Reverend Ike and his empire

Boston Globe/January 22, 1999
By Brian McGrory

Brookline -- As buildings go, this one is extraordinary only for its dreariness - its brown and beige facade blending into Commonwealth Avenue like yet another office filled with lawyers or chiropractors on another monotonous strip of commerce.

But 910 Commonwealth Ave. holds a secret - a devilish secret involving big money, religion, and deceit. It's a secret about the Reverend Ike, the formerly famous preacher whose singular claim to fame is his unflappable ability to make himself rich at the expense of the poor.

Reverend Ike? In his heyday, in the 1970s, he was one of the most visible blacks in the nation, his weekly sermons broadcast from New York by some 1,700 television and radio stations across America. His was a message of consummate capital consumption. He liked to say that the lack of money, not the love of it, was the root of all evil, and he often told his flock, ''The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.''

Say this much about the Reverend Ike: He practiced what he preached. He wore gaudy suits. He owned a fleet of mink-appointed Rolls Royces. He lived in mansions on the East and West coasts and encouraged speculation about his many mistresses. When the basket was passed around his Harlem church, he warned followers that he didn't appreciate the sound of loose change.

He's been largely absent from public view for at least a decade, causing state Representative Byron Rushing of the South End to ask this week, ''He's still alive?'' Alive and well, it seems. And very much among us.

Which brings us back to 910 Commonwealth Ave., which for years, largely unnoticed, has been the national fund-raising office for Ike's United Christian Evangelical Association. In the drab, empty lobby, a placard lists places within such as ''The Altar of Solitary Meditation and Intercession'' and a ''Theological Reference Library.'' Still, a visitor talking to a nameless, faceless church worker via a lobby phone was afforded only a curt dismissal. A religious experience it was not.

In fact, this low-rise office building, combined with another in Brighton, is the financial engine that continues to power Ike's lucrative kingdom, complete with the mansions and Rolls Royces. With his television career either in remission or over, Ike - full name: Frederick Eikerenkoetter - is in the midst of a years-long direct mail fund-raising frenzy that shows no sign of ending.

Educated estimates say the national campaign takes in at least half a million dollars a month - every bit of it sifted through Ike's Boston and Brookline offices. ''There is nothing nefarious or strange,'' says Dave Corbett, a consultant to the church. ''We raise faith and funds and that is it.''

But the question is, from whom? Ike is widely known to target the elderly and the poor in his mailings, with a particular emphasis on those of African and Caribbean descent. Typically, he sends a letter containing a charm or a curse such as a piece of yarn or a sliver of a prayer rug. The letter exhorts the recipient to mail it back by the following day, with a donation of at least $20 to $30 to allow the Reverend Ike to bless it. Failure to return it with a donation, he warns, could bring doom; compliance garners good fortune.

In the last few weeks, Suffolk District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II has launched a fraud investigation into Ike's operations in Boston, though some members of the office are squeamish over the accompanying issues of race and freedom of religion. For years, Ike has withstood investigations from the IRS and US Postal Service, often telling critics, ''Let someone give a dime to the preacher and he's robbing the poor.'' Another consideration, though, is that he has insidiously marbled himself into the sophisticated Boston-area economy, parceling out enormous printing and mailing contracts to companies across the region. The manager of one Wilmington print shop said he has four 100,000-piece mailings in the next six weeks, adding, ''He feeds a lot of people.'' In Brockton, severely disabled people are hired to stuff envelopes with the charms.

In Brookline, his property is assessed at $1.8 million, according to local officials - all of it tax-exempt, meaning the town doesn't see a single dime. All the contributions that flow into the area are tax-free as well.

All the while, Ike rolls around New York in his expensive cars. He travels the world on cruises. In his church, he has a velvet throne. It is as if he is playing an elaborate joke, and here in Boston, we have assumed the role of the unwitting straight man. Problem is, the joke is on the poor, those people who have the fear of God and the devil put into them. Maybe now's the time to call a fraud a fraud, not a preacher.

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