(FORTUNE Magazine) – It takes a brave white man to approach 35,000 black Baptists and ask for their wallets. But on a steamy June afternoon at the St. Louis convention center, a little-known Memphis entrepreneur shows up to do just that. Entering a packed lecture hall, John B. Lowery eschews bodyguards. Instead he is surrounded by a phalanx of corporate lieutenants--representatives from Prudential Securities, Norwest Mortgage, and Electronic Data Systems, to name a few. Stroking his Hermes tie--the motif is black saxophone players--he awaits his turn onstage as the convention president revs up the audience.

"I wanna talk about getting r-i-c-h!" roars Dr. Henry J. Lyons, cueing Lowery up to the oak lectern. "We can have silver and gold and Jesus!" Here, at the National Baptist Convention USA's annual congress, the boyish-looking Lowery isn't mentioned on the board's agenda. But as the stranger takes the mike and begins preaching about "economic empowerment," the Baptists pitch forward in their seats to listen anyway.

Lowery's rap is about Revelation Corp. of America, the new for-profit venture owned 30% by Lowery and 70% by five black church denominations, roughly 18 million strong. Through Revelation's virtual "store," he explains, members will soon be able to score discounts and coupons, AARP-style, on a range of products like groceries and clothes, even mortgages and insurance. With every purchase, he tells the assembly, companies will give a rebate or commission to the church through Revelation--funds to be used, ultimately, to build homes in the inner city. "The point is, black folks are in the game," drawls Lowery triumphantly. "We're just in somebody else's game."


His subtext (what has corporate America done for you lately?) couldn't be better timed. Emotionally and financially wounded by 43 recent black church burnings, the Baptists are hungry for answers. They want some respect, some control. His voice rising, Lowery offers up a fiscal balm. "If it's worth $40 million [to Pepsi] to sell only Pepsi at Dallas Cowboys games ten times a year," he shouts, "what's it worth to them if I place their coupons in 43,000 [black] churches 52 Sundays a year?"

Inside the lecture hall, where most folks are hearing about Revelation for the very first time, the "Amens" ring. Outside, though, disbelievers are gathered. Who is John Lowery, they want to know? And who really benefits when the pulpits of black churches are used as distribution points for FORTUNE 500 companies? Rev. Michael P. Williams of Houston sums up the suspicions bluntly: "This is just another way to make white folks richer."

The mixed reception illuminates all that is both fantastic and troubling about Revelation Corp. of America. No one denies that Revelation--one of the largest target marketing efforts of its kind--is a powerful idea. For blacks, it offers a chance to consolidate their $340 billion annual buying power and promote African American homeownership. For corporations, it means an opportunity to graze what Lowery calls "the last great financial frontier."

But critics note that this is no ordinary business venture defined simply by markets and profits. It's a deal that trades on the credibility of the black church--the institution behind the underground railroad, the civil rights movement, and countless political campaigns--and must therefore be held to an unusually high standard. "The church is not a FORTUNE 500 kind of operation," says C. Eric Lincoln, professor emeritus of religion and culture at Duke University. "It is the blackest institution we have, which means it has certain cultural investments that are important beyond the dollar."

Certainly black denominations have tried moneymaking efforts of their own, some successful, some disastrous. But unlike, say, the Catholic Church, whose concerted business ventures go way back, the highly fragmented black church has long debated how it should, or whether it should, combine profitmaking with saving souls. So a project of Revelation's scale, potentially involving millions of dollars, thousands of church personnel, and dozens of outsiders--most of them white--is bound to be divisive. Is Revelation a serious plan for the transfer of wealth and power? Or is it merely a sophisticated scheme that will enrich its founders and corporate partners more than the black community? And why is Jerry Falwell involved? (more on that later.)

John Hurst Adams, the senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, says, "When the church leadership takes the initiative to deliver its constituency to the marketplace and in turn is generously rewarded, it creates a real moral crisis for some of us."

