Garden publishes article in The Journal of Communication and Religion

Aubreanna Miller, Editor-in-Chief

Randa Garden, professor of arts and humanities, published an article titled “She Went to Church to Pray and Was Preyed Upon,” in the 2022 publication of The Journal of Communication and Religion.  

This article stemmed from a semester’s worth of research performed in the spring of 2021, when the professor took a sabbatical from teaching to put the needed time into this project.  

“I love doing research, but it’s hard to find the time with teaching, so I was really grateful for being approved for time off,” Garden said.  

Though the article itself took a semester to formulate, Garden has conducted research on financial elder abuse since 2013, after learning American senior citizens lose over 36 billion dollars a year due to this problem, she said.  

In 2014, the annual National Communication Association (NCA) Convention accepted another of the professor’s articles titled “Protecting your older family members from financial elder abuse,” for presentation in Chicago. Just a year later, NCA accepted a subsequent research project where she used critical analysis to engage in discussions about protecting older family members from financial abuse. 

  “At each conference, it was amazing how many people in the audience came up to me after my presentation and told me about their horrific experiences with family members being victims of financial elder abuse,” Garden said. “They encouraged me to continue my valuable research.” 

Garden’s study focused on a narrative theoretical perspective asking two research questions: How does a church and associated church foundation practice religious affinity fraud? and What are the communication challenges and religious affinity fraud on their vulnerable family members?  

The article follows a family in the aftermath of an elderly relative’s experience with religious affinity fraud through her church. While in the hospital, Mae, as referred to in the article, had her will changed by two church leaders, Church Foundation Gift Planning Officer, Bernard Porter, and local lawyer, Conway Edwards.  

These two leaders, supposed to support their constituents, directed a large portion of Mae’s estate to the church foundation. This took money away from her family and the continuation of their farm which acted as the previous beneficiaries. This occurred while Mae had poor physical and mental health.  

Edwards also directed $20,000 from her estate to a separate organization where he worked as a board member.  

Garden used her research to tell the story of this family and walk through the process of the financial elder abuse this church performed. The title, “She Went to Church to Pray and Was Preyed Upon,” came from an interview with one of Mae’s sons, where he said this phrase, remembering the devastating ordeal he and his family endured.  

After completing her paper, Garden submitted the article to the religious communication journal in hopes they would accept it and spread the word about these terrible circumstances. 

She knew the process already after co-authoring and publishing an article in a health communications journal with Dr. William Seiler regarding serious illness conversations with doctors. 

Two reviewers looked over the paper and sent back notes before deciding her research would fit perfectly with the journal.  

Garden hopes this work will serve as a cautionary tale for the elderly, their families and church officials to watch out for these issues. Prevalent examples of religious fraud include prayer chains and residual clauses.  

Church leaders, when executing this fraud, will have lists of sick or dying members and send representatives from the church foundation to speak with them during an emotionally, spiritually and physically exhausting experience. Often, these church members also have taken pain medications which lower their inhibitions. Then, the representatives will convince them to change their wishes to make the church the primary beneficiary.  

In the future, Garden would like to do further studies on why churches choose to act in a fraudulent manner.  

“That’s why I wrote this,” Garden said. “There are so many instances of how churches practice religious affinity fraud, and we can learn from their stories. This research makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of this fraud and illustrates that protecting the elderly from these charlatans is an important family and social issue that needs serious attention.”