On this Monday night, we are behind a squat office building in a northern Dallas suburb. It is midnight, so though there are still a few cars in the parking lot, no one sees us on our mission - three not-so-athletic snoops with discreet pocket torches and surgical gloves to protect us from the worst of the gloop, as we pull out the booty and quickly load it into a battered Ford van.
It only takes a minute before we are speeding away to the next stop - a huge carwash just a few blocks away. It is the perfect spot for a preliminary sift through the night's takings - about 10 bags in all. There are handy concrete picnic tables to work on and at this hour the place is deserted. One by one, the bags are opened, but reveal nothing of use. Someone groans. Finally, the last of the plastic treasures - a super-sized white liner that has burst open down one side - spews out its contents. Bingo - sheaves of correspondence from some of America's best-known and most fabulously greedy Christian evangelist churches. "This one's a keeper," our leader declares. "Let's get it back to headquarters."
THESE MEN are private detectives - or at least one of them is (he carries a Texan private-eye's licence). But "headquarters" is not some Marlowe- esque office, all backlit Venetian blinds and snappy dames. It is a row of rickety wood-framed houses in a less-than-genteel neighbourhood of east Dallas. Nor do these investigators have clients; they aren't even paid, in any formal sense. For all the men I have been on dumpster duty with tonight are members of a group called the Trinity Foundation, and they are men with a mission. These people go detecting for Jesus, and their quarry are televangelists.
The Foundation is ... what? Not quite a church and not quite a commune. ("Ugh. I hate that word," says Ole Anthony, 59, its father- figure and founder.) Perhaps the best description of it is a Christian "community", one with an eclectic range of missions: individual humility, a shared vow of poverty, and ruthless - I mean ruthless - muckraking. The members of Trinity devote a large part of their time to bringing about the downfall of a species special to late 20th- century America: electronic evangelists, the Bakkers, Swaggarts and Robert Tiltons of this world, who know the potency of cavorting for the Lord on television. Cavorting and fund-raising. Trinity lampoons such people regularly in the pages of its bi-monthly publication The Door ("probably the world's only satirical religious magazine"); more concretely, it has also helped to put at least two of the most prominent of their number out of business, behind bars or both.
In 1991, Trinity joined ABC's Primetime Live to probe Robert Tilton, leader of the tellingly named "Success `n' Life" television ministry. In rubbish discarded by his bank in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ole and his band discovered bags of letters sent in by multitudes of desperate souls who had responded to the varied come-ons devised by Tilton. Their cheques had been removed from the envelopes by the bank, but the letters, many with heart-wrenching stories of hard- ship and tragedy, had been thrown into the rubbish unread.
The impact on Tilton was instant. Once both his lavish lifestyle (he had mansions in Texas, California and Florida) and his cash-raising methods had been exposed by ABC and Trinity, he was hit by serial "fraud-and-distress" lawsuits and was quickly forced off the air. He tried to hit back, counter- suing both Trinity and ABC, but his action was eventually dismissed - largely, it has to be said, because of the legal heft of the network. Alone, Trinity, which depends on tithes from its members for revenue, would have been buried by the action.
Another Trinity/ABC victim was tele-preacher V W Grant. Aside from suffering the humiliation of having a full-length nude photograph of himself slapped across a double-page spread in The Door (the snap was also retrieved from a dumpster), he was soon afterwards sent to prison on a tax-evasion conviction. Grant was only recently released and is setting up shop again blocks from Trinity in Dallas.
This sounds like an unholy mix indeed. A group that is committed to the exorcism of personal ambition, which pays none of its leaders more than the equivalent of pounds 50 a week, which promises to give shelter to any homeless person who knocks on its door, and which at the same time derives unabashed pleasure from the public humiliation of figures who command the devotion and the wallets of millions of TV-addicted Americans. It has been labelled a cult by its critics. Its founder has been attacked as a publicity-seeker, an agent of Satan, a fornicator and, of course, an enemy of all Christians. But spend some time with Ole Anthony and his flock and you may decide differently.
IT IS Sunday afternoon when I arrive - usually a good time. All 45-odd core members of Trinity (about half of whom live in this single block on Columbia Avenue) assemble at 4pm, many with children, to recharge bodies and souls. Split into three groups, they begin with a meal. At my table, Ole Anthony sits at the head. I am to his immediate right, as the only guest. Otherwise, chairs are taken according to age, the youngest next to me, continuing around to the oldest at Anthony's left (it is the hierarchy that determined the seating of the disciples at the Last Supper, he explains). The meal (to me plain old Sunday lunch), is given the name the Feast of the Agape, because at Trinity they seek to emulate the life of first-century Christians.
Ole - everyone calls him Ole, to rhyme with "holy" - is not eating, however. For sustenance he has a glass filled with some indeterminate brown liquid and a fistful of vitamin and mineral supplements that he swallows in one gulp. He registers my astonishment. "I have no immune system, it is completely shot," he sighs. In a single day, this big-framed, charismatic man, the grandson of Norwegians who immigrated to Minnesota, will normally take 175 of these pills.
A little later, when the meal is finished and the dishes washed, all three groups convene in another of the houses for song, prayer and a little housekeeping. Volunteers are recruited to serve and clear up meals during the week ahead. An agreement is reached to delay for one day the post- summer resumption of Trinity's "home school" for members' children. Communion is taken - the contents of three half-finished litre bottles of red wine, and broken supermarket crackers.
The atmosphere is relaxed and casual. But then, without warning, Ole slides from his chair on to his knees. "Help me out here, guys, I am falling apart." In an instant, everyone is on the floor touching each other and praying with Ole. Praying for Ole. Because Ole is very obviously in direst pain. At his shoulders is Gary Buckman, one of his founding partners who by day is a construction contractor. As Gary prays for Ole, he touches his back and neck with olive oil from a small bottle. The rest watch - and they cry.
TO UNDERSTAND Trinity's work, you need to understand Ole Anthony. Or at least you need to try. Unfortunately, he tells tales of a career so chequered it positively invites scepticism. A choice selection of some of the things he claims to have done might include: acting as a nuclear spy; running unsuccessfully for public office in Texas as a conservative Republican; winning - and quickly losing - a fortune investing in off- shore oil fields; and building a highly successful public relations agency in downtown Dallas - where one of his last jobs was to help establish and raise funds for an evangelical TV channel.
Then there is his health. Two events, he claims, sent his body into a spin from which it has never recovered. The first occurred during his "espionage" period. Ole, as he describes it, travelled the globe in the Fifties and Sixties on clandestine missions for the US military, monitoring the nuclear-weapons activities of foreign nations. Once he witnessed an explosion of a US bomb on a Pacific atoll. Meant to be a fairly modest device, it turned out far larger, and he was unprepared for its intensity. "The force of it blew me off the beach and into the ocean," he tells me. His blood, he insists, is still mildly radioactive. He also believes that the blast explains the benign fatty lumps that cover his body, and may be partly responsible for his screwy immune system.
Then came his gym accident. Ole was in the steam room of a Dallas health club when his ankle made contact with a bare wire dangling under the bench he was sitting on. He remained connected, with 120 volts flowing through his body, for a full 10 minutes until a friend finally got him loose. That he survived seems unbelievable. Equally astonishing is his assertion that the electricity burnt away the protective sheath from nerves running from his heel to his left temple. If true, it is no wonder he suffers from powerful bouts of pain like the one I witnessed. (After that attack, he related how two days before he suffered an especially vicious seizure in his doctor's office - and lost seven pounds in weight in 10 minutes. No one questioned the assertion.)
It was because of his nuclear espionage days that Ole thought of the name "Trinity". It is a reference to the place in the New Mexico desert where Oppenheimer and the other Manhattan Project scientists exploded America's first hydrogen bomb at the close of the Second World War. Neither that explosion nor the one Ole witnessed, he explains, matched the one that went off inside him one day in 1972 - the blast of revelation that delivered Ole to the Lord and led a little later to Trinity's birth. It was during the period when he was helping found the new TV channel. Quite suddenly, he was disgusted by himself and especially by the money-raising. He gave up everything and moved to live under a bridge in the company of the homeless. "I had one of those experiences. Boom. I left time. I could have been gone 1,000 years, although my friends tell me that I sat crying for an hour and a half. When you come to the end of yourself, you find God."
