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Defrocking clergy

By Terry Joseph
September 09, 2005

Among my earliest columns was one published in the Sunday Express some 25 years ago titled "The Crucifixion of Muhammad Ali", which occasioned upon me the dreaded "baptism of fire" from devout Christians, who perceived it as devaluating the sacrifice that inspired their church; a response likely to be invoked afresh today in other quarters.

Not that the Ali article made light of martyrdom but religious fanatics increased the heat on already searing brimstone, prophesying my demise and consequent condemnation to hell, a few actually promising to assist the process; one particularly irate lady expressing an inclination to fast-track and personally underwrite travel arrangements.

Reaction was similar in October 1986 upon publication of "The Feeding of the Five Thousand", my critique of a vulgar rum and roti soiree staged by the Chambers administration to mark the opening of the Mount Hope Medical Sciences Complex; given the event's proximity to that year's general election.

Bearers of the cross erupted again on Maundy Thursday, 2002, over a column called "Unholy Week", mere collating information that eventually exploded into the scandal of pederasty in the Roman Catholic Church. Reaction ranged from curses (both occult and obscene) to a written instruction from my long-standing friend, Ivor Ferreira, to permanently delete his address from my e-mail contact list.

Clearly, it wasn't only spirited defence of God but man, where the latter was seen as earthly representative of divinity although, on March 26, 2004, "The Passion of the Prince" escaped their collective wrath, perhaps because it was about Brian Lara, considered a virtual deity in the cricketing world. The article didn't pass completely without admonition: "Don't do it again," was the succinct hint from a lone dissenter.

But what's a writer to do in such circumstances? Take the situation resulting from Hurricane Katrina, where holy men with expansive personal and religious accommodation never offered their spaces to the tens of thousands rendered homeless in the storm's aftermath, the godly men's houses of many mansions dry and pristine while flooding left the multitudes dispossessed.

Nor were they far from the Gulf Coast. TD Jakes, hailed by Time magazine as "America's Best Preacher" in a 2001 cover story that compared him to venerable evangelist, Billy Graham, founded and serves as senior pastor of the Potter's House, a 30,000-member mega-church in Dallas where, by his own admission, the air-conditioning alone cost TT$25 million to install.

On the evidence, he knows how to move people both spiritually and physically, reaching millions through television, the best-selling author of more than 30 books attracted over 100,000 to the Georgia Dome for his Mega Fest in June 2004, via a transportation network that remains the envy of city planners. Bishop Jakes lives with his wife, Serita and their five children in a Dallas mansion complete with indoor swimming pool and bowling alley.

In 1998, he signed a seven-figure deal with Putnam Publishing and has since built TD Jakes Enterprises into a media empire. His books, DVDs, CDs and more recently the movie he produced, Woman Thou Art Loosed, in which he also starred, made giga-millions, affording a luxurious lifestyle worthy of a transnational corporate executive.

Last July, televangelist supreme, Joel Osteen, whose annual salary is TT$1.3 million, moved his 30,000 member congregation to Lakewood International Center, former home of the Houston Rockets, on which he spent some TT$600 million in acquisition and refurbishment.

The facility accommodates 16,000 per service which, if a recent New York Times report on his weekly collections is accurate, would present even Jesus with a helluva challenge to merely overturn the moneychangers' tables-far more drive them from so lucrative a temple.

But it is not only a matter of donations. You'd think after the flood these well-heeled preachers might wish to reach the poor first, offering their talents at organising the movement of hordes and accommodation for those stranded without a hope of checking into hotels but no such thing happened.

Instead, it was the low-profile Salvation Army that rushed to set up feeding operations outside the Houston Astrodome, also working in Dallas and San Antonio in collaboration with Southern Baptist Church, cooking and serving more than 20,000 meals daily to survivors sheltering in arenas there.

Even though today's article might invite a good ol' fashioned "spirit-lash", it would be at least delinquent to not remark upon what appears to be a glaring double standard except, of course, the mission of big money clergy is so narrowly focused that it deals only with moving souls to the hereafter and once there, serving them rations of milk and honey exclusively.

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