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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • Seomah

    “we never thought he would lie to another minister”

    Am I reading that right? They thought he would lie to the laymen? Are they so used to lie that they didn’t notice that slip?

  • Karen

    This is the dark side of trust and faith that is inculcated in true believers of all stripes. Over my many years in evangelicalism, I saw many, many people get scammed when they would have known better if it hadn’t been the church or a pastor involved.

    This predisposition to get screwed over bleeds into personal life, as well. Magical thinking makes people very vulnerable to promises of change by wayward spouses (happened to my sister), selfish friends, greedy kids, etc.

    All it takes is “I prayed and Jesus changed my heart.” Believers are reluctant to doubt that “testimony” and wind up being taken advantage of over and over again.

  • Zietlos

    Now Ebon, I see you’re in turm’al ovah the corruption of the people here! But fear not! I have been sent bai gawd to reform these co-rupt people! Just send me all your money and personal information, a burger would be nice too, and I will cleanse the land, oh lordy lordy, of these bad people who pray… err… prey on the suffering of others!

    …I really don’t know HOW they can make that convincing at all… I guess they’ve got practice conning the masses during the masses. Well, Mr Goodkind puts it best in Wizards’ First Rule: “People are stupid.”

    Still, tragic, really, what happened to these prospective employees. Obviously they wanted pay, but they probably also wanted to help out the less fortunate, and got burned for it…

  • Eurekus

    This is just another example of what I’ve always said about faith since I turned atheist.
    FAITH=INSANITY. It’s completely irrational, no respect should be paid to it.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    The only question I still have is what he hoped to gain from this scheme.

    I think you answer this yourself.

    Bolaños collected their personal information, such as Social Security numbers and copies of driver’s licenses…

    Identity theft, it seems to me. On a pretty decent, but not overwhelming, scale. That plus whatever money he got makes for a decent profit (from an indecent prophet), I’m sure.

  •   anon

    He was helped, of course.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    As a minister, it’s his job to play pretend, lying to himself and others. Why should anyone be surprised when this profession attracts scam artists?

  • Dan

    My ex-brother-in-law is a con-man Episcopal priest, everything from being a kleptomaniac (dozens of misdemeanor arrests for shoplifting small items), multiple firings from churches for sexually harassing staff, has sold used cars and Amway between church postings. He’s also $40,000 in arrears on child support. And he’s still a clergyman. I’m sure he’s in awe of what Balaños has done.

  • Berkys

    There’s a later entry in that series of stories about some of the people who were fooled here.

    It begins “Luis Malagon felt blessed when he, his wife and their daughter were offered $11,000 a month to work at a new religious social service agency being planned in Brooklyn. He quit his job as a building inspector in South Carolina in February, put his house up for sale and borrowed money to move to Sunset Park.”

    Let’s examine that figure: $11,000 a month. Let’s assume all three Malagon family members (it doesn’t specifically say which of them were offered jobs; whether it was one, two or all three). Divided three ways, that means $3666 per person per month or about $22 an hour for 4, 40-hour work weeks per month.

    That is a RIDICULOUS salary, especially in social services. I’ve worked for small nonprofits before and happen to think I was pretty well paid: I think I was making $13.50 an hour at one point. I helped handle the books so I know for a fact what everyone else was making too: The director, with a law degree and 15 years of experience, was making $18.00 per hour.

    I KNOW in my heart that it’s extremely uncharitable to kick these people–even just rhetorically–when they’re down. They are the victims here, not the perpetrators. But still, some very low level of blame does attach: The Malagons really thought they were going to get $11,000 a month as social workers? Really? They didn’t even bat an eye or ask for specification on that point?

    And they quit their jobs, borrowed money, took out a new lease in NYC all on the basis of a PROMISE? Their credulity strains credulity. These people could have been saved a LOT of pain with just the tiniest bit of caution and discernment.

  • Zietlos

    Berkys: Good addition, but I somewhat disagree with your conclusion. Yes, they could have saved a lot of pain if they were cautious, but the reason ponzi schemes still work is because of gullibility, and there are a high number of dying Nigerian princes for a reason. There are enough stupid people in the world that statistically, if they said an alien overlord who must not be named was coming to destroy Earth, people would flock to toss money at them.

    If it weren’t them, it would be someone else. There’s always someone being shafted by another, it is the way of nature. Money is a funny thing, you see: You mentioned he was a building inspector, I know working as a low level gov’t grunt will get you about 21$ per hour (in Canada, but the dollar’s at par right now), so by my perspective, that kind of salary seems fairly rational since you take into account that clergy don’t pay taxes, so they have a lot of extra money to throw around. Now, I wouldn’t move to do it, but I’m just saying that from a different perspective, remember, that $21 was for a low level gov’t grunt, not someone with 15 years and a law degree, I don’t know much about pay rates in varying industries, so I may assume that it would be comparable at $22, (and to my real field, accounting, it is comparable, even a good deal less in some cases, just not very comparable to social work).

