Sunday, March 04, 2007

Holy Profit

The Gates at Paul Melnichuk's, pastor of Prayer Palace, (a breakaway charismatic evangelical church), country spread feature gold detailing. After worshipping at the Prayer Palace this morning, Hyacinthe Houghron will, as she does every second Sunday, stuff her tired green minivan with a small feast: six coolers of homemade soup, a mountain of sandwiches, cakes and sweets.

Loaded down with second-hand clothes pulled from the ceiling-high piles in her hair salon, she'll give out the goods to homeless people on downtown Toronto's grittiest streets.
Missions like this aren't cheap for people like her and other volunteers at the church. "We're poor folks," says Houghron, describing the majority of the 3,000-strong congregation who attend the spaceship-shaped church at Hwy. 400 and Finch Ave.

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 Star was unable to get access to the Prayer Palace's internal documents, and so could not determine if money donated by congregants went into the pastors' houses.

The church and the pastors refused requests for an interview. In response to a series of written questions, the Star was told that the church exists "to point people to a better life through Jesus Christ." The church provided a long list of charitable works, including Houghron's homeless work, which were counted as its own.

During sermons the pastors exhort worshippers to give generously if they want the Lord's blessing. "What's half a million dollars to a congregation like this? Peanuts," 72-year-old Pastor Paul thundered one recent Sunday morning, asking members to help fund an "evangelical explosion" in Toronto. In another sermon, he said: "Abraham received wealth, blessing and prosperity – not because he worked, but because he believed in a God that was bigger than the economy."

The Canada Revenue Agency, which regulates charities, has a policy that forbids it from discussing specific charities. In response to a general question, a CRA official said strict rules govern the use of charitable donations and assets. People involved in a charity cannot financially benefit from their efforts.

From the Sunday Star, March 4, 2007 Cover Story...

For More details and pictures go to: