Three Lives, Part 2: Billy Joe Daugherty
January 5, 2010

I would wake up far too early in the morning for an 18-year old. Wander out of my projects-type apartment and down to the ditch, Bible in hand, ready to bask in the purple glow of a pre-dawn session with God. My view was of the 60-feet-tall Praying Hands sculpture across the street at Oral Roberts University. I would meditate for about an hour, trying to squeeze some juicy revelation from the Holy Spirit, drop by drop, into my soul. Then I’d follow a dirt driveway to the back of Victory Christian Center, board an empty bus, and go pick up poor people to bring them to church — the ORU Mabee Center arena — to meet at least 5,000 other folks and hear Billy Joe speak.

He spoke of love and faith…and that’s about it. And he had a funny laugh, like a kid just learning to laugh. But he didn’t wave his fist in the air or try to push people down in prayer or make anyone feel guilty about not giving enough to the church. He and his wife, in their no-nonsense way, seemed to just want to be there for people…something desperately missing from most other churches that size I’ve been involved with. After the  service, Billy Joe would stand at the exit of the massive arena and shake hands with as many thousands of individuals as he could. Often by the time I made my way to him his grip was like a dead fish, but he always made sincere eye contact.

After church, I’d load back onto the bus and take the poor people back home, handing them a paper bag with a PB&J sandwich, an apple and some crackers or fruit roll-ups. Other times I’d help out by serving hot meals to people who couldn’t afford it (and eat the leftovers). And that’s what I did almost every Sunday as a discipleship student at Billy Joe’s Victory Bible Institute. It was a requirement because people were the top priority of Billy Joe’s ministry. And although some of the institute’s teachers and their classes led us to believe otherwise, Billy Joe himself always made clear that Christian ministry was for the people, not ourselves.

Billy Joe Daugherty, the Tulsa mega-church pastor, made the unlikeliest of activists for community service, but I think in a way that’s just what he was. He was so unlike most other pastors of churches that size (in my experience), or pastors who wanted their church to be that size. Sure, he and his wife had a TV show and big Easter and Christmas productions and a call-in prayer service, for which I occasionally served as a “prayer partner.” But he was not a loud man;  did not pontificate with extravagant lectures; did not sweat with holy insanity. But he would sweat alongside us fresh-out-of-high-school Bible students in the middle of an Oklahoma summer to help set up big tents and  feed the poor. And he shook hands. He looked people in the eye and tried to be as present as possible. He spoke gently of how God loves everybody…even the guy who punched him in the face during an altar call (who by the way was brought in on a bus)….

I have many memories of my five years in Tulsa, of both praying across the street from the Praying Hands and trying to vandalize them while attending ORU a couple years later. Some messed-up memories. Some jacked-up philosophy. But none of it was Billy Joe’s fault, I can tell you that. — I was, in fact, quite surprised to learn that he filled in as interim president of ORU while Richard Roberts was recently ousted by scandal. Billy Joe just seemed a little out of place in that circle, although he had been part of it for decades. Anyway, he showed me that (some) big-name pastors have hearts too. Just because we see them on TV playing the roles of televangelists doesn’t necessarily mean they are all hypocritical or greedy.

I wish I could play the part of the bitter Christian-turned-agnostic here — that would go well with my black-sheep header image — but I’m trying to get beyond unhealthy negativity. Yes, I have issues with much of what most TV preachers say…but I’d rather not turn into that guy who has a habit of punching them in the face. And Billy Joe’s life gives me hope.

So Billy Joe faded out with 2009, suddenly falling prey to cancer. I had spoken with him on occasion years ago while in Bible school, but I didn’t know him well. But from my times around him, I know he had a good soul. Today, this helps me remember to try not to be too hard on (some) big-name pastors. Just because they’re on TV doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. Yes…I think some of them have some major issues and some have hurt a lot of people and I’d better stop now or I’ll get worked up. But they are people too. Maybe not like Billy Joe, but they are people. And if I’m as open-minded and as tolerant as I would want them to be toward me, I will assume that they are trying to help more than they hurt. And I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for giving us hope for preachers, Billy Joe.

Advertisements