Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pastor Rod Parsley, of World Harvest Church, encourages the Church to “Be Silent No More.”

-- THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

From his burgeoning spiritual base near Pickerington, the Rev. Rod Parsley wants to shape the politics of America

Published: Sunday, August 21, 2005
NEWS 01A
By Dennis M. Mahoney

Correction: CLARIFICATION PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2, 2005 -- In a front-page story in the Aug. 21 edition of The Dispatch, John Green of the University of Akron was quoted as saying the conservative Ohio Roundtable is a political ally of the Rev. Rod Parsley. Patty Marountas, Ohio Roundtable chief officer, says the group has never been associated with Parsley.

Twenty-five minutes into the service, he strolls in like a celebrity. Clearly the center of attention, he greets well-wishers with the comforting style of a pastor and the smoothness of a politician.

The Rev. Rod Parsley makes his way to his seat in the front row as World Harvest Church rolls and rocks with the thunder of praise music. He settles in, and ushers wearing earpieces patrol the aisles.

When the singing ends, Parsley ascends the steps to the stage and speaks with an intensity and eloquence reminiscent of Burt Lancaster's fiery preaching in Elmer Gantry.

''A new heartbeat is palpitating out of Columbus, Ohio, and it's hitting the state and reverberating like shock waves across the nation,'' he announces to worshippers.

From the platform of World Harvest, a nondenominational congregation with a regular weekly attendance of nearly 10,000, the 48-year-old televangelist and author has dived into politics, leading a charge against gay marriage, abortion, stem-cell research, secular humanism and, at times, other Christian churches.

Shouts of approval ring out from the ethnically diverse worshippers nearly filling the 5,200-seat sanctuary, and Parsley doesn't take long to hit his stride.

There are issues that all sides of the political spectrum must address, he tells the crowd -- ''righteousness'' issues, such as abortion; ''justice'' issues, such as poverty.

''It may not be intellectually stimulating, but nevertheless it is true,'' he declares. ''The only way to be consistently right is to get on the solid foundation that this nation was founded on, the B-I-B-L-E, that's the book for me.''

A woman rushes toward him. Ushers chase her, but Parsley orders them to leave her alone. He calms her as she repeatedly shouts, ''Save me, Jesus!''

Parsley tells her that, to be saved, she must allow Jesus to become her life. And she returns to her seat, agreeing to surrender to the Lord.

Wiping away sweat, Parsley says that a similar ''great awakening'' is about to cover the land.

The sermon that follows on this recent morning is tinged with politics.

Parsley tells worshippers that Americans must be ''Christocrats,'' becoming citizens of both their country and God's kingdom.

''And that is not a democracy; that is a theocracy,'' he says of the divine world. ''That means God is in control, and you are not.''

Remarkable growth

During 28 years of preaching, Parsley has built a mini-empire from World Harvest Church, which is at the center of a 132-acre complex on Gender Road in southeastern Franklin County.

He isn't new to public issues. In the late 1980s, his church picketed the Bexley Art Theater for showing what Parsley said were obscene films. In the same period, World Harvest members protested when the gay advocacy group Stonewall Union was allowed to hand out literature at the Ohio State Fair.

Parsley was politically quiet until last fall, when he took a leading role in the push to pass Issue 1, the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. With Ohio a focal point of the presidential election, it raised his profile.

Since then, Parsley has pushed his agenda while speaking at church, stumping for his book around the country or meeting with lawmakers in Washington.

As evidence of his rising stature, he participated in a White House briefing via conference call last month shortly before President Bush announced John Roberts as his Supreme Court nominee. In 2003, he was invited to the president's signing of the law banning so-called partial-birth abortions.

Through his Center for Moral Clarity, one of the church's ministries, Parsley has embarked on a three-year campaign that he calls Reformation Ohio. Its goals are to register 400,000 new voters, organize black Ohioans who share conservative views on issues such as gays and abortion, and conduct get-out-the vote rallies, all while leading 100,000 Ohioans to Jesus.

