My Low Tastes
Been on a run of various low topics here lately -- crime, boob jobs, bumping, grinding, naughty postcards -- why stop now?
I sometimes fear that the pleasure I take in stories like this is excessive and therefore probably in some way improper.
The hairdresser scrapes together $600 of her own money each month to keep up the program because the Prayer Palace – one of Canada's largest evangelical churches – stopped running it five years ago. Other charitable works, like a promised orphanage in Brazil, either dried up or never materialized.
Meanwhile, the three white pastors – Paul Melnichuk and his 40-year-old twin sons, Tim and Tom – lead lavish lives in contrast to the mainly working-class black families that make up the bulk of the church.
Between them, the pastors have amassed a real estate fortune worth about $12 million. Each owns a multi-million-dollar country estate north of Toronto (Tim's is worth as much as $5.5 million), they share a Florida vacation villa, and the pastors and their wives drive luxurious cars – among them a Porsche Cayenne SUV, a Lexus RX 330 SUV and a Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 convertible.
Congregants are largely unaware of the pastors' extravagant lifestyles.
"Wow," says Leslie Stewart, 63, who works in a paint factory six days a week and gives 10 per cent of his income to the church. "I never heard of anything like that. But if I release my tithe and they misuse it, they have to face God."
The Prayer Palace has a devoted congregation. Most worshippers believe in tithing, the practice of donating 10 per cent of one's income to the church, and each year they give a reported $3 million. "The people love (the Melnichuks)," Houghron says. "Pastor Paul ... loves the Lord. He does God's work."
In addition to personally funding the homeless program, Houghron – a staunch supporter of Pastor Paul – tithes and also gives him $100 to $200 cash for his birthday. "He's never given me gifts like that but he's given me spiritual gifts," says Houghron. "He encourages the work I do for the homeless."
Parts II, III, IV if you want more.
Since the publication of the articles the church board has begun an audit and hired a public relations firm, God help us. I get some satisfaction out of the exposure of such people as this preacher and his awful family.
But there's more. This congregation is largely West Indian, which, of course, caught my interest. Because I don't know, they always seem to add a little something extra in the way of drama and fun to this sort of affair.
Since the article's March 4 publication, reporters involved in the story have been inundated with phone calls from angry Prayer Palace members.
"You have touched God's anointed! Be careful! Be careful that you don't drop dead one of these days," shouted one caller who identified himself as Roger.
Other callers said that to ignore their warnings would be to invite tragedy into reporters' lives, including leprosy and possible physical harm.
One caller issued a death threat; another called a reporter a "Mormon ... a racist."
I was talking with my friend S. who lives in Barbados. She is from the Eastern Caribbean, but from a different island which I shall not name. And we both agreed that the belief in supernatural forces like obeah is much stronger and more widespread in our part of the world than people like to acknowledge. Because it is kind of a secret. Obeah doesn't really have rituals and gatherings; that's more the Shango religions. Obeah is an activity. It is an activity of using the supernatural to get your will over circumstances or over another person. You go to the obeah man to win your boyfriend back, to get him to marry you, to find out who stole your goat, to poison your husband, to destroy an enemy. In people's minds at least obeah was almost indistinguishable from actual poisoning, and among rural people especially there is a certain amount of watchfulness over who is handling your food. For instance, in some of the old Trinidadian calypsos the man suspects his girlfriend of poisoning him with green callalloo, and he describes how sick it makes him. And some country people in Jamaica told my brother years ago about a practice called "steaming your crotches," where a woman who wants to get rid of her husband squats over an open pot of rice as it's cooking (these are people who would cook on an open fire outside -- many still do that there). This is supposed to make the husband waste away and die. Or you have an enemy in the town where you live and you come home and find white powder scattered around your front door. This is a pre-scientific culture, really, even though they might all be watching the Discovery Channel on cable TV of an evening.
One day I was listening to Motty Perkins's show and this woman who stands in for him occasionally was on. And she said something that so riled up this one woman caller that the caller put an obeah curse on her, over the telephone, on the radio. Throughout the rest of the day other callers assured the guest host that they had the situation taken care of, she was not to worry or be afraid. One Rasta guy was already burning fire to clear away the evil, and another woman said that she was using the power of the Lord Jesus Christ to drive off the obeah curse, and no obeah curse could withstand the blood of the Lamb etc. etc. And I was listening to this live over the Internet while sitting at my desk editing research papers at this Very Big Scientific Institution in Washington D.C. The small pleasures of my life...
And so one of the attractions of being a Christian to people like this is that it offers better protection against the malice of your enemies, and against the powers of obeah. But for some people that sense of the world goes right into the church with them. It's not so much a thought pattern as a sense of the world in which malice and envy are on the prowl, looking for an opening, a vulnerability, and will strike ruthlessly and deviously. Like in that Bob Marley song,
Some will eat and drink with you
Then behind them soo-soo pon you...
"Soo-soo" is whispering.
Power, money, the ability to remove yourself from the yard where your neighbors are watching you, this is huge. And here comes this preacher, and he gives them so little for what he takes from them, and they are so touchingly generous. What sadly misplaced faith.