Tony Alamo, 80, still heads ministry during his 175-year-prison term, while his followers keep the faith

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Tony Alamo Christian Church in Canyon Country, just north of Los Angeles.
Tony Alamo Christian Church in Canyon Country, just north of Los Angeles.

By Michael Ashcraft and Mark Ellis

Their disciples patrolled the Sunset Strip tirelessly witnessing to prostitutes and drug addicts in a “repent or perish” style that alienated as many as it converted.

During their heyday in the early 80s, Tony Alamo Ministries had hundreds of converts, a touring choir, and volunteer work crews that raised funds for their various ministry activities, including printing presses that churned out evangelistic pamphlets nonstop.

Then the movement’s leader, Tony Alamo, was convicted and jailed in 1994 for tax evasion and again in 2009 for sex crimes against minors. At 80 years of age, he is currently serving a 175-year sent in a Tucson prison for transporting five minors across state lines for sex.

tonyalamo_susanalamoDespite the hit to this ministry, the movement birthed with hippies of Hollywood did not disappear. In fact, as a mass distribution of pamphlets in Culver City attests, these radical Christians are back.

“You thought we closed down?” said one of their leaders at their church in Canyon Country, California, north of Los Angeles. “No, we never closed down.”

At a Sunday afternoon service recently, there was sincere love expressed by the approximately 30 people in attendance. It was a very normal Christian service: worship, testimonies, special music, offering, a sermon and communion – finished within an hour.

The disciples — some converts from the 60s and others young adults who had grown up in the church — are carrying out the mission left them by the Jewish-background Hollywood promoter who turned to Christ and became their pastor with his wife Susan.

“I want to serve the Lord, and I don’t care who likes it and who doesn’t like it,” said the preacher from the pulpit that afternoon. “The gospel is not about making money. It’s about saving souls.”

With their multitudes of converts in 1974
With their multitudes of converts in 1974

A van brought four people from Hollywood, just as Alamo taught them in the 1970s. After the service, a free meal was given to all. It’s an enticement for visitors and the way things are done for the church laborers, who since their beginnings in the Jesus Movement live something of a communal existence.

The church’s longevity is a case study of a movement surviving the fall of its charismatic leader. Alamo belongs to a generation of evangelical leaders who rose to prominence only to fall from fame and fortune along with Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.

The church’s survival also raises a thorn patch of ethical questions. How do you continue serving Jesus when your beloved leader suddenly falls into disgrace? Is it better to repudiate him and distance yourself from him or defend him against a tidal wave of accusations?

For the Canyon Country remnant, the choice is clear: they are standing wholeheartedly behind their man. In fact, no pastor has apparently been named to replace his absence at the helm. Alamo continues to be their pastor, and lay ministers carry out duties with admirable coordination.

Tony Alamo is still considered the active pastor of the church.

“Paul didn’t stop being pastor just because he was in prison,” the lay leader told me.

The Tony Alamo Christian Church in Arkansas
The Tony Alamo Christian Church in Arkansas

There are people who would take violent exception, but for the Alamo faithful, their pastor was framed, falsely accused and imprisoned by powerful enemies in the upper echelons of the U.S. government. The lay leader, also a converted Jew, compared it to the evils perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews.

Tony Alamo was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman. He was a promoter in Hollywood for Sony and Cher, former and current church members said. His conversion to Christ came when he met and married Susan, who had a heart to reach out to the hippies of Hollywood.

Alamo apparently earned a reputation as a crazy when he stood up in a meeting of Hollywood promoters and declared, “Repent! Jesus is coming soon!”

Drug addicts and disaffected youth lost in the streets were drawn to Alamo and his wife. The new converts slept on mats in a Hollywood home that served as a church. They prayed, studied the Bible and evangelized unceasingly.

The Tony Alamo pamphlets that have raised controversy.
The Tony Alamo pamphlets that have raised controversy.

The Alamos were part of the Jesus Movement that harvested thousands of hippies who gave up drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll for salvation, hope and truth. Built on the disenfranchised youth of the time, the Jesus Movement was chock full of quirks and conspiracy theories, and the Alamos were no exception.

Respected evangelist Billy Graham served as a bridge between traditional evangelicals and the uncouth, longhaired new converts. He disguised himself and infiltrated their movements to check them out and validate the authenticity of what Christ was doing.

One Alamo defector, Tom Stinson (not his real name), said that Graham was so struck by the evangelistic zeal of the Alamo youth that he doubted his own salvation and wanted to accept Jesus right then and there on the street when he met their evangelizers.

