Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Oral Roberts - Stories of the Evangelist and Tulsa, Oklahoma

Originally published at Grizzly Groundswell

My hometown is Tulsa, Oklahoma. After we became ‘famous’ for being the Oil Capital of the World, evidenced by the largest free standing statue in the world, the Golden Driller, we became known as the home ministry of Oral Roberts. Mr. Roberts died in California at the age of 91 on December 15th, 2009. He was a lightening rod in Tulsa and around the world.


Oral Roberts

There are so many stories to tell about Oral Roberts from a Tulsan’s perspective but I will start with his Abundant Life Building where he began the stuff of legend-making. The Abundant Life building is a windowless six-story, white marble structure. It was mysterious, and odd tales of miraculous healings ushered forth, and the stories were indeed abundant.


Oral Roberts’ Abundant Life Building

A few years later, in 1962, ground was broken in south Tulsa for the Oral Roberts University. The Prayer Tower at the University was like no other tower. The observation deck overlooking the campus is sometimes described as reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns. The 196′ tall Tower was the home of the Abundant Life Prayer Group, where volunteers sat 100′ above the ground, tending faithfully to phone banks, and fielding millions of calls from people all over the world requesting prayer. After the “ORU scandal” in 2007, that saw the dismissal of Oral's son, Richard Roberts from the presidency, and his complete disassociation from the University, the Abundant Life Prayer Group relocated in May 2009 and for a short while the Prayer Tower was inactive. Today, the phone banks are gone but the tower serves as a quiet place of prayer for students and faculty. The main room of the original prayer room accommodates numerous of those seeking refuge, as well as small rooms for individuals needing some solitary space.


Oral Roberts University Prayer Tower

Once the University was standing tall, Oral switched his denomination from Pentecostal Holiness to Methodist. The talk around town was that he needed the mainstream respectability of Methodism to encourage parents to send their students to ORU.
The University itself has been a Tulsa treasure, and no matter how you feel about Oral Roberts, the University is looked upon with respect. There has now been a taint on the top leadership – in fact, a huge taint that brought down Richard Roberts, but from my perspective, the quality of the student body and the quality of the diplomas issued have always been seen as remarkable. True, the University asks students to sign a pledge to abstain from alcohol, drugs and premarital sex while in school, and many on the “outside” find that amusing, but students say they welcome the pledge; it grounds them and they came to ORU for the quality of the education and the spiritual guidance. Christianity is at the heart of the ORU student.

While Oral Roberts was a traveling evangelist, moving around the world leading revivals and touting the numbers of converts in the thousands, he spent a good deal of time in Tulsa. I remember one member of a Rotary Club where Oral also belonged, saying that in all the years Oral had participated with the Club, he had never solicited funds from other Rotarians. Those were the days when the funds rolled in by the millions for the University, mostly from middle-class families who tried not to miss a public word that Oral Roberts uttered. When I first met my in-laws, they were among those middle-class families, living in another state, who sowed their seed faith with Oral and his University.

Oral’s healing powers were always under the microscope. I wish I could find a video to show you how, ‘back in the day’ he put the heel of his palm on the forehead of the afflicted and thundered, “heal heal,” (at least that’s what I think he said). No gossip or outrage could daunt Evangelist Roberts. He healed people, through God’s grace and if you didn’t believe it, that was your problem.

Then God told him to build a massive medical center across the street from the University. Tulsa’s medical community said we had enough hospitals, and we didn’t need another. Nevertheless, we got the City of Faith, with the intent of being a Christian hospital where staff would pray by your bedside if you wanted. The claim of more-than-abundant-hospital-rooms ready and available in the city, didn’t stop Roberts. He said he had a “vision,” and he was doing God’s bidding. In 1980, he said he saw a 900′ Jesus standing on the property. “His eyes…Oh! His eyes! He stood a full 300 ‘ taller than the 600 foot tall City of Faith.” Tulsans were not impressed, and again from my perspective as a local,  that’s when Oral’s stock diminished in the eyes of many of his followers. It wasn’t just his claim of seeing a magnificently tall Jesus Christ, it was the city fighting against him, and the feeling that he was irresponsible and wreckless at a time when the U.S. economy was in deep recession. It was just too much for followers everywhere.

I’m not one to question when one sees a vision of Christ, but Tulsa was jaded about Oral. We rolled our eyes, and it wasn’t about a giant Jesus…it was about the folly of the City of Faith. We did not believe Jesus told him to get into that mess. It had nothing to do with the very desirable opportunity to have medical staff praying over you in a time of need. It was about a monumental undertaking in very hard times, and support dwindled, although most of the City of Faith was paid for as it ascended skyward.