Parsley also is involved with the Rev. Russell Johnson's conservative Ohio Restoration Project, which, like Parsley, seeks to get more Christians involved in politics. It includes more than 900 ''Patriot Pastors,'' who also aim to register thousands of voters.

Johnson's group has a close relationship with Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican gubernatorial candidate.

While the group won't endorse candidates or contribute to campaigns, Johnson said the pastors and Blackwell share many views.

Johnson, pastor of Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster, praised the work Parsley is doing with his Center for Moral Clarity.

''We are certainly pulling in the same direction,'' he said.

Blackwell, who has known Parsley for years, noted that clergy members were at the core of the 1960s civil-rights movement. He said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated the religious community's involvement ''in shaping, defining and helping to direct the mores and public policy of culture.''

While past movements, such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, were divided over the degree of their involvement, Blackwell said, today's religious leaders in Ohio firmly believe that churches are obliged to tackle civic issues.

He said Parsley believes that the U.S. Constitution allows for public expressions of faith, and Blackwell scoffed at the idea that Parsley wants a religious government.

''If anybody was promoting a theocracy, that would be problematic and inconsistent with the Constitution,'' Blackwell said. ''But those who advocate and practice religious freedom in the public square are as American as apple pie.''

Deborah Burstion-Donbraye, who has worked with Parsley and other religious leaders as director of outreach and coalitions for the Ohio Republican Party, said the pastors recognize the importance of their members' votes.

''They want to be activists,'' she said. ''And I think that they will look at their church as being a sleeping giant, to some extent. And they saw the great power that they possess manifested itself very specifically in the 2004 election.''

Despite the growing power of the Christian right within the party, Burstion-Donbraye said the GOP shouldn't be defined solely by that connection. Evangelicals, she said, are ''just one of many groups that the party reaches out to, that in turn aligns itself with the party.''

But Gabrielle Williamson, spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said Parsley's politics leave the impression that only Republicans are religious.

''I cringe every time I read one of these articles where it paints one side against the other,'' she said. ''And Rod Parsley does not speak for God.''

While Williamson called Parsley's activities ''a disservice to the political process,'' she said Democrats don't believe he should stay out of politics.

''This is America, and Democrats certainly are not ones to curtail anyone's rights. But he needs to remember that God is not a Republican or a Democrat.''

Parsley said that while he mixes politics and religion, he plays by the rules. Tax-exempt churches are generally barred from working for candidates.

John Green, political science professor at the University of Akron, said it's too soon to assess Parsley's political influence.

He said Parsley is ''very entrepreneurial,'' in the mold of evangelists Falwell and Pat Robertson, raising his stature and influence by building a successful church and creating the Center for Moral Clarity.

Parsley is allied with some powerful conservative Ohio groups, such as Citizens for Community Values, the Christian Coalition of Ohio and the Ohio Roundtable, he noted.

''These groups can have a potent impact on elections and policy in the short run,'' Green said. ''But their long-term impact tends to be mobilizing conservative Christians into mainstream politics, including the major political parties.''

Both as clergyman and campaigner, Parsley focuses on two particular targets -- gays and Muslims.

In his latest book, Silent No More, Parsley declares that gays live unhappy and unhealthy lives, and he chides society for its acceptance of gay lifestyles.

Gays are God's children, he says, but they have chosen a lifestyle that is harmful to themselves and society.

''No one wants to talk about that because we hide behind this thin veil of political correctness,'' Parsley said during an interview. ''I love homosexuals and lesbians, and I love them enough to tell them the truth.''

In his book, he also condemns Islam as being responsible for ''more pain, more bloodshed and more devastation than nearly any other force on Earth.''

Yet Parsley said that he loves Muslims, too, and that it is his duty to try to convert them to Christianity.

He added that many Muslims want to destroy the United States, an objective he said is driven by some leaders within their faith.

''There are clerics who will espouse love and teach their people that that's what the Quran teaches,'' he said.

''But unless Islam is confronted from without and reformed from within, we are going to continue to have the kinds of difficulties we're seeing played out around the world today.''