“We cleaned up the strip,” Stinson said. “We would evangelize up and down the street at all hours. You’d meet one group who met you with ‘repent or perish,’ and then you’d leave them and hit another group. Nobody wanted to come out to the strip anymore. We got rid of the drug dealers and the prostitutes.”

While hundreds of youth were getting saved, many Hollywood businesses didn’t appreciate the constant presence of “religious fanatics.” They apparently enlisted the support of city authorities who closed down the Hollywood home-turned-church, Stinson and current members said.

Miley Cyrus sports a now-vintage Tony Alamo jacket.
Miley Cyrus sports a now-vintage Tony Alamo jacket.

Stinson said police raids at the home were frequent and abusive. Tear gas canisters were opened in the house, while the door was held closed by the police to not let anyone out, he said. His account was corroborated by a current church member.

With the closing of the Hollywood home, the Alamos purchased an abandoned restaurant in Canyon Country to be their new base. Buses were used to transport evangelizing youth to and from Hollywood and bring nightly new converts to services.

The ministry burgeoned, and Alamo — with organizational genius and business savvy — realized he needed to keep new converts busy in positive activities, so he formed work crews whose contracts were paid to the church. He opened businesses staffed for free by converts. As the years passed and the church grew, multiple millions of dollars flowed to the Alamos’ control.

“Tony was always good at business,” Stinson said. It was during this time that Alamo designed a sequined and rhinestone denim jacket that fetched high prices among the stars of Hollywood. He posed with celebrities and mayors as his trajectory shot upward.

Then in 1976, Tony and Susan moved to Alma, Arkansas, where they established their new headquarters and founded another church that similarly exploded with growth, following the same model.

In 1982, Susan died, an event that greatly shook the church, which had prayed and believed for her healing from cancer. She was embalmed and entombed on display at the Arkansas facility where congregants held prayer around the clock for two hour shifts believing she would be brought back from the dead.

Her death was part of Tony’s demise, according to Stinson. Susan had done much to keep the flamboyant Tony on track.

Tony Alamo at court.
Tony Alamo at court.

Now Tony had no wife, no accountability, and  virtually limitless finances, followers and fame. It was a noxious mix that destroyed the man of God, Stinson said. The Department of Labor investigated unpaid wages for his work crews, and Child Protective services investigated their childcare facilities. Allegations of abuse, molestation and polygamy emerged.

The Alamo faithful saw these federal investigations as nothing more than continued persecution. A siege mentality developed, and they resisted it.

While different agencies investigated, ultimately it was the IRS that convicted Alamo of tax evasion, citing his virtual exclusive control of finances earned by work crews and businesses in the name of the tax-exempt church. He spent four years in prison.

After his release, accusations from former followers only increased, as did government scrutiny.

In 2009, he was convicted of charges of moving minors across state borders for sex. As he serves his prison term, lawsuits have progressed against him by those wronged. Seven women were awarded $525 million in an Arkansas courthouse in 2014, and the attorney has proceeded to lay claim to Alamo’s many properties to make good on those payments.

Meanwhile at the Canyon Country church service, the turmoil of the past was not the focus. What was preached was Jesus. The lay preacher taught from the Bible and emphasized the need for holiness. Letters were read about people coming to Christ through literature sent internationally free of charge to any Third World evangelist who would ask for it.

Testimonies were given about Jesus changing lives. A drug addict has persevered in Christ’s freedom. A former Jew explained his assurance of Heaven. He said nothing this world has to offer could sway him from his eternal destination.

“No matter how much persecution we get, we’re going to keep having services,” the lay preacher said.

38 COMMENTS

    • Myself and my family are survivors. I speak to at least 50 survivors on a regular basis. AND the second and third generations born into that sickening cult. Alamo can’t rot soon enough and meet his final destination – hell.

    • Dear Sir,

      I am writing to know if you can help me to come over to America. i am a civil enginner and an accountant.

    • Why would you want to join this group, when many others had left or had to even plan an escape???

      • Convicted with what evidence? I’m not disputing you. I’m just questioning as I know nothing about what was said or shown in the court procedings.

        • I was there and it is a cult. I would stay far away from that place. Just love Jesus where you are and find a nice Spirit filled church in your community. It has taken me 10+ years to recover from what I experienced at Alamo’s. No joke.

