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God's word, plus static

The Calvary radio empire, built by partners in Christian evangelism, is sundered by accusations over sex, money and control.

February 28, 2007|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

WHEN Chuck Smith, founder of the worldwide Calvary Chapel movement, decided to invest big in radio, the Orange County evangelist joined forces with a pastor he trusted.

Mike Kestler was one of his proteges, a folksy preacher with a ponytail who had ridden the Calvary phenomenon to a pulpit in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Smith had presided at Kestler's wedding. He'd helped Kestler keep his job after a churchgoer complained that Kestler had begged her to run away with him.

Now, the pastors would be business partners. Kestler knew how to run a radio station. Smith had money and a famous name. They shared a vision of FM radio as a megaphone for God's word.

Bolstered by $13 million from Smith's Costa Mesa church, Calvary Satellite Network grew into a spectacular recruiting tool for the evangelical movement. In listening areas across the nation, Calvary Chapels proliferated.

But relations between the two pastors deteriorated. In 2003, Smith cut off funding for the radio network, precipitating a crisis that continues to roil Calvary's leadership. It sparked a war for control of the network on terrain Smith had preached against for years: the earthly courts.

The two sides have hurled accusations of lust and greed, betrayal and embezzlement. As part of the battle, Smith funded a lawsuit against Kestler by a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who said he had fired her from her radio job for rebuffing his sexual advances.

Now, after a year of hugely expensive legal sparring, the 79-year-old Smith is so eager to settle the case that he is willing to do so at a staggering loss.

He is about to surrender much of the radio empire to Kestler, a man he calls morally unfit for ministry. Smith says that by walking away, he is making a Christian gesture.

Lori Pollitt, the former cheerleader, said Smith told her he had hoped his legal maneuvers would bring Kestler to repentance. "But it appears it won't, so I think they just want to wash their hands of the whole thing," Pollitt said. "He said basically it was just time to turn Kestler over to Satan."

SMITH opened the first Calvary Chapel on a Costa Mesa lot in 1965 with a handful of congregants. Combining literalist Bible teaching with casual dress, contemporary music and an aversion to ritual, the church quickly became famous as a sanctuary for disillusioned hippies and a hub of the Jesus People. The doctrinal cornerstones included the depravity of the world, hell for unbelievers and the promise of a Second Coming.

The church became the symbolic center of one of the nation's largest religious movements. Smith, a deep-voiced man fond of Hawaiian shirts, remains its undisputed father figure.

Kestler was drawn to Smith's church in the early 1970s, when it still occupied a tent. He joined the movement and with Smith's blessing opened his own church in Twin Falls in 1979. Before long, he had built a small Christian radio station there.

In 1994, Kestler's fortunes appeared to teeter on the brink. A parishioner had accused the married pastor of showing up at her home and office uninvited and pleading with her to run away with him. Kestler stood to lose both his pulpit and his radio station.

Smith took a plane to Twin Falls, defended Kestler before his church board and fended off his ouster. In a recent interview, Smith said he believed Kestler's claim that the woman's accusation stemmed from a misunderstanding.

In salvaging Kestler's career, Smith also rescued plans the two were hatching for a radio ministry.

Smith's son, Jeff, had been paying Christian radio stations to broadcast his father's sermons for years. Kestler and the younger Smith had become close friends. They approached the Calvary Chapel founder with an idea: Instead of handing money to other stations to carry the Calvary message, why not invest in their own radio network?

Kestler would handle technical matters out of Twin Falls, the younger Smith would handle the finances out of Santa Ana, and Chuck Smith would bankroll the project. Calvary Satellite Network was born.

Broadcasting a mixture of sermons and worship music, the network started with two stations: Kestler's in Twin Falls and another in Yucca Valley, Calif. From 1996 to 2003, Chuck Smith poured an estimated $13 million -- much of it from the collection bowls of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa -- into expanding the network.

Kestler and the younger Smith snapped up broadcast licenses, built towers and invested heavily in satellite technology that beams low-power signals to remote pockets of listeners. As host of a daily call-in show, Kestler became one of the network's best-known voices.

The radio system did not carry advertising, relying instead on listener donations, money from preachers whose sermons it broadcast, and monthly subsidies from Chuck Smith's church.

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