Church Takes Man


June 30, 2010

Want a happy way to start to your morning?

You're not getting it.

Whetu Abraham is 54 years old and a "partial tetraplegic with head injuries." He sits in a wheelchair. He can't afford dental care. He no longer has his life savings.

Meanwhile, he has been giving the Napier, New Zealand Oasis Elim Church the little money he does have, year after year, and they have accepted it… seemingly without any guilt whatsoever:

[Said Rest home manager Lucy Dever] "He's got no family or next-of-kin on our list, and they've taken everything from him. It is unethical, immoral and I believe un-Christian.

"He used to have a nest egg but now he has no life savings. He believes if he doesn't give it to them, he won't go to heaven."

About a year ago, when she discovered the rate at which Mr Abraham was handing over his life savings–he gave about $10,000 in 2008–she spoke to church pastor Bruce Collingwood.

"I explained that he is not a wealthy man. He is nearly on the poverty line and the money he had, he needed. Sure, some could go to the church, but not all of it.

"The pastor said it was Whetu's choice and said it was tithing [taking a tenth of a person's income for the church]," Ms Dever said.

She questioned how it could be tithing as Mr Abraham was "certainly not" on an income of at least $100,000 for the church to take 10 per cent.

Mr. Abraham then gave nearly $12,000 in 2009. The church knew about his condition but they took his money anyway.

Ms Dever said she spoke again to Mr Collingwood in April this year when she discovered Mr Abraham had exhausted his life savings.

"He [Mr Collingwood] said there was nothing wrong with what they were doing and he has a different outlook on money.

Mr Collingwood declined to comment yesterday.

"I don't like the spin of the media. No comment at all thank you."

Ugh…makes you sick, doesn't it?

I would think most pastors would suggest that people give (tithe), but not to the point where it gets in the way of their own well-being.

One reader had another big question: Where is that money going?

She wrote in an email:

… This really makes me angry and I wish more people would publicly stand up and condemn this sort of appalling behavior. I grew up in a Pentecostal church and now that I'm an adult (and an atheist) I remember how my pastors were driving the newest cars and had designer clothes, when my family was about as poor as it's possible to be while still having a roof over our heads. We were living on rice and milk powder, and yet still giving money to the church. These pastors have no qualms about fleecing poor people, and I'm sick of them being protected because of their "beliefs."

I'm not sure where the money is going and I certainly hope it's not for personal gain. This story is disturbing enough as it is. In either case, it's about money that the church (and its leadership) should not be accepting.

I emailed Pastor Collingwood last night to see if the story portrayed his church accurately, if his church plans to give anything back to Mr. Abraham, and if the congregation plans to do anything to help him out.

He wrote me back saying he didn't feel the article was accurate. He said he may be issuing a response of some sort–but it was suggested to him (and, honestly, I agree) that he should wait a day or two because it'll allow for a less reactionary, more accurate/factual response.

If and when he makes a statement, I'll post an update.


There's been one very-strange and one very-positive update since yesterday.

First, the weird.

It looks like the pastor wanted Mr. Abraham to clear him of any wrongdoing:

The pastor of a Napier church that took at least $20,000 in donations from a disabled rest home resident has allegedly tried to "heavy" the man into signing a document clearing the church of blame.

Napier's Oasis Elim Church pastor Bruce Collingwood confirmed he turned up at the rest home yesterday to ask Whetu Abraham, who uses a wheelchair, to sign the document.

Otatara Rest Care and Rehabilitation manager Lucy Dever described the move as disgusting. Staff stopped Mr Abraham signing the letter until he had legal advice.

They talked about his financial and medical situation and Mr Collingwood was comfortable taking the money. "We had that conversation. I talked to him and asked him if he can afford it, absolutely. He said he wanted to give it and that was the end of that. If you get given a gift you just receive the gift out of the good nature it was intended."

I would argue that a man who has no life savings and needs medical help is really not in a condition to oppose what his pastor says. Even if Mr. Abraham voluntarily gave the money, the church has a responsibility not to accept it from him.

It looked bad, but there's a positive development to report.

Late Monday night, via email, I received an official statement from the pastor of the church (PDF), Bruce Collingwood:

Church Returns Money

Ps Bruce Collingwood of The Oasis Elim church (Napier), has today returned the money that had been recorded as given by Mr Abraham over the last 2 years. Mr Abraham may have donated more funds in cash amounts, but did not identify himself as the giver, so there is no way for the church to identify this.

While we are obviously not at liberty to discuss the financial situation or dealings of any member of our churches, we can say that Mr Abraham is a long standing and dedicated member of the church in Napier. Like any member of our churches, any tithe or donation that is given is entirely their choice. It appears that Mr Abraham may have given away more than he should have, given his circumstances. The church had queried with Mr Abraham about his giving and he was adamant that he wanted to give the funds to the church. The funds returned today have been done so as an act of good will. We are unsure if this is Mr Abraham's desire. Contrary to media reports the money was never taken from Mr Abraham, it was given by him to the church.

As a denomination The Elim Church of New Zealand believes in the principal of tithing and while we encourage our people to do so, we place no pressure on people to give. We do not control or dictate to our congregations how they choose to spend their money. At no time was Mr Abraham approached with a request to give money to the church, any giving was entirely voluntary.

Ps Bruce Collingwood and his dedicated team at Napier Elim do great work serving in their local community. This has been an unfortunate situation where donations have been given and received in good faith. The Elim Church of NZ stands by Ps Bruce Collingwood and his church.

This is fantastic news, and I hope that Mr. Abraham can use the returned money to take better care of himself.

I think Pastor Collingwood deserves a lot of credit for this. Even though he thinks the original article was unfair to him and his church and even though he tried to get Mr. Abraham's to sign that document, he ultimately did the right thing. Chalk it to bad publicity or pressure from outside, I think he realized that the church shouldn't be accepting money from someone who clearly has a need for it more than the church does.

Pastor Collingwood made a horrible situation right again and I applaud him for doing that.


Hemant Mehta is the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Board of Directors. He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and also is an SSA representative to the Secular Coalition for America. Hemant received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the "eBay Atheist." Hemant's blog can be read at, and his book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, (WaterBrook Press) is now available on He currently works as a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.