawyers threatened a lawsuit against not only Heat Street and Dow Jones but also “Ms. Melchior, personally,” writing that “all those involved will be liable for tens of millions of dollars in damages.”
White’s lawyers also speculated that “Heat Street merely intends to repeat false rumors from tabloids, bloggers and other questionable sources.”
But the financial dealings at White’s previous church, Without Walls in Tampa, even caught the attention of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. He initiated a congressional probe into six churches including White’s, focused specifically on whether they had abused their tax-exempt status. The probe concluded without any finding of wrongdoing.
When White left Without Walls in 2011, 20 years after she and her ex-husband Randy founded it, the church was a financial mess. It had defaulted on a $1 million loan in 2008, then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2014.
By that time, though, White had taken over New Destiny Christian Church, where she applies the same high-pressure fundraising methods she relied on at Without Walls.
In early March, I visited New Destiny, driving 20 miles northwest of Orlando to Apopka, a town of 48,000 where nearly 15 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s latest numbers.
Services take place in a massive room with walls painted black. The sophisticated sound system and blue and purple lights give the setting a rock-concert vibe. At each service I counted about 200 attendees, almost exclusively black. The week of my visit, New Destiny was hosting a special three-day teaching session featuring a self-proclaimed prophet named Akwasi Prempeh.
— Paula White-Cain (@Paula_White) March 7, 2017
The church band played as ushers paced through the aisles, handing out tissues for worshippers brought to tears by the cathartic contemporary Christian worship music. Then White took the stage, wearing high heels and a tight blue dress. Trump’s spiritual adviser promised members “a 24-hour turnaround in your finances.” Immediately after, she introduced one of her co-pastors to collect offerings. Attendees filed forward with pink donation envelopes.
Prempeh, the guest speaker, delivered an unorthodox sermon in which he periodically asked the audience to scream and chant. He repeatedly suggested members might be struggling in their relationships or finances because they’d been cursed by witches.
Claiming to have the power of prophesy, Prempeh told one woman in the congregation he foresaw that she would “lift the flag of America, and gold medals are waiting for you,” along with a lucrative athletic endorsement contract. But he said someone jealous of her talent “has sent a picture of you, has sent it to Guyana to a certain voodoo [priest].” Prempeh said the curse had been lifted, and her foe was “about to have a terminal injury, and she will never make it.” He told another churchgoer he was supernaturally preventing a fatal car accident for her; also, a couple would avoid relational turmoil planned by the devil, he said.
After he finished prophesying, Prempeh called for another offering, asking people to give “your first $200 seed” and write “my financial freedom” on the envelope. “Money will not be a problem. I trust God,” he promised those who gave. “Please hurry up,” he later urged. “You have a chance to do this.” Dozens flocked to the front of the church to hand over pink envelopes.
Christian critics of preaching styles like White’s and Prempeh’s say that calls to give or “sow a seed,” accompanied by promises of healing or financial success, amount to the controversial (or some even claim heretical) “prosperity gospel”—sometimes also known as the “health and wealth doctrine.” The more members give, the more they can expect to get back, prosperity gospel preachers claim. While some other megachurches also subscribe to that idea, theologians I interviewed said it’s a faulty interpretation of the Bible.
“That’s just bad theology,” said Scott Thumma, the interim academic dean at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. “Congregants can end up feeling like they have to donate to receive any of God’s blessings, even though the Bible teaches that God’s blessings are given freely.”
Neither White nor Prempeh answered Heat Street’s queries about the prosperity gospel, though White recently told the Christian Post she rejects any theology that doesn’t acknowledge Biblical teachings “about God’s presence and blessing in suffering as much as in times of prosperity.”
On the Wednesday night I attended the church, White watched the entire service, which went on for about three hours, from a chair on the stage. She held a baby as she sat on stage, periodically standing to pray and clap and watching as Prempeh exhorted the congregation to donate.
One man in a beige jacket approached the stage. Prempeh called for a church worker to bring him a pink envelope. “The Lord told me to tell you something, to believe him for a seed of $5,000. … Let that seed get out of your hand. You have no question to ask God about why.” Prempeh promised that if the man gave the requested sum, “the Lord says he is delivering you from widowhood. You won’t be a widower. This year, you will not be a widower. … Just release the seed.”
Though White did not personally solicit donations that evening, she has also urged congregants to give large sums. Earlier this year, an Orlando Sentinel reporter described watching services at New Destiny. “On both Sundays, even the one where she said she was too tired to preach, [White] asked congregants for a special offering—she suggested perhaps as much as a month’s salary—to mark January as the first month of the year,” reporter Beth Kassab wrote.