    Lack of information, lack of perspective, and lack of foresight are vastly different things, I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt. But yes, in all likelihood, given a bit of looking into, this would be one of those “too good to be true” settings, especially with just duct tape and a prayer holding the contract together.

  • Larry Highley

    The passion with which your cynicism drips is intoxicating. Nonetheless, why do you even care about this? As atheists I would think that survival of the fittest at any cost would be acceptable. You have no accountability to anything. Truth and right is subjective in your eyes, so why is scamming a few suckers so bad? I know my cynicism is dripping now too. The bottom line is human beings do dispicable things to each other. If this preacher was acting under the compulsion of biblical teaching, then please let me know where it is written that he should have done what he did. Human beings are broken. We got broken when we disobeyed our Creator. Yeah I guess I one of those crazy theists!! Watch out, I may eat one of your children or something equally vile, right? I seriously would like one of you to explain why you follow any laws made by man, when you have such a difficult time yielding to the idea that God is out there, and what happens when His patience wears out. If you are really lucky you might get to see 100 years of history. What makes you think that you are smart enough to understand what God has been doing for thousands of years. The argument could be equally directed at me, but I’m not trying to figure out things that none of us will ever have all the answers to. The reality is when you talk about historical science, the evidence is the same for anyone looking at it. The presumptions and the interpretation of that evidence is where any of us could arrive at much different conclusions. Food for thought?

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Shorter Larry: Ignorance Is Strength

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The passion with which your cynicism drips is intoxicating. Nonetheless, why do you even care about this?

    Compassion and empathy for the victims, for me.

    As atheists I would think that survival of the fittest at any cost would be acceptable. You have no accountability to anything. Truth and right is subjective in your eyes, so why is scamming a few suckers so bad?

    Because tolerating violations of the social contract redounds to everyone’s deficit.

    I know my cynicism is dripping now too. The bottom line is human beings do dispicable things to each other. If this preacher was acting under the compulsion of biblical teaching, then please let me know where it is written that he should have done what he did.

    You are swatting at a strawman here. The OP never asserts that this is scripturally-driven. The point of the OP is that this wouldn’t have happened had the victims practiced skepticism.

    Human beings are broken. We got broken when we disobeyed our Creator. Yeah I guess I one of those crazy theists!! Watch out, I may eat one of your children or something equally vile, right?

    Oh, hush, baby-eating is our gig. Also, how does a Perfect Carpenter build a crooked cabinet?

    I seriously would like one of you to explain why you follow any laws made by man, when you have such a difficult time yielding to the idea that God is out there, and what happens when His patience wears out.

    I follow laws because generally, they work out for the benefit of everyone. Are you seriously arguing that the only reason you’re not out committing crimes is because of your faith?

    If you are really lucky you might get to see 100 years of history. What makes you think that you are smart enough to understand what God has been doing for thousands of years. The argument could be equally directed at me, but I’m not trying to figure out things that none of us will ever have all the answers to.

    I have highlighted the root of the problem.

    The reality is when you talk about historical science, the evidence is the same for anyone looking at it. The presumptions and the interpretation of that evidence is where any of us could arrive at much different conclusions. Food for thought?

    Perhaps, but like all junk food, it has no nutritional value, and often leaves cavities, only these cavities are in the brain.

  • Peter N

    Wow — the godbot is utterly baffled. Let’s see if I can explain this to Larry in monosyllables:

    We are social animals, like our ancestors, ancient apes. All social animals have rules of behavior. Not every individual follows the rules, but generally those that do are rewarded by succeeding in their societies, and those that break them are punished in some way. Therefore the rule-followers generally have more offspring than the rule-breakers, which, from generation to generation, reinforces the population’s inborn inclination to follow the rules, as well as the learned behavior — the “culture” if you will. In the case of humans, some of those rules, like handling investors’ money responsibly and not absconding with it, are learned in our culture, but the underpinnings of fairness have been bred into us through millions of years of evolution. Because we have both an inborn and a learned sense of fairness, it bothers us when poor schmucks are victimized by a thief cloaked in his Christian faith.

    So we need a god to teach us morals as much as we need aliens to teach us to look at the stars.

    Nope, I couldn’t explain it in monosyllables. I guess that will just sail over Larry’s head.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Somewhat late-breaking follow-up: Bolanos has returned to New York (which came as a surprise to me) and, after some tense negotiations, agreed to return the personal documents he had collected to the people he took them from. People who borrowed money or quit other jobs to pursue the mirage of this scam will, of course, not be compensated.

  • Larry

    Ah! Yes! I to have become a believer. I am starting a love prayer program, send me your love offering of $5, $10, $25, or what ever you can afford, I will pray for you , of course the bigger the offering the harder I will pray.

  • Larry

    Ponzi Scheme. Invest now for a promise of future returns.

    Religion. Ponzi scheme.

  • shawn

    Beware of wolfs in shepherds clothing!