"What we did," said Ole, "by putting the investigations under the care of a nonprofit foundation, is that we provided a buffer for these media organizations that are afraid of churches and afraid of libel suits. When they sue me, they’re suing a man who makes 50 dollars a week."
"You make 50 now?"
"I got another raise. After all, I am the president."
Trinity now has investigative files on 320 different Christian ministries, with seven licensed private eyes and 25 "active" investigations involving undercover employees. "Everybody at Trinity loves to go to work for these evangelists," he said, "because they get a raise. If you’re undercover, working for Benny Hinn or Robert Tilton, you spend a year living like a king compared to around here."
The resulting investigations of Jimmy Swaggart, Hinn, Larry Lea, W.V. Grant, and others are actually better known abroad than in the U.S. Even though Trinity investigations have been the basis of reports on CBS, NBC, CNN, and many local American stations, the biggest investigations have been done by the BBC, Japanese television, and networks in Australia, the Netherlands, France, and Italy. "I think it’s because they’re just discovering this stuff in Europe," says Ole. "They have a satellite called the God Pod over there, and they’re having to deal with this for the first time."
Meanwhile, Ole has continued to teach a Bible study, and most of its members are the same ones who were screaming down the hall when I first met him. Most of the members also teach Bible studies of their own now because "we don’t let a group get any larger than 20 people." he says. "It has to be a minyan — more than 10, less than 20. If you have fewer than 10, you don’t have community. But if you have more than 20, people can hide." And all the Bible studies come together once a week for Trinity’s version of the Eucharist, and three times a year for the so-called pilgrimage feasts —Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles — that were observed by Jesus and the disciples. In fact, everyone at Trinity tends to live by the Jewish calendar, observing such rarely honored (and disagreeable) holy days as "The Fast of Ab," requiring extremes of fasting and forms of self-deprivation like refusing to shower.
"People have started being conveniently out of town on the Fast of Ab," Ole told me one time.
There are now five Bible studies like Ole’s original one — four in Dallas and one in Oklahoma City. Why Oklahoma City? Well, once again, because of something I’d never heard of until Ole told me about it. A couple of years ago some Wall Street underwriters were looking for a nonprofit foundation to administer some tax-free municipal bonds. The bonds were earmarked for low-income housing, and in order for investors to get their tax write-off, the housing had to be run by a nonprofit group. The problem with nonprofit groups is that they often drain the resources of a project and turn a good investment into a bad one.
Voila! An investor in Oklahoma knew of this ex-Republican leader of a nonprofit who had taken a vow of poverty. Not only that, but everyone who worked for this guy took a vow of poverty. The overhead on this group is, like. zero.
"Is your overhead zero, Ole?"
"No, we all get $50 a week." Overnight, Trinity became the administrator of a low-income apartment complex in Oklahoma City that is now being touted as the solution to the eternal problem of how to build housing for the destitute without ending up with disastrous slums. I asked Ole how this works.
"Congress changed the IRS guidelines to permit qualified charities to become the recipients of multifamily housing financed with tax-free municipal bonds. This is the government’s attempt to rescue affordable housing that was built in the ’60s and ’70s for the truly poor and distressed. A percentage of the units have to be available for the poor and distressed. The investor gets a high interest rate because the bond is non-rated. This is a big deal because it could revolutionize the way America houses the poor and distressed."
"So who pays the subsidy on the apartment rent?"
"There is no subsidy!"
"So an investor is sharing his tax break with a poor person?"
"No! The apartments are offered at their true value."
"So how are you able to give apartments to poor people and nobody pays part of the rent?"
"Because Wall Street creates money where it didn’t exist before."
"How do you do that?"
"John, don’t ever get involved in business."
I'm sure it works. I’m sure it’s yet another project that Trinity has figured out before everyone else. There are 2,045 of these Trinity-administered apartments in Oklahoma City, and now 160 at a new project in Dayton, Ohio.
From an Oak Lawn homeless eccentric to Wall Street’s most trusted caretaker of municipal bonds. I’ve watched this 20-year evolution with a mixture of amazement and fear. Amazement because it’s the only organization I’ve ever been involved with that doesn’t ever ask me for anything and that can persevere in a single cause for years at a time. (It took six years of work before Tilton’s case was complete.) Fear because Ole will say absolutely anything, anywhere, anytime, without regard for whose mother is present or what religious icon is being desecrated.
In the late ’80s, he caused a minor furor at the famous monastery of Mount Athos when he refused to kiss the image of the saint at the entrance. After some discussion among the Greek Orthodox priests, he was ferried back to the mainland. Closer to home, he attended the funeral of a Dallas friend who had spent much of his life trying to become an Episcopal priest. After being refused admission to the priesthood for the third or fourth time, the man had committed suicide. The Episcopal church conducted the graveside service, but because of the way the man had died, the two officiating ministers, both in their 20s, neither of whom had known the man, said what Ole later described as "weird" things. "They were wearing these dresses and trying to talk around the suicide." Ole said.
So, true to form, Ole rose up from among the attending crowd and said "That’s not what happened and not who he was." Then, as he started to speak of his friend’s life, the two ministers said a few words and literally walked away from the funeral! A friend of mine, who witnessed this, said, "You know those Old Testament Scriptures where it says the priests fled before the voice of the prophet? These guys were literally fleeing. We couldn’t believe it. But as soon as they were gone, all the family came up to Ole and told him how relieved they were that someone spoke in love about him."
That’s Ole. I’ve seen so many examples of this that they don’t even surprise me anymore.
In 1981 I had asked Ole to get involved in one of my projects. I did an undercover magazine investigation on stolen art in Milan, and Ole went along as my invisible backup in case the bad guys turned on me at some point. The whole investigation went badly awry, and I had to flee across Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Syria. In Beirut, with my cover blown and shady characters asking way too many questions, Ole advised me to take the first plane out. He stayed behind with my unbalanced, alcoholic informant, who was so furious that I left him behind that he took Ole hostage and held him at gunpoint in a beachfront hotel for 24 hours. At the end of that time, thinking I was dead, the now-suicidal informant put a gun in Ole’s mouth and started a countdown from 10. On the count of "three," the phone rang. I had made it to Paris and finally gotten a phone line into Beirut. For the next several hours, we talked to the informant until he agreed to leave the room. At that point a gang of professional goons from the American embassy swarmed in and hustled Ole into protective custody. I met him at Orly Airport the next day, and he was so psychologically damaged that he would burst into tears at the slightest noise and shake uncontrollably when he heard a siren. He was suffering from "posthostage syndrome," for which I helped him get treatment at the American Hospital in Paris. It took him about six months to fully recover, and during that time, I felt this vague unease and anger. He finally asked me why I was so unsympathetic.
"You thought you were going to die." I said, "and so all your faith went away. It makes me think everything you’ve told me is bullshit."
"I can’t explain it," he said.
We didn’t talk for three years. He was resentful because he felt I had left him to die. I was resentful because I felt his faith was a sham. In 1984 I had my own flash of light. My own Damascus Road. And the first thing I did, after becoming a believer, was to ask Ole to forgive me. But he already had.
"This stuff works, doesn’t it?" he said.
"Just don’t ask me to work for f**king 40 dollars a week."
He didn’t. He made me work for free.