Calvin Butts, the outspoken pastor of New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church, says, "I'm far beyond being hung up about race in America, but I'm concerned because one of the things that's constantly being said is, Here is the strongest institution, the black church, coming together to empower black people." Peppering his talk with words not often heard in church, Butts stops just short of calling Revelation a front. "The symbolism is very important. These black convention presidents are out front, but a white man is really running things."

From its media debut on Martin Luther King Jr. Day last January, Revelation has seemed to have a high mission. There they were, six black religious leaders from Revelation's board facing a clutch of cameras at a Washington press conference. With Lowery at their side, the sextet was a genteel answer to the Million Man March. Curious African Americans dialed Revelation's 800 number for more information. Companies drooled.

American blacks are, after all, among the most aggressive shoppers on earth, spending disproportionately on everything from cars to beauty products. By enlisting ministers to broker items from their 43,000 pulpits (or "distribution centers," as Lowery calls them), Revelation and its corporate partners stand to get not just a captive audience but also the makings of a rich consumer database. It's a direct marketer's dream, an Amway to the tenth power. As Mark Oman, Norwest's enthusiastic CEO, puts it, "[Revelation] combines the best of being able to do good business with a good social role. I just think it's a great opportunity."

Indeed, Lowery hopes the churchmen's endorsements will generate enough business to bring Revelation $100 million in revenue over the next 18 months. "We'll have one cola, one auto insurer, one green bean," he says. So far, the corporate lineup includes Norwest (mortgages), Progressive Insurance (auto insurance), Hanover Direct (catalogues for clothing and household items), BTI Americas (travel services), and 41 packaged-goods companies. Starting this fall, shoppers will be able to do their buying through a toll-free call center manned by EDS or with coupons to be distributed in churches. Manufacturers will send rebate and commission checks directly to trustee Norwest Bank. From there, 70% of the proceeds are set to go to a housing fund--dollars intended to credit-enhance loans for both homebuyers and developers, as long as they end up in traditionally black neighborhoods. The other 30% will go to each buyer's church to fund good works, including a ministers' profit-sharing plan administered by Foster Higgins.

It sounds like a simple proposition, but as a corporation, Revelation is no more transparent than stained glass. John Lowery, whose titles are executive vice president and chief operating officer, hedges on details of his own compensation and that of participating clergy. He says, "I'll earn a salary only if the executive committee votes to give me a salary." As owner of 30% of Revelation's stock, he stands to gain 30% of any interest and dividends paid by the housing fund, which Prudential will invest in mortgage-backed securities.

The plan for Revelation actually had several incarnations, even one that included an investment banking arm complete with outsize, Wall Street-style bonuses equal to more than one-third of the venture's projected net income. Lowery says that those numbers no longer pertain, and that bonuses at Revelation "will be based on industry standards."

It was that early business plan that Lowery took in the spring of 1995 to the Congress of National Black Churches, one of the few places where all eight major black denominations set aside their differences to discuss issues of mutual interest. After giving Lowery a hearing, CNBC leaders had their counsel and accountants study the plan, and they discouraged the group from getting involved. "There was a lot of incomplete financial data presented to us," explains attorney Karen Hastie Williams. She was alarmed by another omission in Lowery's plan: any tax consequences for participating churches. (Under current IRS rules, churches are permitted to collect just $1,000 in unrelated business income before being subject to federal and state taxes.) "We simply didn't see where [Lowery] had the expertise," Williams says.

Lowery, a charismatic 40-year-old, finds it amusing that he's been called both a savior and a white devil. Catching up with him is a feat, since he's on the road most days, traveling 150,000 miles a year to stitch up the affinity deals that will make Revelation tick. Everywhere he goes, it seems, the enthusiasm he generates for Revelation is electric--as if there were a gospel choir in the background, swaying on cue.

One spring evening, over surf and turf at a New York City steak house, the refrain is courtesy of Paulenne Kirschenbaum, an ebullient senior vice president at Prudential: "John, you gave us the torch! You inspired us!" Kirschenbaum, who is white, was a key contact in helping Lowery get Revelation off the ground. He met her in November 1994 through their mutual friend John Miller, a former CFO at Federal Express. Intrigued by Lowery's idea, she persuaded the Prudential bosses to listen, and eventually to cough up $2 million in working capital for the venture. Using an analogy that would be repeated many times, she described Revelation as "a black AARP."