The City of Faith closed after eight years in operation, but the books began showing a huge loss as early as 1986. As Oral predicted, patients-followers had come from the hinterlands for treatment, but even that dwindled as the cost of traveling for treatment, and the need for loved ones to come with you, was too much to bear for most patients. Lawsuits on the sale of the property dominated for years.

The City of Faith, today the Citi-Plex Towers, is three buildings, the tallest 60 stories, and from the top, there is a fine view of the Arkansas River, and occasionally an small aircraft cruising by a window just below the observer. An orthopedic hospital operates on the first floor of the tallest building, but largely the complex is business offices and call centers. It has not enjoyed capacity rental, or even close.

Outside the City of Faith, in the days of the hospital, a giant 60′ tall bronze sculpture of praying hands marked the entrance. In the summer of 1991, the Hands were relocated to the entrance drive of ORU.


Oral Roberts Praying Hands

Oral’s impact on Tulsa, a truly beautiful city, was no doubt powerful enough to shape at least a portion of the world image of it, but remember, we were more than Oral Roberts, we were the Oil Capital of the World. The International Petroleum Exposition (IPE) named Tulsa as home and the first exposition was held here in 1923. That prosperity continued through 1930, laid dormant until 1948 when the really, really big oil show brought more than 300,000 visitors to the city for one event. During the 1950s and 1960s the venue continued to draw in excess of three hundred thousand visitors. “If this world class event was to have a suitable venue one would have to be constructed.”
In 1966 a $3.5 million bond issue was passed and all the old IPE buildings were demolished and a ten-acre Exposition Center was constructed. The center provided 354,000 square feet (32,900 m2) of column-free space under a cable-suspended roof. The building spans 448,400 total square feet on two levels, connected by side ramps and stairs, allowing for a variety of show floor plans.The Expo Center became home to the International Petroleum Exposition.
The 1966 IPE housed in the new facility attracted the largest attendance in the history of the IPE. The future of the International Petroleum Exposition seemed assured. But in the early 1970s the oil slump struck…After a dismal attendance of twenty-six thousand people in 1979, the fifty-seven-year-old International Petroleum Exposition was canceled for all time.
The IPE visitors, however, rubbed elbows in the 60’s with those thronging to Tulsa to see Oral Roberts University. It was a favorite tourist site for the world’s oil producers when they were in town, if you can imagine that. Note in the top one-quarter of the photo below, the giant Golden Driller which still stands guard today over the mammoth and legendary IPE building.


International Petroleum Building – Tulsa, Oklahoma

Through the years, my position on Oral Roberts as he aged and left the healing tents, has been that he had great skills for preaching. I say that in admiration, and not sarcasm. He did have a message of God’s love and redemption and it was worth listening to in the later years. I never donated to him, or sat in his audience, but he was a magnificent speaker in the years when he toned down the rising and falling bellows. He could definitely preach the Bible and he generally stuck to true scripture. I believe he has helped many, many people and if his methods were suspect to me, they were appreciated by thousands and more. I do not believe that he healed all those he claimed to heal, and I believe he knew that he didn’t. I believe he changed lives for the positive, of some needing what he had to offer. I would never question whether or not God spoke to him in the very direct manner that he claimed. That is between him and the Almighty.

The last time Mr. Roberts was in Tulsa was in September 2009 for the inauguration of the new ORU president, Mark Rutland. Roberts died in Newport, California. A public memorial service was held at ORU in the Mabee Center on Monday, December 21st. No matter his relationship with his Maker, I feel certain his heart was broken over the problems with his son and his beloved University. Roberts remained the University’s Chancellor at the time of his death.

I want to close on a comment about another of Tulsa’s attributes. We are conservative, and we are very conservative in Congress. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) made the news recently as he forced the august body to read out-loud a 700+ page single-payer amendment to the health care bill introduced by self-identified Socialist, Barney Sanders (I-VT) - until Sanders marched on the Senate floor and withdrew his measure to control your health care. Senator Jim Inhofe has fought the ClimateGate scandal almost from the start, although he was a believer before he was a denier, and is a valiant soldier for freedom and liberty and the support of our Military. I am proud to be from Oklahoma, and am proud of Oklahoma for sending these two men to the Senate. Besides Tulsa’s beautiful homes, green rolling hills (don’t think red earth and dust bowls – that’s Oklahoma City), gorgeous lakes and Senators Coburn and Inhofe, we are the reddest state in the Union – John McCain won every single county, so you can’t blame us for Barack Obama.

Photos of Abundant Life Building and IPE building courtesy of Tulsa Historic Society and Bill Miller’s, Historic Tulsa Blog.

©2007-2012copyrightMaggie M. Thornton