Ole Anthony and "The God Thing"| 11/15/2007
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 eighties 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 four-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 p---- over that. God is punishing me."
He was only half kidding. Eventually he took a vow of chastity. He said it was either that or get married, and he preferred the simpler form of suffering.
Today, as then, Ole runs the public non-profit 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 farflung 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 their 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 thirties. 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 thirty 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 multi-national Teledyne, failed Republican candidate for the Texas legislature, political advisor to Dallas 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 upscale Highland Park even in the depths of his penury. For a while he lived in a guest house on tony Turtle Creek Boulevard, then in a garage apartment, and lately he'd taken to sleeping in his office, which was a seedy walkup over a carpet in the then bohemian Oak Lawn neighborhood. Three employees of Texas Monthly magazine, myself included, had taken space in the same building, and on days when I came 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 twenty dollars a week?"
"I live on twenty 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 for the Insane?"
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 for "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 firehose 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!"
"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 occured 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 into scripture at Temple Emmanuel in North Dallas, 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?"
Ole had become a Christian by violence. On January 17, 1972, in a mystical flash of understanding, he believed. It's impossible to explain how these things happen. I can state the external facts of the situation. Ole was representing Wes Wise as a political consultant at the dedication of a new television station, KBFI (channel 33), which was one of the first all-Christian stations in the country. The speaker was a Christian teacher named Norman Grubb. In the midst of Grubb's speech, Ole's life changed.
How a person first comes to believe is called, in the Baptist churches of my youth, your "testimony." And anyone who's heard very many of these stories knows that most of them are bull hockey, someone's imaginative reconstruction of what he thinks might have happened or wished had happened or, in the case of some of the preaching professionals, an outright falsehood constructed for the benefit of the unwashed. I once tried to describe my own conversion experience at a Baptist Sunday School class in Carrollton, Texas, and I didn't hesitate to include the humorous aspects, which included a car wreck, a divorce, and the hysterical assertion of a friend that I had become a cult member and needed to be deprogrammed. My presentation was met with dumbfounded silence, followed by the teacher's suggestion that, "I'll bet a lot of our young people would come listen to you. And if they didn't know you were going to talk about Jesus Christ, you might be able to surprise them. They think they're coming to a comedy show, but what they get is Jesus." I resolved, on the spot, never to "give testimony" again.
The process of conversion is mysterious. In Ole's case, it was instantaneous and permanent, a so-called "Damascus Road" flash of understanding. He would later compare it to the moment when, working for the Air Force, he witnessed a hydrogen bomb explosion that vaporized an entire island. The physical feeling, he said, was similar.
For a time, he tried to graft this new life onto his old one. In the fall of 1972, he was part of a small group of Christians who created the Trinity Foundation as the kind of evangelistic enterprise he would later come to hate. (It was named after the first thermonuclear bomb, which had been exploded at Trinity Flats, New Mexico. The members of the group wanted to create the same sort of "explosion of faith.") They tried to buy a television station—Channel 39—but were aced out of it by Pat Robertson. They promoted a benefit Christian concert—Pat Boone and Andrae Crouch singing for two youth charities—but lost $40,000 when Gibson's Discount Stores backed out on its underwriting promise. Ole appeared on the Christian talk show The 700 Club—and was permanently banned when he told host Ben Kincheloe that he prayed to God to either send him a wife or stop making him so horny. He hosted a talk show on a Christian radio station in Arlington. He interviewed all the Christian celebrities of the day—Tom Landry, Roger Staubach, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Gene Scott, Jim Bakker, Rex Humbard—as well as non-Christian luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, football star Jim Brown, several of the astronauts, and frequent guest Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the wacky professional atheist, who became a friend and would always start out by saying "How did an intelligent boy like you become a Christian?" The show was canceled despite achieving an unheard-of-in-Christian-radio 6 rating. One by one all of Ole's projects for God came to nothing. By the time I met him the Trinity Foundation appeared to be comatose. In fact it was just being born.
