Winston Vargas remembers tracking Reverend Ike with relish

Winston Vargas remembers tracking Reverend Ike with relish. There was the time Vargas was walking down the street with the Reverend in Harlem, and people were jumping out of storefronts and stairways and mobbing him from every side. “He was amazing – he was like a rock star,” Vargas says. Another time they were in Atlanta and the Reverend had called a press conference following a Sunday afternoon service, one in which he’d told churchgoers if they followed his method, they could have everything they wanted in life right now. “Wait a minute,” a reporter called out. “How can you tell people you can have whatever you want? You know that’s not possible.” It was like putting a ball on a T for Hank Aaron. Reverend Ike took his cut, snapping, “Who are YOU to tell them they cannot?”

Vargas was born into a Catholic family from the Dominican Republic and was raised in New York. In the late 1960s until 1972, he was Ike’s official photographer, attending services at his Washington Heights home base and following him when he went on the road. Vargas wasn’t a member of Ike’s church, but he became a believer in his energy and motivational skills. The appeal was elemental: “You can’t lose with the stuff I use,” Ike preached. Believe him and your life could be transformed. “It was like going to a party every Sunday,” says Vargas.

He describes the time Ike held a service in Madison Square Garden. The house was so packed that the fire department refused to allow anyone else in. “One of the things people complained about when they criticized him was that there was so much money involved in the whole thing,” recalls Vargas. When the collection buckets got passed around, the Reverend pointedly reminded the house, “change makes your minister nervous in his service.” No coins need apply, he wanted that cheese.

“Well, I remember Reverend Ike saying ‘Whoever wants to donate ten dollars, stand up now.’ Then it was twenty dollars. ‘Fifty dollars and up, please now stand.’ And there were an awful lot of people on their feet then, reaching for the bucket, let me tell you.” You could spot the round, grinning dot that was the Reverend’s head, bobbing above waves of flapping denominations, rising and falling on a sea of hope.

Wanted Ike in the White House.

In the 1970s, at the birth of hip hop and the death of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Reverend Ike was a full-on pop phenomenon. He came at the start and finish of something and he was the beginning and the end, embodying both the bluster and mic-rocking skills that marked old school rap and the conservative capitalism that marked Nixon’s urban politics. Billy Joel wrote a song about him; he appeared on TV with Tony Orlando and Dawn. In 1975 the funk group Parliament released “Chocolate City,” its lyrics a litany of black icons soon to be taking over the White House, a list that included Muhammad Ali as president, Aretha as First Lady, and Rev. Ike as Secretary of the Treasury. He was brash and confusing – cribbing rhetoric from the right and left, praising God and announcing there was no God and then declaring he was God. He was a feel-good public speaker at a time when a lot of Americans felt really bad. If he had survived into the internet age, let alone the time of Trump, he might have been the big bank that ate all the others. Instead, he died in 2009, a very wealthy, very mysterious presence who appeared incomprehensible to those he did not speak to, and beloved by those who knew his name. They called him the Divine Sweetheart of the Universe.

His full name was Frederick Joseph Eikerenkoetter II, and he came to this place on June 1, 1935. Born in Ridgeland, S.C., his father was a Baptist minister from Dutch Indonesia and his mother an African-American schoolteacher. The early days were harsh; Frederick grew up so hungry “my stomach was telling my backbone hello,” he said, and when he started preaching in his adolescence it was in a small bar. Eikerenkoetter attended the American Bible College in Chicago, where he received a theology degree in 1956. “The fundamentalists had gotten hold of me by then,” he told journalist Clayton Riley. Their grip loosened over time.

After two years as an Air Force Chaplain he settled in Boston, establishing the Miracle Temple and wading knee-deep into faith healing. He was boastful about the experience, but nonplussed by it, as well. “I was just about the best in Boston, snatching people out of wheelchairs and off their crutches, pouring some oil over them while I commanded them to walk or see or hear,” he told Riley. But by 1966, he had made up his mind to turn his religious practice upside down. Moving away from fundamentalism, he uprooted to his church and radio programs to 125th Street in Harlem, establishing the United Church Science of Living Institute, Inc., embracing a form of a philosophy many before him called the Science of the Mind. Later, he explained his transformation by saying he had been preaching hellfire and damnation, until he looked out at his African-American congregation and realized they were already in hellfire. A new message was required.

