Oral Roberts was on top of the world in 1977.
His televangelism program was soaring high in the ratings. His ministry was raking in millions in donations from his many seed-faith followers — money Roberts used to build his namesake into a prosperous university.
Then, while mourning his daughter's plane crash death, Roberts said God came to him with a vision: An order to build a medical complex called the City of Faith.
He did, and the ministry and university haven't been the same since.
The hospital, research and medical clinic complex, adjacent to ORU's campus in south Tulsa, struggled from the day they opened in 1981. There were plenty of critics, but not enough patients or money.
City of Faith's inability to sustain itself meant donations that otherwise would have gone to the ministry and ORU were siphoned to the hospital to keep it open.
Roberts eventually resorted to using his television program to ask for money so City of Faith could stay open, going so far as claiming God told him he'd die if he didn't quickly raise money for the hospital.
He raised millions of dollars that way, but City of Faith closed in 1989. Most of the former hospital was converted to office space.
Thirty years after Roberts revealed God's mandate to build City of Faith, ORU and the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association are being separated. The Roberts family no longer runs the university. The City of Faith buildings are now called CityPlex and were half empty in May, according to an occupancy report.
"The biggest thing (City of Faith) did was diverting from what could've been much more successful kinds of ministries,” said author David Edwin Harrell, an American religion historian who wrote a critically acclaimed Oral Roberts biography in 1985.
Others also point to the City of Faith debacle as the beginning of the Roberts empire's financial struggles. However, ORU's money woes could soon be cured by a local family who last week made an $8 million gift to ORU and offered $62 million more if it changes the way it operates.
Various news reports cited the cost of the City of Faith between $100 million and $150 million.
The $70 million pledged by the Green family, who founded the retail chains Hobby Lobby and Mardel, would pull ORU out of the $52 million debt it faces.
Hospital was controversial
From the beginning, many didn't think City of Faith made financial sense for Oral Roberts' empire.
"I thought it was a terrible mistake, as did most of the people around him,” Harrell said. "Oral always employed some pretty savvy people, and I think almost uniformly they thought it was not a good idea.”
Harrell spent six months in the early 1980s combing through Roberts' personal archives while researching for his book. He said apprehension about City of Faith was present even then, in the hospital's early years.
"You could offer a lot of rational objections, as some of the people who worked for him did, but every argument on that campus stopped with what God told Oral,” Harrell said. "I think he became obsessed with this idea and just had this strong, subjective feeling, which is largely what motivated him and what he was moved by.”
Harry McNevin, an ORU regent at the time, took part in the 1978 City of Faith groundbreaking and gave one of the dedicatory prayers.
But by the hospital's 1981 opening, McNevin also was convinced that the hospital was "a trick of the enemy” leading Oral Roberts astray.
"First he was going to build a school for prophets. Then it was going to be a college. Then it was a university. Then it was the City of Faith.
"I knew the spirit of the Lord was causing people to send their money in. But it seemed we were putting a terrible burden on everybody,” said McNevin, a retired trucking company owner now living in Colorado.
City of Faith's financial burden was evident in Roberts' numerous pleas for money after his 1977 visit with God.
In 1978, he urged his followers to help him win approval from the Oklahoma Health Planning Commission in order to build the hospital. The commission had not supported the hospital during its early planning stages.