          • I am sorry for your suffering and pray for all of you hurt by this evil being. It is disgusting to see all of the other evil beings trying to be just like him! God Bless You and Protect You.

      • I believe these people are just trying to come here to abuse people and children, just like Alamo! Isn’t it pathetic to see all the other evil people come out of the woodwork?!
        Keep yourself, your family, and as many people as you can safe and as far away from these people as you can.

    • You just show up at their church in Canyon Country. If they find you to be of good behavior and you responded to the altar call and got saved, they will usually ask you if you would like to serve the Lord. If you say yes, you’re in..If they didn’t ask you, then…you TELL THEM that you want to serve the Lord. They will not refuse you!

  1. Unbelievable!!! this tony Alamo molested children, and people still follow this dirt bag? what would your heavenly father say? people are like sheep to follow a pediophille, people seem to think they have to follow some flawed human to get to God…how about going to your closet and praying to your heavenly father, how about loving your neighbor and loving God instead of remembering what all the people in the bible did? if you would do those two things, love your neighbor and love God you wouldn’t do half the sinful things you do everyday….remember God knows your heart even though you do evil and bad things to your fellow man…

  2. I have visited their compound countless of times…just for the dinners, actually. Nothing else impressed me. None of the church people made any good impressions on me. They come off as cold, frighteningly rude at times, critical, robotic, aloof, distant …and lack a certain degree of normal intelligence.

    They are always keeping their beady eyes on the “guests” who goes there in their pickups. They make people feel very uneasy!! They are constantly tense..

    From my own uncomfortable experience, I will say this – STAY AWAY FROM THEM! Go find a normal church to go to. This one, the Tony Alamo “Christian” church, is NOT normal, much less the church that Christ founded!

  3. This is a business organization using religion as a come-on. A pseudo-Christian group that victimizes the naive and the vulnerable.

  4. Dear Sir,
    Greetings In Jesus Christ Name. Hopefully you will fine there with your ministries and family too. This is Pastor Azmat Masih Senior Pastor All Nations Bible Church Lahore Pakistan.

    We are working on six ministries.
    1.Children Ministry Sunday School etc.

    2.Women ministry educate women etc.

    3.Evangelist.

    4.Church plant.

    5.Student Pastor support.

    6.Help the poor children orphans etc.

    Our Church Building is own and we are six pastors who are working in All Nations Bible Church.Three have Job and part time work for Lord with us and three are full time.Our monthly blessings is 25$ per month but God is with us.

    If God open the door through you please work with us God bless you much.
    Pastor Azmat Masih Senior Pastor All Nations Bible Church ministry Lahore Pakistan.

  5. The attack against pastor Alamo is nothing but Satan attacking the kingdom of God. Tony greatly helped my son who had taken street drugs. I visited the Alamo ministry to check it out before I sent my son. I was surrounded by living saints, and did not encounter one iota of wrongdoing in the ministry. Thanks to Tony’s ministry, my son was healed and saved by Jesus Christ. Today , my son is living a healthy, abundant life with his wife and three children today, all Bible-believing Christians. I thank God frequently for Pastor Alamo by remembering the words of St. Peter: 2 cor. 12: Paul asked Jesus for healing three times, and Jesus responded: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore St. Paul states: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest in me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, than am I strong.” Like the great disciples of Jesus, Tony Alamo has been greatly persecuted. St. Paul was beheaded, St. John was thrown in a barrel of hot oil, and St. Peter was nailed to the cross upside down. All were falsely accused, and Tony Alamo has been falsely accused. The devil never wins, for great is Tony Alamo’s heavenly reward!!!

    • I was there and 10+ years still recovering from spiritual abuse. Hope your son gets out soon. It’s about Jesus’ work in your son not about Tony Alamo. He gets no glory.

  6. You people writing these comments are a big bunch of lying Devils!!! You know it too!!! Everything that has happened to this ministry lines up with The Holy Word of God but y’all do not believe in the Word of God! Your day of judgement is soon coming you are merely waiting in your fearful expectation of it!!

