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Chatting with God

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Paula White, host of her own Christian talk show and co-pastor at Without Walls International Church in Tampa, grabs TV viewers’ attention with her words — and her actions.

By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2002

One locally produced Christian talk show offers spiritual conversations with celebrity panelists and a hefty side order of passionate preaching by Paula White of Tampa's Without Walls Church.

LARGO -- A stagehand is situating coffee mugs on the table -- a must in these days of the laid-back morning talk show -- while a man with dreadlocks instructs the studio audience in the art of appropriate applause.

"Are your hands working today?" he says, getting them stirred up. "Did you turn them on?"

The lights, the cameras, the -- ahem -- action center on the meticulously coiffed woman in a pants suit and high-heeled snakeskin boots. She is Paula White, preacher and co-founder of Without Walls International Church in Tampa -- and now, the host of a national Christian talk show.

"About three years ago, literally, the Lord woke me up and impregnated me," White explains later. "I'm going to use you on television," she says he told her.

Last March, Paula White's show was born in a fake living room at the Christian Television Network studios in Largo. For 30 minutes, White spearheads spiritual chats with panelists. She prays for viewers and quotes Scripture as if part of her everyday conversation.

Paula White airs locally on Fridays at 5:30 p.m. on WCLF-Ch. 22. But TV stations from Washington, D.C., to Honolulu also get a look at White, as does Black Entertainment Television, a national cable network with movies and news, video and comedy shows that attract millions of viewers.

After broadcasts, organizers say, hundreds of calls pour in on the prayer line where volunteers stand at the ready to lend their biblical counsel. On average, White gets 350 e-mails a day.

Years ago, a preacher's stage was confined to the pulpit or a street corner. Nowadays, TV is increasingly a checklist item for mass evangelism. Turn on the dial and cable channels showcase religious broadcasting throughout the day, especially in the early morning. Most shows have a similar formula: a suited preacher preaches, prays and offers tapes and videos for sale at the end.

But while Paula White includes much of the traditional format, the show uses a panel of local semi-celebs to add a dash of glamour -- like Kenneth Copeland meets The View.

Trendy talkers

White introduces her panel at the start of her shows:

Secily Wilson, WTVT-Ch. 13 news anchor; Javen Campbell, Without Walls' pastor of fine arts who often performs at public venues; Jennifer Mallan, also a staff pastor and the church's administrator; and gospel singer DeLeon Sheffield, whose husband, Gary, plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

They meet every four to six weeks to tape a stockpile of shows in a single day. On this mid December day, the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., joins them for several tapings, after requesting a spot on the show. Retired football star Deion Sanders and his wife have also appeared.

King, who watches on BET from her home in Atlanta, says the show focuses on practical issues, refraining from things "churchy," and she likes that. "It's real." Rather than limit themselves to stories of the Old and New Testaments, Paula White panelists have talked about their marital struggles, racism and reaching their goals in life.

What the show lacks in traditional churchiness, it makes up for in panache. Panelists, most hovering in their thirties, sport leather jackets, pants suits, stylish jeans and jewelry. They joke and sip coffee between testimonies of how God pulled them through.

"I'm the trendy one," says Sheffield, wearing a brown leather jacket and an eye-squintingly bright silver medallion around her neck. She flies in from Los Angeles to tape the show during baseball season. During the off-season, she and her husband live in Tampa and attend Without Walls.

The nondenominational church near International Plaza "was birthed in 1991 with a heart and call for evangelism and restoration," according to its Web site. Randy White is the senior pastor; his wife the co-pastor. The church has various outreach ministries, including help for the homeless; a street Sunday school program for kids in Tampa who can't get to church; and ministries for prison and nursing homes. The church was in the news last month after strippers from a Brandon club -- unbeknownst to church officials -- flashed their breasts for toy donations and gave their harvest to Without Walls' Christmas drive for kids.

Like a downsized scene from Oprah, a 15-member studio audience claps to start each taping of Paula White, apparently just for effect. No one in the audience says anything on the show. There is no session for questions. The camera shows only the backs of the audience's heads -- and their clapping hands. Some are regulars at Without Walls and some help on the set. A few are locals from other churches who were able to get the day off.

The topic of this show: how to avoid the devil's attempts to destroy your dreams.

"The enemy is not after you," White says into the lens, as if it were an actual wayward Christian. "I know that sounds crazy . . . He's after your dream!"

She talks about the biblical story of young Joseph, who dreamed that he would one day be a ruler. His jealous brothers threw Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. He was later unjustly imprisoned and royalty seemed like a distant star. It would be years before he took a high position in Egyptian royalty and saved the nation of Israel from famine, the story goes.

Joseph had a dream, White says into the lens, "but he was in a pit."

Campbell finds his way into the discussion: "Some people don't even know how to dream or even have a dream."

