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COLUMN SIX: Fly the holy skies

Considering what could have been

BY DON RICKERS
Special to the VOICE

I missed my calling. For 35 years I worked in education…as a teacher, university recruitment officer, boarding school administrator and housemaster, and headmaster of a small private school. 

I made a decent buck. Not enough to keep me in Courvoisier and Corvettes, but I managed to eke out a reasonable existence.

I was never the Bay Street type…couldn’t distinguish a debenture from a foreclosure.

Medicine? Probably not smart enough, and you don’t want a doctor who confuses Digitalis with Cialis.

Engineering and architecture? Numbers give me trouble…I’m more a words and pictures guy.

Law? Ever since I saw Paul Newman in The Verdict over 30 years ago, I shied away from the profession, fearing I’d turn into a drunken ambulance-chaser like Frank Galvin. 

Education seemed like a good fit. I enjoyed the many facets of schooling, and the challenges of working with teenagers. Over the years, I taught them, coached them, counselled them, and recruited them. I expelled a few, and graduated a lot more.

But back to my gist. The other day I read a story about a Louisiana-based televangelist named Jesse Duplantis who is fleecing his flock to pay for a $54-million executive jet— his fourth such aircraft —so that he can spread the gospel near and far. Especially far, I’d assume. 

His “shillin’ for the Lord” TV program apparently reaches 106 million U.S. households…not sure how many wallets and purses that includes. Duplantis’ personal wealth is estimated at $50 million. Not bad for a good ol’ boy who performed in the 1970s under the stage name Jerry Jaxon, with a pop group called Summer Wine.

Duplantis asserted that if Jesus were on earth today, he wouldn’t be riding a donkey to reach the masses. He’d be flying in a jet. And don’t think for a moment that Jesus would fly commercial. No, sir. Fellow evangelist Kenneth Copeland explained that when pastors fly commercial, common folk keep asking for prayers and blessings, which “aggrevates the spirit.”

Flying commercial is “being in a long tube with a bunch of demons,” lamented Copeland.

Copeland has a southern drawl and a bunch of jets, like Duplantis. He hails from the Lone Star State, and preaches a “prosperity gospel.” Essentially, he espouses that God blesses the faithful with earthly treasures. And if you give this Texan lots of dough to do God’s work, well…that’s sure faithful.

Funny, I remember reading something in the Bible about Jesus telling his followers to sell all their worldly possessions and follow him…presumably in a life of poverty. Weird. I’m sure Duplantis and Copeland can explain the confusion.

Don’t forget that, like all religious organizations, these ministries pay no tax.

And then it hit me—all these years, I was in the wrong business.

Why was I a salaryman working with students, when I could have been reaping manna from heaven saving souls?

Mom always said I loved the sound of my own voice. I was big into public speaking and musical drama performances in high school. And I could sell. I got my first job at age 15, flogging shoes at the Pen Centre, and a year later was dealing automotive products and services at a department store auto centre.

I knew something about religion, too. My family had been mainstays at the local United Church for three generations. I had converted to Anglicanism during my middle years, for reasons which currently escape me.

So where had I missed the boat?

Maybe I didn’t have the right mentoring. The ministers I encountered during my upbringing in the church were decent sorts, humble and unpretentious, with few trappings of wealth. They were true “men of the cloth,” and that cloth wasn’t tailored into Gucci suits.

Now if I had clung to the coattails of one of the early TV evangelists — maybe Jimmy Swaggart or Oral Roberts — things could have turned out differently.

Speaking of oral, remember Swaggart? He was found with a hooker in a hotel room a few years back. Whatever. He squirted a few tears, pleaded for forgiveness on national television, and gullible people kept sending him money. The Lord truly works in mysterious ways.

I remember how my grandparents, retired farm folk from Bruce County with little disposable income, used to write an annual cheque to Billy Graham. I asked them why they, as United Church members, were sending money to a Southern Baptist, and they muttered something about how they related to a man born in a farmhouse in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Grams and Gramps both preceded Billy to the great hereafter. They would have been shocked to learn that Reverend Graham was worth $25 million when he passed away at age 99.

Billy was a charismatic man and a powerful public speaker, as I witnessed during his televised crusades. His son Franklin, a few years old than I, joined his dad in the family business, and also hooked up with Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief organization that reported gross receipts in 2010 of $414 million.

Reverend Franklin currently pays himself well over $600,000 from his duties with Samaritan’s Purse. His net worth is reportedly a somewhat modest $3 million. He is a piker compared to the big-time televangelists like Joel Osteen (net worth approx. $60 million) and Copeland ($760 million) who live in lavish mansions and enjoy a Trump-size lifestyle.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being wealthy. But with great wealth comes great responsibility. A parable comes to mind, along the lines of, “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 16 of the Good Book, I believe.)

Life is full of hypocrisy. There will always be those who project a false face of virtue and sincerity, in an effort to fool the naïve and desperate. Maybe that’s what stopped me from pursing this particular career path. Having to live with the guilt of seducing riches from the weak, the credulous, the pained and grief-stricken. Those looking for simple answers in a complex world.

It’s hard to put a price on sleeping with a clear conscience.

I’m a lapsed churchgoer these days, an agnostic, a Christian through culture only, who believes firmly in rational humanism.

I look to the innate goodness in mankind and the power of science to move all 7.6 billion of us earthlings forward. I prefer the insight and philosophy of Sam Harris and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan.

Still, I can’t help but muse that if whatever gods may be had anointed me years ago in a parallel universe, I’d have my own ministry, with millions of devoted donors. I can picture myself with a pilot’s license, winging it in some glitzy Learjet to proselytize to wretched souls hither and yon.

If I had only knocked on Ernest Angley’s door, and offered to be his acolyte. I’d even have promised not to laugh at his polyester leisure suits and goofy toupee.

 


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