On Friday, Paula White, pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, became the first-ever female clergy member to deliver an invocation at a presidential inauguration.
White, who has known President Donald Trump for around 15 years, recently took Faithwire deep into her relationship with the commander-in-chief, answering questions about Trump’s Christian faith, among other curiosities. According to White, her relationship with Trump began after she received a random phone call from him more than a decade ago.
“He had been watching my sermons, and this is what is so crucial for people to understand: he had been watching sermons and repeated back to be almost verbatim three of my sermons on the value of vision,” White recalled, noting that he told her he thought they were excellent. “We just had a conversation about ministry and God.”
And that conversation was just the beginning, as the two started meeting whenever White — who now advises Trump on matters of faith — was in New York, building a deep friendship over the years.
“I got to know his family and staff over that 15-year period. Little did I ever imagine … that would lead here,” she recalled. “He and his family and staff members … all became a part of … my New York family.”
White later added, “Our foundation was never on politics … it was really about God, life, friendship.”
Since the two first met, White said she’s spent quite a bit of time talking with Trump about God and praying with and over him — and she once even presented Trump with a signed Bible from the Rev. Billy Graham for one of his birthdays.
“God spoke to me and said, ‘Show him who I am,’” White said, noting, though, that she believes Trump has always had knowledge of God. “I think that the first way we ever reach people for Christ is, we have to be relational … it was out of building relationship, which for me was showing who God is.”
While some critics have wondered if Trump’s affinity for evangelical Christians during the 2016 election season was more rooted in political expediency than anything else, White repeatedly stated that Trump had expressed interest in God long before he decided to run for president this past cycle. For instance, she recounted a phone call she received from him years ago when he was facing critique; the then business leader asked her for advice about forgiving one’s enemies.
“When do you forgive and when do you hit back?” she recalled Trump asking, explaining that she then addressed the question theologically. There are other examples as well, including prayer meetings she said Trump asked her to assemble.
“In 2011, Mr. Trump was considering perhaps maybe running and so he asked me, ‘Would you get people (together)? … I really want to seek God,’” White said, adding that she assembled 20 or 30 pastors as he requested. “We prayed over him, we were with him six hours praying over him. Mr. Trump has always had a heart that was hungry for God, sought out godly counsel, wisdom.”
White said she’ll never forget what happened the day after that meeting, saying Trump called her and said he didn’t believe it was “God’s timing” to run in the 2012 election cycle. She said this has been his consistent demeanor when discussing issues of life and faith with her — and their deep relationship is likely why Trump trusted White to bring clergy in to pray and meet with him.
The pastor also described three or four hour meetings that Trump had over the past 18 months with pastors and other Christian leaders, calling him an “amazing listener” who “genuinely cares” about those he encounters. Many of the pastors who have met with Trump have initially gone in skeptical, but have come out with a totally different view of the man afterward, according to White.
“Probably 90 percent of them … they might have strongly disliked or disdained Mr. Trump,” White told Faithwire. “And I would say when they left that meeting maybe 80 percent liked him.”
She continued, “Why did they change so drastically? Because these are true leaders … because they sat with the man and they asked him the hardest questions. They asked him everything to where is your walk with Jesus? Why are you suddenly pro-life?”
In the end, these leaders purportedly felt Trump was worthy of their support — or, at the least, their skepticism was weakened. Of course, these positive accolades create a characterization that Trump’s critics would surely see as being at odds with his public persona — one that has, at moments, been seen as grating, rude and disrespectful.
Thus, these statements about Trump’s faith might seem surprising. While it’s well-documented that he grew up a Presbyterian, there have been a number of flubs along the campaign trail, including a reference to “Two Corinthians” and an accidental move in which he nearly placed cash in a communion plate, as Deseret News reported.
And, as the New York Times framed it, “During the campaign, Mr. Trump seemed to demonstrate little fluency with the language of the religious right, even as he courted its support.”
He also frequently exhibited behavior unbecoming of the Christian ethos, and often appeared unrepentant about it.
White, though, continued to describe an entirely different side of the nation’s 45th president, saying she believes the media has sometimes been unfair to him, while admitting that he certainly doesn’t speak “Christianese.”
“I can’t even tell you how many times … he has sent his jet to pick up someone he didn’t even know,” she said, noting that Trump once donated his jet to a person who needed an organ transplant after the family randomly called him in desperate need of transportation for the patient.
Still, Trump has had numerous controversies in past months, including a years-old leaked tape that featured him using lewd language about women, as well as openly negative comments about personalities such as Megyn Kelly and Rosie O’Donnell. There are also allegations of sexual assault as well, with the “scandals” and allegations documented in detail here.
That said, acts of kindness have also been well documented, including Trump’s decision to give $10,000 to help the family of American pastor Saeed Abedini while he was detained in Iran for more than three years.
White, who spoke with Faithwire before Friday’s inauguration, said she believes Trump’s decision to have six faith leaders speak during the event shows his commitment to being substantive rather than merely symbolic, as he included a white evangelical, a Hispanic, an African American, a woman and a rabbi.
She called being asked to take part in the inauguration “overwhelming” and said there was a “weight of responsibility” in taking on the role. White added, “I consider it so sacred. This isn’t symbolism, this is substance … he’s gathered men and women of God around him to pray over him.”
As Faithwire previously reported, White also spoke out about some of the controversy that has surrounded her over the past month. The claim White is a prosperity preacher as well as the accusation that she denies the trinity are just two of the main arguments some had made to push back against her participation in the inauguration, though she fervently dismissed both claims.
During a recent sit-down with White, Faithwire specifically asked the pastor what she believes people get most wrong about her stance on the prosperity gospel; additionally, we asked how, exactly, she would define the controversial concept. Read what she had to say about all that here.