Robert Tilton trades mega TV ministry for hotel in California

CULVER CITY, CA -- Twenty-five years ago, televangelist Robert Tilton of Dallas had the fastest growing television ministry in the world.

Brett Shipp traveled to California to find out what once-popular televangelist Robert Tilton is doing now.

CULVER CITY, CA -- Twenty-five years ago, televangelist Robert Tilton of Dallas had the fastest growing television ministry in the world.

But after a network expose' in November 1991, it all came crashing down.

A minister to the homeless in East Dallas named Ole Anthony emerged as the force that brought Tilton’s empire to its knees.

A quarter of a century later, we wanted to know: Where are the two pastors now?

In the early 1990’s, Tilton’s television ministry reached around the globe.

His “Success in Life” broadcast and his pitch for money made him one of the richest televangelists on earth, bringing in an estimated $80 million dollars a year.

He gained notoriety for his healing prayers, and for speaking in tongues.

“We’ve seen many, many children healed, we’ve seen midgets grow,” Tilton said in an early sermon, many of which are now on YouTube. “We’ve seen arms and legs that stopped growing because the growth cells have stopped… (speaking in tongues)… I don’t make this stuff up!”

Tilton also drew the attention of ABC News and Primetime Live anchor Diane Sawyer, whose expose' in 1991 portrayed Tilton as preying on gullible followers, first, by his lavish lifestyle, then, by mining his followers’ mail for donations then dumping their prayer requests in the trash behind Tilton’s bank in Oklahoma.

(Tilton has adamantly disputed the ABC report - see his retort here.)

But Diane Sawyer wasn’t the one Dumpster diving. Rather, it was Ole Anthony, founder of the East Dallas homeless ministry, the Trinity Foundation, who masterminded the investigation and helped expose some of the top televangelists in the country.  

“I saw that what they were preaching was like going to Las Vegas, it’s like going to a spiritual Las Vegas,” Anthony said in a WFAA-TV news broadcast back in 1991.

Not long after the ABC News expose’, Tilton sued Anthony, who became the target of his televised rage.

“He ain’t a minister – he’s nothing, he’s less than nothing,” Tilton said in this YouTube defense of his ministry following the ABC report. “His whole thing is built on what he can do to tear me down.”

Tilton’s Farmers Branch megachurch closed, and his TV ministry was destroyed.

Tilton moved to Florida, where he tried to revive his ministry. Anthony remained in East Dallas, where he still preaches to the poor.

Anthony lives modestly in a 100-year-old house and rejects the trappings of wealth. He suffers from chronic pain and says he nearly died from an infection two years ago.

And at 78, he says he’s ready. 

“I consider myself already dead,” Anthony said. Why? “Because there’s nothing else in the universe, nothing in the world except God that I have any interest in.”

But don’t believe it.

When we asked him about Tilton, an old fire rekindled.

“Well, I don’t want to do anything to hurt him,” Anthony said. “I just want him to sell all he has and start following the real Jesus.”

As for Tilton, he left Miami for a mansion in California.

But he could not elude the IRS, which earlier this year sent a summons to the bank of his church alleging non-payment of payroll taxes. The debt, about $300,000, was paid, and the matter was quickly settled, court documents show.

As for his ministry, prosperity is still the theme. Tilton communicates to his followers mostly online now. He also has multiple Facebook profiles.

His "Word of Faith Worldwide Church" is still dependent on donations. And he recently drew attention from comedian John Oliver on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight."

And there's this song the online remix artist Pogo did lampooning him.

Tilton still requests correspondence and mailed donations be sent to a post office box in Oklahoma, not far from where those prayer requests were found in the trash bin years ago.

We wanted to interview Tilton, but he’s hard to reach. His website includes no phone number and he didn’t respond to a Facebook message.

So we traveled to California to attend his once-a-month church service just outside of Los Angeles. 

But his Culver City sermon wasn’t to be delivered in a traditional sanctuary. Services are held in a small conference room in a Marriott hotel.

He greeted us warmly, and, initially, invited us in to hear his message.

Inside the conference room, his congregation was a fraction of what it was back in the day -- five people were scattered in chairs.

Tilton’s mood quickly changed when he realized we were there to report, and record his sermon.

“No phones, no cameras,” Tilton told us, then asked us to leave.

After 25 years and a fall from grace, Tilton may never escape the spotlight – or his fate, that finds him in a tiny conference room outside of L.A., preaching to his small flock.

Email bshipp@wfaa.com

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