White’s rise to national prominence is unusual, given her background, education and qualifications.
She frequently describes herself as a “messed-up Mississippi girl” who endured a dysfunctional trailer-park childhood. She says that after her parents split, her father committed suicide. “From the time I was six years old until I was 13 years old, I was sexually abused numerous times in horrific ways,” she wrote in a 2004 book, also describing her struggles with eating disorders.
At speaking engagements and in news articles, White is sometimes called “Dr. Paula,” but according to sworn testimony she gave in 2003, she never finished college.
White graduated from Seneca Valley High in Germantown, Maryland, in 1984. She got pregnant as a teenager with what would be her only child, Bradley, marrying the father, Dean Knight. She briefly attended Montgomery County Community College, where she studied “just basic, basic stuff,” never securing so much as an associate degree, White said under oath. She worked as a shoe saleswoman and then at a doctor’s office, she said. And she took Bible courses at National Church of God, which she said awarded her an honorary doctorate.
A spokesman from the Department of Education said National Church of God is not accredited, and any degrees it awards are not recognized by the federal government. (The National Church of God did not respond to Heat Street’s repeated inquiries.) Even accredited universities often note that honorary degrees “are not Ph.D.s, nor do they entitle the recipient to the same professional privileges as individuals who have earned degrees,” as West Virginia University put it. Nonetheless, leaning on those credentials, White launched her pastoral career.
Critics have raised questions about White’s early church involvement, too. She told the Tampa Tribune in 2007 that she and Randy, her second husband, were “out of their marriages” before becoming romantically involved.
The Tampa Tribune reported in 2008 that Randy and Paula met at a church in Damascus, Maryland, and that two “became romantically involved” in 1987—two years before they divorced their spouses, when Paula was still married to Knight, and Randy, who worked as an associate pastor, was also a married father of three. The article quoted church members who said “Debra White and [Dean] Knight came to them seeking spiritual guidance while their spouses had a relationship.” Knight did not respond to repeated calls from Heat Street, and White did not answer our questions on the subject.
In an interview with the Christian Post earlier this year, White said: “I have been called a heretic, an apostate, an adulterer, a charlatan, and an addict.” These were “patently false accusations,” she said.
Both Randy and Paula’s previous marriages ended in divorce, and the two wedded a year later, departing for Florida shortly thereafter, where they would launch Without Walls in 1991. The church took off, and so did White’s career, buoyed by the 2001 launch of her Paula White Today television program, eventually broadcast on Trinity Broadcasting Network, BET and seven other TV networks.
The publicity gave her a national following, drawing the attention of celebrities like Michael Jackson, several professional athletes— and Donald Trump, who saw her on TV and was impressed.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) May 7, 2017
He called her, and the two have been friends for the past 15 years. White once led a Bible study with some Yankees players, and she would drop by Trump’s office periodically during her time in New York. “I built a relationship with his family and his staff,” she told NPR. White also told the New York Times Trump would call her to pray for him, including before the season finale of “The Apprentice.” In 2008, Trump even appeared on White’s television show, discussing financial success.
White’s growing televangelism career also drew thousands to Without Walls, a church the Whites marketed as “the perfect church for people who aren’t.” At its peak, the church boasted 20,000 members.
Dean Clark, who worked as a pastor at Without Walls for about three years and has known Paula White for nearly two decades, said she has focused on outreach to low-income and inner-city people, treating them with the same respect she afforded celebrities.
Both Paula and Randy White have been attuned to the unique needs of the black community, Clark, who is white, added; she’s managed to transcend racial divides, he said.
“They had very Gospel-style music. Their staff was very multi-racial. They would have famous black guest preachers … Their style was very black. One of the jokes, instead of calling it ‘Church Without Walls,’ they’d call it ‘Church Without Whites,’” Clark said.
But Nicola Menzie, founder of Faithfully Magazine, which reports on Christians of color, said email messages she’s followed over the past three years have left her concerned that White and other similar pastors are distorting the Bible in a way that exploits low-income and minority Christians.
The emails, sent by Paula White Ministries, include spiritual messages, Bible verses—and blunt calls to “sow a seed,” along with promises of spiritual, financial and relational benefits.
“I don’t know any pastors, Christian theologians, any astute believer who could say with integrity that what she does in these emails is honest or honors God,” Menzie said. “These emails are written to convince vulnerable people, desperate people—faithful people who are economically vulnerable and looking for release—to fall into her hands and give her money.”
