Online church offers prayers -- for a price
For millions of people, prayers have the power to bring healing and lighten life's burdens. Most believers will gladly pray for you, free of charge. But at the Christian Prayer Center, a self-described online church, prayer comes with conditions.
The Seattle-based church is coming under fire for its practice of charging money for prayers. You can post prayer requests and receive prayers from thousands of Christians, as long as you have a credit card.
There's no mention of money at first. The devil's in the details. In order to get your message to the almighty, you have to sign in and answer a prayer survey that leads to the digital collection plate. The prayers start at 9 bucks.
"Jesus never did that. Jesus never did that," said Pastor John Carlson of the Sound Christian Fellowship. "People are thinking that their problems are going to be solved," Carlson said.
Carlson's congregation regularly meets at the Milton Activity Center outside Seattle. For Carlson, charging for payers is not only unGodly, it's personal, because some people think he's the one asking for money.
"Well one fellow I remember, said I was going to hell," said Carlson.
I discovered Carlson's name is linked to the Christian Prayer Center in state records. According to the State Department of Revenue- anyone can list any name as a registered trade name when they file as a corporation. Carlson says he's not involved, but still suffers the wrath of the righteous.
"With people who are really upset and angry at Pastor John Carlson. And I'm Pastor John Carlson!" Carlson exclaimed.
Beyond the prayer price tag - the Better Business Bureau has taken complaints about unexpected monthly charges. "They called us because they were upset they couldn't get a refund.", said David Quinlan of the Better Business Bureau.
"They had a hard time getting ahold of the company. They tried emailing them."
According to Quinlan, the company resolved the complaints and refunded money, and also agreed to make the website more transparent about the monetary requirement. At the time of this report, Christian Prayer Center had a BBB rating of B.
State licensing records show Christian Prayer Center is the brainchild of Benjamin Rogovy of Seattle. We first met Rogovy back in 2005 when he was promoting a venture he called "Bumvertising" - paying panhandlers to advertise his game website on their cardboard signs. At that time Rogovy said, "They're better off advertising for me than not advertising for me."
When we tried to reach Rogovy to talk about the Christian Prayer Center he did not respond. We tried him at his Seattle post office box, at his Seattle home, by email and by phone- but were met with silence.
The Christian Prayer Center website addresses the money questions in the "About Us" section, saying there's little difference between a credit card form on a website and an offering plate.
Washington Assistant Attorney General Shannon Smith has this advice: "What I would recommend people do, is spend some extra time, and look at the terms and conditions." Records indicate the Attorney General's office has also received complaints, 18 so far, from prayer seekers across the country and one in Singapore.
We contacted Brian Cameron of Warrenton, Oregon by phone. Cameron says wife found the website and wanted prayers after his cancer diagnosis. She had no idea there was a charge until she was ready to submit her request. She backed off and left the site.
"If my wife, in her desperation, was falling for this, Lord knows how many other people were actually paying him money," Cameron said.
Pastor John Carlson is joining the chorus of complaints that the website, and a similar site in Spanish, are preying on the faithful. "This guy preys on the desperation of people. That's the way it looks to me," Pastor Carlson said.
It may look that way, because Christian Prayer Center is really a for-profit corporation, charging for prayers is perfectly legal. So if you're looking for free prayers, stay off the website. If you don't mind the initial cost, make sure you click the "No Thank You" button when you're offered continuing prayers , to avoid any automatic monthly charges.