Athletes and evangelists cross paths

TAMPA, Fla. -- Bishop Randy White and his wife, pastor Paula White, once headed up one of the fastest growing Christian congregations in the country. In its heyday, Without Walls International Church boasted more than 23,000 members, took in as much as $40 million a year in donations and attracted dozens of professional athletes to its high-energy services.

Some of the athletes were so moved by the Whites' message of prosperity through faith that they donated hundreds of thousands of dollars -- one former player even donated a World Series ring -- and showered the couple with lavish gifts, such as designer shoes and expensive suits.

In the decade leading up to 2007, the Whites amassed wealth and attained a lifestyle not unlike the star athletes who came to their church. In July 2005, the couple purchased a luxury condominium in New York City's Trump Park Avenue building for $3.5 million. In 2006, they bought a home on Tampa's exclusive Bayshore Boulevard for $2.1 million, according to real estate records. Randy White owns or leases several luxury vehicles, including a 2006 Bentley, according to Florida motor vehicle records. For years, the couple had access to private jets, either leased or owned by their ministry.

Major League Baseball players Gary Sheffield, Darryl Strawberry and Carl Everett and NFL players Michael Pittman, Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks were among those who attended services at a converted Canada Dry plant in Tampa, Fla., a short drive from the Buccaneers' Raymond James stadium, according to Randy White.

Today, however, most of the big-name athletes are absent from the reserved front-row seats they once occupied as VIP members, and in recent years the church itself has undergone significant upheaval. The Whites divorced in 2007 after 18 years of marriage. Without Walls, according to several former staffers, is mired in debt and bleeding membership. The church recently staved off foreclosure proceedings, and has been the subject of a Senate investigation into its finances. Church leaders have had to contend with the resulting media scrutiny.

It's a stunning reversal of fortune for a house of worship that was built on the prosperity gospel message -- a controversial evangelical Christian doctrine that teaches members that through tithing, the practice of donating 10 percent of one's income to the church, they'll be rewarded, not just spiritually but financially.

"If you're the guy flipping hamburgers or you're the quarterback, I don't care who you may be," White said, "we teach that you have to tithe."

Several former Without Walls members and staffers, some of them professional athletes, have spoken out against White's prosperity message, calling it the "gospel of greed" and questioning whether their flamboyant former pastor targeted athletes and used church donations to bankroll what one former staffer called a "rock star" lifestyle.

"A lot of guys are brainwashed," a former NFL player, who once attended Without Walls, told ESPN on the condition of anonymity. "They've been told to honor God, you've got to give."

White insists every church member, himself included, must abide by what he considers the bedrock biblical principle of tithing. And despite being faced with a Senate inquiry, the evangelist who built his ministry with the help of star athletes said he and the church have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide.

"I think people feel like you get up to preach for gain," White said, referring to his wealthy lifestyle. "If I were in the ministry for gain I could make a lot more money outside of the ministry."

Faith off the field

Under a spiked crop of blond hair, White, 51, hardly looks the part of an austere preacher. He's fully aware his appearance and lifestyle break the mold, and he chuckles that he's "not Billy Graham, for sure."

White arrived for a recent interview with ESPN before a Thursday night service wearing jeans and a pinstriped jacket over a T-shirt. A beefy bodyguard escorted him from his Mercedes sedan to a private side entrance, then paused to frisk a member of the ESPN camera crew.

White entered the church's VIP waiting room, which is covered with pictures of celebrities, including past and present professional athletes. There's also a photo of Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson.

"I married them," White said. "I don't care how high-profile they may be, how much money they make, at the end of the day, people are people."

But one former church staffer, who was in position to know the large amounts professional athletes donated to the church, said much of the attention White gave to athletes was motivated by money.

Major leaguers Everett and Sheffield gave donation checks as large as $100,000, according to the former employee. Michael Pittman, then a running back with the Arizona Cardinals, and Anthony Telford, a pitcher who played nine seasons in the majors, made donations in the tens of thousands, the former employee said.

"It made a big impact," the former employee said, "because they were large donations. … "The athletes really helped to carry the church."

Hector Gomez, an associate pastor who left Without Walls in 2000 after seven years, said the athletes were "almost lured to there."

"The more athletes that come to the church," Gomez said, "the more notoriety [the Whites] get."

White said he "made a lot of mistakes" in the early years of "ministering to [his] athletes," and has since learned from those mistakes.

"I felt I exploited them," he said. "Looking back, I know that I did."

In the early to mid-1990s, White said, he frequently placed the professional athletes in his church on a pedestal, parading them for the benefit of starstruck members. Athletes were given the option of preferential parking, preferred front-row seating and private time with the Whites, something that became increasingly rare for regular church members as the Whites' collective star rose in the world of Christian televangelism.