Christian rapper Shai Linne also slammed White and other prosperity gospel preacher in a 2013 song called “Fal$e Teacher$.” He said they are “treating Jesus like a lottery ticket” and speaking “bogus statements, financially motivated,” describing their business model as “kind of like a pyramid scheme.”
White’s son, Bradley Knight, responded in an open letter in 2013, saying his own salary from the church was $44,200—“far from greed.” He said he and his mother love Jesus, subscribe to the notion of the Trinity, and work to spread Christianity. He also criticized Linne for not reaching out to Paula White or visiting her church before decrying her as a false preacher.
But others who have worked at White’s church or volunteered with her ministry told Heat Street they saw what they considered a dark side to the church’s trappings of wealth and success.
Hector Gomez, a pastor who worked at Without Walls from 1993 to 2000, told Heat Street that on several occasions, Paula and Randy White invited people to put not only money in the offering plate but valuables, too. Darryl Strawberry, the famed outfielder, once caused a stir by putting his World Series ring in the offering plate and donating it to the church, Randy White told ESPN in 2009.
“People would give them jewelry, diamonds, watches,” Gomez said. One day, he said, he watched in horror as Paula White sifted through the collection plate after church, picking out the jewelry that looked valuable.
White told him to take the less valuable collections to a jeweler who bought second-hand pieces to resell or melt down, he said; he watched her lock up the more valuable jewelry in her desk, and he never saw it again.
Gomez said he felt ethically uncomfortable reselling congregants’ jewelry. Not only was he unsure about what became of the most valuable items collected, he said; he also felt uneasy asking people for treasured jewelry, especially after his own wife donated a bracelet he’d given her when they first got married.
“It wasn’t worth much,” Gomez said. “It was a nice little bracelet. But it has sentimental value.” He said he thought about that bracelet as he watched White sort through the jewelry. “I was so grieved. I was like, ‘This belongs to the people in the church. They worked very hard.’”
Gomez said the Whites appeared in public with designer clothing, watches and fancy cars; congressional investigators found a late-model Mercedes Benz and a Bentley convertible parked in the Whites’ home garage.
“High living, the way that they were doing it,” Gomez said. “It was obvious. You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to see it. … To me, I get so disgusted with it that I don’t want to hear it, I want to walk away from it.” Gomez said he resigned from the church in 2000.
Heat Street reviewed a “pastor’s appreciation day” letter from 2002, which asked Without Walls members to donate money specifically for the Whites.
“Pastor’s appreciation is extremely special as we are afforded the opportunity to reverence God through our Pastors, as commanded in the Word of God!” the letter said, bolding and italicizing some words. “In 1 Timothy 5:17 God’s Word instructs us to ‘doubly honor’ those who rule well over God’s people in His Kingdom. In fact, literal translation of this verse would instruct us to ‘beat or pulverize them with monetary reward.’ What a powerful illustration God gave us on properly caring for our Pastors—to beat them with money!”
The letter explicitly asked churchgoers to donate “a love offering of at least $100.00 into the lives of Pastors Randy and Paula,” adding that “some will prefer to [give] $500.00, $1,000.00, $10,000 or more, while others will simply do their best. Regardless of your ability to give, we ask for your participation in doing your very best.”
Heat Street ran the letter by scholars at Oxford and Cambridge who specialize in Biblical language. They said the 1 Timothy verse cited does involve support for church leaders, but it makes no reference to “beating or pulverizing pastors with money.”
“I don’t see this as any but the very most tendentious, self-serving reading of the text — certainly not a ‘literal translation,’” said Dr. A.K.M. Adam, an Oxford scholar.
Unlike most nonprofits, the federal government does not require churches to file annual financial disclosures. So unless a church voluntarily releases information, it’s impossible for members or the public to see where the money is going.
The only Without Walls audit made public, released in 2007, gave a sense of how much the church raised from its members’ tithes and offerings in the decade before it filed for bankruptcy: more than $23 million in 2005, and more than $35 million in 2006.
In a 2011 speech, White said the church gave away $9 million in 2007 to missions work in the United States and internationally.
But the congressional probe, led by Sen. Grassley, found several indications that money given to the church ended up funding Paula and Randy White’s flashy lifestyle.
According to the congressional report, one member of the church board told investigators he thought the Whites earned more than $5 million a year in total compensation from the church.
That’s far in excess of the normal pay for pastors, even at large churches. Thumma, the megachurch expert, said that nationwide, typical pay for a megachurch pastor ranges from $250,000 to $350,000.
