If your mind is even slightly open to the idea of divine healing and you're not totally put off by believers speaking in tongues, convulsing like puppets and testifying about how they've been cured of cancer while onstage with a white-suited, mike-toting televangelist who takes in millions of dollars annually and lives a lavish larger-than lifestyle, then you just might believe in Benny Hinn.
The temptation is there. In town for his 2002 Miracle Crusade, Hinn is one of the most successful preachers on Earth today and arguably the best-known living faith healer. On Thursday and Friday, he conducted three services at MCI Center. Two were standing-room-only. Hinn transformed the Home of the Wizards into a House of God with a massive stage, banks of colored lights, a Lucite lectern embossed with his dove-and-globe logo and a smattering of potted plants.
Ricky Cleaver, 46, pastor of Royal House Chapel in Hyattsville, is here on Hinn's opening night. "I hope to receive more anointment for my ministry," says Cleaver, who has seen Hinn live once before -- in Ghana.
The Collinsworth family has come from Fairfax. Gene, 49, and his wife Sandra, 45, have brought their son, Jonathan, 16, because he has received a calling to join the ministry.
Jonathan, in yellow shirt and tie, says he didn't think much of Hinn when he first saw him. He thought that the healing powers "could be fake." But the more Jonathan watched Hinn's TV show, "This Is Your Day," and the more he read Hinn's autobiography, "He Touched Me," the more he believed Hinn was for real. "I'm hoping to get something out of this," Jonathan says. "I'm not sure what."
Many of the more than 19,000 attending this night's four-hour service know exactly what they want to get out of Hinn -- freedom from pain and illness.
Walter Sparks Sr., 75, and his son, Walter Jr., 51, have driven over from Salisbury, Md. Walter Jr., wearing a dark sweater and oxygen tubes in his nose, says he suffers from emphysema, heart problems, a lower back condition and other maladies.
Debbie Slater, 47, of Fairfax is in a wheelchair. She has severe arthritis and fibromyalgia. "I came to enjoy the fellowship," Slater says, "and to see what God has in store for me."
From across the region, people -- of all colors and shapes and nationalities and social classes -- have brought their ailments and diseases, hoping to be cured.
By God and Benny Hinn.
Hinn has his naysayers. One of the most vocal is Hank Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute, a California-based group that monitors what it considers fringe or cultish religiosity.
"You're going to hear them sing choruses over and over and over again," Hanegraaff says by phone, explaining the techniques Hinn uses in his crusades. "There will be a big buildup. By the time Benny Hinn's onstage, the crowd is in a state of hypersuggestibility and ready to believe anything."
Hanegraaff says, "He exploits peer pressure. It's classic social-psychological manipulation tactics."
Sure enough, just before 7 p.m. the music begins -- innocuous melodies like the kind piped in to supermarkets. Onstage there is a large band with horns, guitars, strings, drums and several organs and pianos. There is a backup singing ensemble of eight. And, in the sections directly behind the stage, there is a combined choir of 1,000 area singers.
Admission is free. Hinn does pass plastic offering buckets once during the evening, but giving is voluntary. Books, videos, audiocassettes and T-shirts are on sale on the concourse.
Kurt Kjellstrom, a big man with broad shoulders, a buzz cut and a disc jockey voice, steps onstage. He is Benny Hinn's warmup act.
He says that everyone has come to the right place: If you're looking for afinancial breakthrough. Or reconciliation with your spouse or children.Or to be healed in any way.
He says the Holy Spirit is in the house. Hallelujah! Can you feel it? Lord knows, this area needs Jesus Christ!
He says that more than 225 Washington-area churches sponsored this crusade. This is the largest gathering of churches our ministry has ever received in a city.
The pumped-up crowd begins to whoop and holler and throw their hands in the air. Two dozen local preachers sit in folding chairs on the stage.
As the music ebbs and flows, people begin to sway.
Around 7:15, a singer takes center stage and belts out "I Came for Deliverance."
Everywhere, TV cameras -- on scaffolding, on a gliding boom, controlled by cameramen in black -- record the lights and music and cries of joy.
Another singer -- choirmaster and bandleader Jim Cernero -- takes the spotlight and sings "He Touched Me." Music is essential to the mood being carefully crafted here; key changes create increased states of anticipation. The drummer rides his cymbal and the organist pulls out the stops.
And, as the angelic choir bursts into "How Great Thou Art," Benny Hinn -- dressed in white pants and a white Nehru-collar jacket, emerges from backstage. He is praying with his eyes closed and standing with arms widespread as the entire coliseum erupts in amens and hallelujahs.
A woman in the loge collapses. Another on the main floor erupts in otherworldly glossolalia.
"I pray," Hinn says, "that every purpose of Satan will be canceled tonight."
And "sickness and disease will flee."