MOST of Trinity's members arrived here in some kind of despair. A few were homeless, others had drug and alcohol addictions, two or three were suffering from Aids. But some came with another affliction: they had surrendered their last dollars to television ministers who had promised them deliverance - health and wealth - if they would first pledge their money to them. Ten bucks, a hundred, a thousand, several thousand. The more a person gave, went the promises, the more God would give back to them. It is, says Ole, the theology of "name-it-claim-it, blab-it-grab- it", and it makes him sick.
The worst of it, Ole explains, is that it's usually the most desperate in society, those with the least to spare, who get suckered in by these showmen for God. Their TV shows have the aim of gathering names and addresses of those who call in asking for prayer. After the shows, those callers then become the targets of a sophisticated direct-mail campaign, which lures the gullible into surrendering their wealth to whichever church it is that has found them. Ole calculates that there are now 2,500 televangelists in America, carried by about 900 Christian channels. Together, they have an annual revenue in the US of about $3.5bn. "They are bastards, because they're hurting a lot of people. They are using God as their errand boy," rages Ole. "It is the oldest heresy in Christianity and someone has to got to try to stop them."
Nobody has done more than Trinity. With satellite dishes on the roof of one of the Columbia Avenue houses, it monitors the televangelists around the clock. Ole himself is a self-confessed technophobe, so Harry Guetzlaff runs all the electronic wizardry for him. Guetzlaff came to Trinity when his marriage and his marketing business were in ruins. In a final bid for salvation, he had given his last $5,000 to Robert Tilton. Now Guetzlaff, a man with a twinkle in his eye who suffers relentless teasing from his comrades about his sartorial shortcomings and romantic frustrations, hides in a back room, surrounded by TV monitors, recording devices and a wall- to-wall library of video and audio tapes. A corridor is lined with hundreds of audio-cassettes with recordings of every Bible class Ole has ever given to his flock. If Ole dies, reasons Guetzlaff, at least his wisdom will be saved for posterity.
Trinity is lobbying Congress, meanwhile, to pass legislation that would be modelled on British law, making it illegal to hawk anything over the airways that cannot be proven to deliver what it promises. The Door, which has a circulation of about 12,000, is also used to expose those Ole considers the worst offenders among the televangelists. And members of Trinity are regularly dispatched to infiltrate churches to record what happens inside them, sometimes with hidden cameras and tape recorders. Finally, Trinity also mans a 24-hour, freephone "Victims Line", where anyone who feels they have been abused by an electronic ministry can call in for help and sympathy. Above all, however, it has helped news organisations in America and around the world to try to uncover evidence of televangelising fraud. And nothing has worked quite so effectively as the midnight dumpster runs.
These days, Trinity's main quarry is Benny Hinn, a Lebanese-born tele- minister whose specialities are on-air "miracle healing"and "blowing" - a small puff from the lips of Hinn sends his followers crashing to the ground. The act, which Ole says works through mass-hypnosis and has nothing whatsoever to do with the power of the Lord, makes for riveting, if distressingly comical, viewing. Again with Trinity's help, earlier this year 60 Minutes Australia broadcast a scathing segment on Hinn. It told the story of an American woman who took the stage at one of Hinn's so-called crusade meetings to claim that through him she defeated cancer. She died shortly after the crusade was shown on TV. Hinn promised the 60 Minutes interviewer he would never again make claims about instant cures of crippling diseases and would counsel followers always to seek second opinions from their family doctors. Those pledges, Ole claims, Hinn has already violated.
It is Trinity's continuing search for compromising information on Hinn that has taken us to the Dallas dumpster on this Monday night. Among the companies in the office building it serves is the accounting firm used by Hinn's ministry. A similar run a few months ago turned up Concorde tickets for Hinn and some of his bodyguards, as well as $2,200-a-night receipts for hotel suites. This time we find nothing so revealing. But there will be other runs on other nights. Call them what you like - Holy gumshoes, God's detectives - the tribe at Trinity is not about to quit. !