In 2007, the Whites were living in a $2.1 million home, according to property records. The median property value in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area was $187,000 from 2007-2009, according to U.S. Census data. In its report, the congressional inquiry cited “an insider” who said that “an accounting firm hired by [the church] told the Whites to purchase the largest house they could find.” On other property records, a church director signed as a witness for Randy and Paula White.
The Whites also jet-setted on the church’s dime, according to the congressional report. For “the ministry,” the Whites leased or chartered several private planes, eventually buying a 1969 Gulfstream for $1.2 million in 2006, Without Walls told congressional investigators. The church audit showed $3.88 million spent on an “airplane lease” between 2004 and 2005.
“A ministry insider indicated that the Whites chartered jets for personal use and the ministry paid for these expenses,” the congressional report said. “For example, the Whites chartered a jet for a trip to Las Vegas to attend a boxing match which was paid for by [Without Walls]. … The cost of the tickets for the boxing match alone was between $17,000 and $18,000. The Whites used the [the church’s] American Express to pay for the trip, including hotel costs.”
The Whites’ family also appeared to have benefitted from the church’s spending. Between 2004 and 2007, the church paid a total of $2.755 million in compensation to their relatives, including Paula’s son and Randy’s two children, father and sister, according to information provided by Without Walls to Sen. Grassley’s office. The church never specified to Congress why family members were receiving that money and did not respond to Heat Street’s inquiry about their pay. (White’s son, Bradley, currently works as the campus pastor of New Destiny Christian Center.)
The White’s spending habits eventually prompted Without Walls’ accountant, Camillo Gargano, to resign in 2008. In a letter written by Gargano and obtained by the Tampa Tribune, the accountant claimed Randy White had asked him to use church funds to pay a $24,000 personal AmEx bill; only $13,000 of it was for church expenses, and the rest was for the Whites’ personal expenditures, Gargano said in the letter, which was also cited in the congressional report.
Moreover, if the church covered that bill, it might not be able to meet payroll, Gargano wrote. The accountant described “bullying, excessive force and verbal abuse,” saying the church was struggling to pay its bills. “Handling of finances by upper management is contrary with my fiduciary responsibility,” he wrote.
In a 2011 speech at the Pastors and Leadership Conference in Orlando, Paula White told the audience that negative articles about her were “mostly, totally unfounded” and “lies” spread by former employees after the church couldn’t “supply the staff with the lifestyle that they were used to.” She said she didn’t sue only because she didn’t know how.
In that same speech, White described the Grassley investigation as an attempt by government to repress religious expression. She said Without Walls and the other churches involved in the Grassley investigation deserved praise for protecting their First Amendment rights.
“We pay our taxes. We work hard. We do it by the books. We have integrity. But you’re going to make a public misery and mess out of it like something’s wrong!” she said.
Sen. Grassley’s investigation, which was focused solely on taxes, concluded without a finding of wrongdoing. But Lynda Jones, a former special agent for Internal Revenue Service criminal investigations who conducted the probe of Without Walls for Sen. Grassley, said the church failed to cooperate and didn’t hand over key documents she requested.
Jones also said that as she dug into the church’s financial dealings, both she and some of her sources received threatening phone calls.
“My frustration as an investigator was over the top,” Jones said. “The reason I couldn’t delve into a lot of those things was because they just balked. They gave us some stuff, but they hid behind their half-priced attorneys.”
By the time Grassley’s investigation ended in 2011, Without Wall’s fortunes had dramatically reversed. Randy and Paula White divorced in 2007. Two years later, Randy resigned as pastor, citing “health concerns.” In 2011, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence; after that, he told the Christian Post he went to rehab for a prescription-drug addiction. Paula White took over the church for some of that time, though Randy eventually returned in 2012.
By then, the church was in financial crisis. The Evangelical Christian Credit Union said in a lawsuit that the church owed $29 million it had received in loans under the Whites’ management. In 2011, White said the church had “never been late on a payment.”
In 2014, Without Walls filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sold off its main church building, a behemoth structure that once served as a Canada Dry bottling plant and could seat 5,000 congregants. In its heyday in the early 2000s, the church had also opened a campus in Lakeland that could hold as many as 15,000—but that, too, was lost amid foreclosure proceedings. In 2015, a developer bought and bulldozed the church property, to the dismay of its former members.
But by then, Paula White had moved on, assuming the key leadership position at another church with millions in the bank and valuable property holdings.
Paula White became senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka in late 2011, after its previous leader, Zachery Tims, was found dead in a room in the W Hotel in New York City at age 42. The medical examiner said he died of “acute intoxication” from cocaine and heroin. Before his death, Tims’ wife Riva had divorced him, citing “multiple and repeated extramarital affairs.”
