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Prayer rug to riches

Direct mail from church raises questions for some York County residents

KAREN MULLER

Saturday, February 26, 2005

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Maryellen Snell and other York County residents have received mail from St. Matthew’s Churches that include a ‘prayer rug’ with a picture of the face of Jesus on it and a letter with testimonials of people who said they used the rug and were ‘blessed’ with money, houses and cars or were healed.
Most of us probably throw away our junk mail without even opening it.

We all have our ways of determining what is junk. I’m skeptical that any important correspondence would be sent to “occupant,” “resident,” “friend” or “good neighbor.”

And I’m sure I’m never going to win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, no matter how many magazines I buy.

But sometimes we see a letter that we know we will toss out, and we read it anyway — much in the same way we watch television commercials for products we don’t want.

That happened to Maryellen Snell of Manchester, who usually throws away the junk mail the moment she figures out what it is.

Something spurred 82-year-old Snell to open a letter from St. Matthew’s Churches from a post office box in Tulsa, Okla.

After reading it, the former Sunday school and public school teacher was angry and stirred to speak out.

“People are going to fall for these things,” she said. “I think it was money they wanted, but there are all kinds of false prophets out there.”

Inside Snell’s letter was a “prayer rug,” a picture of the face of Jesus on an ornamental paper rug, and testimonials from those who had prayed according to the letter’s directions.

Paul Kuehnel - YDR
Books surround Maryellen Snell in her Manchester home. Snell is a former public school and Sunday school teacher. She was angry when she received a letter promising prosperity and health if she were to pray using the enclosed Jesus prayer ‘rug.’ ‘I wasn’t taken in by it at all,’ Snell said.
One was from a woman, “Y.G.,” who was “blessed” with $46,000. Another was a woman from Maryland who said her husband listed seven things he wanted God to do for him, and God blessed them with $10,700.

Another person, “J.B.,” was miraculously healed of pain in her leg.

Snell took the letter to her Sunday school class at Christ Lutheran Church in Manchester. She showed the picture of Jesus with his eyes closed, a tear falling from the corner of one eye and a crown of thorns on his head.

Below the picture read: “Look into Jesus’s Eyes you will see they are closed. But as you continue to look you will see His eyes opening and looking back into your eyes. Then go and be alone and kneel on this Rug of Faith or touch it to both knees. Then please check your needs on our letter to you. Please return this Prayer Rug. Do not keep it.”

The letter instructed the recipient to slide the prayer rug under their side of the bed after they pray and to only use the prayer rug that night — and mail it back to the post office box because “another dear friend” needed a blessing.

The letter said they would receive financial blessings if they said a certain prayer and cited Deuteronomy 28:6.

“. . . I feel very strongly that I don’t need a rug to get to God . . .,” Snell said. “It sounded like some kook, really.”

And as her Sunday school class watched, she tore the letter and the prayer rug into tiny pieces and threw them into the trash.

In search of — St. Matthew’s Churches:

When a colleague showed me she had received a copy of the same letter Snell had received from St. Matthew’s Churches, I began to wonder how many of the letters had gone out to York County residents. And how many people had responded.

My search led me to the Rev. Gene Ewing, the founder of the registered nonprofit organization.

I contacted Ewing through a 900 number for St. Matthew’s Churches listed on its Web site. Ewing’s lawyer, J.C. Joyce of Tulsa, returned the call a day later.

Articles offering harsh criticism about St. Matthew’s Churches abound on the Internet — at ChristianToday.com and ReligionNewsBlog.com.

And the organization — also known as Prayer by Letter and St. Matthew 18:19 Publishing and St. Matthew Publishing — had earned an unfavorable rating at Give.org, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance that reports on charities.

The alliance says at its Web site that it did not receive requested information on St. Matthew’s governance, finances and fund raising. And that, in the last year, the alliance and Better Business Bureaus across the country have received 46 complaints from people who have received direct mail letters from the organization, which responded generally by removing the name of the individual from its mailing list.

Ole Anthony, president of the nonprofit, the Trinity Foundation, told me his investigation of St. Matthew’s Churches began in the early 1990s after he and other ministry workers learned that some homeless people Trinity had taken in had given their last dollar to the organization.

Trinity is both a religious watchdog group and a church of about 400 Christians, 100 of whom have taken vows of poverty and live communally in a rundown section of Los Angeles. Each Trinity employee — including Anthony, he said — receives $50 a week, after room and board.

The foundation has gone undercover — searching garbage and using hidden cameras — to research more than 350 organizations and televangelists, Anthony said. He has been interviewed as an expert on religious fraud and corruption by “60 Minutes,” “Primetime Live,” “20/20” and “Dateline: NBC.”

Ewing uses homespun language, scripture references, promises of riches and the creative hook of an enclosed trinket in each mailing, Anthony said. Trinkets include faith shower caps, anointed coin wrappers, green yarn faith cords, holy string and brown paper prayer sheets.

Letters urge the reader to return the trinkets within 24 hours. Enclosed is a sheet with boxes to check for readers’ prayer requests, such as a better job, a home and a new car.

Also on the sheet are blank lines to fill in the amount of money people want to receive from God and what they will donate to St. Matthew’s Churches as a “seed gift.”

