When Pastor Randy White went to rehab following a DUI arrest in 2011, critics and even some supporters called the incident career-ending.
Few expected White or Without Walls, his debt-submerged megachurch, to bounce back.
But Tampa's most talked about evangelist says the naysayers underestimated him and his church.
In 2012, after a more than two-year absence from the pulpit, White publicly vowed to restore his embattled house of worship.
After filing for bankruptcy, he sold Without Walls's 13-acre property on W Columbus Drive, moved to a modest lease on Kennedy Boulevard and took over a local soup kitchen.
He paid off creditors and in 2014, declared the church debt-free.
Without Walls recently purchased property on Grady Avenue, including a vacant sanctuary building. There the church plans to open a 2,500-seat worship center and offices.
"I'm doing extremely well considering what I've been through," he says. "And the church has undergone a total transformation. We are moving forward to serve the community and people in need."
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Not even a decade ago, White led the second-fastest growing church in America. He drove a Bentley and owned a $2.1 million Bayshore Boulevard home. He sported luxury suits and a porcelain smile.
As pastors of Without Walls, White and his then-wife, Paula, earned the adoration and financial support of more than 20,000 members including sports figures and celebrities.
They traveled the world preaching Christian prosperity.
Then in 2007, the IRS began investigating the church (specifically Paula White Ministries) for misuse of church funds and tax exempt status. A congressional probe followed. Former members bashed the church and its leadership for lavish spending.
That same year, Randy White's eldest daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer. Randy and Paula divorced.
Following his daughter's death in 2008, White spiraled into depression. He stopped preaching and became addicted to prescription pain medication. He withdrew from practicing Christianity.
"That time challenged everything I believed in and shook my theology to the very core," White said. "It felt like I was on a road with no headlights. I got mad at God. But then I met a new God, one who loved me unconditionally."
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White says friends and family helped him navigate the darkness. Some famous friends like minister and author T.D. Jakes, who refused to give up hope.
In White's absence, his son Brandon and stepson Bradley managed the ministry. Paula White stepped in as senior pastor. Volunteers worked full-time without pay.
Though Without Walls lost members, partly because of financial inquiries (ultimately the IRS and the congressional committee found no wrongdoing), many remained loyal.
"It would have been so easy to run away and not come back, but there were people depending on me," White says. "I knew I needed to come back, to see the congregation through and stabilize the church."
Pastor Brandon White never doubted his father's capacity to finish what he started.
"Anyone can start a race strong, but the mark of a true champion is how they finish the race," Brandon White says. "Everything our church sets to accomplish is to fulfill God's purpose, which ultimately brings Him glory.
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White admits it hurt when longtime members abandoned Without Walls like a sinking ship.
But he understands now, he said. Those people just needed to move on, some to his ex-wife's new church in Orlando.
Today, longtime members make up 80 percent of the Without Walls congregation.
Those who stayed met a different Randy White, he said.
"Too many times, people discard leaders when they mess up," he said. "I know I have more to teach now than I did seven years ago. I have my priorities straight."
Members applaud White's determination.
"We love Bishop Randy and understand that we all have challenges in life, we just get back up," said Chuck Myles, a member since 1997. "The energy at Without Walls is different from its early days but it doesn't have to be the same to be deemed successful."
White's plans for Without Walls include an after-school program for at-risk youth and an economic empowerment center.
"I've learned debt will kill you," he said. "I want to help people in the community find jobs and do well. If someone has a skill and wants to start a small business, I want to give them a place to get started."
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These days, White appears less polished, happier and relaxed. He divides his time between ministry and the Kristen Renee Foundation, which he started in his daughter's honor. He prays daily for guidance. He spends time with his children and grandchildren, whom he said will continue the ministry in years ahead.
"The methods of ministry might change over time, but the purpose will never change," Brandon White said. "Without Walls will always be a church of evangelism and restoration."
White also remains friends with Paula, who recently married rocker Jonathan Cain of Journey.
"Congratulations to Paula," he said. "She is a gifted and talented woman. I only want the best for her and I know she and her husband will together do so much to build the kingdom of God."
White says people sometime expect him to trash Paula. They expect bitterness. But he only smiles.
When asked about his critics, the people who doubted him and dismissed Without Walls as finished, he gives the same reaction.
"I'd like them to sit down and really talk to me," he says. "I'm a different man. I learned humility."
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Sarah Whitman at [email protected]