tampabay.com

Questions tarnish rise to top

Paula White is all polish, but there's pain behind her evangelical rise.

By SHERRI DAY
Published July 15, 2007


ATLANTA - From the moment Paula White steps into the World Congress Center, she's on: camera-ready makeup, designer suit, black stilettos and pocketfuls of pithy sound bites.

In town to promote her forthcoming book at the International Christian Retail Show last week, White meets no strangers. She introduces herself to gawkers, cameramen, interviewers and fans with hugs, including a waiter who passes along his admiration as he serves her lunch.

As host of the Paula White Today Show, White broadcasts to million of homes a day. An author, she also is a life coach on the Tyra Banks Show and hobnobs with celebrities. Her 22,000-member Tampa church, Without Walls, has been dubbed one of the fastest-growing churches in America.

White will cross another milestone today when she opens a center in Manhattan to host life-coaching seminars.

But as White enjoys a meteoric rise to the top of Christian evangelism, she must juggle mounting concerns at home.

In the last few months, Without Walls, which White leads with her husband, Randy, has been embroiled in controversy over allegations of a lack of integrity and questionable business dealings.

The accusations, brought to light by the media, former church members and disgruntled former employees, touched off a maelstrom of debate about Without Walls and its leaders.

While the Whites have been mum, their supporters and detractors square off on Internet blogs and message boards. The church's board of directors eventually issued a statement trying to bat down the allegations.

"Everything she does is a total act," said Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas nonprofit watchdog group that monitors televangelists. "... She's on this ride now that's just going hot guns and big celebrity, and she's going to fail miserably because the things that they're doing are so outlandish," noting her lavish lifestyle.

In keeping with her teachings that trials and tribulations make Christians strong, White responds in an e-mail to the Times: "My focus is the assignment and work of ministry that we have always done and continue to do with the fruit of that good work reflected across the nation and all over the world."

Demerits into merits

As she sits with interviewers at the retail show Monday, White captivates them with the story of her troubled youth involving abuse, neglect and low self-esteem.

As White tells it, she was born Paula Michelle Furr in Tupelo, Miss. In her 1998 semiautobiography, she details an early life of country clubs and privilege. Her parents' marriage, she said, began to unravel when she was 5, with her mother fleeing to Memphis.

Her father followed with an ultimatum: Give him Paula or he would kill himself. White's mother refused, and later that night Donald Furr wrapped his car around a tree, ending his life, White says.

Her mother, Myra Joanelle Furr, sought refuge in alcohol. While Furr worked, White was looked after by caregivers, whom she said sexually and physically abused her for seven years.

White says she found God when she was 18 and living in Maryland. A stranger saw that she was broken and offered her the Christian plan of salvation.

At the time, White was a new mother to a baby she had out of wedlock. She had a brief marriage with the baby's father, a member of a rock band. Eventually, she wound up at a local church sweeping floors and teaching Sunday school. That's where she met a young visiting preacher. Randy White was pudgy and not her type, she says, but the two grew in love and married in 1990.

Some church members frowned upon the relationship, surmising that Randy, from five generations of preachers, should find a more suitable bride.

The couple moved to Tampa in 1990 and soon after started South Tampa Christian Center. They renamed it Without Walls in 1997 and set about building one of the fastest-growing congregations in the nation.

It wasn't long before White's popularity began to eclipse her husband's. Though they lead the church together, she is sought after and travels around the country preaching.

"Clearly, they have branded her," said Scott Thumma, professor of religion and sociology at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. "Her look, her products. They're branding her face, her style, and it resonates in a lot of ways with folks."

Obscurity to stardom

White says she received a vision of her future as a preacher shortly after her salvation. Her career got a megaboost when she met Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of the Dallas megachurch, the Potter's House.

Jakes, who is black, helped catapult White to superstardom - particularly among black women - when he invited her to speak at his Woman Thou Art Loosed Conference in 2000. She launched her television ministry a year later.

Today, White is one of the most popular preachers on Black Entertainment Television and appears on several other networks including Spike TV and Trinity Broadcasting.

Her folksy, down-home delivery ranges from that of reserved theological teacher to charismatic, foot-stomping, finger-pointing preacher fluent in the call-and-response worship style of the traditional black church.

On a recent Sunday at Without Walls, White preached from John 2, where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding.

"Slap somebody right upside their weave and say 'Get in the Flow,' " White told the audience, her voice rising as she introduced her sermon title. "Are you ready? Somebody say 'Bring it on. Bring it on.' "

Tonya Jones was mesmerized.

