BY IAN MURPHY
“Can I hear ya say hallelujah?”
“Can I hear ya say debit ‘r credit?”
“Debit ‘r credit!”
June 6, 2008, BUFFALO—Ex-con, con-man “faith healer” Rev. W.V. Grant hard-sells the flock of 150 at the One in Christ Temple. This humid night is his last working a five-week hustle on the city’s east side. Tomorrow, the “Miracle Crusade Revival” pulls up stakes to go bleed another town. As instructed, I hold hands with a Muslim convert from Sierra Leon.
“Hallelujah,” she whispers, eying my drenched paw. The gospel three-piece ups the tempo.
“Sorry,” I say and start clapping to the music.
With all the hand holding, singing, jumpin’ and hollerin’, it’d be easy to miss the grift—if it weren’t so obvious. Grant’s sweatier than Satan’s ass-crack, selling the routine. He wipes his forehead and removes his jacket. An usher folds the coat neatly over his arm and hurries it to the reverend’s pig-wife. She’s clad conspicuously in red, and lurks next to an office in the back corner of the quaint wood-paneled church.
Earlier in the service, all the newcomers were instructed to fill out a card with their basic information: name, address, e-mail and phone number. These cards were also delivered to Mrs. Grant. Later, when the usher retrieves the jacket, slowly helps Grant slip it on and the reverend promptly starts “divining” the names of a few newcomers, the trick appears to be something less than a miracle.
“Because the Lord doesn’t care how you sow your seed,” he says, motioning to a credit card reader on the carpeted steps below the glass pulpit. The red stitching along Grant’s collar and cuffs suit the Dallas-based huckster. He looks the perfect used car salesman—tan, tooth, coif and cloth. “Or you can offer up your two largest bills… In a few minutes, here, we’ll have some more of y’all called up—hallelujah!”
Grant explains that he doesn’t have “psychic powers,” and that what he’s about to do “isn’t like Miss Cleo.” He’s right: What she did was illegal. Grant motions to the back of the room. The usher rushes Grant his jacket and holds it obediently before him with his back to the audience. After a few moments, Grant puts it back on and the “miracles” begin.
“Now, who’s Maggie?” the preacher asks a hand-picked subject. He forces a perplexed expression.
“That’s me!” the old woman shouts. Grant was also able to peer into the void of publicly available information and come up with the names of dead and living relatives. Did his ruminant accomplice, Mrs. Grant, do a quick Google search during the “beautiful” candlelight prayer? All the fluorescents were turned off for “effect,” and afterward there was too much choking smoke in the air to see or care what was happening.
The Rev. cracks “Maggie’s” cane over his knee and dramatically hurls it into a pile of other similarly abused ambulation aides. He then “cured” her stomach cancer and arthritis. She ran barefoot around the church to prove it. She left soon after—to either die of stomach cancer or collect her money. It’s hard to say.
At one viewing, I don’t know exactly how Grant’s gang execute their con. You don’t know who’s a shill, who’s deluded or who’s just plain schizophrenic. But as with any magic act, unless you’re a fool or a four-year-old, you know that he didn’t really cut that woman in half—or in Grant’s case, lengthen that woman’s leg. Famous debunker James Randi detailed Grant’s MO in his ‘87 book The Faith Healers. “60 Minutes” even did a few pieces on this charlatan back in the day. His tricks have been well documented. The true miracle is that this swine is still scamming people.
“Make out your checks to W.V. Grant Ministries.” the reverend stresses. “That part is important.”
After his ‘96-‘97 stint in federal prison for tax evasion, Grant went right back to his life’s work—bilking the poor and desperate. In 2006, a Richmond, Virginia NBC affiliate ran a two-part investigation, and he soon fled to New Jersey. Otherwise, he hasn’t attracted much scrutiny. And since, he’s been broadcast regularly on the CW network, lying from the same Miami-area stage once graced by prodigious evangelical scumbag Robert Tilton. Born into a family of traveling Christian con-artists, Grant knows no other life. (On weekends he returns to Dallas to preach at his Eagle’s Nest Cathedral, which apparently takes its name from Hitler’s infamous mountain retreat, though, it looks rather like a bowling alley.)
Compounding the offensiveness of the man’s continued success is the sheer sloppiness of his shtick:
“Now, what’s your son’s name?” he asks a weeping man.
“Now who’s Eman—Eman—is it Emanuel?”
“That’s my son.”
“How could I have known that? Have we ever met before?”
“Has anyone been asking you any questions here tonight?”
“Did you pass me a note or anything like that?”
There were similar affronts to reason. People flubbed their purported afflictions and some of the “testimonies” were pure comedy:
“Who filled your cavity?”
“Hallelujah! Look at it shine! Because when the lord fills your tooth he uses precious metals!”
This, apparently, is the best dental plan poor black folk on Buffalo’s east side have access to—Dr. God, DDS. And that’s the diseased heart of the thing: The smarmy likes of Grant can only leech off the poor and poorly educated. His business is bustling in Haiti and Africa, for example. As an economic indicator, the presence of W.V. Grant in your town does not portend well. Religiosity thrives in poverty (Pew Research, 2007). Within a two-block radius of the One in Christ temple there are well over a dozen other churches—half are closed, dilapidated.
