Mammon

02.13.16 12:40 AM ET

Did This Preacher Rob From The Poor To Give To Himself?

An internationally famous pastor has been charged with misdirecting funds for orphans and widows back into his own church.

K.P. Yohannan, the influential international evangelical pastor behind Believers Church, has over the last 38 years grown his Texas-based non-profit “Gospel for Asia” (GFA) into the second-largest mission organization in the U.S. Now, a single lawsuit alleging fraud and misuse of hundreds of millions in donations could bring the whole thing crumbling down.

According to a federal class action lawsuit filed on Monday in Arkansas, Yohannan and others in his organization allegedly took offerings from tens of thousands of faithful under the guise of feeding and housing the world’s most impoverished people. But instead, the lawsuit claims, they used the gifts to build an empire that includes homes, sports teams, private investing, and a sprawling $20 million headquarters in Wills Point, Texas.

GFA’s mission, according to its website, is “to share the Good News of Jesus with those who have never heard his name.” They “train and send national missionaries to reach out into areas where the Good News of Jesus Christ has not yet been heard.” Specifically, they aim to convert those who live in what evangelicals know as the “10/40 Window”—10 degrees to 40 degrees north of the equator—where mostly poor Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists live.

In videos of sermons before American audiences—which often address the topic of selflessness—Yohannan appears in a button-down shirt and sport coat, joking about his emigration from India and his thick accent before a crowd of evangelical southerners. When presiding over Believers’ Church, Yohannan more closely resembles the leader of an episcopal church, wears flowing robes, and—as documented by the indefatigable religion blogger, Warren Throckmorton—at times having junior pastors kiss his ring.

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“Yohannan and his associates divert much of this money and do with it as they please,” lawyers for plaintiffs Matthew and Jennifer Dickson allege in the complaint.

In an email to my request for comment, Brian Kirik, a spokesman for GFA wrote, “We are still trying to get our arms around exactly what we’re being accused of, and so this is all we will be saying for today. Though we intend on being fully cooperative and transparent.”

Gospel for Asia posted a statement on Friday that said in part, “We will fully cooperate with the law and are in the process of securing specialized legal counsel to help us and our other legal advisors navigate this new challenge.

“We consider it a blessing to finally have the opportunity to bring this matter to full resolution through an impartial arbiter, and you can rest assured that in the meantime we will continue operating on behalf of some of the world’s most desperate people in some of its most complex environments. We hope you will pray for us, for these ongoing challenges are certainly also challenges and distractions to our mission.

The staff leadership of Gospel for Asia are working diligently to handle all of this responsibly and with integrity. We will come out of this stronger.”

The lawsuit charges that Yohannan, his wife and son, and two others affiliated with GFA were involved with fraud and racketeering, and requests that a judge issue an order barring GFA from continuing its fundraising practices, as well as pay restitution and damages in what could amount to tens of thousands of donors.

Between 2007 and 2013, the complaint alleges that GFA has solicited over $450 million in donations from United States donors, with over one million unique donations made each year.

GFA claims on its promotional materials: “We do not use funds designated for the mission field for any other purposes because of our commitment to the Lord and our commitment to financial integrity.”

Those promotional materials are usually soaked in urgency. Envelopes stuffed with requests for donations are emblazoned with “Please read urgent message -Brother K.P.” and “EMERGENCY GRAM” is repeated on a banner at the top. Inside envelopes like that one, donors are begged to help the 74,000 children waiting for them “today.” Specific appeals are sent for projects like sewing machines, or a $12 blanket that—according to the photo—can keep a family of five warm, or a $345 camel for a family in South Asia, or a $1,200 motorcycle so a missionary can reach distant villages.

But according to the suit, those funds don’t always go where GFA says they do.

In 2013, the complaint claims, GFA collected $118 million in donations but allegedly sent less than $15 million to support the poor in India. Instead of sending money “to the field,” it poured cash back into its own organization— for administration, and to GFA affiliates. Almost $43 million, the complaint claims, just went missing.

In 2010, the complaint alleges, $20 million went to the construction of a $45-million Texas compound—money the nonprofit claimed in financial forms had come from an anonymous donor, but really had come from itself.

The complaint goes on to say that GFA misdirected its money intended for poor children, orphans and widows, and “Jesus Wells,” a project to provide clean water to poor villages.

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The lawsuit comes on the heels of a damning report from the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an organization with the mission of “enhancing trust, transparency and integrity in Christ-centered organizations nonprofits and churches through developing, maintaining accountability standards.”

In October, the ECFA terminated GFA’s 36-year membership, citing its failure to comply with five standards: Governance, Financial Oversight, Use of Resources, Compensation, Truthfulness in Communications and Giver Expectations and Intent.

The ECFA found that GFA had “excessive cash balances” sitting in its coffers: $259,437,098 on hand at March 31, 2014 and $186 million in June 2015.

“In light of the significant cash balances held by field partners and the delay in sending funds to the field, ECFA staff raised concerns about the appropriateness of communicating urgency in many donor appeals,” the report states. “This includes appeals indicating ‘When we share with you about the urgency to reach the untold, lost millions—and the opportunities to win them to Jesus—it is not done to produce feelings of guilt or manipulate.’”

GFA also failed to report to the Department of Homeland Security some $287,500 in cash smuggled into India over the last three years by GFA missionaries, according to the ECFA report.

And further, the report said it was “compelled to observe our concern” that GFA either directly misled investigators or left out information, suggesting an attempt by GFA to obfuscate the review.

But it’s not just the number crunchers who take issue with the house that Yohannan built. A number of disaffected GFA staffers have also began publicly denouncing the practices of their former organization on the website GFA Diaspora. Among their concerns is that too much authority is placed with Yohannan—requiring staff to obey without questioning—and that leaders allegedly deceive followers, shun dissenters, and discourage or prohibit meetings of small groups that could breed dissention.