Mary Otten was desperate.
"Please God. Open your eyes," she pleaded. The elderly Waterloo, Illinois woman held the colorful piece of paper that looked like an oriental rug. The border was purple and gold. In the center was the purple face of Jesus Christ. His eyes were closed. Ms. Otten prayed for them to open.
She was convinced that if the eyes of paper Jesus opened, she would be blessed. But his eyes never opened. So, she put the "prayer rug" back in an envelope and returned it to the sender; Saint Matthews Churches, a religious group based in Tulsa.
Within a few weeks, she was bombed with mailings encouraging her to participate in a "seed" plan. The mailings told her how people had given to the church, then received thousands of dollars, jobs, cars, even homes as "blessings" for their generosity to God. Although the organization never actually asked for cash, or promised anything. The strongly implied message was clear. If you give, you shall receive.
The longtime attorney for Saint Matthews refused to talk with me, and executives with the group were unavailable. But critics seem to be everywhere. Ole Anthony, the President of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based watchdog group, calls Saint Matthews a "sham" preying on "desperate people." That would be folks like Mary Otten.
Ms. Otten earns about $500 a month, and clearly can't afford to give away her cash. But she has a grand-niece who is battling cancer and hoped a blessing of more money would allow her to pay some of the girl's medical bills. She never gave Saint Matthews a penny, although she considered it until we shared our findings with her.
Tonight, I spoke with a Hazelwood woman who gave Saint Matthews more than $100. It's likely the church has flooded the market with thousands of mailings, which is the way it conducts business.
I expect to hear from more folks after the story airs Wednesday night. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.