Kirsty Wynn

Kirsty Wynn is a senior reporter at the Herald on Sunday.

Tamaki ready for expose

Churchgoers toil for free to build a religious dynasty for their high-powered leading couple

Destiny Church's Hannah Tamaki denies she has an extravagant lifestyle. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Destiny Church's Hannah Tamaki denies she has an extravagant lifestyle. Photo / Steven McNicholl

A gleaming, black Audi station wagon belonging to Hannah Tamaki is parked out the front of Destiny Church's new City of God. Out the back, many of the builders are working for free.

Pastor Tamaki, whose husband is church founder Bishop Brian, makes no apology for her car, her houses or her $90,000 diamond ring. She says the builders who are working around the clock to build the new religious dynasty are happy to do so.

"What is wealth? I don't have a lot of money in the bank but to me success is inspiring other people," Hannah tells the Herald on Sunday, in an interview in the executive wing of the new building.

"Brian and I are so proud of our people for the hours they work and the money they give. So many churches do exactly the same but they've still got the same old hymn book Sellotaped up ... Does anyone ask them what they are doing with their money?"

Next month, the life of Bishop Brian and his church will be laid bare in the book Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle - by Massey University's associate professor of religious history, Peter Lineham.

It relies heavily on the accounts of Lynda Stewart, a former financial administrator for the church. Hannah Tamaki says Stewart was a member for seven years, but left after Brian Tamaki was anointed bishop in 2005.

Stewart accuses the Tamakis of living an extravagant lifestyle off the backs off their oft-impoverished church members - but Hannah Tamaki fires back the same charge.

"She is trying to paint me as unethical and that is what people do, but it comes back on them." She claims Stewart owns part of a gold mine in South Africa and a villa in Italy.

And she rejects some of the claims about her own extravagance. "One of my favourites was that we gave our son Samuel a Corvette. We have never even sat in a Corvette so, no, we didn't give him one.

"Another was that we bought our daughter a cruise, which we haven't."

The renewed controversy comes as Destiny followers work around the clock to build the City of God. The multimillion-dollar refit of an old pillow-making factory in South Auckland is a far cry from the tiny building where Destiny Church started 15 years ago.

The new site in Manukau includes a well-equipped two-ring boxing gym, a 1,600-seat auditorium, a smaller chapel for weddings and funerals, an early childhood centre and a full school offering Cambridge exams.

The building is still under construction and will be finished around October.

Builder and churchgoer Dave Murray put his business on hold to oversee the construction, and has a small team of paid staff. The rest are volunteers. Even those who are paid put in about five hours for free at the end of the day. Volunteers are rewarded with burgers made from deer and pig, hunted by Bishop Tamaki, and chow mein from Hannah Tamaki's kitchen.

"I love cooking for our people and we love coming here to see everyone who has this vision with us," Hannah Tamaki says.

Detractors say a flashy, Harley Davidson-riding minister is at odds with the poor community in which he works, but Hannah Tamaki argues you can't help the poor if you are poor yourself. "I never took a vow of poverty," she adds.

Recent reports put donations to the church as high as 30 per cent of parishioners' incomes, but Hannah says this is untrue - the tithe sought, she says, is the traditional 10 per cent. She describes members who in the past would have spent $100 on booze each weekend but now give $60 to the church. "They are saving $40 and getting a lot more for it," she says.

Claims the poor are forced to tithe are also untrue, she says. "We don't force people to give and we don't follow up saying you didn't tithe last week," she says. "Other churches tithe and no one questions them on it."

Destiny School charges pupils $75 a week to attend. Pastor Richard Lewis, the Tamakis' right-hand man, says the 160-strong school offers the same quality education as other private schools at a quarter of the price.

Hannah Tamaki says every time she hears criticism, she looks around at the congregation she and her husband have nurtured.

There are women who have seen their husbands murdered, who have been sexually abused, and others with drug and alcohol problems who are now helping others. "Other organisations haven't been able to help these people but they still throw stones at us," she says. "We pick up those stones and use them in our garden."

- Herald on Sunday

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