A family of 'heathens'

White can attest to that. For most of her 35 years, dreams had escaped her. White's father committed suicide when she was 5 and she says she was sexually abused by adult caretakers throughout her childhood years, a story she tells in her 1998 book He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.

As a child, she lived in Mississippi and Tennessee. As a young woman she married, had a son and divorced.

Coming from a family of heathens, as White describes it, God had not been her refuge. One day she was sitting inside an elderly friend's trailer when the woman's grown son, a Christian, asked her: "Aren't you tired of your life? Don't you want to know real love?"

He took out his Bible and showed her Scriptures about salvation.

She began to believe and attend church services. In those days she dreamed only of finding the $167 she needed every month to pay the mortgage on her trailer. She started to "believe God" for it, she says. She worked odd office jobs, but sometimes that wasn't enough. Once, White says, she bought a cheap suit from a Goodwill store and found a bulge of money inside the pocket. It was just enough to pay the mortgage.

She met Randy White during a church service and the couple began working together in a Maryland church. They were married 14 years ago. Randy White has adopted her 16-year-old son and he has three children from a previous marriage.

Paula White Ministries was launched in February 2001 and now manages White's TV show, speaking engagements and sponsors several local conferences each year. The organization has about a dozen employees and some 160 volunteers.

Bad, meaning good

White is the kind of person who hugs people she meets. She smiles and ends conversations with "God bless you." Her voice, flavored with the twang of her Southern roots, is soft.

In person, that is.

On the pulpit, it's a different story. She stomps about, her voice fiery with the force and cadence of a Pentecostal preacher. Viewers get a dose of this on the show. After the onstage panel talk, cameras roll a taped segment of one of White's sermons. In the studio, everyone turns toward the monitor.

"What's in me is bad, baby!" White is saying. ("Bad" meaning very good, unstoppable.) "Put me in the city, I'm blessed. Put me in the field, I'm blessed. Put me in Africa, I'm blessed . . . I'm ble-e-essed!"

Arguably, that fire is what endears White and her husband, both white, to largely African-American audiences. Without Walls is one of the more diverse congregations in the Tampa Bay area; its 13,000 members are about a third each Hispanic, black and white. African-Americans slightly outnumber the other groups.

"What the (TV show's) audience seems to really like is the panel and that's because of the diversity," said Mallan, the church administrator and panelist.

Also, Paula White preached to more than 60,000 women in New Orleans last August during the mostly black Woman Thou Art Loosed conference organized by Bishop T.D. Jakes.

In snippets on her show, White sells weekly Bible studies and conferences taped on cassettes and videos such as the six-tape "Dare to Dream" series for $30. She encourages viewers to support Paula White Ministries' $3-million budget by sending financial gifts.

Sometimes, God gives White a more specific message for viewers, she says.

"I'm putting my faith with yours that you are going to sow a $37.04 seed," White says during one taping.

Why $37.04?

Psalms, 37:4: "Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart."

Offering solace

The shows taped on this mid December day won't be broadcast until January and February, but White looks into the camera as though the people she's about to pray for are standing right in front of her.

The floor director counts down with her fingers, 3-2-1. White raises her right hand and looks into the lens at her viewers-to-be. People in the audience begin to pray, too, even though the camera doesn't see them.

"Let them stop weeping and crying," White says to God. "The Bible says that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning."

When the prayer is done, she turns to a stack of white and pink paper on the coffee table. On the perhaps 1,000 sheets are three days' worth of e-mails, says Jay Brown, White's director of operations.

"You know, I read your prayer requests," White tells TV land. Sometimes, she says, she cries.

There's Sandra in California, who writes that she has been unemployed for six months and needs money.

"The word of God for you is stand," White says to Sandra. "God will provide for you, Sandra, because he's a faithful God."

Esther in Mount Vernon has health problems.

"God has not forgotten you."

Another woman wants her husband back: "Stand," White says. "God is faithful and he makes the dream your destiny."

More sermon?

At the end of an eight-hour day, White and the panelists have taped six shows. One is an interview between the Whites and King, who talked about overcoming bitterness and anger after her father's assassination.

"I identify with Pastor Paula, some of the issues she faced as a child, losing her father at a young age," King tells a reporter. "I see her heart in ministry."

At one point last year, Campbell says, organizers discussed getting rid of the talk show element, so the broadcast would showcase more of White's sermons.

"I'm glad we didn't change it," he says. "People need to be real . . . You get a chance to hear different views on the issues."

The panelists do hope to change one thing, though. Their stylish wardrobes are getting expensive. They have to find six outfits each time they tape and are afraid viewers will be turned off if they wear the same thing more than once. Campbell, Wilson and Sheffield say they hope to get a sponsor.

"I wouldn't mind representing Saks or Prada," Campbell jokes.

At a glance:

Paula White airs on Black Entertainment Television on Tuesdays at 6 a.m. and Thursdays at 7 a.m., and on the Christian Television Network, WCLF-Ch. 22 on Fridays at 5:30 p.m.

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