Angela Johnson got the paper Jesus Prayer Rug in the mail, liked the message behind the other mailings she received from Saint Matthews Churches, and decided she should give the ministry some money. She considered her donation an "extra tithe."
Soon, Saint Matthews started bombing her with more mail, perhaps three times a week she'd get the mailings encouraging her to give "seeds" so that she could "reap a harvest" in return. The messages frequently accompanied the testimonies of people who allegedly received huge windfalls of cash, new jobs or cars after donating to the church.
Johnson, like many other donors I talked with during the last week, believed it could happen for her, too, if she had enough faith. So, when she got an "anointed cloth" she placed it on her checkbook and slept on it like she was told. But instead of reaping the "harvest," Johnson's husband lost his job.
The church, which is based in a Tulsa lawyer's office, has been around since the early 1950s. James Eugene Ewing, the founder and President of Saint Matthews, lives in a Beverly Hills mansion, according to news reports. The group's 1999 federal tax records show he received $300,000 in salary that year. Ewing, a mass mail genius, helped create a strategy that targeted key demographic areas with tens of thousands of mailings every month, then calculated an expected rate of return of up to 8%. The blueprint was published in 1993 and was obtained by the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based watchdog group that has collected boxes of materials used by Saint Matthews.
Angela Johnson eventually donated hundreds of dollars to Saint Matthews, but like every donor who spoke with me recently, she stopped giving because she felt like the group wasn't using her money appropriately. The 1999 tax records show Saint Matthews spends roughly half its revenue on mailings, which it calls "program services."
We have tried repeatedly to get a comment from someone connected with Saint Matthews, but even their longtime attorney J.C. Joyce has refused to talk with me.