"Our number one request above all else," he says into the microphone, "we want You. We want Your presence."
Hinn is no Billy Graham. He's more elegant than eloquent. More emcee than eminence. At times, he breaks into song and Cernero is quick to support Hinn's slightly better than average voice by joining in or enlisting the backup singers and choir.
The service is slow-paced and fluid. Hinn moves from one song to the next.
He reads from Psalm 121: "Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep."
"Thank God He never takes a nap," Hinn says.
He is conversational with the gathering. His jokes and anecdotes are sometimes lame. But most people have not come for dynamic preaching and rousing rhetoric.
They have come to be healed.
For now, Hinn sings. He pauses occasionally to preach and to speak of matters on his mind. He hands a check for $100,000 to Larry Jones of the Feed the Children Foundation. He says that another faith healer, Reinhard Bonnke, who evangelizes in Africa, will join him at the end of his Washington crusade. He sees his old pastor from Toronto in the congregation and asks him to stand.
He promotes the idea of Christian tourism. He has just returned from Jerusalem, he tells the throng, and it breaks his heart that there were not more Christians visiting the Holy Land. He wants to take thousands of believers on a tour in December. He asks prospective tour-goers to stand and he prays that God will find a way to make travel funds available for them. "This will be a bargain for you," he tells the crowd. He speaks of "reduced rates."
Rami Levi, Israel's tourism commissioner for North America, joins Hinn onstage to great applause. Hinn says he has invited a Jordanian official to appear the next night. "I don't go there to see rocks," he says of the Holy Land. "I go there because the Bible was written there."
And because it's his home.
The son of a Greek father and Armenian mother, Hinn was born in 1953. He was raised in Jaffa, Israel. His parents followed the teachings of the Greek Orthodox church. Hinn went to a Catholic school.
The family moved to Canada in 1967. In 1972, Hinn was born again. He credits the hippies in the Jesus Movement for his spiritual reawakening.
In 1973 he went to a revival in Pittsburgh led by the charismatic faith-healer Kathryn Kuhlman. In his autobiography, he writes that that night he was pulled from his bed by, and filled with, the power of the Holy Spirit.
He began to minister in Toronto. He did not go to college. When he was in his late twenties, he moved to the United States. He founded a ministry in Orlando. Eventually he moved the headquarters to Dallas. He has more than 135,000 regular supporters, known as Covenant Partners. His TV show will be broadcast daily on the cable channel E! Entertainment Television beginning Sept. 9.
He and his wife, Suzanne, have four children. The couple lives in Dana Point, Calif., not far from the studio where "This Is Your Day" is recorded.
The Dallas Morning News reported recently that Hinn is building a $3 million oceanside home. Officials for Benny Hinn Ministries told the newspaper that the house was built as an investment.
"When completed," the Morning News reported, Hinn's parsonage "will have seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, three fireplaces, a library, a meditation room with a balcony and a five-car underground garage."
Scott Wead, one of Hinn's assistants, responds, "It's a fundamental Pentecostal belief that we are to prosper. Catholics live in huge palaces."
The Morning News also reported that Hinn has collected money for a "World Healing Center," but has decided not to build it. Hinn's organization told the paper that all funds were either returned to the donors or "used for an equally important ministry activity consistent with its charitable and religious purpose."
"Christians by and large have made up their minds about Benny Hinn," says Tim Morgan of Christianity Today magazine. "Many believe he's a wonderful preacher and gifted healer. Many others believe he's a kook and a crank."
Hinn "has mastered the art of revival showmanship," Morgan says. "He puts on a very uplifting, inspiring worship service that draws in the crowds."
The healing ministry that Hinn propounds "connects with the core Christian experience," Morgan says. "Jesus is the good physician. He will heal you in body and soul."
The Catholic church has long believed that people can be healed by visiting certain holy shrines, Morgan says. Faith healing is "a different way of trying to release the healing forces of Christian gospel in human life."
Hinn is the most recent high-profile faith healer in a long line that includes A.A. Allen, Leroy Jenkins, W.V. Grant, Peter Popoff, Marjoe Gortner and Oral Roberts.
"He's what I would call a false prophet," says Hanegraaff of the Christian Research Institute. "I can't judge his motivations. I'm not God. But I can judge the content of what he says."
Hanegraaff lists several of Hinn's never-came-true predictions: that Fidel Castro would die in the 1990s; that by 1995 all homosexuals would be killed by fire and that Jesus Christ would physically appear on the platform with Hinn.
"Pastor Benny did make those statements," says Wead of Benny Hinn Ministries.
Hinn's worldview, Hanegraaff says, "is hardly the Christian paradigm. He's got a show. The show's successful. He's overwhelmed by his own success and he can't get out of it.
"The point is not that miracles cannot happen," Hanegraaff says. "But we do not have to make up stories to enhance God's credibility."
