Following a political battle of monumental proportions, Oklahoma evangelist Oral Roberts emerged late last month with state approval to start construction of the hospital portion of a huge medical complex on his university campus in Tulsa. The evangelist had first sought permission for a 777-bed hospital. During controversy over whether Tulsa needs or can afford another hospital, Roberts earlier this year offered a scaled-down request for 294 beds as a compromise. Authorities okayed the 294 beds with the understanding that Roberts can proceed with the other beds if the need is demonstrated and if the other hospitals in town are not hurt by the newcomer.
Roberts says God told him to build the medical center and gave him the details for it in a vision during a sojourn on a desolate California desert. He explained that he had gone to the desert to pray following the death of his daughter and her husband in a plane crash in February, 1977.
The evangelist returned from the desert and announced the launching of the City of Faith medical complex. He described it to his television audience: Arising from a common base would be a sixty-story clinic and diagnostic center, flanked on the west by a thirty-story hospital and on the east by a twenty-story research center. At the front would be sixty-foot-high sculptured hands (signifying the hand of medicine and the hand of prayer), with a wide tree-lined stream flowing from a large fountain. Further, said Roberts, God told him that it was to be opened debt free and that he should ask his “partners” (donors) to send contributions of $7, $77, $777, and $7,777.
The price tag of the complete complex: an estimated $250 million or more. So far, according to sources at the 3,800-student Oral Roberts University (ORU), the evangelist has raised more than $27 million of the $55 million initial-stage costs. The complex is to be an integral part of the ORU medical school, which is scheduled to open this fall with fifty students. A dental school is also to open this fall. (The twelve-year-old ORU is located on 500 acres on Tulsa’s posh south side, with assets estimated at $150 million.)
Ground-breaking for the center came on January 24, Roberts’s sixtieth birthday. Then came protests and pressures from some in Tulsa’s medical and political communities. The Tulsa Hospital Council went on record opposing the complex and endorsing “appropriate means to discourage project implementation.”
Members of the hospital council said that the city’s five big private hospitals and suburban facilities were already in trouble, with nearly 1,000 of 2,944 licensed beds not in use because of lack of demand. At the same time, said the medical people, the hospitals were struggling to pay off $150 million in construction bonds. The proposed ORU hospital, they pointed out, would be located only two miles from the largest general hospital in the state. The new hospital, they predicted, would drain patients and staff from the others, driving costs of health care still higher. Some hospitals might go under, they warned.
Roberts, known best for his emphasis on faith healing, argued that the City of Faith would not be simply another local operation. It would, like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, attract patients and staff from around the world, he insisted. The center, he said, would emphasize research on heart, cancer, and aging problems.
ORU’s vice provost for medical affairs, James E. Winslow, Jr., went even further and suggested that the City of Faith would draw so many ailing people to Tulsa that all the other hospitals would benefit from the overflow. Of the 400,000 prayer-request letters that Roberts gets each month, 100,000 refer to “clear-cut medical problems—22,000 with cancer, 26,000 with heart disease,” he said. Already, 250,000 visitors come to Tulsa every year to visit the ORU prayer tower, he said, and 30,000 of Roberts’s “partners” come annually to attend spiritual seminars. If that many healthy people come to ORU, he theorized, from 500,000 to 1.2 million sick people a year might seek help at the City of Faith. (Winslow was formerly the ORU basketball team physician.)
Federal laws required Roberts to submit the hospital part of the proposed center to a review process. The review proceedings were set up under 1974 congressional legislation designed to eliminate costly duplication in health-care facilities around the country. State or regional planners are required to certify that a new facility is needed. The three-member Oklahoma Health Planning Commission is the certifying body in that state. It is served by an advisory body, the Oklahoma Health Systems Agency (OHSA), which has both staff and volunteer members, including consumer representatives.
Dented Income In Dentsville
They believe in taking a stand on principle at Rehoboth United Methodist Church in Dentsville, a small community near Columbia, South Carolina. Eight years ago the church agreed to let Dentsville Piggly Wiggly supermarket use a church-owned parking lot on a ten-year lease basis at $400 a month. Recently, the store began selling beer and wine, and the church board unanimously voted to cancel the lease. A fence encloses the parking lot today, and a large sign informs passersby and wouldbe parkers that Piggly Wiggly broke the lease by deciding to sell strong drink.
The action was taken because the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline that was operative when the lease was written “prohibited United Methodists from making any profit, directly or indirectly, from the sale of alcohol,” explained pastor Ron Pettit. Earlier, his members had opposed the store’s license application at a hearing.
Piggly Wiggly owner James P. Mc-Keown III, whose store is open seven days a week, says that he must sell alcoholic beverages now in order to meet the competition from other stores in the area. “No one sold beer and wine when we first came out here,” he said, so the no-alcohol stipulation was not a big problem at that time.
Piggly Wiggly’s customers will have no major hassle in finding a place to park, but the church will miss the income from the parking lot. The amount represents one-eighth of the church’s budget.
Twice the OHSA voted (by 19 to 6 and 12 to 7) to recommend that the planning commission reject the hospital proposal.
Roberts pulled out the stops. He asked his three million partner-families to pray and to write letters to Oklahoma government officials and the health planning commission. An amendment was introduced in the state legislature; it apparently was designed to exempt ORU from planners’ control. In March, Roberts traveled to HEW headquarters in Washington, where he complained of unfair hearing procedures to Henry Foley, head of HEW’s Health Resources Administration. Foley said he would send a top aide to investigate. The Washington Star later quoted sources as saying that the probe never occurred.)
The campaign paid off. Some 400,000 letters poured into commission headquarters during a six-week period, virtually all pro-Roberts. Governor David Boren said his mail hit 1,500 pro-Roberts letters a day. Thirty-eight of Oklahoma’s forty-eight state senators and forty of the 101 house members—some with budget authority over the health and welfare agencies headed by the three commissioners—publicly backed the hospital.
Following a two-hour hearing in a packed auditorium in the capitol at Oklahoma City, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the City of Faith hospital. Both Roberts and his opponents in the Tulsa hospital community gave strong emotion-laden appeals for their respective causes during the hearing.
A spokesman for the commissioners said that their staff study had turned up fewer empty beds than reported by the OHSA and that there were doubts about the ability of Tulsa’s existing hospitals to handle ORU’s medical students. It would be wrong to assume that the commissioners had caved in under pressure from legislators, he told reporters. The action, he affirmed, “is an expression of the sentiment of the people of Oklahoma.”
(HEW secretary Joseph A. Califano, Jr., acknowledged in a press conference that he had once represented Roberts as an attorney. But, said he, that would not require him to disqualify himself should an appeal be lodged with HEW against the hospital’s inclusion of construction costs in Medicare-Medicaid reimbursement—as recommended in the commission’s action.)
Roberts and his followers meanwhile are exulting in God’s power “to move mountains.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more