Interview: Kiera Feldman on Oral Roberts, God and Journalism

In our latest Longreads Exclusive, Kiera Feldman and Tulsa-based magazine This Land Press went deep into the downfall of the Oral Roberts family dynasty—how Richard Roberts went from heir to the televangelist’s empire, to stripped from his role at Oral Roberts University.

Feldman, a Brooklyn-based journalist, and This Land Press have worked together before—her story “Grace in Broken Arrow” was named our top pick for Best of Longreads 2012, and it explored another scandal inside a religious institution, sex abuse at a Tulsa Christian school. I exchanged emails with Feldman to discuss the making of the Oral Roberts story, and her start in journalism.

* * *

How did this story first come together?

The story of the Roberts family came to me much in the same way that “Grace in Broken Arrow” did: not only did my This Land editor attend Grace, but he also went to Oral Roberts University. Locally in Tulsa, I think there was a feeling that the Tulsa World had covered everything there was to know about financial misdeeds at ORU—that Richard and his family had been ousted, and that was that. But my editor saw the bigger story. He remembered going to chapel when Richard Roberts was ORU president, long before what became known as “the ORU scandal” broke in 2007. Richard would sing to the assembled student body, and up there on stage, he looked truly happy. What a strange choice to inherit the kingdom Oral Roberts had built. I became utterly fascinated with this failed succession drama and immediately saw it as a story about Christian patriarchy and its discontents.

Did you reach out to Richard Roberts during the process?

Alas, Richard didn’t respond to a bunch of interview requests. Part of me was a little surprised: by all indication, he loves being in the spotlight and sees all press as good press.

Do you feel like he was similar to his father when it came to televangelism? Going through old YouTube clips of both Oral and Richard, he definitely inherited his father’s charisma and showmanship.

My sense is that there’s one big difference between Richard and his father as televangelists. During the tent ministry days of the 1940s and 1950s, Oral famously would not leave a revival until he had personally laid hands on each and every one of the faithful. By the end, Oral would be soaked with sweat, so physically exhausted that aides had to lift his hands up to each forehead. “Richard didn’t have that kind of compassion,” former aide Wayne Robinson told me. “He didn’t want to touch anybody.”

According to Richard, the Holy Spirit told him that he could heal with words alone. Basically, Richard wanted to be a faith healer who didn’t have to lay hands on anyone. He just liked being on TV. And yet, a televangelist still has to engage the world. Ryan Rhoades, a former Oral Roberts Ministries producer, remembers attending crusades where Richard would invite people up to the stage to share their testimonies. But it seemed Richard had little patience for the masses. “There would still be a line full of people, and Richard would cut it off and leave the building immediately and get back on the jet,” Rhoades told me. “Not anything like his dad.”

In the story you talk about a heyday for Oral Roberts in the 1970s, how do you think our relationship with televangelism has changed over the years?

Some things haven’t changed much since the “golden age” in the 1970s: televangelists still bring in the big bucks, live in lavish estates, and fly about in their private jets. Benny Hinn, for example, reportedly raises some $100 million per year. Nowadays, though, it’s possible to not know the name Benny Hinn (or Creflo Dollar or Kenneth Copeland or all the rest). But in the 1970s, love him or hate him, even secular people knew of Oral Roberts as a celebrity. You just can’t be as famous now as you could be in a time when there were like three television stations. Especially as a Christian celebrity. Televangelism itself hasn’t change that much but it’s not happening on primetime: it’s on the Christian broadcasting networks.

With “Grace in Broken Arrow,” and your New Republic story about sexual assault at Patrick Henry College, you have done some incredible reporting about the intersection of religion and education. What draws you to these types of stories?

I’m drawn to stories about places that are worlds unto their own. I’m fascinated by institutions and the things that happen behind closed doors, especially within a cultural context that requires some translation for outsiders. I’m a bit of a moralist at heart: I suppose I like feeling like I’m going into the belly of the beast to serve some greater good. Sometimes it’s to champion the plight of the vulnerable, or to shed light on the wrongdoings of the powerful. Other times it’s to map out the inner-workings of ideology (e.g. my Nation story about Birthright Israel).

Are you religious? Were you religious growing up?