He came to understand that his followers – and all Americans, he believed – didn’t need to wait for the Great Beyond to have what God wanted for them. You didn’t need to sacrifice, and you didn’t need to die first: those who understood only needed to harness the fire of self-belief. He would show them. Though he never hid his full name, he had chopped it down; one story went that there wasn’t room on theater marquee for the full Eikerenkoetter. Out front it just said “Rev Ike every Sun.”

He left his earlier chapters behind, telling the congregation with a palpable shrug that faith healers “try to work some kind of hocus-pocus on you, try to make you believe they have some special gift of God.” Not for him the message of Estus Pirkle that God would reward you later. “You don't have to wait for your pie in the sky by and by; have it now with ice cream and a cherry on top.” This was cold-eyed candor in the pulpit – go on. “I hate to tell you Christian saints this, but there is no Father in the sky. Your only father is your own thought about yourself.” Everybody, he preached, had the power to heal, to overcome, to be happy. “You can sing, dance, make love in my church. Baby this is the joy of living!”

He had found his voice, that of a spry CEO of a sacred-start-up, and it made the stern, punishing voices of broadcast evangelists, white and black, seem tired. He was of this world, he spoke to now: his closest radio peer was New York DJ Chief Rocker Frankie Crocker, a sexy technocrat with his hand on the controls of desire. Crocker even cribbed his slogan, telling New York listeners: "Um! How could you lose with the stuff I use.”

Which is why when John Lennon happened to tune Ike in on TV one night while sitting in his New York penthouse, he heard a voice that made him reach for the pad of paper kept by bedside and write down something he knew he had to use in a song. It was Ike, saying “Let me tell you guys, it doesn’t matter: Whatever gets you through the night.” He was forbidding but forgiving, and he wanted you, too, to make it through the darkness.

Inspired by Ike.

It started, like so many things do in life, with a bright pink jumpsuit

It started, like so many things do in life, with a bright pink jumpsuit. Martin Gallatin was a graduate student in New York in 1969, seeking a topic for his doctoral dissertation in sociology, when a friend called him up one day. He’d just heard this animated preacher on the radio, announcing he was having a mortgage-burning ceremony at the church that weekend. The rest of his presentation was like nothing he had heard before. His name was Rev. Ike – let’s go have a laugh and see what he has to say. They were the only white people in the house, and when the Rev. came out in a pink jumpsuit that seemed to provide its own soundtrack, he lit up the faces of the congregation. “I just thought, how can you not love this?” Eikerenkoetter had only recently moved from Harlem into a red-carpeted, gold-leafed former movie palace in Washington Heights, at the top end of Manhattan. A New York Times writer called the building a “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco” concatenation. “God, it was special,” says Gallatin.

The move to Washington Heights signaled a new chapter in Ike’s career. More press attention was rolling in, and white observers were opining on what he meant. Looking at him through a modern frame, one could say he was a hybrid of Nipsey Russell and Nipsey Hussle, educated in showmanship and salesmanship, quick with a quip and always aiming to close the deal. “I'm not frustrated by trying to please some tyrannical kind of God in the sky. I'm not deferring anything; I'm enjoying the totality of goodness now,” he told a reporter. There might have been a subtle reference to a famous line by Langston Hughes, “what happens to a dream deferred?” In any case it must have been refreshing to churchgoers who had been told their whole lives that they had to put their hopes on hold.

The money he pulled in wasn’t swept under the rug: his rugs, his luxury, was part of his pitch. Where Estus Pirkle might have said that once you got to heaven your cup would runneth over, in this world, the one where Reverend Ike had a driver and fleet of fine luxury vehicles, he would boast instead my “my garages runneth over.” Why would you want to wait for a heart attack to ferry you to glory when you could enjoy it right here and now?

To get his message across, he was an expert in rhetorical ju-jitsu. ”If it’s that difficult for a rich man to get into heaven,” he said, playing with a verse from the book of Matthew, ”think how terrible it must be for a poor man to get in. He doesn’t even have a bribe for the gatekeeper.” He gave delight in challenging his critics and the shaming fundamentalists, and delight in tossing it back, seemingly, would also become part of his appeal.