Coal-country roots

Parsley was born in 1957 in Cleveland, where his father, James, had taken a job during a slump in eastern Kentucky's coal-mining industry. James and Ellen Parsley moved their family back to Kentucky shortly after Rod's birth.

At age 3, Parsley moved with his family to Columbus' South Side, where his parents worked in real estate. The family, including an older sister, moved to Pickerington when Parsley was in high school, and he graduated from there in 1975.

Parsley was raised a Freewill Baptist. At 17, he said, he became born again while attending Christian Center Church in Gahanna, which was led by the Rev. Bill Swad, a local auto dealer.

After high school, he said, he ''tried to do anything but preach.'' He got a license and worked in real estate, and was employed by Kal Kan Foods on the West Side for a short time.

But he was miserable, he said, and decided to try preaching. He enrolled at Circleville Bible College, which he attended the next three years.

His ministry began with a Bible class in his parents' backyard while he was a Circleville student. As the class grew, it moved to a bank building in Pickerington, then to a Pickerington warehouse under the name Sunrise Chapel.

By 1979, he said, the church needed more space. It bought a site on Wright Road and built a 100-seat sanctuary. As membership grew, the church built a 400-seat worship area, followed by one seating 1,200, and the name was changed to Word of Life.

During this time, Parsley met Joni Askoff. The native of Kirkersville, in Licking County, is a 1978 graduate of Watkins Memorial High School. They married in 1986 and now have two children, Ashton, 16, and Austin, 14.

Mrs. Parsley doesn't preach, but as World Harvest's ''first lady,'' she is heavily involved in the school and mission work.

The move to Gender Road came in 1987, when the church became World Harvest. Parsley borrowed the name from a ministry of the Rev. Lester Sumrall, a Louisiana-born pastor who migrated to South Bend, Ind., and built a worldwide Christian radio-TV broadcasting network.

Sumrall, who died in 1996, was a spiritual mentor to Parsley, said Angela Sumrall, the founder's granddaughter. Parsley often traveled with Sumrall, who in turn would visit World Harvest, she said.

Parsley is ordained through Sumrall's evangelistic association, but there is no formal relationship between the two enterprises.

Today, business at World Harvest is booming. On Sunday mornings, the sanctuary is usually full; at the evening service, about 3,000 attend; and the Wednesday-night service draws about 1,000.

Through the years of growth, Parsley has had his share of controversy.

In 1991, he and his father were charged with assaulting a painter and former World Harvest member, Lewis Bungard, in a dispute over money for work he did for them. The charge against Rod Parsley was dropped, and his father was fined $100 for disorderly conduct.

Later, Bungard sued the Parsleys for money he said they owed him. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

When contacted, Bungard would not talk about Parsley.

Around the same time, Naomil Endicott of Whitehall, the elder Parsley's sister-in-law, sued the church, alleging that James Parsley had sexually harassed her when she worked there.

That case also was settled out of court. Endicott has since moved to Arizona and has an unlisted telephone number, which her attorney, Donald Hallowes of Reynoldsburg, would not divulge.

Parsley will not discuss the settlements, saying agreements made at the time won't allow it.

''We've been in this city for 30 years. That was a very, very difficult time during that 30 years,'' he said. ''We have become stronger as a family. My mother and father are stronger.''

Ample assets

Parsley's ministries operate on an annual budget of $38.5 million. They include the nondenominational church; a school and Bible college; his television show, Breakthrough; the Center for Moral Clarity; a mission program and a ministerial fellowship.

Harvest Preparatory School, which has about 700 students, offers classes for preschool through 12th grade and is on the church grounds on Gender Road.

His World Harvest Bible College, founded in 1990, has about 500 students. It is at the Wright Road site, between World Harvest and Pickerington.

The college grants a diploma of arts in religion. The diploma is sanctioned by the state under the Board of Proprietary School Registration, which oversees private technical schools and vocational schools.

Breakthrough started as a weekly program on Channel 51 in Newark in the early 1980s. It eventually became daily and gained wider exposure when it joined Sumrall's network. Today, it also is a staple of the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

The show is carried on 1,400 stations and cable affiliates around the world, including Channels 28 and 51 in the Columbus market.

