- photo illustration by Chris Tobar Rodrguez
The Pentecostal preacher is on fire: A diminutive blonde in thigh-high boots with 4-inch stiletto heels, she transfixes her suburban Apopka congregation. Stalking the stage, she conveys mastery and authority one moment, vulnerability the next. She galvanizes the predominantly African-American worshipers at her megachurch, New Destiny Christian Center. And she isn't shy about breaking down her version of the here-and-now Prosperity Gospel.
"I don't want pie in the sky by and by," she says. "I want some ham where I am."
On a typical Sunday morning service at New Destiny – the first of two – worship has begun as it always does, with colored lights flashing against the walls and the cavernous ceiling, to the pounding beat of Christian rock. Worshippers are soon on their feet, arms in the air. A boom-mounted TV camera swoops down across the pews, as Paula White keeps time to the music, clapping with the heels of her hands.
"Pastor Paula," as she often refers to herself, is wearing a black dress, and she is cooking. "This is a season of overflow," she says, "a season of increase." What she expects of the worshipers in the pews is "the first tenth of your gross income," because "every time we give, something supernatural happens."
With her hand-held mic, she strides back and forth on the stage, seeming to feed off the growing fervor her preaching generates. She refers to her personal life as an example of what Jesus can do. With the Lord's help, she went "from a pit to a palace" – and she says those in the congregation can do so too.
White was born to middle-class parents in Tupelo, Mississippi, and raised by a two-star Navy admiral stepfather – partly in Orlando, where she attended Liberty Middle School on Chickasaw Trail and Oak Ridge High, and partly in suburban Maryland. While she has no college or seminary degrees, what she does have is a natural gift for energetic Pentecostal preaching and a convincing mastery of African-American idioms. "Slap somebody upside their weave," she says. Or: "Can you help a sister out?" White can preach with a tough-talking, wise-cracking Joan Rivers sensibility, but she's not averse to employing Greek theological terms. Her preaching can shift from the rational to the supernatural in a nanosecond; she uses "caint" and "cannot," "yo" and "you," and "git" and "get" interchangeably.
The wealthy white televangelist is one of the most unlikely stars in the modern evangelical firmament. What could she possibly have in common with the working- and middle-class African-Americans who have made her opulent lifestyle possible? White declined several interview requests for this article. But she tells her story in her sermons and her books.
Her mother was an alcoholic and her father committed suicide. Living for a time in a trailer, she was the victim of childhood physical and sexual abuse. As a teen, she says, she was promiscuous, became a single mother and, as a young adult, was bulimic. Years later, she was addicted to prescription medication; her teenage son was addicted to crack, and an adult stepdaughter died of brain cancer. If, through the love and power of Christ, White tells her followers, she has been able to break through these "generational curses," so can they.
Now, after years of scandal surrounding her and her ministry, White has placed herself in Donald Trump's constellation, acting as the nominee's "spiritual counselor" – in the words of Politico magazine, his "God whisperer." Trump told Time magazine that "Paula is a person of great faith and accomplishment. ... She has been a tremendous friend and I am grateful for her guidance and support."
In many ways, White is also Trump's religious doppelganger; the relationship is an obvious fit, given Trump's own gravitation to the outward appearance of success and optimism. Thrice married – most recently to the geezer rock group Journey's Jonathan Cain – White's fame is fueled by regular appearances on religious television and best-selling inspirational books. She's rich, but also dogged by financial controversies, accumulating a small fortune in cash and properties through various now-bankrupt ministries. Her Apopka congregation now numbers about 10,000, down from her erstwhile multi-site megachurch of 28,000 in Tampa.
At the end of a second summer Sunday service, this one on the eve of the Republican National Convention, White apologizes for not being able to greet her flock. Cryptically, she tells them she has a plane to catch, without giving a destination. The flight is to Cleveland for the RNC. On Monday, convention officials announce that White will offer that evening's closing prayer, making her only the second woman in the GOP's history to have that honor. White's prayer was not explicitly political or ideological, apart from calling on God to "make America safe again," echoing one of Trump's themes.
Despite the increasingly long odds against Donald Trump becoming the next President, if he does, Paula White, a Pentecostal preacher with an insanely checkered history, who speaks in tongues and believes in faith healing, stands to become Trump's Billy Graham, a person murmuring God's will into his ear. So who is she today, and how did she get so close to the nation's highest circle of power?