Gallatin spent a year going to Sunday school and church services in 1969, and learned that, thought Ike had left the old fundamentalism behind, those in his congregation had not. He served for them as a pressure release, as guilt-free entertainment that encouraged them to get a little more pleasure out of the rest of their life, without turning their back on God.

“They were still right with God. So Ike would tell them ‘don’t go on a vacation to your folks in the South in their shack’ – and that’s nearly a direct quote – ‘go to Broadway plays.’…He pushed them a little to indulge themselves in ways that weren’t extravagant.”

He gave them a pass to enjoy life. “He really gave them hope,” says Gallatin. And he realized they saw him for what he was and wasn’t more clearly than the Reverend’s critics gave them credit for at the time. They were not dupes. “They were definitely not fooled. They knew he was exaggerating,” he says.

To a reporter visiting his Washington Heights home base, 60-year-old Agnes Green, a dishwasher from Philadelphia, explained that he was okay with her. “Oh no, he ain’t trying to beat no one,” she said. “He does a lot of good and he makes a lot of sense. We should think more of ourselves than we do.” In a piece for the New York Times Magazine, Clayton Riley stood outside the United Palace in 1975 and spoke to a churchgoer he simply describes as a “black industrial manager.”

Of the Reverend, the man said, “He's a brilliant student of this culture, perhaps more than he is anything else. Here is a black man from the rural South who has effectively solved a riddle that is baffling supposedly more sophisticated people all over the country: How do you get rich without breaking the law? He knows exactly what he's doing because he knows exactly what he wants. This cat will be remembered hundreds of years from now as a black man who in his own time kicked America right back in the butt.”

He wasn’t making it up

He wasn’t making it up: the underpinnings of his philosophy were very much a part of a century-old tradition. New Thought was the name for a set of ideas unleashed in the years after the Civil War (when kindred ideas like transcendentalism and Christian Science were also getting lay). New Thought suggested that human beings were sacred, mental states could affect health and morality, and an activated mind could change the physical world. It was a modern, practical-minded take on religion, and as one writer has said, while evangelism was concerned with the Heart, New Thought was about the Mind. Today, when presidential candidate Marianne Williamson took heat for tweeting that the “power of mind” could keep Hurricane Dorian from hitting the US coast, she was evoke New Thought traditions alive in her teachings. She quickly took down the tweet.

In the 20th century, the notion that the power of the mind could transform one’s wealth remerged, both in Napoleon Hill’s hugely popular 1937 self-help book Think and Grow Rich (Hill was a New Thought acolyte) and in African-American church traditions uprooted from the south and transformed during the Great Migration. Uprooted black Southerners had a particular focus of their own on overcoming hunger, poverty, isolation and the racism of white society, and introduced New Thought to Pentecostalism and religious practices from Africa. The mix lit up countless storefront churches and, today, it lights up mega-churches where the “Prosperity Gospel” is preached.

Within Eikerenkoetter’s own lifetime, Norman Vincent Peale, a minister in the Reformed Church in American who was also touched by New Thought, wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. That 1952 bestseller, which combined spiritual and self-help messaging, became a veritable sales manual for postwar business culture. Reverend Ike took notice and made use of Peale’s gospel of optimism.

Early in his career Peale recognized that radio could be used as a springboard for his mass media ambitions; soon, so would Reverend Ike. In the early 1960s, Wolfman Jack was a gruff-voice station manager broadcasting from Coahuila, Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. He was working there the day a bold visitor came by, around 1961 or 1962. Jack told Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, authors of the 1987 book Border Radio, that the stranger brought several bags of money, and said he wanted the station to broadcast recordings of his sermons. Jack did not say if he wore a pink jumpsuit in the Coahuila heat.

The station was a “border blaster,” meaning it radically boosted its signal far greater than an American station could legally, because the station was outside the reach of the US government. Border blasters could be heard halfway across the country – and, legend has it, the overpowering radio waves could be picked up on bedsprings and even dental fillings. For not much money, Reverend Ike had access to a broad slice of the national radio market, and for not that much money he was able to introduce himself to listeners hungry for the word.