"There can be no ministry until there is a body." Thus spake Ole's loyal secretary, one of the original members of Trinity. This is something he didn't want to hear. In Christian terminology, "body" is a complex, multi-layered term that means, basically, a group of believers who gather together regularly in the name of Christ. Ole didn't want a church and he didn't want to teach a Bible study. For most of us, the very words "Bible study" make the eyes glaze over and turn the lustiest hearts to stone. Ole, the bon vivant of the Dallas fast lane, was not keen on the idea of group scripture reading.
He nevertheless knew his secretary was telling the truth. And he assumed, of course, that his weekly Bible study would be attended by businessmen, sports stars, and the luminaries of the Republican Party with whom he had once conspired. Ole was a conservative's conservative, and his sonorous baritone would seem to be custom-designed for Ross Perot prayer breakfasts. He did get a few of these guys at first, but Ole was a little too "out there" for most three-piece-suit North Dallas Protestants. For one thing, he could never cure himself of saying "f---" in the middle of the teaching. "God doesn't give a flying f--- about that!" was one of his favorite sayings. For another thing, there was the whole issue of his fleabag office, where the Bible studies were held. Anyone brave enough to venture there would likely end up sprawled on a mangy couch next to a raggedy man who looked like his trailer house was recently flattened by a tornado. Far from attracting the business elite of Dallas, Ole had become a magnet for people he would sometimes fondly refer to as "the scum of the earth."
"Wouldn't 'salt of the earth' be a better term?" I once asked him.
"They need to know they're the scum of the earth. The church is built from the scum of the earth." And he launched into a prolix explanation of just exactly why the scum of the earth provide the loam you need for the Lord's vineyard.
People don't come to a Bible study because they feel good. People seek God when they feel really really bad. Ole's only purpose in teaching was fairly academic. He intended to work his way, verse by verse, through the book of Romans, thereby duplicating the course of Martin Luther, whose understanding of Romans resulted in his posting the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517 and unwittingly launching the Protestant revolt. But far from being a methodical trip through the intricate Greek of the apostle Paul, Ole quickly found himself plunged into every sort of redneck soap-opera psychodrama since the beginning of time. The people who showed up didn't just bring their Bibles. They brought teenage pregnancies, divorces, bad-check charges, warrants, feuds with parents, child-custody battles, drug habits, alcoholism, car wrecks, and more or less constant illness without benefit of medical insurance. All these trauma dramas poured into the Bible study, sending Ole to the passages in which Paul exhorted Christians to embrace their afflictions and glory in their adversity. Oddly enough, in Ole's view, many of the people with broken-down cars, facing bankruptcy and divorce and considering suicide, didn't much care for the "embrace your afflictions" message. This resulted in a Bible study that sometimes resembled the best Von Erich wrestling matches at the Sportatorium.
I met Ole during what I call the Fistfight Stage of Trinity Foundation. From my office down the hall, where I sometimes worked late into the night, I could hear the slamming doors, the angry exchanges, and the screeching of rubber as cars made their dramatic exits. On at least two occasions Ole's life was threatened by one of his students, and one particular Arkansas-bred proselyte had to be held down bodily on the floor, lest he open a can of whup-ass.
Later—at Kip's Big Boy, at Lucas B&B, at the NFL—I would tentatively ask what might have been happening that night.
"Romans. We're still studying the book of Romans," he would say.
"What particular aspect of Romans is generating this level of interest?"
"Well, we were talking about your place in the body of Christ. And I told one guy his place was to be a pimple on the ass of the body of Christ. I just said it. It just came out."
"And he didn't agree?"
"A lot of these people are clinging to their miserable little self-images. They don't understand that it's about God. It's about them, but only the part of them that contains God. They still think they're special."
Miraculously, many of the people who once wanted to murder Ole—or at least rough him up a little—remain members of Trinity Foundation today, and for the most part are peaceable non-weapons-bearing elders. One guy, who was convinced Trinity was a cult, would come to every Bible study armed with questions supplied by Cult Watch, a watchdog group that helps parents deprogram children that are taken away from their families by fanatic religious groups. That same guy became one of the principal leaders of Trinity for more than two decades, then got married to a woman who became infuriated when Ole refused to sanction her wedding plans. The couple left Trinity and have been bouncing the old Cult Watch theories around the Internet, which is tiresome because it means Trinity employees have to keep filing everything with the various cult-watchdog organizations, just to make sure no neophytes encounter Ole’s blazing blue eyes and see Jim Jones in there somewhere. He’s not a cult leader, just a guy who gets in your face in pretty obnoxious ways.