Breakthrough often is a tape of a Sunday morning service; other times it is studio-produced, occasionally including guests.

During the show, there are breaks for Parsley to make a pitch for donations. He offers a copy of Silent No More and five DVDs of his sermons for $50, a discount, he said, of $70. He asks for contributions to help him take his moral crusade to Washington lawmakers. And he pleads for money to supply his Bridge of Hope mission efforts, which help the needy both in the United States and abroad.

The show also touts a Breakthrough prepaid debit card. A part of the banking fees goes to Parsley's ministry every time the holder uses it.

Parsley has created the World Harvest Ministerial Alliance, through which clergy members can pay to become affiliated with World Harvest. For $300, a person can be ordained through the alliance. For those already ordained, $150 secures a membership. The alliance says it has nearly 2,000 members.

The church/school complex has been appraised at about $26 million, and the nearby Bible college campus is worth nearly $2 million, according to Franklin County auditor's records.

A few miles away, an iron gate guards the 16-acre compound off Allen Road where Parsley lives east of Pickerington. The estate also includes the home of his parents. The pastor's house is appraised at $1 million and his parents' at $939,000, Fairfield County auditor's records show.

Parsley won't reveal his personal assets, saying that information is confidential.

But he doesn't apologize for what he has. He said he built his house for $300,000 in 1990 and, with rising property values in the area, it ''was a very good investment for the sake of my family.''

''Thousands of people gathering together having their lives transformed, having marriages put back together, educating children, educating Bible college students, sending them around the world, feeding the hungry and providing an atmosphere of growth for families. What would I apologize for?''

Parsley advocates what some call ''health and wealth'' theology, which emphasizes that the Bible teaches that God wants people to prosper financially and physically. The latter is tied to belief in the power of God's word to heal.

Parsley contends that raising cash is necessary to do the work of God. During church services, worshippers drop money into buckets that serve as offering plates.

The pastor criticizes what he sees as a double standard in the country, saying people complain that churches like his have too much money yet don't do enough for the poor. But God wants people to prosper to do his work, Parsley says.

''If we stay poor, how are we going to relieve the poor?'' he asks congregants, and urges them to give a little extra to help people suffering in the African country of Sudan.

The Rev. William Payne, an Ashland Theological Seminary assistant professor who has studied ''health and wealth'' churches around the country, said Jesus suggested that it is better to be broke than rich (as in Luke 6:20, ''Blessed are the poor'').

''They don't have a healthy appreciation for the problems associated with wealth,'' he said of preachers such as Parsley.

With such churches, each leader makes his or her own imprint, so they follow no standard theology, Payne said.

The ''health and wealth'' clergy members he has encountered don't appear to be dishonest, he said. But he believes they tend to devise grandiose plans in a drive for recognition.

''They see this, and they want that. They think that that's what they're supposed to be,'' he said.

''And they begin to think in terms of, 'If I can just build up this impressive ministry, have this sense of wealth and accomplishment, then I will have arrived.' I think that's part of the problem we have with the whole movement.''

Most mainline denominations and their churches, such as Roman Catholic, United Methodist and Presbyterian USA, regularly publish financial information or provide it when asked. For instance, the Columbus Catholic Diocese annually publishes a summary of its finances in its diocesan newspaper.

Parsley has refused to do that with Ministry Watch, a North Carolina-based organization that gathers financial information on religious organizations that solicit money nationwide. It said he has spurned its information requests since 2003.

Rod Pitzer, Ministry Watch research director, said World Harvest's refusal to provide financial data should be a ''red flag,'' and he urges people not to donate to Parsley.

''We look at it from the standpoint of donors,'' he said. ''It's appalling not to give out additional information and just to be totally transparent, especially in this day and age. Any reasons not to do that are truly just an excuse.''

As a tax-exempt church, World Harvest does not have to report how its money is raised or spent. Parsley has said the church complies with the law.

Pitzer said nearly all ministries contacted by Ministry Watch supply the information, and some give even more than requested. Of the 509 actively being profiled now, 29 have refused to cooperate, he said.

