What can you say about Oral Roberts? Kathleen and I actually graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa in the mid-70’s. At the time, Oral produced the most successful weekly religious program in the country – “Oral Roberts and You” – and the vast audience he reached has never been reached by a media ministry since. He became known nationally when his crusade meetings were so popular, he had to build a custom designed tent to seat the growing crowds. In the 1940’s few public buildings could hold an audience of that size. He went on to found the university that bears his name.
I actually first met Oral in the rest room of a Tulsa movie theater. I had taken freshman Kathleen Paille (now Cooke) on a date to see Omar Sharif and Julie Andrews in “The Tamarind Seed” and ducked into the restroom before the movie started. Looking over, Oral was at the urinal right next to me. Horrified, I introduced myself and asked what he was doing at the movie. “We love movies,” he told me. “I prefer Westerns, but Evelyn likes romances.” I always found it somehow ironic that our first meeting took place at a urinal.
Later, as a sophomore, I started working as a grip on Oral’s prime time specials that started broadcasting on NBC. At that time, he featured major stars of the time, and was drawing enormous audiences. I worked my way up and eventually began directing the programs, and traveled around the world producing & directing projects for the ministry. Over those years, I spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot. But here’s 10 things I remember about Oral that you won’t find in a newspaper tribute:
1. Oral hated “yes men.” No sucking up. If you didn’t believe passionately in your position, he wasn’t interested in you. I discovered he loved to debate ideas, so early on, I dug in and learned to stand up for myself. We got into some pretty combative arguments, but he loved the exchanges, and it forced me to get my act together and know my stuff. You never wanted to be embarrassed by Oral.
2. He loved to learn. He would read a couple of daily newspapers every day, weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek, as well as the top bestselling books every month. While he read everything, he was a great fan of cowboy novels, and loved Western writer Louis L’amour. He was a brilliant thinker and could discuss politics, sports, theology, movies – anything.
3. His favorite quote was “Make No Small Plans Here.” He had it inscribed on a plaque on his desk. Oral was a big thinker. The university that bears his name is a great example.
4. When it came to his presence onstage, he may have been the greatest preacher of his generation. If you ever get the opportunity to hear his classic “The Fourth Man,” it’s a powerful experience. He understood the power of words, and how to use his voice to hold an audience spellbound. Today, in an age where the mantra for preachers is: “casual is cool,” it’s refreshing to go back and listen to a master of the craft.
5. He had an incredible gift for understanding television. Early on, he realized the power of the close up, and was brilliant at connecting with an audience. He taught me the importance of audience shots and the role they play in telling the story of a sermon. His ideas formed my TV directing style as much as any professional teacher I’ve ever had.
6. He was perfectly at home on the stage, and yet often very uncomfortable around people. I’ve rarely seen someone so relaxed in front of 15,000 people, and yet he would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid casually meeting people in a hallway.
7. Like all of us, Oral was far from perfect. Some of his grandiose dreams like the City of Faith Hospital were never fully realized, he could be harsh with his own family, and he never really understood the concept of public relations. For all his mastery of media, he too often failed to realize the power of perception. Many of the blunders that cost him a great deal of public support were created because he assumed that whatever he felt God was calling him to do, he could just blurt out on national television. I could never make him realize that what seems perfectly normal in private, can sometimes look crazy on national TV.
8. His legacy has too often been abused by uneducated, shallow, greedy pastors and ministry leaders. His idea of “seed faith” revolutionized how people understood giving to God. It opened the door to funding some of the great ministry projects of the last 70 years. However, too many “teachers” saw it as a chance to get rich quick, and have taken it to the extreme. As a result, Christian media is rife with aberrant prosperity teaching, “giving to get,” and what I call “Jesus Junk.” Even Oral was pulled into some of that later in his ministry. But his central tenet of seed faith – of viewing your gift as a seed that God will grow into something significant, is a powerful – and Biblical – idea.
9. Oral’s greatest compliment to me came one day when he called me up to his house. He said, “I need to tell you that you’re more creative than anyone I’ve ever worked with. When I’m at the ministry offices, everyone there is focused on what we CAN’T do. They have a million reasons why my ideas won’t work. But when I’m with you, it’s all about what we CAN do. When we create TV programs together, I have more creative freedom than I have anywhere else in the organization.” It wasn’t like Oral to say that. It was out of the blue, and I was stunned. His wife Evelyn chimed in and said, “Phil, you’d better pay attention. He doesn’t talk like that very often.” It was a humbling experience and I never forgot that conversation.
10. Our biggest fight was in a farmer’s field in Kenya. We had been filming a mission project in the searing heat near the equator. In those days, even portable video cameras were big, and I was lugging it around shooting segments with Oral in a village, and in the plowed field surrounding it. Hour after hour we filmed, and finally Oral had enough. He looked at me in the eye and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m done.” He was in his late 60’s then, and I could see the sweat through his shirt, and his mouth was so parched, he could hardly speak. But I knew we had one more segment to film, so I stood my ground. “Oral, we have to finish,” I barked back. “Nope, it’s over,” he grumbled. I blocked his way out of the field, and it started to get ugly. His wife Evelyn stepped between us and said, “Boys, let’s not argue here. We can work this out.” We stared at each other. I finally said, “Listen Oral, we only have one more segment. I know you’re tired, but I’ve been carrying around this camera all day, and if I can do it, YOU can do it.
There was an awkward pause. He saw that I was soaked in sweat and exhausted. He took the challenge. Finally, he said, “OK. If YOU can do it, I can do it.”
We finished the shoot and went home. Earlier in the day, someone took a photo of Oral and I together in front of a village hut, and I had it framed. Oral asked to sign it, and he wrote on the picture: “If YOU can do it, I can do it.
– Your friend, Oral Roberts 1988.”
It still hangs in my office today.