That image has Lowery titillated. "Revelation is the Wal-Mart of the next millennium," he says excitedly over his T-bone. "We are the one-stop shopping source for insurance, groceries, you name it--with one difference." He breaks like a well-edited infomercial. "All the profits go back to black America!"

Perhaps it will turn out that way. But for now, it hasn't gone unnoticed that Revelation has a diversity problem of its own. Although Lowery has pledged to "include as many minority firms as possible," just two of about 50 companies signed up so far are black owned: North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance and Atlanta Life Insurance. Lowery blames sheer mathematics for the dearth of black partners. Most minority firms, he argues, lack the size, capital, or experience to handle Revelation's needs. But even in the fields of law and public relations--areas where black expertise is plentiful--Lowery engaged two white companies: PR giant Burson-Marsteller and the Omaha-based law firm Kutak Rock. Lowery says, "I'm not a rich man. No black law firms have stepped up to take us on a contingency basis for two years." And he says he couldn't get any black Pr firms interested.

"Any attempt for African American empowerment ought to include black business institutions as the experts," protests Dr. Franklyn Richardson, the influential pastor of the 3,500-member Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York. "It's not enough to just end up with money at the end of the rainbow. It's important to create expertise, businesses, and facilities that ensure the future empowerment of African American people." John Bryant, the founder of Operation Hope, a Los Angeles inner-city development group, agrees. "It does [blacks] no good to merely be a pass-through, a perpetual consumer," he says. "Sooner or later, folks won't need you."

So just how did John Lowery, a little-known, politically conservative car dealer, end up here? When FORTUNE pays a visit to his home turf in Memphis, the heat is stifling tourists on Beale Street to slo-mo. Over on Elvis Presley Boulevard--a stone's throw from Graceland--Lowery is in an office borrowed from the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; he is peppy, his shirt uncreased.

Lowery says that he has spent $1.5 million of his own money to jump-start Revelation. Here, in the faux-wood-paneled offices, it's clear just how lean the operation really is. In one room, Lowery's friend Earle Farrell, a local TV personality, is busy jockeying the phones to lure food companies into the coupon program. That's it for the "staff," except for a secretary and the CME's Bishop William Graves, who is Revelation's vice chairman. Proud of the spartan setup, Lowery mentions another tall-thinking Memphian: "A lot of people forget it, but Fred Smith started FedEx with five planes."

Always ambitious, Lowery got addicted to real estate deals in the early Eighties and claims to have earned his first million before he turned 24. Among his early backers were Jake and C.H. Butcher, the infamous Knoxville banking brothers; they financed Lowery's construction of the 18-story Hilton Hotel in downtown Knoxville. The Butcher banks went under in 1983 in one of the worst bank collapses in U.S. history, and the Butcher brothers received 20-year jail sentences (both have been paroled). "They did a few things they shouldn't have done," says Lowery. "But those boys went out on a limb and really gave me a chance."

After the Southern real estate market cooled off in the mid-Eighties, Lowery turned his attentions to the family business, joining up with his father-in-law, Charlie Riggan, to form the Lowery-Riggan Group. Between 1983 and 1993, Lowery worked for Lowery-Riggan, dabbling in the family's car dealership, farm ventures, and a bank holding company.

By 1992, Lowery was working for Harold Ford, the black Democratic congressman from Memphis who would later be tried and acquitted in the Butcher bank scandal (and who is the uncle of this article's author). Impressed by a guy who seemed like a magnet for cash, Ford hired Lowery, a Republican, that August as his staff director. During his tenure, Lowery says he began to mull welfare reform and other problems vexing the inner city.

"Black America's economy needed washing, and no solutions were coming from Washington," he says. "I realized that we could use the bricks and mortar of the church to build homes, create equity, and bring jobs to those neighborhoods." In 1993, he says, he began scrawling, in longhand, something called Sam Walton's Wholesale Club in Reverse, the blueprint for Revelation.