    • I was there st Tony’s cult. It’s a cult. I still serve Jesus and love Him dearly. You are brainwashed. I used to be. Took 10+ years to start to feel better. Tony is a child molester. It’s proven in court with a jury trial. Hello? The guy is a false prophet

      • Nothing Has Been Proven In Court❕False Witnesses Were Also Used To Convict Christ❕There Is No Evidence Other Then False Testimony

  7. i also was there,but i got really saved, one the main problems and it took me years to receive a accusation, about tony and sue, about 30 or so years when he started hitting the news about the child molestations, where there is smoke there is fire, and now the man is being judge by the God, 175 years, the problem with him now is he thinks he has done no wrong, maybe someday he really realize what he has done to so many people, hurt, destroyed, confused about their salvation, so many familys broken, that he will repent, tony if you hear this, this is one of the bros of color Chas. c Williams, you sir are on the brink and have been for so many years are in a very sad,sad,sad state, i hope you can repent.

  8. Yeah, they plastered my car with fliers and others in a Palmdale parking lot a few weeks ago. Seriously, do they think people will still send this guy money? There must be a lot of fools out there.

  9. I am going to pray that God will bring judgement on anyone who has perpetrated a lie against Mr. Hoffman aka Tony Alamo.

  10. Received a flier today while shopping at kohls. Man was polite and didn’t pressure me or preach to me. He simply said he had a flier for me and I said thank you. I read t when I got home and it got me curious so now I’m googling Tony Alamo and seeing allllll sorts of crazy stuff. Makes you wonder.

  11. This Anti-Christ, New World Order Satanic Government Is Trying Real Hard To Shut Down This Ministry! Do You Remember That JESUS Was Also Falsely Accused?. The Message Of REPENT Or Perish Has Never Been A POPULAR Message, But It Is The ONLY WAY Mankind Can Escape The Damnation Of Hell❕Unrepentant Sinners RAGE Against The Word Of God And Persecute The Messengers Sent To Preach The Truth❕Abominable Ungodly Laws Are Passed To Allow Homosexuals To Marry, Laws To Allow The Killing Of The Unborn, Encouraging Fornication thru Commercial Advertisement, Trying To Pass Transgender Bathroom Laws, The List Goes On❕ Where Is The Outrage Against These Ungodly Laws❓I Lived At The Church For Twenty Years And Never Witnessed Any Unlawful Acts❕The Lord Demands A Holy Church, No One Is Above The Law Of God At This Church. People Are Free To Leave This Church If They Don’t Agree❕

  12. Im from Uk and can tell you that this kind of sad news is becoming more frequent. This whole setup is to bring conviction against anyone standing up against the catholic church a homosexuals etc etc etc . Anything that goes against Gods word in these final hours of time before Yashua return will be seen as acceptable. A pastor in UK by the name Daniel Erickson recently fled London to Bulgaria due to threats made against him by CIA. for standing up against Pope Frances. He has now been arrested and facing trial on false charges back in UK. His website is ENDTIME NEWS MINISTRY pls pray for him Thankyou

  13. When u fight flesh and blood ur fighting the wrong battle, rescue our bro, frm what u say he’s a great Hero in Heaven… who is without fault on the Earth?why is it with Christians u claim u love Jesus yet u rejoice and hit any of his servants at the slight accusation? U should deliver and RESTORE SUCH WITH THE SPIRIT OF MEEKNESS lest ub tempted!

  14. I have been looking into this situation and so far the only common thread I have found is that those who have been accusing this ministry like to keep their lives obscured, hidden from public view. They have been making horrendous accusations but, will not leave their lives open for examination so one can judge the character in which these accusations come from. I also notice that some of these accusers have also suggested using the arm of the law to fine or punish those who support or help this ministry. Jeremiah 17:5 says, “Thus says the LORD; Cursed be the man that trusts in man, and makes
    flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the LORD”. Jesus exposed many things while he was here including how so called godly men used the law to steal, kill and destroy their enemies (there is your carnal minded Christian, your hypocrite, your wolf in sheep’s clothing)…… I am still looking into this matter but I find no evidence that would cause me to consider this ministry an adversary as of yet.

    • Sandra, look at the many people who where part of that ministry. There are several people who claim to have “escaped” and who still suffer from the experiences they had there. If it were not for these personal experiences/testimonies, I would agree that it could be simply false accusation. But these many people are giving heart felt warning. And personally, every time I’ve found a flyer on my car, I’ve been hit with the feeling that this is a false ministry. When I read the flyers to check for Biblical error, so far I have not found any that I recall. But the devil masquerades as an angel of light…mixing a little truth with a lot of deception, which makes him particularly dangerous. While I”m not completely convinced Tony Alamo is guilty, in my gut I know there is something definitely wrong. I won’t proclaim an opinion against him without concrete facts. However, I would caution people from having personal contact with that ministry. There is just something that is not Godly about it.

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