The letter promises St. Matthew’s will pray for the reader when it receives the response sheet.

St. Matthew’s promises to send more spiritual gifts.

Anthony said a good response rate for direct mail is about 1 percent and about 8 percent of people who receive unsolicited mail from St. Matthew’s Churches respond.

Joyce said the organization never sells anything or asks for money.

“This is just the church’s evangelistic outreach,” Joyce said. “Some churches do this. Some churches don’t evangelize at all . . . .”

Nonprofit?

The Internal Revenue Service revoked Ewing’s tax exempt status in the early 1980s when the organization was called Church by Mail, Anthony said.

Ewing responded by changing the name of the company to St. Matthew’s Publishing and continuing on in a prosperous direct mail venture where nothing was “sold” and donations poured in, Anthony said.

Joyce confirmed St. Matthew’s being investigated by the IRS in the 1980s and said the IRS again questioned the company’s nonprofit status in the 1990s and audited the company’s records from 1979 through 1992.

The problem was the name, Joyce said, as the IRS didn’t understand that St. Matthew’s Publishing was a church.

Anthony said what has made Ewing, who never went beyond the seventh grade, the most money was selling his letter-writing, direct mail expertise to other evangelists.

Ewing, the son of a sharecropper, lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills, Anthony said.

The Dallas Morning News, which did an expose of Ewing and his mail order ministry in 1996, said Ewing is among the least-known millionaire preachers in America, living among the rich and famous and driving Ferraris, Rolls Royces and a Stutz Bearcat.

Tax records included in a 2003 article in the Tulsa World indicated St. Matthew’s Churches had collected $100 million since 1993 — $26 million in 1999 alone.

‘A fine church’

Joyce said the church is not a nondenominational church but is also not affiliated with a larger church body and is “like an Anglican church” — more conservative than Episcopal churches because it doesn’t allow homosexual clergy.

“(The mailings) give the people the opportunity to worship,” he said.

If people don’t want to receive mail from St. Matthew’s Churches, they should just throw it away, he said. Or they should write to the church and say they don’t want the materials anymore.

“The church has no desire to send any mail to anyone who doesn’t want to receive it,” he said.

Ewing, formerly a tent revivalist, started the church in the 1950s, and the church has grown to 17 or 18 priests, Joyce said. One of the churches is in New York City, sharing a building with another church in Cathedral Square.

Joyce declined to give a phone number for the church in Cathedral Square, saying he didn’t want the church bothered by calls.

He asked me not to write a story about St. Matthew’s Churches.

The church has received some complaints, he said, because of the mass mailings, but the bad things said about St. Matthew’s Churches on the Internet aren’t true, he said.

“It’s fine people,” he said. “It’s a fine church.”

Still in search of: St. Matthew’s

The 1996 article by the Dallas Morning News said St. Matthew’s had no church building.

There was no congregation, either.

A 2003 Tulsa World story said the same.

Snell hasn’t received any more mail from St. Matthew’s Churches.

And if she did, she wouldn’t bother to open it. She’d do the same thing she had done with the first letter, she said.

She’d throw it away.

“The thing that really upset me was needing the rug to get to God,” she said. “All I have to do is talk to him, and he will hear me.”

Karen Muller is the religion reporter for the York Daily Record/Sunday News. Her column will appear monthly. Reach her at 771-2024 or kmuller@ydr.com.

Giving tips

The American Institute of Philanthropy offers the following tips at its Web site before making donations to charities:

  • Know the charity. Request literature about the charity and a copy of its latest annual report. The institute says if the charity doesn’t provide you with the information, don’t give. “Honest charities typically encourage your interest and respond to your questions.”

  • Find out how the money is spent. The institute recommends that 60 percent or more of the donation should go to program services, and less than 40 percent should be spent on fund-raising and administrative costs. A red flag would be charities that call large portions of their direct mail and telemarketing expenses “public education,” which could be a disguise for high fund-raising costs.

  • Do not be pressured into making a contribution immediately. “You have a right to say no.”

  • Keep records of your donations and never give cash. Don’t give out your credit card number to a telephone solicitor and obtain a tax receipt for all contributions of $250 or more.

  • “Tax exempt” isn’t the same as “tax deductible.” Ask for the charity’s tax-exempt letter; and if it doesn’t have one, then you cannot claim your contribution as a tax deductible.

  • Don’t be fooled by a familiar name. Some questionable charities use names that closely resemble the name of a legitimate, well-known organization. Ask for details in writing.

  • Beware of emotional appeals that tell you nothing of the charity and how your donation will be spent.

  • Ask if the charity is registered by federal, state and/or local authorities.

  • Watch out for charities that want to give you something, such as address stickers, calendars or key rings. Charities do this because it can increase donations, but it is against the law for a charity to demand payment for unordered merchandise.

    Source: http://www.charitywatch.org/tips/html

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    On the Web

    St. Matthew’s Churches — http://www.saintmatthewschurches.com

    The Trinity Foundation — http://www.trinityfi.org

    The Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance standards for charity accountability — http://www.give.org/standards/newcbbbstds.asp

    An article about the Trinity Foundation in the Apologetics Index at http://www.apologeticsindex.org/tll.html.

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