"I'm not sure you're not a cult," I said to Ole one night. Sometimes I meant this stuff, sometimes I didn't. It was the reporter in me. But I wanted to hear what he would say.
"A cult tries to coerce people to stay in the group," Ole said. "I want all these people to leave. I'm trying to get them to go. I tried to leave myself one night, and then I realized that I didn't own the car I was driving. I had stolen a car. I drove back and ate crow."
It pretty much settled the issue for me—that, and over a twenty-year period, never hearing him once tell a person what to do. The Baptist teachers of my youth, on the other hand, told me exactly what to do, and reenforced it with warnings that improper behavior would be rewarded with immense suffering in the afterlife.
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, or the Hutterites of 16th-century Germany. 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.
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 motherf-----? 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 ten cups of coffee or ten 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 living underground because he was wanted by Soviet authorities on charges of operating illegal printing presses and organizing illegal assemblies. He was a revered figure in the Baptist Church of Russia, which at that time was illegal, and he spent most of his life on the run, living in the back rooms of believers' apartments, hidden from the authorities charged with tracking him down. 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 that were 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 materials for his church until his death in 1998. But The Samizdat Project (named for the Russian word meaning "underground press") was the first of a series of projects I helped Trinity with, all of them involving 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 every guy standing on the street with a "Will Work For Food" sign and offered them a job at Trinity. They would 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."
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 "hundredfold blessing" you get when you donate money to God, suggesting that God is a kind of spiritual casino who pays 100-to-1 odds when people need Him.
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. (I won’t embarrass him by naming him—although Ole would—but he now works on this website.) At first 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 which prohibit 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 take 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, Texas, 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 20/20 that began the long messy downfall of Tilton. (He has recent resurfaced with a show 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 Dempster 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."
The series caused such a sensation that Tilton fought back with a vengeance, filing numerous lawsuits against ABC, Trinity and Ole, all of which he lost. The most imaginative one claimed that both Trinity Foundation and ABC News were "racketeer-influenced corrupt organizations" and that Ole Anthony and Diane Sawyer were members of a gang out to destroy Christianity in America.
"What we did," said Ole, "by putting the investigations under the care of a non-profit 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 fifty dollars a week."
"You make fifty 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."
Until recently, the resulting investigations of Jimmy Swaggart, Hinn, Larry Lea, W.V. Grant, and others were better known abroad than in the U.S. Even though Trinity investigations had been the basis of reports on CBS, NBC, CNN, and many local American stations, the biggest investigations were 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 ten, less than twenty. If you have fewer than ten, you don't have community. But if you have more than twenty, 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—our 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 few years ago some Wall Street underwriters were looking for a non-profit 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 writeoff, the housing had to be run by a non-profit group. The problem with non-profit 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 non-profit 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 fifty dollars a week."
Overnight, Trinity became the administrator of a low-income apartment complex in Oklahoma City that is touted as the solution to the eternal problem of how to build housing for the destitute without ending up with disastrous slums like the West Dallas projects. I asked Ole how this works.
"Congress changed the IRS guidelines to permit qualified charities to become the recipients of multi-family housing financed with tax-free municipal bonds. This is the government's attempt to rescue affordable housing that was built in the sixties and seventies 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 really 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 Wall Street."
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. Why Dayton, Ohio?
"Well, they're begging us to do this everywhere, because to qualify for this, you have to show years of experience in dealing with the poor. There are only two or three organizations in Dallas, for example, that qualify. If we wanted to, we could be managing a billion dollars in apartments, but I'm not going to do it unless we can place our people in each complex and really meet the need of the people there."
From an Oak Lawn homeless eccentric to Wall Street's most trusted caretaker of muncipal bonds, I've watched this 30-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 eighties, he caused a minor furor at the famous monastery of Mt. 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 twenties, 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! They were, I assume, afraid. 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 (and, as it turned out, brain-damaged) 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 ten. 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 a condition called "post-hostage syndrome," which I helped him get treatment for 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 ----ing 40 dollars a week."
He didn't. He made me work for free.