Gradually, from this odd Oak Lawn Bible study, a church emerged. It was not a conventional church. It was, by Ole’s description, a first-century church. But then many other fringe Protestant groups have compared themselves to the original churches of the apostles. Although there’s no real parallel today, what Trinity Foundation became is not unlike the early years of the Mennonites or the Anabaptists of Rhode Island. I think that, in any other century, they would have been agrarian and communal, like the Amish, but these were urbanites in a highly technological world, so instead it took the form of a subdivision in an old neighborhood of East Dallas. One person bought a house there. Another bought the house next door. Before long someone purchased a little 12-unit apartment complex across the street, and a community was born.

Ole-Anthony-DMN Ole Anthony, president of the nonprofit Trinity Foundation and an avowed critic of mass-market evangelists, holds a paper towel that he says the Rev. Gene Ewing designed to look like a $1,000 bill. Photography by Irwin Thompson/KRT/Newscom

While all this was going on, I was attracted to Trinity for other reasons. At first it was the late-night theological arguments with Ole. He was the only preacher I ever met who was willing to seriously answer questions like "Why is God such a mean mother-f**ker? Didn’t he just wipe out 80,000 people in Bangladesh?" Or "If Genesis is true, how do you explain carbon dating, the Big Bang. and the continuously expanding universe theory of physics?" (He had answers. More important, he had intellectually honest answers. We won’t go into those here because I need either 10 cups of coffee or 10 shots of vodka before I can wrap my mind around this stuff again.) But meanwhile the "media" side of Trinity — its charter was set up to emphasize media ventures, since their first effort was to buy a television station — had launched a venture called the Samizdat Project.

This was an effort to channel money to a minister in Russia named Georgi Vins, who was wanted by Soviet authorities on charges of operating illegal printing presses and organizing illegal assemblies. A revered figure in the Baptist Church of Russia, which at that time was illegal, Vins spent most of his life on the run, living in the back rooms of believers’ apartments, hidden from the authorities. A number of American Christian leaders, among them President Carter. eventually put pressure on the Soviet government to grant Vins an exit visa, in exchange for some Soviet spies in American custody. He came to America, spoke at the Southern Baptist Convention (an experience he likened to visiting an alien planet), and continued to write until his death in 1998. But the Samizdat Project (named for the Russian word meaning "underground press") was the first of a series of efforts I helped Trinity with. All involved causes I had never heard of until I met Ole Anthony.

For example, there was the time Ole decided to solve the problem of the Vietnamese boat people by chartering a boat and picking them all up so that they became boat people with an English-speaking publicist. Events overtook us — the United Nations stepped in — but the machinery to do it was already in place.

Another time Ole counted the number of homeless people in America, then compared that to the number of churches, and announced one day. "We don’t have a problem! If one homeless person slept in each church, the problem is solved." Especially since most American churches are only used one or two days a week. So Trinity sent speakers out to ask churches to adopt a single homeless person. They also went to guys standing on the street carrying "Will Work For Food" signs and offered them jobs at Trinity. They could do construction work and errands in return for room, board, and 40 bucks a week — the same deal Ole has. (He got a raise at some point.) All of the sign-carrying beggars refused the deal.

The churches of Dallas were also underwhelmed by the idea. A couple of churches in the poorest areas of South and East Dallas did take in homeless, but everyone else said they could only do that if the person was a member of the congregation. Ole said it was unacceptable to make the homeless guy listen to sermons, so the whole thing fell apart, but with a strange twist. Homeless people started showing up on the doorsteps of Trinity. Pastors, faced with a real live homeless person, would call Ole and say "I’m sending this guy over. We’re not really set up for this kind of thing." And so the homes of the Trinity members were swamped with out-of-work, out-of-shelter, out-of-medical-insurance people, to the point that at one time every single member of the foundation had at least one homeless person living with him or her.

"Obviously, that was the purpose of it," says Ole now. "So that we would be tested. It doesn’t take every church in America to solve the homeless problem. It only takes you. Why should we be so surprised that 60 or 80 people can do it? Twelve people changed the world."

"It was literally widows and orphans." said Ole. "That’s who supports the televangelists — the weakest, most vulnerable people in the world."

And it was those very homeless who led Trinity to its biggest and most controversial work, the trashing of televangelism in America. The homeless would arrive at Trinity after being kicked out of some place, usually by their families, who were overwhelmed by their constant problems and inability to make money. But in several cases, the homeless person had spent his or her last dollar, not on food, not on drugs, not on gas for a car, but on a "faith pledge" to a televangelist. Many of these television preachers talk about the "hundred-told blessing" you get when you donate money to God, suggesting that God is a kind of spiritual casino who pays 100-to-1 odds.

Ole had seen this before. One of his best friends had given $5,000 to Robert Tilton when he was virtually bankrupt, trying to bet on the come. But Ole thought this an isolated instance. Now he saw that it was a fairly common decision by people facing financial and emotional ruin. In the most egregious cases, Ole tried to intervene with the evangelist who had received the donation, thinking that, if the situation were explained, the money would be returned. But the evangelists wouldn’t even talk about it.

Next, Ole contacted the National Religious Broadcasters, the official trade association for Christian radio and television. They didn’t want to get involved. He contacted local district attorneys, thinking that the evangelists had violated consumer protection laws prohibiting the solicitation of money over the air, but he was told it was "a First Amendment issue." He contacted the big three television networks, only to be told that, in their opinion, it was "a regional Southern problem." Newspapers said they didn’t have the time or resources to investigate the televangelists, especially since the tedious nature of these small claims could lake months, or even years.

The result: Trinity developed a rabid band of licensed private investigators, undercover agents, and muckraking journalists who did it themselves. Their first target was Robert Tilton, whose Word of Faith Church in Farmers Branch had at one time the most lucrative television program in the country, and they got him in a simple but unorthodox way. They went through the man’s garbage. They not only went through his garbage. They went through the garbage of his bank, his financial consultant, and anyone else who was close to him. They also sent undercover agents to join his church and try to get hired by him. The result: a full-scale report by Diane Sawyer on PrimeTime Live that began the long, messy downfall of Tilton. (Tilton recently resurfaced on Black Entertainment Network, but his empire has never been reassembled.) The most damning evidence: hundreds of "prayer requests" that were answered by a computerized letter and then thrown into a Tulsa dumpster as soon as the money was taken out of the envelope. Old women asking Tilton to pray for their husband’s cancer to be cured, lonely people seeking community — this was the raw material from which Tilton made his fortune.

"It was literally widows and orphans." said Ole. "That’s who supports the televangelists — the weakest, most vulnerable people in the world. The evangelist knows he can’t directly solicit their money, so what he does is have them call a ’prayer line.' The only purpose of the prayer line is to get their address for his computerized database. The computer operation is so sophisticated that the evangelist can generate a ’personal’ letter telling the person he’s praying for their particular problem, whether that be a brain tumor or a son on crack or a broken-down car."