This is a tricky one. Like many of my Killing the Buddha buddies who write about religion—Jeff Sharlet, Nathan Schneider, Brook Wilensky-Lanford, the list goes on—I’m half-Jewish by birth. I think this is one of the reasons why I’m drawn to writing about true believers. Growing up, my mom made me go to Presbyterian church. At the same time, I was celebrating Jewish holidays and making off-color jokes in Yiddish with my dad and grandma. In my early teens, I was drawn to the cultural aspects and began identifying strongly as Jewish. Especially in the years after college, I’ve aligned myself with the progressive Jewish world in New York. I started contributing to a lefty Jewish culture and politics radio show called Beyond the Pale. These are my people. But I’ve also come to really appreciate having a Christian mom: she’s my go-to trusted reader of drafts of stories about Believers.

How do you even start reporting a story like this? There’s some incredible detail from within the walls of ORU.

First, I read all of the things. I order all of the out-of-print tell-all memoirs (see below). I paste all of the articles that have already been written into a word document (word count for “Oral Roberts media dump.doc”: 50,764). And then you just start knocking on doors, beginning with the insiders who’ve already talked to reporters or written books and such. Those people give you more names, and you follow the thread. A few sources panned out via This Land connections (eg my editor went to Randy Roberts Potts’ wedding, which was officiated by former ORU regent Carlton Pearson). Also, because Tulsa is a small town in many ways, I made a point of reaching out to my sources from “Grace in Broken Arrow” just to let them know I was writing about ORU and was looking for folks to talk to. That’s how I found the anonymous source in the opening scene, who was at the Roberts house on Thanksgiving.

KF reading Oral Roberts

How did Roberta Roberts (Oral’s daughter) react to the story?

No word from Roberta yet! I tried to depict her in a sympathetic light and am honestly curious if she could see that. Her son Randy Roberts Potts—who wrote the terrific personal essay “Something Good is Going to Happen to You” in This Land a few years back, about being gay in the Roberts family—tweeted that I “captured” Roberta “amazingly well.” That was a big relief. You try your best to get a person right, but you never know.

How did you first meet the This Land crew?

Sometime in early summer of 2011, This Land reached out to Jeff Sharlet, wanting him to come down to Tulsa and write whatever he wanted. The previous year, I’d been Jeff’s researcher on his book C Street. As I remember it, Jeff told This Land, “I’m busy. Take Kiera. She needs work.” So I hopped on the phone with This Land to talk about my interests and potential Oklahoma stories, and by the time I hung up I was assigned what would become “Grace in Broken Arrow.” They said they’d put me up and pay my expenses and it sounded all very dreamy. It was.

Going farther back: Did you study journalism? How did your career first get started?

I’ve actually never taken a class with “journalism” in the title. I went to Brown, and there were maybe two journalism classes, and I didn’t take them because I thought they were for the people I saw as “real” journalists–the ones on the student paper. I took all the “creative nonfiction” classes though. My world was the student radio world. Ira Glass was an alum, so Brown had a strong radio culture. We did these great and totally weird sketches and This American Life knock-offs and nothing that even resembled news. I totally thought I’d be a public radio lifer. But after college I was most drawn to the troublemakers–the morally engaged journalists. Besides, there’s only one This American Life, one place to do longform storytelling on the radio, and the formula is so strict; that’s not a career. I was working a little at WNYC, but my heart was with Beyond the Pale, the lefty radio collective. As it happened, folks on the show worked in print—one is a Columbia j-school prof, another is the inimitable Esther Kaplan, the Investigative Fund editor. They very generously mentored me, and the radio pieces I did for fun became my first magazine stories (Jews for Jesus, Birthright Israel…). Then, later, being Jeff Sharlet’s researcher was basically journalism boot camp. So I guess the short answer is that I’ve taken the apprenticeship approach.

What’s your process for actually sitting down and writing the story? When do you feel like you have enough reporting?

I can’t write until I’ve knocked on everybody’s door and tried to talk with everyone who’s even remotely likely to talk. And once I’ve got everything I can possibly get, then I hole up in my room and watch TV on the Internet until my head hurts and it’s not even fun anymore. As soon as one episode ends, I begin the next. I call it chain-watching. Once I’ve worked my way through all of the seasons of a show and there are no more episodes to watch and I simply couldn’t stand another minute of TV, then there is nothing left to do but write.