Ernest vanishes silently into the dark fastness of the United Church which 5,000 parishioners had left only a few minutes earlier. They sang hymns, hallelujahed and turned over thousands of dollars—"no coins please, ladies and gentlemen, the sound of them makes me nervous"—during a two-and-a-half-hour theological extravaganza on a Sunday afternoon in New York.
Ike is guiding a handful of disciples through the United Church, which is a former Loews movie palace. Its preposterous gilt trimmings and Louis Quinze bric-a-brac (to which he proudly draws his guests' attention) are a suitable backdrop for the elaborately dressed and coiffed Rev. Ike, whose fingers and tie clasp sparkle with diamonds.
Moments later Ernest brings a black velvet case from which Ike extracts the Golden Seal, a five-inch loop containing a triangle set with rubies and golden doves of peace. Is the Seal really 14-karat gold, Rev. Ike is asked in awe. He is unsure, but the metal is good enough for dental work. In fact, he jokes, that's just what it was before a group of devotees in Newark, N.J. had the Golden Seal created. A smile splits Ike's plump caramel visage: "So you just tell everyone that Rev. Ike even takes the gold right out of his parishioners' mouths!" His gospel baritone erupts in raucous laughter. Rev. Ike is mocking himself, of course—and disarming those who try to debunk him.
They are legion, these debunkers: dial-twisters who have listened briefly to a Rev. Ike broadcast or read of his 16 Rolls-Royces, his five deluxe homes. But the chance to strip away the wardrobe and expose Rev. Ike for the con man he must be never seems to come. To the eternal frustration of his critics, Dr. Eikerenkoetter beats them to it.
How many preachers will snatch a fistful of bills from an aide and wave them at the congregation? "Don't wait for pie-in-the-sky by-and-by when you die. Get your pie now—with ice cream on top!" is the way Rev. Ike blasphemes the Christian concept of life in the hereafter. His followers squeal in horrified delight when he tells them, "I used to be black myself until I turned green."
"There is a group of black people that nothing reaches like the church," says Rev. Ike, 41, who until the mid-1960s was still banging the drum of old-time fundamentalism and faith healing. His new message is what he calls "Mind Science," a kind of "power of positive thinking." And the clearest lesson of all is his own example: "If I can do it, so can you" is implicit in his outrageous indulgences, all made possible by gifts from his devotees. A staff of 55 at his United Christian Evangelistic Association, Inc. office in Boston skims the money out of the enormous daily volume of mail—two million letters a year, an aide says. "The majority carry money." Ike wants to revolutionize the attitude of the less privileged toward moneymaking and economic self-assertiveness. "There are no poor people," he preaches, "only people who are not aware of the riches of God within them."
Black leaders as different from him in temperament as Jesse Jackson support Ike's controversial ministry: "These people have lost their inspiration to make money. It is a poor person's complex. They assume money has a negative value. In part, Ike breaks through the valley of indecision and offers economic goals that have to be fought for."
Eikerenkoetter's salary is relatively modest—some $50,000 a year—but his splendiferous style is maintained by an unlimited expense account. He acknowledges that his infatuation with mammon stems from a dirt-poor South Carolina childhood. After his parents separated when Fred was only 5, Mrs. Eikerenkoetter (the name is Dutch) was left to her $65-a-month teaching job. Mother and son would walk the four miles to her schoolhouse every day. "But I did not let myself hate the rich folks who drove by in fine automobiles splattering us with mud," Ike tells his following. "I determined that I was going to have one of those big cars." (The Mercedes limousine he now owns once belonged to Hugh Hefner.)
At 14, he began preaching to a group off-hours in a neighborhood barroom. Ike says he has a degree in comparative religion but will not reveal his alma mater on the grounds that it should not be held accountable for his radical departure from Christian orthodoxy.
The reverend met Eula Dent and made her "Mrs. Ike" while operating out of the Miracle Temple in Boston in the '60s. Her skills as a therapist trained to teach the blind to move about safely have rusted because she now oversees the United Church's holdings in real estate, publishing and various educational corporations. The Ikes have one son, Xavier, 11.
But Rev. Ike has no ambition to start a dynasty, saying of Xavier, "I try pointedly to avoid putting any pressure on him to become a PK, a preacher's kid." Ike supposes that his followers will perpetuate his teachings after his death but laughs at the idea of a denomination being institutionalized in his name. "I don't care if you think I'm God," he tells his parishioners, "as long as you think the same thing about yourself."
"Ernest!" An aide stiffens attentively at the side of Dr. Frederick Eikerenkoetter, more widely known as Rev. Ike. "Bring us the Golden Seal!"