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Test of faith for Oral Roberts students

To Oral Roberts University's deeply religious students, the events of recent weeks have brought an unexpected test of faith.
Oral Roberts Scandal
Rust is shown on the prayer tower at Oral Roberts University, a religious school embroiled in a corruption scandal.Anonymous / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Back in 1963, when evangelist Oral Roberts built a university on Tulsa’s southern outskirts and put his name on it, he believed he was taking orders from God.

At the center of campus he built a 200-foot steel and glass prayer tower that looks like a spaceship and is topped with a flickering gas flame representing the Holy Spirit.

Roberts’ vision was to educate “the whole man” in mind, body and spirit. That meant a world-class faculty, mandatory chapel attendance, body-fat measurements and citations for public displays of affection.

Times have changed at Oral Roberts University.

The once rigid dress code has been loosened so much that, as one student puts it, aside from the lack of guys wearing earrings the campus could be Oklahoma State. The prayer tower is showing rust. Students still sign an honor code pledging not to lie, steal, curse, drink or smoke — but they also hold hands during chapel.

Oral Roberts, now 89, recently returned from semiretirement to try to quell a scandal that has shaken the flagship university of charismatic Christianity, but on Friday the scandal caused the downfall of his heir.

Roberts’ son, Richard Roberts, resigned Friday as president of the school, facing accusations that he misspent school funds to support a lavish lifestyle and ordered an accountant to help hide improper and illegal financial wrongdoing.

Test of faith
To ORU’s 5,300 deeply religious students, the events of recent weeks have brought an unexpected test, one that caused them to choose between questioning or defending the administration, worry about tainted diplomas and search for spiritual answers.

“I’m sure there is corruption everywhere,” said freshman Ben Conners, one of a number of people interviewed before the resignation. “But if you’re holding students to such a high standard, making them sign an honor code and live by these strict principles, I expect the administration to be living an even stricter set of principles. To see something like this, it feels empty, like an elaborate masquerade party.”

At a university that is hardly a den of dissent, the reaction to the scandal has been striking. Before Richard Roberts stepped down, tenured faculty gave him a no-confidence vote and his hand-picked provost said he would resign if Roberts were reinstated.

“There was a time when the wagons would circle and we’d protect our own,” said the Rev. Carlton Pearson, a former member of the ORU board of regents who is now a United Church of Christ minister. “But we don’t know what our own is anymore. People are asking questions and questioning answers, and we’re not used to it.”

Albert Thompson, a government major from Fairfax County, Va., said he chose ORU to become not just a public servant, but a better person.

Richard Roberts
Richard Roberts, president and chief executive officer of Oral Roberts University, is shown in Tulsa, Okla, in this Sept. 30, 2004, file photo. Responding Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007, to a lawsuit filed against him and the private Christian school, Roberts said God spoke to him and told him to say the suit was about \"blackmail and extortion.\" Three former professors sued ORU and Roberts Tuesday, alleging they were wrongfully dismissed after they reported the school's involvement in a local political race. (AP Photo/The World Tulsa, Robert S. Cross)Robert S. Cross / TULSA WORLD

Thompson, a senior, initially was angry about the allegations. But like other students, he separates the university administration from his university experience.

“He’s just a human being,” Thompson said of Richard Roberts. “If that individual man fails, that doesn’t affect my faith in Christianity. It affects my faith in Richard.”

“In Scripture, we all fall short,” said Vincent Narciso, a senior from Seattle studying international relations. “We’re all capable of screwing up. To me, it’s not devastating to see someone fall. It’s arrogant to think it wouldn’t happen to any of us.”

Requests for interviews with university officials were denied by an ORU spokesman.

Endless source of curiosity
To outsiders, Oral Roberts may seem a relic, a man who drew scorn for saying in 1987 that God would “call me home” if he didn’t raise $8 million in three months (he raised more than $9 million). But in the 1950s and 1960s, Roberts had brought spirit-filled Christianity into the mainstream. He took his revivals to a new frontier for religion: television.

“Here was this Pentecostal preacher who speaks in tongues, was brought up in poverty like many of us, and he builds this place that looks like it landed the night before from another planet,” Pearson said. “I can’t tell you the pride.”

Most ORU students grow up in charismatic or Pentecostal churches. For some, the liberal arts school is the only education their parents will pay for, at a cost of almost $30,000 a year.

The rules are an endless source of curiosity. Curfew for female students is midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. weekends, and a half hour later for men. A violation can result in a $50 fine, which helped birth the ORU saying: “The wages of sin is $50.”

“I already had these boundaries in my life, so codifying it wasn’t a problem,” said Emmanuel Earls, 22, who graduated last year with a theology degree. “Signing a document creates a level of accountability.”

Teachers sue ORU
Many students speak of going to school on holy ground, of pureness, of a place that sends Christians out into the world as a force for good. Still others speak of miracles.

“One student came into my office and said ‘I heard the voice of God in my hut in Liberia and God told me I would be the leader of my nation some day and that I should go and be trained at a place called Oral Roberts University,’ which he had never heard of,” said Tim Brooker, who taught government.

Brooker is one of three former professors who sued the university last month. He accused the school of forcing him to quit after he warned Richard Roberts that requiring students to work on a Tulsa mayoral candidate’s campaign jeopardized the school’s tax-exempt status.

Brooker traces the scandal to a distortion of the “Seed-Faith” theology pioneered by Oral Roberts, which holds that those who give to God will get things in return.

“Instead of focusing on what can we do for God, we’ve been focusing on what can I get from God,” Brooker said.

Oral Roberts’ teachings influenced a whole new generation of “prosperity gospel” preachers, six of whom are the target of a financial inquiry led by the ranking Republican on the Senate finance committee. Three of those under scrutiny — Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar — sit on the ORU board of regents.

Brooker said students are shaken that supposedly infallible men are being questioned, and not by outsiders but other Christians. Others are trying to keep perspective.

“The school is based on more than one person,” said sophomore Christina Tolomeo of Bentonville, Ark. “It’s God’s university, not one person’s university. Whatever happens, I’m just trusting God and not making any assumptions.”

School 'will come out strong'
Daniel King, a 2002 theology graduate, has traveled the globe continuing Oral Roberts’ legacy as a healing evangelist. He said he has witnessed healings at Richard Roberts crusades and believes Christianity without miracles is powerless.

Oral Roberts felt God used him as instrument to heal, and claimed Jesus had commissioned him to find a cure for cancer. Roberts also felt called to build the City of Faith, an enormous hospital complex that was to marry prayer and medicine, anchored by a 60-story tower. The project’s collapse in the late 1980s is one reason ORU is a staggering $52.5 million in debt.

“ORU is no stranger to controversy,” King said. “It’s gone through this before. The faculty is outstanding. The students are very sharp. Regardless of what happens, it will come out strong.”