Benny Hinn, one of the most colorful preachers in America and faith healing phenomenon to millions, is coming to Waco this week for a Holy Spirit revival.
The Benny Hinn Crusades will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday and at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Friday at the Heart O' Texas Coliseum, 4601 Bosque Blvd. Admission is free, but collections will be taken to support the ministry, which has an annual income estimated by watchdog groups at more than $50 million.
Hinn, 50, was born in Israel and raised in the Greek Orthodox faith. He said in his autobiography, He Touched Me , that he was "born again" in 1972. He founded the Orlando (Fla.) Christian Center in 1983 - which grew to a weekly attendance of more than 10,000 - and moved his organization's headquarters to a Dallas suburb in 1999. He also conducts worldwide crusades and has a TV program, This is Your Day , which airs daily over the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Controversy surrounds Hinn and his finances; theology; "manifestations of the spirit," such as faith healing; and prophecies. Opponents call him a con artist and a charlatan.
"Benny Hinn has been proven to be a fraud over and over again. He is more of a con man than a man of God. Reports about his lavish lifestyle make it clear he is more focused on what he can squeeze out of this world than the next," said Rick Ross, a professional cult monitor and de-programmer. "I receive constant complaints about his ministry from people that feel they were preyed upon through their faith. He is a shameless huckster."
Repeated attempts to get comments from the Hinn organization last week were unsuccessful.
But his supporters, including some local pastors, say the healings are real, and they come from God.
Robert Henderson, pastor of the primary host church, Waco Christian Fellowship, said he traveled with "Pastor Benny" more than three years ago and has appeared with him on the platform - usually in the company of another 10 to 20 local pastors who join Hinn on stage during a crusade - to offer prayer support for what the evangelist is doing.
"We're there for the purpose of surrounding him with prayer, and creating that atmosphere of faith that makes miracles possible. We're there to create an atmosphere for God to move in," said Henderson, who hosts his own charismatic broadcast, The Day of His Power, from 11 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday on KXXV-TV, Channel 25.
Henderson said he expects 10,000 people per service at the coliseum.
He said he recognizes that many people are skeptical of Hinn's claims of heavenly cures, but he has seen the miracles first hand.
He first encountered Hinn about 1990, just as the evangelist was breaking out in the national scene. "The first time I saw him, I was hoping it was real, for the sake of the believers because I hate to see them disappointed in their faith. But I was pleasantly impressed with what was taking place there."
Henderson said he literally was seeing the crippled walk again, the lame rise from their wheelchairs. He saw the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind opened. "The skeptic you may never convince," Henderson said. "But when you are in a crusade, you sense the presence of God in the room; the spiritual electricity in the room is there."
He admitted that Hinn might be too much for some to take. But for those who have faith in miracles, Hinn works wonders. He may look flamboyant, "but he is as real as they come. He is a sincere minister and a man of God," Henderson said.
Ronnie Holmes, pastor of Church of the Open Door in Bellmead, another host church, said "a tremendous crowd" is coming in for the event.
"Healing is in the Bible as being from God. It seems that Benny just seeks to promote an atmosphere of worship that invites the presence of God to do what God does - part of which is to heal. People need an encounter with God. I trust that some will find Jesus there," Holmes said.
The Rev. Joe A. Carbajal, senior pastor of Mighty Wind Worship Center, which is another host of the event, said people can debate Hinn's methods, style, and his teachings "but one thing is not debatable - and that is that the man has an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit and he creates a worship experience that produces the ability for people to experience the power of God's presence as well as creates an environment that increases people's faith to the point that healings take place."
Julie Ingersoll, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, said she finds Hinn "charming. I've been watching him for years. When's he's on the tube, I'm glued!
"He's funny, he interacts with people nicely," Ingersoll said. "He does things I've never seen the others do. He will actually wind up as if he's throwing a baseball and 'pitch' the Holy Spirit into the stadium, and 400 people in one section will fall down."
Ingersoll, who has studied televangelism and end-times theology, said Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing segment of Christianity in the United States, which accounts for some of Hinn's success. He plays into a mind-set that finds the world very easily divided into believers and heathens, the saved and unsaved.
So even though Hinn is often the subject of media exposes, his audience doesn't pay much attention to that, she said. "They definitely see it as a conspiracy, and a battle for good and evil. They don't think (journalists) are doing them a favor."
Baylor University professor Barry Hankins of the department of church-state studies said he's tempted to satisfy his academic curiosity about Hinn and go to the crusade.
"He claims direct revelation from God, which is very controversial, of course," Hankins said. "Pentecostals and charismatics are open to the concept, whereas conservative fundamentalists oppose any extra-biblical 'revelations.' Anytime he's called to account for it, he backs off it."
Hankins added that Hinn "lives a very lavish lifestyle, and it's not just the secular media on his case about it."
Several organizations have tried to make Hinn accountable for his spending habits. Christianity Today magazine, for example, has documented his expensive tastes.
The Better Business Bureau has also attempted to get financial documentation from the Benny Hinn Ministries. Despite written requests in the last year from the bureau's "Wise Giving Alliance," which reports on national charities and determines if they meet voluntary standards, Benny Hinn Ministries has not provided current information about its finances, programs and governance, according to a BBB online report.
The Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit Christian watchdog group in Dallas, has sent undercover spies to infiltrate Hinn's ministry and dig through his trash to gain access to financial records at the pastor's headquarters and television studios.
Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, said in a telephone interview last week that his main concern with Hinn's methods are that the healings are not verified. "There are people who have died because they stopped taking their medications on account of him. There are little children who think God is mad at them because he didn't heal them."
Anthony said that when people question why they weren't healed, they are told they didn't have enough faith, or they have "secret sin" in their life, or that they didn't give enough money for the miracle to occur, or that they are "demon-oppressed."
"It's never his fault they aren't healed," he added.
Hinn first popped up on Anthony's radar screen after a four-year investigation Trinity Foundation did on Robert Tilton, pastor of the Word of Faith church and television empire in the Metroplex, Anthony said. ABC's Prime Time Live broadcast in 1992 footage of the trash containers outside Tilton's headquarters overflowing with prayer requests that were discarded after their donations were removed. That same broadcast introduced audiences to Trinity, and they began calling the foundation with complaints about Hinn.
Trinity Foundation has files on more than 350 ministries across the country it investigates, Anthony said.
James Randi, a professional magician/escape artist who is perhaps best known these days as a "demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims," recalled in a recent telephone interview how he disguised himself to attend a Benny Hinn faith healing service on behalf of the BBC in Toronto. With a hidden camera, he said, he captured on film some of the assisting pastors coaching people when to fall down, as well as scenes of paramedics coming to the aid of those supposedly "cured" who collapsed when their adrenaline rush subsided after their on-stage "cure."
"We have followed up on 104 of his so-called cures, and not a one of those people was healed. There is no medical evidence to support his claims," Randi said.
It doesn't matter how many times the secular media or skeptical investigators expose Hinn's actions, he added. "There are people who need for it to be true. They are predicating everything on their belief that faith healing works. For some people, it's the only thing they've got going."