He beckons, and they come in droves. He sweeps his hand, and they fall like dominoes. A mere puff of his breath, they say, and supplicants collapse in a healing swoon.
He is Benny Hinn, faith healer extraordinaire. Through more than a decade of daily broadcasts and arena crusades, the flamboyant Christian televangelist has been drawing the masses and raking in millions for his expanding world ministries.
On Thursday and Friday, Hinn will make a rare appearance in Philadelphia to conduct one of his traveling Miracle Crusades, a three-service package at the Spectrum.
About 200 local churches are providing an army of volunteer helpers - and, as ever, thousands of the faithful and the hopeful, the sick and the lame, will arrive early at the doors seeking supernatural healing. Hinn says God has given him a simple calling: "To take the healing and saving power of Jesus Christ to the nations of the world and dramatically impact the lives of others." He says the Lord speaks to him often - and even has passed on word that Jesus' second coming will be soon, at a Hinn crusade.
"He's the reigning world champ, the money-getter and crowd-drawer," said the Rev. G. Richard Fisher of Bricktown, N.J., one of Hinn's critics. "He's the Hulk Hogan of televangelists."
Hinn might also be called the Teflon Televangelist. Try as the naysayers might, they can't seem to knock him back. Watchdogs chronicle Hinn's loose words and accuse him of dangerous chicanery. Comedians parody his white suit, high-rise hair, and soft voice. But still the faithful embrace him as God's sure instrument of healing. If you think this brand of faith is at the fringe, you are wrong. According to a Newsweek poll last month, 84 percent of Americans polled believe that God performs miracles and 77 percent of those polled believe God or the saints cure or heal people given no chance of survival by medical science.
Such beliefs are at the heart of Pentecostalism, the vast and flourishing segment of Christianity from which Hinn springs. Pentecostals and their Charismatic cousins believe that God freely anoints believers with certain "gifts of the Holy Spirit" such as prophecy, speaking in tongues and healing power, just as Jesus' disciples were anointed in the Bible. They believe that God commissions some Christians - such as Hinn - to have "deliverance ministries" to cast out the demons that hold people in physical and spiritual bondage.
Most of Hinn's Christian critics subscribe to "cessationist theology," the view that such spiritual gifts were for biblical times, not today. So, to a great extent, the two sides are talking past each other. "The Bible teaches that you pray for the sick and God will raise them up," said Pastor Calvin Cary, associate pastor of Deliverance Evangelistic Church, a Pentecostal megachurch in North Philadelphia. "How can we explain it? It's a matter of: You know that you know that you know."
Mr. Cary is the Hinn crusade's local coordinator, and Deliverance is the host church. It has held rehearsals for the volunteers, including the 1,019-voice choir that will be arrayed behind the platform at the First Union Spectrum.
"Wherever [Hinn] goes, thousands and thousands and thousands turn out," Mr. Cary said, "and they turn away thousands more at the door." He said convoys of buses from New England through Virginia would be going to the Spectrum, drawn by announcements on Hinn's daily TV show, This Is Your Day!, seen locally on WPSG (Channel 57).
The show reaches 100 million homes in 128 countries. It is the backbone of Hinn's ministry, which has a media studio in Southern California and administrative offices in Texas. On the show, Hinn televises testimonials of individual healings - which is one of his critics' many bones of contention.
Ole Anthony is head of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas, a Christian group that monitors religious broadcasters. He said he extracted a promise from Hinn to wait six months to air testimonials "to make sure the healing lasts and wasn't due to crowd psychology" or the person's wishful thinking.
Anthony said Hinn also promised to provide a doctor's verification that the ailment existed before the crusade. "He hasn't abided by it," Anthony said. "He's gotten much worse. He lets them say they're healed of AIDS, of cancer, everything. It's a selling of false hope."
Anthony said his group documented four cases of people not taking their medicine and dying after being told they were healed. More often, he said, ill and frail people "risk incredible trauma" traveling great distances and into crowds to see Hinn.
The Trinity Foundation has released a video, "The Many Faces of Benny Hinn," that presents damaging footage about Hinn from Inside Edition, 60 Minutes, CNN Impact, and other investigative programs. The foundation has a hotline (1-800-229-8428) that charts complaints "from disgruntled employees to ex-employees to those who were told they were healed and weren't."
The critics have a litany of complaints, and they have used Hinn's own videos and books to document his loose statements. Hinn, 46, was raised in Israel by Greek Orthodox parents - but he said his father was mayor of their town, when, as critics showed, he was really a low-paid functionary.
Mr. Fisher, the New Jersey pastor, said Hinn "has fabricated so many tall tales" that the watchdogs have been able to puncture. Among them: That he and his wife walked away without a scratch from a plane crash (Fisher said they were hospitalized several days with contusions), that he once "healed everybody" in a Canadian hospital (officials told Mr. Fisher's group "nothing eventful happened"), that he had video of himself raising a person from the dead onstage in Ghana (no video was made public), and that he had video of Jesus appearing on the wall of his church (no video was provided).
"Benny said in a March crusade that someone had received a prophecy that Jesus would appear soon at one of his miracle crusades," Anthony said. "But, hey, Benny has said that He's already come at many of his crusades, and he's even described what Jesus was wearing.. . . He'll say whatever's on his mind. It's about saying whatever's necessary to gain attention." "He's such a loose cannon," said Mr. Fisher, coauthor of The Confusing World of Benny Hinn. The book was prepared under the auspices of Personal Freedom Outreach, a fundamentalist group that monitors cults and "heretical doctrines."
Hinn's spokesman, David Brokaw, said he was not familiar with most of those allegations. He said Hinn "is a high-profile public figure, and there are always going to be individuals who are going to cast doubt and try to attack someone because he has that profile." The critics also take Hinn to task for his opulent lifestyle - he has an income of about $1 million, lives in a gated community, and is building a beachfront home in Southern California - and have tried without success to persuade him to join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which would open his books to scrutiny.
Hinn has fended off critics by issuing broad apologies - "I'm human; I've made mistakes" - and promising to turn over a new leaf. Hinn grants few interviews and was not available for this article. Brokaw said Hinn's operation "abides by the authority of Christian ethics and the laws of the land and feels that is sufficient accountability." Brokaw said that the ministry had revenue of $60 million last year, and that Anthony's projection of $100 million for this year is inflated. He said people who criticize Hinn's income don't appreciate his 24/7 schedule.
Trina Turner, a Pentecostal minister in Wynnefield who plans to be at the Spectrum, said Hinn's healing is "one of the drawing cards of the Lord, a way to help the lost see that God still works that way for them." Turner is based at Liberty International Christian Center on North 54th Street, but several years ago, while living near Detroit, she served in the mass choir at a Hinn crusade there. She recalled being impressed that "the people themselves were saying they were healed. He didn't put any words in their mouth. . . . If people were getting healed and people were getting saved, it's not up to us to judge."
She added: "If [Hinn] were doing something not in line with the Bible, I'd reject it, like if he were laying hands on people in the name of the self and not of God. But he's not, and if people say the healings are happening to them, then that's the way the Lord is operating."
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