Grant’s sermon was an incongruous mix of Christian Zionism, apocalyptic prophesies, UFOs in the Book of Ezekiel and, inexplicably, a lengthy list of Lincoln/JFK coincidences:
“Lincoln was elected in 1860—Kennedy, 1960!”
“John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald both have fifteen letters in their names!”
“Lincoln’s secretary was named Kennedy. And Kennedy’s secretary was named? That’s right—Lincoln!” And so on…
One of Grant’s more impressive “gifts” is making educated guesses. An older, overweight black lady—with diabetes! What are the odds? One in four, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The angle of the con is twofold: The shyster tells us that not only will God heal our bodies, he’ll also heal our wounded finances. “One man had an electric bill for over eight-hundred dollars,” he tells us. “A week after I laid hands on him, his balance was zero dollars,” Theatrically, he looks up at the dingy drop ceiling. “Hallelujah!” The ushers pass out Grant’s “Eagle Club” seed books. “God supernaturally fixed my credit,” reads one testimonial in the booklet. It’s like God’s lottery—you gotta pay to play.
The cleverest ruse in Grant’s arsenal is his singing voice. He’s trained his vocal chords to approximate the sound of a Muppet mouth-fucking Burl Ives—to identify chuckling skeptics in the crowd. I broke my cover early on in the arduous four-and-a-half-hours laughing at his hilarious crooning.
Honestly, it’d be giving Grant too much credit for his voice. Or for the rest of his scam. The old con-man proverb goes, “you can’t cheat an honest man.” Religion and belief in miracles are the height of intellectual dishonesty. Or is it stupidity? Twice on this night, the capacity crowd formed a long circular line to palm the preacher some cash as one would a Mafia Don. From the denominations I could make out, I guess he pulled in Two Large. It’s a racket.
The only truly befuddling illusion of Grant’s run in Buffalo was the media’s disappearing act. Five weeks, five nights a week. He could have hauled in $50,000 easy, yet there wasn’t a peep in the local press or TV news about the robbery. Then again, the “victims” left the door open, and clearly, no one was home. To the most vicious rat goes the cheese.
But no, the local media wasn’t silenced by libertarian principles. It was something less noble. Besides myself, Grant, his hideous wife and a handful of other loony crackers, the crowd was blacker than Wesley Snipes. “White Man Rips Off Black People” just doesn’t work as a headline. It’s old news—400 years and running. Nobody cares. And it’s not entirely true, considering the role of One in Christ’s Pastor Frederick A. Gelsy and his lovely mahogany wife. They certainly have something to gain from the arrangement. Gelsy’s the inside man. He brings in the marks and he gets a cut of the loot. Like always, the matter isn’t strictly black and white.
But imagine the media backlash if a convicted a tax evader, say, I don’t know, Wesley Snipes, had come to Buffalo’s largely white suburbs, claiming supernatural powers and taking money from naive, crippled grannies. He’d be lynched with column inches.
There’s a larger issue: Grant’s running the ultimate confidence game, because God’s the ultimate angle. Were he a secular charlatan, making empty promises to fix folks’ bodies and billfolds, he’d be locked up for good. Ms. Cleo’s mistake wasn’t being black, which she is, or claiming false powers and ripping people off, which she did, but that she gave the credit to spirits and psychic ability. Wrapped in The Cloth, however, Grant has total legal immunity. He’s free to prey on the gullible, crazy, hopeless, desperate, poor and uneducated. As a society, we can tolerate only a certain brand of chicanery, performed by manipulating certain idiotic beliefs. “Thou shalt have no other cons before me,” God once said at a party.
After the service, I talked to a guy going by “Hollywood.” His worn clothes were sweat-stained and he reeked faintly of vinegar. He’d been called up by Grant to heal his diabetes. “They don’t call me what they called me in there,” he tells me as we sit on the sidewalk. “I was in so many movies back in the ‘70s,” he adds. “I’m in the Screen Actor’s Guild. If I could have gotten a million dollars, I could have stayed out there and became a star!”
He went on for a while. I’m not a mental health professional, but he was a nut-job—a group well represented this evening. “At least my diabetes is gone—by Jesus,” he turns and smiles. “Now I can drink all the pop I want!”
“Um, Hollywood,” I pause, “maybe you should get your, um, miracle confirmed by a doctor.”
“Doctor!” He just laughs.
“Any y’all know where I can sleep tonight?” cuts in a beautiful, but badly beaten young lady. She moves her bruised and swollen face down toward us. “I’m in a domestic relationship.”
“Sweet Jesus!” I jump up. “Sorry. Gotta go.”
God willing, one of the good souls filtering out of the church that late evening did what Jesus would have. Lord knows I wasn’t going to put her up. And God willing, she didn’t rob that good soul blind during the night.
God would never let that happen, right?