Holy High Roller

When New Destiny picked Paula White to rebuild the megachurch’s congregation in the wake of Zachery Tims’ mysterious death, it put its faith in the jet-setting preacher’s redeeming qualities.

The new preacher is working hard this Sunday morning to mend and reinvigorate the shattered congregation of New Destiny Christian Center, once the most dynamic and fastest-growing African-American megachurch in Central Florida, if not the country. Brandishing her large, softbound Bible with gilt-page edges, Paula White, dressed in a black ensemble with a button- down top, sleeves to the elbow and black stiletto heels that appear to be in the four-inch range, is practically a blur as she swoops, kneels, bounces, pivots, spins, shouts, falls to her knees, points to the sky, shakes her fist, snaps her fingers and pounds the podium. Every proclamation is greeted by “amen’’ and other shouts of the spirit from the faithful.  Hands on hips like Mick Jagger, the slender, blond White struts on the stage, wisecracking like a Comedy Central stand-up, then backpedaling for effect. She steps in front of the pillared, faux marble lectern, advancing to the edge of the stage, bends her knees and seems to lean into the congregation, chopping the air for emphasis.

“God loves New Destiny,” she tells worshippers in the barely half-filled sanctuary. And within a year, she vows, “they’ll be fighting over seats. . . . I will bring you into the land promised by your founder.”

White seems an unlikely figure to lead them there. A charismatic evangelist with enough personal baggage to fill a circus train, White came to the Pentecostal New Destiny church after its founder, Zachery Tims, 42, was found dead in a Times Square luxury hotel room last August. The suspicious circumstances surrounding his death—an unexplained envelope of white powder was found on him, and his mother won a court battle to keep the toxicology report sealed—were yet another blow to a church that had already been fractured by Tims’ personal behavior. In 2007, Tims confessed from the pulpit that he had had an affair, with a Parisian stripper no less, sundering his picture-perfect family. Two years later, he and his co-pastor wife, Riva, divorced. Forced out of New Destiny, Riva started her own ministry, and thus began the erosion of a church that the couple started with six people in a hotel room and grew into, beginning in 2001, an 8,800-member church on 21 acres in Apopka.

In hiring White, 46, in December, the church’s succession selection committee chose a white preacher similar in many ways to the late Tims, who was black. Both had troubled upbringings that involved drug addictions, with White saying she was abused, and Tims saying he was a gang member. White has been described on her Facebook page as a “smokin’ Barbie” by an admirer, while Tims so resembled the actor and rapper Will Smith that one of his YouTube clips is titled “The New Fresh Prince of Preachers.” Attractive, fit, fashionably dressed and rich, each at the height of their career could pack a house of worship and fill collection plates, bringing in millions of dollars a year to their respective ministries. And each made and spent millions. In a financial affidavit submitted in his divorce, Tims reported that he earned $33,400 a month and listed as assets a $2.2 million home in Windermere and $437,000 in savings. But his standard of living would have paled in comparison to White’s.

White, who along with then-husband Randy White, founded a Tampa-based congregation in 1991 later named Without Walls International Church, has enjoyed a level of wealth her followers could only dream of. Before the couple amicably divorced in 2007, their extravagances included private jets, luxury vehicles, a condo in Trump Park Avenue and another costing $3.5 million in Trump Tower on New York’s 5th Avenue, and a $2 million family home fronting Tampa Bay.

Also in 2007, the Tampa Tribune, as part of an investigative series on the Whites and their church, reported that an independent audit showed the couple and Without Walls ministries brought in nearly $40 million in 2006. That year, the paper reported, the Whites took a combined $600,000 in salary and benefits, although one of the church’s financial advisers said that some years the Whites’ combined compensation was $1.5 million, and family members were believed to make up much of the ministry’s $5 million annual payroll. At one point, Paula’s separate broadcast business, Paula White Ministries, was bringing in $50,000-$80,000 a week, according to the Tribune.

Paula, in 2007, gave Bishop T.D. Jakes of Dallas a black Bentley convertible for his 50th birthday. Paula credits Jakes, pastor of the black megachurch The Potter’s House, with catapulting her career to stardom when he invited her to speak at an African-American women’s conference in 2000.

White, like Jakes and the late Tims, is a strong proponent of the controversial prosperity gospel, theology that advocates that the more money worshippers put into the church or ministry, the greater their return. In other words, you have to give money to the church to be granted wealth
from God.

The Whites’ lavish spending caught the attention of the IRS in 2004, and later a U.S. senator, who, in 2007, launched a congressional investigation into the financial dealings of six churches led by televangelists, including Without Walls. The separate probes into organizational finances and possible personal misuse of donations ended in 2011 without any charges or conclusions against the Whites and their church.

Still, Without Walls, which had added a satellite church in Lakeland, fell deeply into debt. In 2008, a Christian credit union threatened to foreclose on both Without Walls locations, citing failure to maintain payments on approximately $25 million
in loans.