"I found out later that they get so much exposure anyway in the community and normal society that when they come to church they certainly don't want to be highlighted," White said.

White said he wouldn't have been able to purchase his current church property had it not been for sizeable donations by athletes, including former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who declined to comment for this story, and four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, whose donations to prosperity gospel ministries, like the World Changers Church he regularly attends near Atlanta, run into the millions.

"The last thing I want to do is when they're coming here is say, 'Hey, can you give me a check for $10,000? How about a check for $20,000?' To this day, I don't think I've ever asked an athlete for money," White said of his relationship with the athletes who attended his church.

When told of White's comment, the former employee with knowledge of athletes' donations called White "a bloody liar."

"Whenever he was talking about money or even with the tithes and offering, they targeted the athletes, because they were sitting right up front," the former employee said.

"[Randy White] would look at them directly, let's say for instance, Gary [Sheffield], and he would say, 'Gary, how do spell million? Let me spell million for you.' To me that, that's coming out right and saying, 'Hey, you need to write a million-dollar check to the church,'" the former employee said.

White has partnered with past and present athletes in his church on a number of charitable causes. He said he is close to starting One Less Inc., a charity designed to fight childhood poverty that includes Sheffield on its board of directors, according to paperwork filed with the Florida Secretary of State.

Sheffield declined to comment for this story.

Several former church staffers said the Whites would frequently ask for multiple donations during the same service.

"Sometimes the offering plate is passed three, four or five times," said Gomez, the former Without Walls associate pastor. "And that's wrong."

You reap what you sow

White's flair for the dramatic might never have been more on display than the night in 2003 when Darryl Strawberry sent murmurs through the congregation by placing his World Series ring in an offering plate.

"He was laying his fame and his trophies down so that people recognized humanity in his life and his struggles," White said, recalling the moment.

A former staffer, who was in attendance that night, said Strawberry's unique donation came during what was known as a "love offering," a period of giving over and above the normal practice of tithing.

"People would run up and throw jewelry in an offering plate or throw it on the platform," the former employee said.

According to three former Without Walls staffers, all of whom were in attendance that night, when Strawberry donated his World Series ring to the church, Randy White made a surprising announcement. In exchange for the ring, White told the congregation, Strawberry and his wife would be permitted to live in the White's home in Lutz, Fla.

The grand gesture was seen by many members of the congregation as the ultimate validation of White's prosperity message, according to a former church staffer.

"[Strawberry] had his own demons he's fighting with the drug addiction and … I wanted to pull him away so he didn't have that financial pressure," White said of his decision to provide Strawberry housing for nearly two years.

In the summer of 2005, the arrangement abruptly ended. The Whites filed what is known under Florida law as an action for ejectment against Strawberry and his wife in Hillsboro County Civil Court.

"The Whites took the position that the Strawberrys were unlawfully on their property," said David Stamps, an attorney who represented the Strawberrys at the time. Stamps declined to comment on what led the Whites to ask the Strawberrys to leave their home.

White would say only that Strawberry failed in his efforts to resolve his marital differences.

Strawberry did not respond to repeated requests by ESPN for an interview.

When news of the White's court action against the Strawberrys filtered back to the congregation, many who had been so energized by Strawberry's donation and White's reciprocal gesture felt disillusioned.

"When you see stuff like that happen it becomes like a balloon deflating, you know?" said a former church staffer. "Not real, phony."

Ministry money

In November 2007, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, had become concerned enough about possible corruption in prosperity gospel ministries that he sent a letter to Randy and Paula White and five other ministers requesting full financial records. What Grassley is interested in finding out is whether the ministers personally benefitted from their nonprofits.

As a nonprofit, Without Walls is not obligated to report donations to the Internal Revenue Service. Grassley, leery of the lifestyles of ministers like the Whites, is seeking accountability.

White has provided some, but not all, of the financial records sought by Senate investigators.

"Committee staff is continuing to explore all legal options to get the information they've requested," said Theresa Pattara, a Finance Committee tax lawyer.

In recent months, Without Walls has endured a string of negative press.

Camillo Gargano, a church accountant who worked for 17 months at Without Walls before resigning in August, was asked to use church funds to pay Randy White's personal credit card, according to a report first published in the Tampa Tribune.

Gargano, who did not respond to ESPN's request for an interview, said the ministry was in "turmoil," in his letter of resignation, according to the newspaper report.

Despite being faced with a Senate inquiry and allegations of financial improprieties, White -- the evangelist who built his ministry with the help of star athletes -- is undeterred.

"We have nothing to hide. Zero," White said. "I feel very confident in the fact that nothing has been done wrong."

John Barr is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. He can be reached at
jbarr-espn@hotmail.com. Enterprise Unit producer David Lubbers contributed to this report.