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 controversialFrom 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.
Continue reading this story on the...
MORE FROM NEWSOK
Tulsa evangelist Oral Roberts, founder of the City of Faith in Tulsa, in a 1968 photo.
City of FaithJanuary 1978: Oral Roberts breaks ground on his proposed health center, declaring it will be built debt-free and have 777 beds by 1988. Nov. 2, 1981: 12,000 people gather at the Mabee Center for an official dedication of the 30-story hospital, which Oral Roberts says is debt-free. A 60-story clinic adjacent to the hospital opened five months earlier. Feb. 25, 1982: Oral Roberts announces at a rare news conference that contributions to his ministry have dwindled since the hospital's opening. The ministry needs $8 million a month, and Oral Roberts University needs $2 million a month to stay afloat. March 5, 1982: ORU and the hospital will close "unless we receive a miracle,” Roberts says in a four-page fund-raising letter. The letter says the devil declared "all-out war” against the ministry since City of Faith opened. April 6, 1982: Roberts serves as chaplain of the day for the state Senate and announces his fundraising letter prompted $14 million in donations in one month. July 7, 1982: About 12 percent of the hospital's 800 employees will be laid off or reassigned due to low occupancy. The hospital is approved for 294 beds — far less than the 777 sought — but daily occupancy averaged less than 50 patients. November 1982: At its one-year anniversary, the City of Faith is operating at what its chief executive officer calls "a considerable loss.” Sixty percent of admissions are from outside Oklahoma. January 1983: Roberts mails a 12-page appeal to about 1 million of his "prayer partners,” asking each to send $240 to help his 20-story research center find a cure for cancer.He quotes God as saying, "Tell them this is not Oral Roberts asking, but their Lord.” August 1983: City of Faith's request to handle emergency cases is denied by a Tulsa board. May 1984: Layoffs claim 334 employees of the ministry, including a quarter of the hospital's 907 employees. In addition, ORU employees will be furloughed one day a week for two months. July 1984: Still plagued by low occupancy, the hospital announces it will begin taking indigent patients. Roberts says the idea came in a visit by Jesus and an angel to Roberts' hospital room after surgery for nasal polyps. November 1984: A City of Faith spokesman says the hospital needs more beds. January 1985: Roberts announces plans for a $14.4 million, 300,000-square-foot healing center next to the City of Faith complex. August 1986: Several doctors refuse to sign a new contract calling for pay cuts of up to 10 percent. 1986: Hospital administrator Stephanie Cantees spearheads a plan to offer free airfare anywhere within the continental U.S. to patients requiring an in-patient stay. By year's end, 347 patients have taken advantage, and the program is hailed for helping the hospital break even financially for the first time. 1987: Richard Roberts becomes chief executive officer at City of Faith after the hospital's top management quits. January 1987: Oral Roberts tells his television audience that he will not "be on this Earth much longer” unless he raises $4.5 million to save City of Faith. Donations exceed the requested amount. A Florida dog-racing track owner gives $1.3 million. May 1989: Another "life-or-death” fundraising campaign nets the $11 million Oral Roberts said was needed to keep the medical complex open. Sept. 13, 1989: The City of Faith will close, and the homes of Oral and Richard Roberts will be sold, to help make up a $25 million deficit, Oral Roberts announces. Oct. 16, 1989: Hospital's last patient leaves.