Ole Anthony was the only preacher I ever met who wanted to talk about getting laid. To be fair, he mostly talked about not getting laid and the crimp it put in his lifestyle. But there were nights in the early ’80s when we would hang out at smoky, boozy joints like Arthur’s, the notorious upscale pickup bar in North Dallas, and svelte elegant women with bedroom eyes would linger for a long time at Ole’s side and then, at some point, click away in their 4-inch pumps, bound only for the parking lot.
“What happened?” I would ask him.
“Well. I mentioned the God thing.”
“You shouldn’t mention the God thing.”
“I’ve lost more nookie over that. God is punishing me.”
Today, as then, Ole runs the public nonprofit Trinity Foundation, the only organization of its kind, variously functioning as a church, a charitable foundation, a homeless shelter, a job corps for reformed crack addicts, a consortium of muckraking journalists, a private investigative agency, a magazine publisher, a supervisor of criminal parolees and probationers, and the manager of low-income housing projects in places as far flung as Oklahoma City and Dayton, Ohio. There’s another school of thought that would say Trinity is a blaspheming parody of Christianity, an ego trip for Ole Anthony, a cult, or a tax shelter for people like me, who have been known to throw a little money in its direction. Most of its members live within a three-square-block area of East Dallas in two-story houses that were built by local Mafiosi in the 1930s. Over the years I’ve asked him on more than one occasion how to describe what he does.
“From what we know,” he says, “we’re functioning as a first-century A.D. church. This is what existed before denominations, when there was no separation between Christian and Jew, much less Christian and Christian.”
I ask him what he does. He tells me what he is. This is the only kind of conversation you can have with Ole.
“Okay, what we do,” he says, “is we meet human need.”
That’s a little vague, I tell him.
“We don’t make plans. We do what’s put before us each day.”
And this Zen-like answer is all you’re likely to get. Don’t try for more. I’ve known the man 20 years, and the answer has never changed. Ole (pronounced “OH-lee”) is a blue-eyed 6-foot-4 Norwegian-American who, before he became the guru of East Dallas — he hates being called a “guru.” which is why I just did it — had a checkered career as an Air Force intelligence officer, corporate executive for the multinational Teledyne, failed Republican candidate for the Texas Legislature, political advisor to former Mayor Wes Wise, owner of an offshore oil exploration company, sports agent, talent manager, political consultant, public relations specialist, and the kind of sexual player who strikes terror into the parents of young girls everywhere. In other words, he was a con man and a hustler—with a great wardrobe. I liked him immediately.
When I first met him, he was homeless. But like many people who have touched millions and then lost it, he had contrived to remain in Highland Park even in the depths of his penury. For a while he lived in a guesthouse on Turtle Creek, then in a garage apartment, and lately he’d taken to sleeping in his office, which was a seedy walk-up over an Oak Lawn carpet store. Three employees of Texas Monthly, myself included, had taken space in the same building, and on days when I came in early, Ole would sometimes be sheepishly emerging from the men’s room, where he would have performed his ablutions while concealing all evidence from the strait-laced marriage counselor who functioned as our landlord. Ole had no means of support, either visible or invisible. We were both night owls who liked greasy spoons and lively bars, so I had plenty of chances to question him about this.
“What exactly do you do. Ole?”
“I told you what I do.”
“Tell me again.”
“I’m the president of Trinity Foundation. It’s the only public religious foundation in America.”
“And how much does that pay?”
“Twenty dollars a week.”
“So what do you do for money?”
“I’m the president of Trinity Foundation.”
“You live on 20 dollars a week?”
“I live on 20 dollars a week.”
“All right, let’s change the question. How do you spend your day?”
“I read the Scriptures, I study Torah.”
“Do you realize that most people who say their full-time job is reading the Bible are in Terrell State Hospital?”
And then he would go into excruciating detail about just what part of the Torah he was studying at that very moment, and at the time his narratives were so boring to me that I would tune them out. Preston Jones, the Dallas Theater Center playwright, would come into Nick Farley’s Lounge, a dart pub better known as the NFL, and razz Ole mercilessly. Jones had invented a complete biography of “Frank Christ, Jesus’ older brother,” and would hold forth on the superiority of Frank over Jesus by virtue of his prior claim to the virgin birth. Ole would bear up pretty well under these assaults, but secretly he was thinking, “Eventually, Preston will understand what I’m talking about.” This is actually Ole’s principal virtue as a religious teacher. You can put the man in a rowdy den of nine dozen scoffing atheists, turn a virtual fire hose of abuse on him, and at the end of it, he’ll say, “Let me tell you what Paul said in Corinthians…” And somebody ends up screaming at him, “Ole! Give it a rest! No more Scripture! The Cowboys are playing the Eagles!”
What was emerging from these studies was his growing conviction that the modern church had gotten it all wrong.
“Do you know what’s occurring spiritually when a man becomes addicted to sports? He’s feeding off the flesh of—”
“No. it’s something I was studying the other day…”
He was relentless. He was a charging Brahma bull breathing Scripture out of both nostrils. But, unlike most preachers, he didn’t limit his exhortations to the church sanctuary, and he didn’t stand on a corner with a “Jesus Saves” sign and a bullhorn. He just spouted this stuff off the top of his head, wherever and whenever it occurred to him. And he was studying every day. For a long time, he went to the Perkins School of Theology Library at SMU, but he was kicked out by the spinsterish librarian for spending too much time there and using too many rare books. (I know it doesn’t sound like a real reason, but that’s basically what happened.) He couldn’t use most so-called “Christian” libraries because they were either reserved for members of a particular congregation or limited to preachers with “credentials.” (Ole has no college degree.) He finally found a home for his daily researches at Temple Emmanuel, where the rabbis would sometimes come and discuss his studies with him.
This led to speaking invitations, the opening of other collections, and sometimes the actual debate of the Scripture itself, which is a rabbi’s highest compliment. One night, after Ole spoke at the Jewish Community Center, a few people asked questions about the Messiah — always uppermost in everyone’s minds when Christians and Jews come together — and an elderly man in the rear waved them aside and said. “But he speaks with the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It doesn’t matter.” Ole got choked up — and he’s not a man who cries easily — and found it difficult to tell the story later.
For what was emerging from these studies was his growing conviction that the modern church had gotten it all wrong — that there was no basis for the separation of Christian and Jew. That the apostles, beginning with Paul, had always spoken first in the synagogue, and that many early churches were, in fact, synagogues. Increasingly, his readings turned away from Martin Luther and towards the ancient Hebrew authorities. Always at his side were Hebrew dictionaries, Greek dictionaries, and academic word-study books because he felt acutely his inability to read the original languages and was determined not to make a mistake. I watched as he filled up dozens of three-ring binders with his printed notes, painstakingly copied onto yellow legal pads. He became fascinated with the idea of the “three-year cycle,” a process in ancient times by which a congregation would read through the entire Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) in three years, discussing and understanding every verse. He came to believe, with the rabbis, that Torah was the only Scripture, and that everything else in the Bible, including all of the New Testament, was merely commentary. He had become, as he was jokingly called at Temple Emmanuel, “our Christian rabbi.”
This was the answer to my frequent question, “What exactly do you do?”