Service with a stamp! New church owners are known for mail-order prayers

Salem Lutheran Church saved — for $2.5M
Photo by Bob Hacken

The church group that bought Salem Lutheran Church on 67th Street is a controversial ministry known more for mailing out literature than holding services.

More information has come to light about St. Matthew’s Churches, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which acquired the property in October. Recognized by the federal government as a tax-exempt religious institution, St. Matthew’s is actually known for sending out letters soliciting donations of “seed” money from worshippers who contribute in hope of some sort of miracle, according to Ole Anthony, the president of the Trinity Foundation, a company that investigates religious fraud. St. Matthew’s raises tens of millions of dollars annually, making the $2.65 million the church paid for the Salem property almost pocket change, he added.

“Conservatively, they take in probably in the neighborhood of $50 million a year,” said Anthony, whose organization recently completed a report on St. Matthew’s Churches for the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.

St. Matthew’s is just the latest incarnation of the mail-order ministry founded originally by the Reverend Gene Ewing in 1951, said Anthony. Its name has changed — Church by Mail and Church and Bible Study in the Home are two others Ewing has used in the past — but its modus operandi remains the same, Anthony said.

“They send a million mailings a month to people living in the poorest neighborhoods in America,” he said. “They say, ‘We are a group of praying mothers and grandmothers and, while deep in prayer, the Holy Spirit brought your address to our attention and said God wants to bless you.’ He [Ewing] probably is the most successful direct mail guy in the country.”

Ewing also is a ghost-writer for other televangelists, Anthony said, who send out virtually identical letters soliciting money that “we know came from him originally.”

When news broke that Salem Lutheran, which closed about a year ago, had been purchased by another church, many in Bay Ridge rejoiced that it would not meet the fate of the so-called Green Church on Fourth Avenue, which ended up being demolished.

But, given the church’s on-line presence, some residents are beginning to question the integrity of their new neighbor.

“I’m just concerned about what I’ve read,” said Pedro d’Aquino, who has lived nearby for about 20 years. “I thought people should be brought to some awareness.”

Finding out information about the church’s plans for the site is difficult.

Its website lists no e-mail address, and calling the number listed only leads to a recorded prayer.

Even the church’s attorney, Tulsa-based J.C. Joyce, didn’t return two phone calls seeking information about the church and its plans for the property.

The most information you can find about the church is on its website, www.saintmatthewschurches.com, which contains a dramatically worded defense of its activities:

“In its mail sermons, it [the church] preaches that God answers prayer, which cannot be construed as a mail scam or mail fraud,” it reads. “However, the published sermons and sacred literature sent free of charge by St. Matthew’s Churches crosses the paths of atheists; communists; drug dealers; criminals; the lunatic fringes of society; those who hate the United States, God and Christianity and those who hate us because we are gospel missionaries. They accuse all churches which mail sermons of mail scams and mail fraud.”

St. Matthew’s has also declined to be evaluated by the Better Business Bureau’s Wise giving Alliance, and the business watchdog group warns potential contributors that such refusal “may demonstrate a lack of commitment to transparency.”

The Bay Ridge location is not the church’s first brick-and-mortar sanctuary. It also owns the Cathedral of Saint Matthew in Houston, Texas. That church is a whopping 100,000 square feet in size, which makes it about six times as large as the buildings on the Salem property. It seats 1,600 in three chapels, and has an air-conditioned basketball and volleyball court, as well as a lighted soccer and baseball field.