The atmospherics change around 9:30 when Hinn shifts into his mending mode.
"When you seek Him," Hinn says, "health comes your way."
People are getting excited. There are screams and chants of adoration.
"Sickness flees when Jesus walks in," Hinn says.
He's using various tones of voice now -- raspy whispers, harsh barks, long-held diphthongs -- and his cadence grows more rhythmic.
Then he breaks the spell. God, he says, cares so much that he counts every hair. Hinn launches into a silly story about his hair. A beautician put the wrong color in it and he had to fly a special hairdresser in from Orlando to fix his hair for this night's appearance. "I spent hundreds of dollars last night because of a woman's mistakes," he says.
His point: Hinn cares a lot about his hair. But God cares even more.
He gets back in rhythm.
"Sickness is a curse. Reject it. Refuse it in Jesus's name."
He downshifts to a whisper. "It's His nature to heal."
Organ music swells. He sings. The choir stands. Old bearded men and young girls in midriff-revealing tops rise from their seats, throw their hands in the air and sway with the music.
"Lift your hands and call his name," Hinn says.
Jesus healed a man who merely touched the hem of His garment, Hinn says. He can heal you. He healed the horse of John Wesley, Hinn says. He can heal you.
And the air is thick with hurt and hope.
Hinn sings, "We Are Standing on Holy Ground."
People cry. Scream. Call out prayers and praise God and Jesus.
Debbie Ritter, wife of Dover, Del., City Councilman Robert Ritter Jr., is so overcome with the spirit that she falls back in her chair.
Onstage Hinn is bent over, James Brown-style. His voice is stronger and his singing is better.
It's 10 p.m. The revival has reached a feverish pitch.
"Somebody's eyes have been healed!" Hinn shouts. "A circulation problem has just been healed! . . . Cancer! . . . Arthritis in a shoulder has been healed to my right! . . . A growth in someone's spine! . . . A blind left eye!"
Hinn turns this way and that, waves his hand. People wail, bellow, bay, sob.
"Somebody addicted to drugs in an off-white shirt, a beige shirt, in the upper sections back there, Satan has just run out of you! . . . Somebody's left ear has just been opened! . . . Curvature of the spine has just been healed!"
And on and on, like an oral recitation of a book of diseases.
"If the Lord is healing you," he says, "come out of your seat."
Then begins an amazing parade of healed people. They are introduced by mellifluous sidemen who hustle them onto the podium, and Hinn conducts a quick public interview.
"This lady has been suffering from multiple sclerosis," one of Hinn's handlers announces. "She says, 'I can walk!' "
Another woman with diabetes had pain in her feet but is now wiggling her toes.
A woman who has had back pain for 25 years touches her toes.
"This crusade will be remembered," Hinn says.
Hundreds and hundreds of people fill the aisles, hoping to show off their newfound release from pain.
A young cheerleader named Lisa with a back injury is jumping and kicking.
A woman who was told by a doctor that she will never walk again hops up and down and dashes across the stage.
As each person finishes, Hinn touches them on the head and they fall back -- apparently powerless and power-filled -- into the arms of Hinn's assistants.
A young woman wearing a hospital bracelet says she was in town for cancer tests in Bethesda. Not knowing what she was going to do, she took the Metro downtown and ran into others who were going to the revival. Now the tumor in her side has disappeared. "I'm healed!" she says.
In one truly unbelievable moment, a woman, testifying that she's been relieved of the pain caused by AIDS, takes a microphone from Hinn, who mugs for the audience like Johnny Carson used to when he lost control of "The Tonight Show." The AIDS sufferer then delivers, backed by band and choir, a bring-down-the-house, "American Idol"-worthy rendition of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
An 11-year-old asthmatic later sings another rollicking gospel tune.
At 11:05, Hinn issues an altar call to those who want to give their lives to Christ. He ends the service with one more round of "How Great Thou Art."
And the crowd heads for the exits.
Walter Sparks Jr. from Salisbury did not fare well. "I waited in line," Sparks says, "and a fellow told me that the line was only for people who had been healed and to go back to my seat. After I wasted all my time going up there, I am disappointed in Benny Hinn."
"The experience I had was real," says Debbie Ritter of Dover. "I hadn't planned on anything. I don't act like that. I went there totally reserved. I'm not quite sure what happened to me. I kept trying to fight it. I felt like I was being pulled into my seat. I felt totally disarmed. I felt like my heart melted. I felt a really strong supernatural presence."
On her way home, she says she "felt normal. I was a little embarrassed."
She was extremely impressed by the diversity of the crowd and the unity of feeling. "It was like they breached the divide. No class. No race. No gender. I was really impressed with that."
The evening, she says, has changed her. "I want more of that experience," she says. "I want to believe there is more. Something spectacular."