Paula left the church after the couple filed for divorce and devoted her time to Paula White Ministries. She took out a $650,000 mortgage to buy a 4,880-square-foot house near San Antonio, Texas, which she still owns. Meanwhile, Randy remained over the church but leased a Malibu, Calif., beachfront and returned to preach at Without Walls only sporadically. Two months after a DUI arrest in 2009, Randy, then 51, stepped down from the pulpit, citing health concerns. Paula took over as the congregation’s sole senior pastor. Last August, Without Walls’ financial troubles resurfaced when the 10,000-seat Lakeland site suddenly closed after its electric service had been discontinued for lack of payment.

Paula White, through a public relations firm, declined to be interviewed for this article.

“You must understand, we’ve had quite a few people trying to do hatchet-job stories lately, and we really see no value in participating in a rehash of past news, controversies, responding to claims by detractors, etc.,” James Florez, managing director of Burson-Marsteller Public Affairs in Dallas, replied to a request for an interview with White.

Outspoken critics, including several bishops from Central Florida and around the country, say they have been warned that they face being sued for libel and slander if they make disparaging remarks about White on the record. “She has absolutely no respect among the leadership of the Pentecostal movement,” says a longtime observer of White’s career, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But she’s made of rubber—she crashes and she just bounces back.” 

Ironically, White agrees with that last assessment, telling a Pastors and Leadership Conference in Orlando on March 31, 2011, “I got my bounce back. That’s my message.”

Ole Anthony, founder of Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a religious watchdog organization, isn’t circumspect about his view of White. “Paula represents everything that is wrong with American religion,” he says. “No accountability, the jet-set lifestyle.”

The selection of White outraged many in the congregation and caused one outside member of New Destiny’s oversight committee, Bishop I.V. Hilliard of

 Zachery and Riva Tims founded New Destiny in 2001. Seen here in 2005, the couple divorced in 2009. Zachery’s death last August, under suspicious circumstances, led New Destiny to name Paula White as pastor. Riva, who was forced out of the church in the divorce, called White incompetent to lead the black megachurch in a lawsuit that she quickly withdrew.

New Light Christian Center Church in Houston, to resign in protest. Explained Hilliard in an Internet posting: “My commitment to integrity will not allow me to support something that I believe is deceptive and that compromises previously agreed upon procedures and protocol.” Hilliard and several other pastors insisted that Zachery Tims would never have wanted White to succeed him, since Tims had complained to several intimates that she shunned him and refused to take his calls after he confessed to his affair.

While the selection process was done in secrecy, a megachurch is like a small town and before long details of White’s hiring leaked out among the congregation. As the process began, one board member put Riva Tims’ name forward, but a majority of the five-member board pushed the suggestion aside, citing church guidelines that stipulate the congregation should be led by a married pastor. The unwritten assumption was that Tims’ successor would be an African-American man. But after interviewing five black pastors, all married men, some members of the board proposed hiring White, who had been consulting on the selection process. A majority of the board backed White, who today splits her time between preaching at Without Walls in Tampa, and New Destiny, where she delivers three sermons on Sunday and one on Thursday.

Shortly after she started working at New Destiny, White told the congregation that she wasn’t taking a salary. Still, White could derive income through special offerings at certain services, as is done at some Pentecostal churches.

White also told the congregation she had found a place to live here, but didn’t say where. It’s Isleworth, the luxury gated community in Windermere. She stays at a 7,600-square-foot rental home on Worsham Court that is owned by timeshare mogul David Siegel, who confirmed White is living there. He declined to disclose the amount of the rent and said he didn’t know who paid it, White or the church. However, New Destiny Christian Center applied for water service to the home on Jan. 31, according to the Orange County utilities department.

Riva Tims lives nearby in another gated enclave, the Reserve at Lake Butler Sound. She got the family’s six-bedroom home in the divorce settlement.

Riva filed suit against the church in December, with White and three board members listed as defendants. In the suit, Riva claimed that White was incompetent to lead New Destiny as pastor, a position that makes her president of the organization as well. The suit further alleged that three named board members knew or should have known White had accumulated debt “in excess of $26 million dollars that would cause her to be incompetent as president of a megachurch with assets in excess of $4 million dollars.”

Riva’s lawsuit further claimed that after her ex-husband’s death, the church “came into possession of a large sum of money in excess of four million dollars and up to nine million dollars.” With White as pastor and president, she and her co-defendants had conspired to control church assets, Riva’s suit said.

The suit seemed to be making the argument that Riva, as co-founder of New Destiny, should have been the obvious choice to take over the church. But in an uh-oh moment, Riva withdrew the case a day after filing it. As part of her divorce settlement, she said she couldn’t sue the church.

In an interview at her Majestic Life Ministries, a modest facility behind a North Orange Blossom Trail strip mall, Riva denies rumors that suggested she campaigned to succeed her ex-husband, although immediately after his death she declared, “I am the mother of the church.”

“I wasn’t running after the church. I was interested in facilitating the process, to bring healing and hope—that’s what I wanted to do,” she says, adding she would have taken the position “if I had been called. [But] I never asked to be the pastor.”

Still, the decision to reject Riva and pick White as pastor left the inescapable impression to the wider black community that a virtuous African-American woman and mother of Tims’ four children had been disrespected in favor of a white woman with a controversial past.