In addition to Parsley, those include evangelists Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Tim LaHaye and Kenneth Hagin, Pitzer said.

Donors need information before contributing, he said, to be sure ''that the organization is telling the truth -- it is really doing what it says it's doing.''

Stalwart supporters

World Harvest says its congregation is 40 percent white, 40 percent black and 20 percent other ethnicities, and Parsley appears to have strong support from his congregation.

''He believes in holding that Christians should be accountable for their actions,'' said Debra Bennett, a 27-year-old who lives near Ohio State University. ''And a lot of people are starting to move away from that. They just seem to justify doing wrong.''

Bennett joined the church two years ago when she came to Columbus from South Carolina to work on her master's degree at OSU.

Her mother is a preacher, and Bennett said Parsley is different from many other pastors she has met.

''A lot of them, they don't really have a heart for people, and he really seems to have one,'' she said.

Bennett likes Parsley's political involvement.

''A lot of people say, 'Well, I'm a Christian,' '' she said. ''But they don't really live the life of a Christian, or they don't really stand up for what they believe in when everybody else stands up for what they believe in. A Christian is less likely to do that.

''I think it's a good thing. It's actually motivated me to be proactive and not reactive.''

Another member, Lagrieta Holloway, 39, of Pickerington, said that what Parsley is doing is not political. He is simply speaking the truth with no room for ''buttering it up,'' she said.

''When we go to the polls, you can't lay down what's inside you,'' she said. ''You can't lay down your beliefs or your morals and values and what you've been taught.''

She is not bothered by Parsley's wealth or his high-priced home. His critics, Holloway said, can make money by writing a book, as Parsley has done more than 30 times.

''All he's doing is speaking the truth. . . . And it sells because it's the truth,'' Holloway said.

But Parsley's preaching doesn't sit well with Dorrie Andermills, 44, a Reynoldsburg woman who came out to protest Parsley at a Pickerington book-signing event.

Andermills held a sign that said, ''Real Christians don't use the Bible as a weapon.'' She accused Parsley of smearing gays and Muslims.

''It's frustrating seeing people using the guise of Christianity and religion to infiltrate our society with hatred and deceit,'' she said.

Andermills, who protested with her gay partner, Karen Andermills, 46, said she thinks most Americans don't subscribe to Parsley's agenda.

''I feel we are being drowned out by a very vocal, loud minority that has wrapped itself in a perversion of patriotism,'' she said.

Christian rights

Parsley said he is not pushing for theocracy, but he is convinced that religion, ''according to the Gospel, is supposed to be infused into every facet of society.''

Despite his activities, Parsley said he has no personal political ambition. He is only trying to to get Christians involved in the political process, he said.

''This is America, and every citizen should engage,'' he said. ''No one should be checking their citizenship when they enter the door of their local house of worship.''

Parsley said he thrust himself into politics because he felt God gave him his ministry to speak out. He said he wants to reach people of all political stripes.

''It's not my intention at all to be another screaming voice, moving people to radical extremes in the name of patriotism,'' Parsley said.

''What I see our role, my role, is to stand in the middle between the left and the right and say, 'I believe biblically there are times when you both get it right, and there are times you both get it wrong.' ''

To Parsley, the three most important areas by which candidates should be judged are those of life (such as abortion or stem-cell research), family and religious liberty.

And while most evangelical Christians tend to be conservative Republicans, they should not be wedded only to right-wing issues, he said.

''I think there are issues that are traditionally owned by the left that the right needs to pay attention to, and vice versa.

''The Bible speaks to poverty. I think the Bible speaks to women's issues. I think the Bible speaks to race . . . as well as issues of life.''

He would like to see the rules restricting the political involvement of tax-exempt religious bodies loosened. But until they are, he said, he will abide by them.

And despite his sometimes-stinging criticisms of government, Parsley said he supports the system.

''I think it's a great process. I think it's getting a little out of balance right now in the judiciary. But I see a lot of good signs that a whole lot more people than myself recognize that that's getting out of balance. I think the thing will shift back. I hope that it will.

''I'm proud of America just the way it is.''

dmahoney@dispatch.com

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