Beware of Pastors Bearing Gifts

Late last year, an evangelical Christian pastor in Brooklyn announced that he had secured a major grant totaling millions of dollars from the massive evangelical charity World Vision. The pastor, Isidro Bolaños, promised to use this money to hire people from the community to do faith-based social work:

Mr. Bolaños, pastor of the Christian Church of El Dios Vivo, has reassured employees that the enterprise, called Community Project, Brooklyn Pilot Program, is ready to send them into neighborhoods to provide services to families, young people, addicts and the elderly from offices at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

As you might have expected in these troubled economic times, hundreds of people flocked to job interviews and informational sessions. Most of these took place as part of religious services held at Pentecostal churches run by Bolaños and his associates. As is usual at a church service, the collection plate was passed among these eager hopefuls; some were even asked to bring food for everyone. But the attendees, many of whom were told they were hired on the spot, were in high spirits. Bolaños collected their personal information, such as Social Security numbers and copies of driver’s licenses, and told them that his mission would officially open soon in a renovated space in the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

But several promised deadlines for the project kickoff – January 1, then March 1, then March 31 – came and went with no word. When a reporter went to check, he found that the city agency that owns and rents the terminal had never heard of Bolaños and his project, and World Vision denied having awarded any such grant. When Bolaños was reached by phone and asked to explain these facts, he hung up on the interviewer.

Despite these disclosures, Bolaños continued to insist that the project launch was imminent. At his sermons, which now allowed only pre-screened applicants, he blamed the delays on Satan trying to stall the project. He urged his hires not to lose faith, even encouraging them to borrow money if they had to in order to hang on in the New York area while waiting for their first paycheck. He denied ever mentioning World Vision and said that the project’s backer was the “American Holding Charities Group”, whose existence no outside observer has been able to confirm. He promised that April 5 would be the new start date, which passed with no word. And finally, last week, Bolaños disappeared altogether. An associate said that he had left for Nicaragua on a “missionary trip” and would return in a few weeks.

At this point, I’ll be surprised if Bolaños ever returns. This story has all the hallmarks of the advance-fee fraud used so successfully by Nigerian con artists, and he probably realized that the law was starting to take an interest. The only question I still have is what he hoped to gain from this scheme. Did he make that much just from passing the collection plate among his flock? More likely, he had something else in mind. After all, if there was never any grant or any jobs program, what was he collecting people’s personal information for? It seems likely that this information will end up in the hands of identity thieves, who’d probably be all too happy to pay for it.

But what’s perfectly clear is that Bolaños was able to pull off this scam by exploiting the unquestioning trust that believers have in religious leaders, as well as the Christian teaching that miracles will be granted to those who persevere in faith. Both of these teachings make it much easier for con artists and hucksters to evade scrutiny:

“We never doubted, because since he was a minister, we never thought he would lie to another minister,” said that member, the Rev. Gonzalo Rodriguez, who has served as secretary to an executive council of pastors Mr. Bolaños assembled.

Rev. Dale T. Irvin, president of New York Theological Seminary, said those incidents point to a vulnerability that has long endangered these small, independent churches.
“What makes the people vulnerable are their hopes for a miracle,” he said. “They are hoping a pastor will come and rescue them.”

Stories like these are exactly why the New Atheists call on society to tear down the abnormally thick wall of respect afforded to religion. Of course there are secular versions of this scam, but religion is unique in having built-in mechanisms to discourage doubt and questioning, which con artists can all too easily use to their advantage as long as they know the right code words. If more people were willing to apply skepticism and critical thinking to religious claims, scams such as this would be much harder to get away with. And conversely, whatever measures local ministers take to help those who’ve been taken in by Bolaños, their efforts will be for naught as long as they keep teaching their congregations that they must have faith in the unseen – because that core religious teaching is what enables these scams to flourish in the first place.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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