A little after midnight on the outskirts of Dallas, an undercover detective with the face of a choirboy hops into a Dumpster and hands four big trash bags to his assistant. The two then drive to a nearby parking lot, put on latex gloves, and pore solemnly over the debris. "We're looking for financial records, fraudulent activities we can expose," the detective explains. "A person's trash tells a lot about them."
The garbage in question belongs to a business linked to a slick TV preacher. The two men are on a mission for the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, one of the quirkiest Christian groups around. "These preachers are turning people off God with their hypocrisy and greed," the detective says. "By exposing that, we can turn people toward true faith."
Part religious collective, part investigative unit, part satire squad (the foundation publishes a humor magazine, The Door), Trinity was founded 25 years ago by activist Ole (pronounced O-lee) Anthony. Its chief weapon in exposing what it calls religious corruption and excess is investigative journalism - which includes the occasional trash run.
Trinity sleuths, for example, helped research a PrimeTime Live story that concluded that televangelist W.V. Grant's "miraculous" ability to read minds owed a lost to interviews Grant and his staff conducted with selected audience members before the services. (Grant was recently released from prison after serving a sentence for tax evasion; his wife, Brenda, says the allegations are untrue and that Grant's imprisonment is "something that could happen to anyone who made a mistake on their tax information.")
In the same Prime Time Live investigation, a Trinity team said it had found, stuffed in a Dumpster behind televangelist Robert Tilton's bank, thousands of unanswered letters written to Tilton by the faithful (and accompanied by donations no longer in the envelopes). Anthony said the desperate requests for healing and prayers literally made him weep. He still keeps in his pocket a copy of the first letter he saw: a frightened mother asking for prayers for a suicidal son. "It helps remind me what I'm doing this for," he says. Tilton and his lawyers say the letters were planted in the Dumpster.
Telvangelist and faith healer Benny Hinn was another Trinity target. For a recent CNN report, Trinity detectives found receipts in the trash for $2,200-a-night hotel suites used by Hinn's bodyguards and caught Hinn on tape claiming that he had videotape of a man being raised from the dead at his Ghana crusade. Hinn told U.S. News that the high-priced hotels were needed for security abroad but admitted that though he was told about the resurrection videotape, he never saw it. Another Trinity investigation illustrates the zeal of foundation members: One spent nearly four months filming undercover for an Inside Edition report on a North Carolina church. A call to Trinity's hot line (800-229-8428) had alleged cult-like control and child abuse among church members. (Church leaders denied any wrongdoing, and a criminal investigation was later dropped.)
Trinity's 75 or so members are hard to place on the usual spectrum of attitudes toward religion-believers at one end, nonbelievers at the other. Trinity's propensity for sleuthing is clearly modern and seemingly secular. Yet in various ways, Trinity members also model themselves after first-century Christian ascetics. They welcome the homeless into their homes, celebrate Jewish holidays - as the early Christians did until A.D. 132 - and denounce latter-day Pharisees. Twenty members, including Anthony, are Trinity employees, living on $80-a-week salaries and attending daily 7:30 a.m. Bible sessions and smaller Bible group meetings three evenings a week. Trinity's $417,000 annual budget is funded largely by tithes and offerings from members and supporters, subscriptions to The Door, and fees charged media organizations.
Anthony's followers are fiercely loyal to their 59-year-old leader, a tall, imposing figure with silvery-blond hair and chiseled features. Ordained by Trinity as a minister, Anthony prefers to call himself the "rabbi" of the group he serves as teacher, counselor, and agenda setter. He is a self-taught religious scholar who spent 12 years studying and translating the Old and New Testaments, the Talmud, and other ancient texts. He is also certified in Texas as a private detective, along with five other Trinity members.
Anthony has an eclectic background. Until the mid-1960's, he says, he carried out surveillance missions for the Air Force and the Defense Intelligence Agency, monitoring the Chinese and Soviet nuclear weapons programs. He later turned to Republican politics and fund-raising, then made - and lost - a fortune in offshore drilling. Anthony had never been devout, but that changed in 1972 when a public-relations firm he owned was hired to help launch a Dallas Christian television station. At the studio one day, Anthony, struggling with feelings of emptiness, heard a British lecturer talk about God's role in people's lives. He was, he says, suddenly swept by a powerful sense of peace and a newfound understanding.
Though he had no formal religious training, Anthony soon become a religious broadcaster for the station, hosting Christian TV talk shows, then moving on to radio. But he eventually became disillusioned with religious broadcasting's fixation on fund-raising, which he found greedy and hypocritical. While Anthony was broadcasting, he also began teaching Bible groups, building a religious community that in 1982 moved into a seedy East Dallas neighborhood, and made taking in the homeless a central goal.
Anthony's work with homeless people, in turn, drew his group back to the world of televangelism. "A portion of them gave their last dollar to these preachers," he says. "Then they'd end up homeless and got the ministries for help and be turned away." Harry Guetzlaff, 53, says he lost his home, marriage, and video-production business by giving thousands to Robert Tilton's ministry: "He said, 'Pledge what you don't have, and God will provide it hundredfold.'" Broke, Guetzlaff ended up at Anthony's East Dallas sanctuary and become of Trinity's most dogged investigators.
Many preachers who have been stung by Anthony's group argue that Trinity is sophomoric and publicity mad. "Jesus never said to go through anybody's garbage," says Hinn. Tilton attorney J.C. Joyce says, "Anthony will say any sort of garbage to get attention." Even some admirers are wary of Trinity's penchant for self-promotion. "They're dedicated, self-sacrificing, sincere people," says William Martin, a Rice University sociologist of religion. But they are also, he adds, "quite willing to let people know that about themselves."
Similar criticism has been leveled at Trinity's use of a second unorthodox weapon in its war against religious hucksterism: satire. Outrageous lampoons and barbed commentaries about televangelists appear in The Door and in a weekly video segment for the cable network Comedy Central's The Daily Show. The segment is hosted by humor columnist and comedian Joe Bob Briggs (real name: John Bloom) and has featured such oddities as Hinn blowing in the direction of worshippers until they fall over. "The guys we're lampooning get in the way of faith," says Briggs, who joined Trinity in the mid-1980's after befriending Anthony years earlier as a reporter. Briggs is also the best-known writer for The Door (circulation: 12,000; also available on the World Wide Web at www.thedoormagazine.com), whose main audience is seminary students with a sense of humor. After Trinity took it over, The Door won raves from the Washington Post ("delightfully scathing") and the Kansas City Star (wickedly irreverent"). A recent issue includes a feature titled "you Might Be a Cult Member If&" One entry: "Your pastor knows how to disassemble and clean an AK-47."
Trinity itself, of course, has a strong leader and tightknit religious community. Could it be a cult? Tilton has made that claim. But Trinity's way of doing business departs from cult behavior in many ways. Anthony usually encourages free discussion. He is accountable to a board of that has blocked some of his proposals - bringing homeless people to the steps of area churches with TV crews in tow was one - and the foundations' finances and meetings are open to the public.
Most striking is Trinity's willingness to make fun of itself - and of Anthony. Last spring, the group staged a Passover skit in which its leader of two decades was given a mock Academy award. The film? The Relic. Says Judy Buckner, who served as emcee, "If we took ourselves too seriously, we couldn't make fun of anyone else."