Eventually Ike would install a broadcast studio right in his Manhattan church, and he bought time on 92 radio stations and 10 TV channels around the country, and claiming some 1.5 million followers. And though he had left Boston by 1969, he maintained a business headquarters in Brookline, Mass., and with a staff said to be almost 100-strong working out of sight, he ran a mail order business that published a monthly magazine, marketed a subscription service for followers to receive a “success idea of the month.” He built up a practice of what he called “graphotherapeutics,” or the “science” of being healed by writing him a letter. In this fashion he built up a massive mailing list for his church. He was said to be New England’s single biggest post office customer; it was also claimed, by postal workers, that he had his own New York City zip code. The big item he sold by mail was a three-by-five prayer cloth of bright red, synthetic material that had been prepared in secret fashion – it was a version of the bright red mojo bag that he would likely have experienced firsthand growing up in South Carolina.

A friend of mine, Tommy Tompkins, delivered mail on the South Side of Richmond, California, the poorest part of a black working class town in the Bay Area. It was the early 1970s. On a route of maybe 600 stops, Tommy figures he was delivering Reverend Ike’s fliers to 200 folks who had gotten on his mailing list. Richmond was 3,000 miles from New York City, but Reverend Ike was a presence there, says Tommy, and every single postal work in Richmond knew Ike’s literature, had read it and and joked about it.

“It could be a little bit sad, sometimes I’d pick up mail at peoples’ houses and they’d hand me envelopes that had change inside… But I don’t know. I mean, it’s easy to say that Reverend Ike had one of the slickest hustles going, because as opposed to some preachers who tried to hide their wealth, his whole thing was flaunting it. But when I look back at it, my sense is he brought some kind of comfort to people who didn’t have much. It wasn’t that different from going to a liquor store and buying a scratch-off.”

Back in New York, Ike was doing the hard work of projecting himself onto the world. He claimed to be earning $40,000 a year while enjoying an unlimited expense account; he spent $1,000 a week on suits, the most expensive of which he referred to as “vestments.” He had homes in Manhattan, Long Island, and Los Angeles, and claimed to be a consultant to the federal government. And he didn’t deny rumors of his indiscretions (Ike was married): “if you want to know how many mistresses I have, I’m not going to tell you that,” he said.

His signal was overpowering; he was not like us. The sociologist Martin Gallatin once interviewed an assistant to Reverend Ike, and had been in an apartment where the Reverend lived across the street from Lincoln Center. “In his third floor bathroom, he had money, dollar bills, scattered all over the bathroom floor. “He didn’t explain to me what it was about,” said Gallatin. “He didn’t know.”

Ike was so big and ripe for commentary that in the 1976 movie Car Wash, Richard Pryor parodies him as Daddy Rich, of the Church of Divine Economic Spirituality. Daddy’s self-knowing doubletalk is almost a wink at those followers who pour out of his Cadillac into the car wash, he speaks as if everybody was in on the hustle. A follower asks for the secret to his success, and Pryor responds “The secret is there are no secrets, except to believe in the Lord and MOST of all, believe in that federal green!”

Jonathan L. Walton is the dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity

Jonathan L. Walton is the dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity. He spent some enjoyable time with Ike in Miami a few years before he died. “He was warm, hospitable, gracious, charismatic…Yeah, he made you feel like a million bucks,” Walton recalls. “Just so complimentary and kind.” As he labored over writing his first book, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, Walton was struck with writer’s block. Luckily, the Reverend had gifted him with a Mont Blanc pen. When he found that pen, Walton says with amusement that he completed his manuscript. And when the book was finished, the pen disappeared.

Walton disputes the critics who called him Reverend Ripoff, and labeled him a simple fraud. “He was a showman and he could sell. And the reason he could sell is because of his sincerity. People would say ‘He’s a charlatan, a crook.’ You could say a lot of things about him but I wouldn’t say he was a hypocrite. Why? Because he believed it.

“He came out on the stage with the command of Jackie Wilson and Bob Hope,” Walton says. “It was quite clear in the way that he carried himself that he was there to entertain, impress, and inspire.” The foundation of his power was that he offered himself as success incarnate, as fortune in the flesh, the Tiffany jewelry and the fleet of Rolls-Royces proof he was what he said he was.

“People knew they couldn’t dance like Jackie Wilson, or make folks laugh like Bob Hope. But through the Science of the Living, a scientific philosophy rooted in New Thought metaphysics of the 19th century, Reverend Ike offered to teach it to you. And unlike the other preachers who just want you to look up to them, and unlike these entertainers who just want to take your money, [he said] ‘I’m offering you goods produced by which you too can benefit from the blessings of American society. Because this is what God wants for you.’” It was a message of strength.