White may hold the distinction of being the only white woman to head a high-profile black church in Orlando, but she isn’t the only white pastor of a black megachurch in the area. Gospel singer Clint Brown leads FaithWorld, an interdominational church with an overwhelmingly black congregation, and where White preached last September. And televangelist Benny Hinn led the then-racially diverse World Outreach Center (originally named the Orlando Christian Center) from 1989 to 1999. Hinn and White were the subjects of a tabloid scandal in 2010 when the National Enquirer reported that they had a three-day “sexy Rome tryst” in a five-star hotel. The story ran with two photos showing Hinn and White leaving a hotel and strolling in Rome, holding hands. Both White, who was divorced, and Hinn, who had recently separated from his wife, denied they were romantically involved.

Brown and Hinn also are proponents of the prosperity gospel.

With allowances for the hyperbole, exaggeration and outright fabrication that attends “testimony” in some evangelical traditions—the more epic the sin, the more miraculous the redemption—this is the story White tells about herself in sermons, interviews and books. She turned into a “messed up Mississippi girl” from Tupelo after her father killed himself when her mother left him and refused to give him Paula. She was five at the time and has said her mother became an alcoholic who over the next several years left her with various caregivers, with some abusing her. “Paula’s childhood was marred by sexual and physical abuse, leading to feelings of abandonment, confusion and betrayal during her teenage years,” according to her official bio, leading to promiscuity and, later, bulimia.

When Paula was nine, her mother married a two-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, and in the late 1970s the family moved to Orlando when her step-
father was assigned to the Orlando Naval Training Center. Paula Furr, as she was then known, attended Liberty Middle  School on Chickasaw Trail and Oak Ridge High.

Another transfer, this one to the National Naval Medical Center in Washington, D.C., brought the family to suburban Maryland, where Paula, at 18, had a child out of wedlock and married the father, a young musician. She joined the Damascus Church of God and got saved. The experience had an odd effect. She soon left her first husband and took off for Tampa with the congregation’s associate pastor, Randy White, who left his wife and three young children. The couple married and eventually bought a vacant warehouse and set it up as a church. Its predominantly African-American congregation grew at a phenomenal rate through the late 1990s and early 2000s, at one point claiming 23,000 members.

The Whites established more than 100 urban ministries in Tampa, with their missions ranging from feeding the hungry to sheltering the homeless to providing free medical care and legal and financial counseling.

While Randy led the growth of the Tampa congregation, his wife concentrated on building a nationally recognized, television-based brand known simply as Paula.  Paula White Ministries promoted and sold White’s books and CD and DVD sets. It also bought time on Trinity Broadcasting Network, Daystar satellite and Black Entertainment Network as well as other stations. Her programs, including “Paula White Today,” “Paula” and “Just Paula,” were highly rated and reached 200 countries, according to the ministry. For a time, she was even a regular guest as a life coach on supermodel Tyra Banks’ talk show. 

Punctuating her sermons with urban slang, White connected with African-American viewers, telling them to “slap somebody upside their weave,” “grab their nappy hair,” and asking, “can you help a sistah out?”  She spoke to tens of thousands of African-American women at coliseum revivals. “You know you’re on to something new and significant when the most popular woman preacher on the Black Entertainment Network is a white woman,” Ebony magazine wrote. 

In her sermons at New Destiny and at revivals around the country, White often addresses the great unasked question in the minds of many of the worshippers before her: What does a rich, famous white woman have in common with a church full of working and middle-class black folk struggling to survive the recession? Invariably, she answers with a recitation of her own early life of abuse, promiscuity, bulimia, two divorces, addiction to prescription medication and personal tragedy, including her son’s crack addiction when he was a teenager. She offers hope by example, overcoming struggles to live in prosperity and with the promise of salvation.

Some New Destiny members hope White can bring the church back to greatness. Lucy Alvarez of Orlando, a member for seven years, says that White has “brought so much life to the congregation. The church was divided; now the church is packed again. She is bringing everyone together.”

On a Sunday morning in late February, New Destiny’s parking lot seems fuller than it did a month earlier. Inside the sanctuary about 1,000 people gradually fill half the seats, perhaps drawn by a visiting, high-energy, multi-racial troupe of young Christian rockers, singers and dancers, “Eddie James and Team.” It’s as much a deafening concert, complete with a light show, as a service—although there are heart-wrenching testimonies of redemption and deliverance from the group’s boys and girls—with much of the congregation urged to move forward in front of the stage. The crowd stands, clapping and swaying and waving their arms to the music. Ushers circulate, offering tissues to those overcome with emotion. White leaves the stage for the front row of seats, joining in the enthusiasm.

After the performance, White closes with an invitation to the evening’s healing service, where she promises to lay hands on everyone in need, including those coming from hospitals (“Only rent the ambulance one-way,” she advises). She closes the service with a second plea for tithes and offerings, both for the church and the troupe, exhorting people to “sow in fertile ground.’’

New Destiny, too, is trying to become fertile ground under White’s stewardship. Given her track record, the odds seem to be against her delivering New Destiny to “the land promised” by her predecessor. But, as White is fond of saying in nearly every sermon, “The devil is a liar.’’

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