Through Ford, Lowery made his connection with bishop Graves. It was Graves who took Lowery, unsuccessfully, to the CNBC. But the duo persisted. Graves called together Lyons of the National Baptist Convention USA and Dr. E. Edward Jones of the National Baptist Convention of America. The four decided they could make a go of Revelation. The board of directors, eventually seated in October last year, would include the four of them. The only nonclergy aside from Lowery are Charlie Riggan and John Miller, both white.

Even once Prudential joined the venture, getting other companies to sign on was sweaty business. "I've been thrown out of some of the best suites in corporate America," Lowery says about Revelation's early days. "Let me tell you, honey, an EDS isn't the easiest sell in the world."

In fact, Lowery didn't have to work hard at all to "sell" EDS, a key Revelation partner. The executives running Ross Perot's old Plano, Texas, fortress were already sold on a plan a lot like Revelation, thanks to a black Kansas City preacher named Hyman Jarrett.

Jarrett had also been working on a venture that would deliver services and discounts to blacks through churches, a mouthful called Minority Enterprise Financial Acquisition Corp. (Mefac). As Jarrett's literature explained, "the program takes the success of big business and combines it with the power and leverage of the collective [church] numbers to provide housing, financial planning, property and casualty insurance, real estate ..." Jarrett was the first to get major church support--specifically from the two Baptist denominations headed by Lyons and Jones. Mefac also had EDS on tap.

John Castle, an EDS executive vice president, was so impressed by Mefac that the company shelled out $100,000 to co-sponsor a Mefac August 1995 "economic symposium" at the Kansas City Ritz Carlton. Lyons attended and brought along Lowery, who met and agreed to work with Jarrett. Jarrett also introduced Lowery to the EDS folks.

Sorting out the denouement here is dicey, as neither side is willing to offer evidence as to why the two split. In the end, however, Lowery broke off from Jarrett last fall, luring both EDS and the two Baptist groups to his camp. Explains Paul Divis, Revelation's account manager at EDS: "When Lowery came on the scene with a business plan, he not only had the plans for two denominations [like Mefac], he had all five together. So it made sense to move forward with [him]."

The accusations on both ends are ugly. Lowery claims Mefac drove EDS away when Jarrett demanded the company give him $18 million and a board seat (both EDS and Jarrett deny this). Jarrett claims that Lowery lured the Baptist ministers to Revelation with cold hard cash (which they deny) and is bitter that EDS dropped him.

On June 12, things got stranger still. That's when word got out in the national press that Lowery was ushering Jerry Falwell, a staunch conservative even within the Religious Right, into the Revelation fold. The two joined up in April, at a meeting at the Charlotte, North Carolina, airport. By the time Falwell had hopped back into his King Air propjet, the evangelist had agreed to throw in his flock's mailing list, with five million names. "The bottom line is that by using these coupons and catalogues, our people save money," says Falwell, whose Liberty University will get the same 30% return as the black churches. He says he personally will receive no benefits.

Not surprisingly, Falwell's appearance shocked many blacks. "It's frightening to think that this could happen," says a distraught Calvin Butts. "He's so anti-affirmative action, so anti everything that represents the forward progress of blacks." But not all black clergymen feel that way. Dr. Marshall Shepard Jr., a Revelation board member from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, considers Falwell's numbers a godsend. "Theologically, I may not be on the same plane as Dr. Falwell, but greenologically, we agree 100% ... The KKK [can join] if they are a bona fide organization. We want to be inclusive." Chimes in Lowery: "If you create a company, you can't limit who shops there. You don't think anything about black folks shopping at Wal-Mart."

But others charge that it is simply pernicious to frame the argument in terms of who shops where--to make a church, particularly a black church, into a clearinghouse. "The most credible institution we have left is the black church," says Lincoln, the Duke professor emeritus. "The black church has a long history of vulnerability to rapacious individuals. When you start dealing in multiples, as will be the case here, involving many people and millions of dollars, the possibilities increase."