But what elevated his pitch was the transaction he held out between himself and his followers: that a direct exchange was possible, an almost physical handoff, magic rendered in the language of mechanical forces, in the promise that You can’t lose with the stuff I use. That stuff was Crazy Water Crystals, revelation stones, black cat bones and all the amulets and fragments that have been sold by holy men since forever, mysteries and magic made available for a simple exchange of the federal green. The hard-working women who were the bedrock of his church and sent him their cash in hand-written envelopes knew that in their daily life they weren’t getting paid what they were worth, knew they couldn’t buy the pleasures white folks enjoyed with any amount of money in their purse, and they knew the banks and realtors and other money-handlers were all in on it. Maybe Reverend Ike’s real promise was that the broken promise of capitalism – that your money was as good as mine – would actually come true.

To Walton, Ike was a character actor in the live stream performance of the American Dream. “Now, to his understanding, he was perhaps the protagonist of the American Dream. But I see him as a character actor, because so much of his identity was wrapped up in accoutrements and relationships and identifications.” By which I think he means, unlike a freestanding icon like Muhammad Ali or Malcolm, or more recently Reverend Al Sharpton or Kanye West, Ike defined himself in relationship to power, rather than its embodiment. Key to that distinction, Walton says, is his relationship to black America.

Reverend Ike came across as warm and inviting in person – “but he was also somewhat kind of sad, too, because one thing about white supremacy, it is a hell of a drug. And his love and appreciation for all things white and disdain for significations of blackness was heartbreaking.” Walton notes how something as basic as the music of the black church was underplayed in his services and left out of his broadcasts: “Nah, that was too Negro for him, a little too black church-ish.” He describes how Ike would draw attention to his Dutch roots, and proclaim his hair to be European.

But in larger ways, too, he defined himself against blackness. He would preach, “I’m not a black preacher, I’m a green preacher.” He lamented civil rights activists who marched for their rights, viewing them as meekly asking for a power they already had if they would just unleash it. He had a canny way of inverting the strategy of activists and using it, if only rhetorically, against them. Today he would almost certainly look down at football players who take a knee in protest, and extol them to stand up and be worthy of the power. The overarching problem Ike addressed wasn’t the economic exploitation of American capitalism, says Walton. “The problem was not enough black people were participating in it.”

“He had imbibed the cultural air of the rags-to-riches motif, and had bought hook, line, and sinker the remix of the Horatio Alger myth,” believes Walton. “He had totally consumed a believe that this is a land of equal opportunity and heading to New York City, you know – if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere. And if you believe you can’t do it, that means in his language that you’ve bought in to poverty mindset that has convinced you that you are less than. And that is a trick of the devil.”

Put Ike on his record.

When the Confederate flag-waving country music star Hank Williams Jr. re-recorded his dad’s hit “Mind Your Own Business” in 1986, he had the idea to add a number of cameo appearances by folks he knew and admired: country stars Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, rocker Tom Petty. And Reverend Ike. Rolling Stone said that for all the luminaries present, the evangelist “steals his verse with unbridled joy.” The song topped the country charts at Christmas time that year.

Pretended to be Ike.

For Reverend Ike, to succeed in a colorblind context was what Making It meant. And in his later years, he enjoyed the fruits of Making It, spending increasing time on the West Coast and moving to Los Angeles in 2007. That year he experienced a stroke, and never fully recovered. He was 74 when he died in 2009. His website continues, and aspects of his church soldier on. Today you can see the Reverend in his glory on YouTube video clips. But though he was gone there would be at least one more mass cultural star turn in his later years. In New York City in the 1980s, a particularly dangerous strain of heroin was being sold with an evocative street name: Reverend Ike. The tabloids wrote it up as the overdoses were logged. Here was capitalism unchecked, money changing hands between cartel heads all the way down to street corner boys. Reverend Ike was one hell of a drug.


RJ Smith is author of American Witness, a biography of filmmaker and photographer Robert Frank, and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. He is currently at work on a biography of Chuck Berry. Smith lives in Chicken Corner, California.