Riva Tims said in court filings that Paula White was “the spiritual mother of the deceased pastor Zachery Tims, Jr.,” saying the two had a spiritually “intimate relationship.”
But Tims lived and died scandalously, despite White’s spiritual mentorship, said Harvey Burnett, a Pentecostal pastor at New Bethel Church of God in Christ in Peoria, Illinois, who has blogged critically about the controversy at New Destiny before and after Tims’ death.
“At the end of the day, every man has to make his own decisions, and I’m not saying Zachery was destitute in that he didn’t know or could not have done better,” Burnett said. At the same time, many around him “knew what was going on and did not hold him accountable or say, ‘Let’s stop this,’” he said, referring to Zachery Tims’ infidelities and struggles with addiction.
White also shared with Zachery Tims the mentorship of Dallas celebrity pastor T.D. Jakes, who also hosts his own talk show, aired by the Oprah Winfrey Network; in 2007, White bought Jakes a black convertible Bentley to celebrate his 50th birthday. And at Jakes’ behest, Paula White became involved with New Destiny after Tims’ death.
Initially she worked to help the church find a new leader, but before long, White emerged as the leading candidate, to the frustration of some church leaders who suspected her of being focused on the church’s assets, according to one source involved in the transition process.
“[The church] had $9 million in the bank,” that source said. “We owned the properties across the street, the property we were on, and the buildings were pretty much fully paid for. White saw that, and she said out of her mouth, ‘It’s not fair to give this to a young, up-and-coming pastor who has not been proven.’”
Riva Tims, who had co-founded New Destiny with her husband, wanted to take over as the top preacher, and she briefly filed a lawsuit over White’s selection in 2011. She withdrew her suit shortly after filing it, citing provisions in her divorce settlement. Through a spokesman, she declined Heat Street’s request for an interview.
But in the court papers, Riva Tims referenced the financial implosion of Without Walls, saying White was “in debt and unable to properly run a small and/or medium size church, let alone a megachurch with assets in excess of $4 million.”
“It is foreseeable and likely that the appointment of [Paula White] as the new pastor of New Destiny will lead to injury to the New Destiny church as well as the congregation due to her employment and inability to manage assets and run a business,” Riva Tims’ lawsuit said.
White and New Destiny never responded to Heat Street’s queries about the church’s current financial situation. On its website, New Destiny lists a staff accountant named Frank Cancel—but Florida hasn’t licensed anyone by that name as a certified public accountant, and Cancel doesn’t maintain a phone line at the church, a staffer said.
Since taking over New Destiny, White married Jonathan Cain, a keyboardist for the band Journey and one of the authors of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” For the 2015 wedding, she wore a Glaudi wedding gown custom-designed for her.
— Jonathan Cain (@TheJonathanCain) March 26, 2017
Last year, White and her third husband bought a $1.125 million Florida home with a pool and a barn, according to Orange County Property Appraiser records. The median value of owner-occupied housing units in Apopka was $156,100 between 2011 and 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
White also owns a 1,500-square-foot Trump Park Avenue condo, complete with marble bathrooms, which she purchased while still married to Randy. According to New York City Department of Finance records, the apartment’s market value in 2014 was $6.5 million.
Like Without Walls, New Destiny does not belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a watchdog group that monitors churches, setting standards for spending, financial accountability, governance, fundraising and transparency.
Heat Street repeatedly requested financial statements from New Destiny, sending detailed inquiries about church income and spending, as well as White’s compensation and expenditures. They never provided information.
Zech, the expert in church business and ethics, said New Destiny’s lack of transparency is abnormal.
“The general rule of thumb is that if you want people to give, you need to let them know where it’s going,” Zech said. “For them not to disclose income or expenditures, that’s really troublesome.”
At least one prominent member of the Trump administration heard a critic’s concerns about White, said Ole Anthony, the president of the Trinity Foundation. The Texas nonprofit monitors religious fraud. For more than a decade, Anthony and the Trinity Foundation have collected records about Randy and Paula White, raising ethical concerns about their financial dealings and theology.
Anthony used to attend a Bible Study with Steve Bannon, now a Trump senior adviser, and the two are friends, Anthony said. When he heard about Trump’s connection with Paula White, Anthony said, he sent Bannon an email about her, attaching a version of the report the Trinity Foundation sent to Congress during Sen. Grassley’s investigation.
He never received a response from Bannon, Anthony said.