"She speaks to me," said Jones, 39, a Tampa homemaker. "I like the way she brings the message in a way that I can understand."

White also has been dubbed a prosperity preacher, a proponent of the name-it and claim-it gospel, which purports that people can receive financial, emotional and spiritual blessings if they donate. That message and her penchant for designer clothing and flashy cars have added to the cacophony of criticism.

White drives a Mercedes-Benz and flies around the country in a private jet. She lives in a $2.1-million mansion on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard and has a Fifth Avenue condo in Trump Tower in New York City.

The ministries took in $39.9-million in 2006, according to an audit of Without Walls and Paula White Ministries released in June by an independent Clearwater accounting firm. About $28.6--million helped promote the church's programs, conferences and outreach efforts, the audit said. Other expenses covered management and fundraising.

White's salary was not detailed, but her publicist says she has multiple streams of income outside the ministry. She donates to causes and individuals both inside and outside of Without Walls, her publicist said.

At the Christian retail show, for example, White told one of her assistants to send gospel artist CeCe Winans "another check" for her planned conference for girls. Winans beamed. White said she already had given the effort $25,000.

And for his 50th birthday in June, White sent Jakes a black convertible Bentley. It was intended to be quiet gift, White said, but an overzealous member of Jakes' ministry shouted out the news at the retail show.

"Some people thought 'Why would you do that?' " White later explained, saying that Jakes is her spiritual father. "I thought, 'Well, why wouldn't I? That's not even an option."

Overwhelmed

For all of her successes, White still describes herself as the messed-up Mississippi girl whose life God turned around. At times, she appears enchanted by her own stature.

At the retail show, a bus plastered with White's face circles the building. "What would my momma say?" she shrieks. "That is so funny to me."

After an hourlong book signing with nearly 300 people lined up to meet her, White's publishers tell her the event was their most successful at the show since megachurch Pastor Joel Osteen released his 2004 book.

White's response?

"You're gonna make me cry," she says.

By the end of the day, her picture-perfect aura shows signs of reality. Her feet in 3.5-inch heels hurt mightily, and she has a run in her stockings. An assistant whisks her away to the bathroom. White yawns frequently.

"All right, girls, I need a 30-minute nap," she tells her entourage: an assistant, a publicist, a publishing representative and a bodyguard, a former gang member who says White's ministry changed his life.

When a radio interviewer asks White how she began her association with celebrities, she demurs. "I think I'm the poster child for I Corinthians 1:27, where it says God uses the foolish things to confound the wise," she says. "You pray like it's up to God. You work like it's up to you."

White leaves the building and jumps into a black SUV. There remains a dinner with international retailers and then a flight back to Tampa on her private jet. She touches down for less than 24 hours before taking off again to Arkansas and then New York.

White insists she has a message to give a public that is eager to receive.

"The key is balance. But I do what I do because, quite honestly, I am committed to our mission to transform lives, heal hearts and win souls."

Times staff writer Vanessa Gezari and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or 813 226-3405.

Paula White

Age: 41

Lives: On Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa; Also has a condo in Trump Tower in New York City.

Occupation: Senior Pastor Without Walls International Church, President, Paula White Ministries; Life Coach on the Tyra Banks Show, Author and Evangelist. Also has several side businesses including a real estate acquisitions company.

Family: Married to Randy White, bishop at Without Walls International Church; A blended family with four grown children, including biological son and three stepchildren.

Authored: Twenty-three books on everything from spirituality to fitness. Her latest "You're All That! Understand God's Design for Your Life" debuts in October from FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group USA.

Enjoys: Antiquing, Writing in her Journal, Reading and People watching in Manhattan's Soho District.

Drinks: Starbucks Coffee, black with five shots of vanilla.

Notable Quote: "I'm the messed-up Mississippi girl that has a defining moment and stays in the word every day."

Sources: The Rev. Paula White; Paula White Ministries.

Without Walls International Church

Origin: Started as a storefront church in 1991 as South Tampa Christian Center.

Renamed: Without Walls International Church in 1997 and moved into an old Canada Dry Factory near Raymond James Stadium.

Size: Has more than 22,000 members and more than 200 outreach ministries.

Demographics: Predominately African American. But prides itself on being the "Vegetable Soup Church" with people from a variety of ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Income: $39.9-million in 2006; $28-million in 2005. Figures represent combined income from Without Walls and Paula White Ministries.

Source: Without Walls by Randy White; 2006 Independent Audit by Lewis, Birch & Ricardo, LLC