Edit: see a video I made with a young woman who contacted me after reading this article, whose family was made homeless by dependency on faith healers and prosperity theology
It’s Saturday afternoon in London’s biggest exhibition centre. I’m sitting with eight thousand other people, all of us in uncomfortable metal chairs bolted together in a structure reminiscent of a cattle pen. A sweating man in a thickly woven suit is pacing a raised platform at one end of a vast room, shouting into a microphone. In an accent that could be from anywhere in the Southern US, he’s exhorting us all to realise that if only we can understand and obey God’s simple message, salvation can be ours. It’s not just the standard heavenly salvation that we’ve all heard before, either. We won’t have to wait for the afterlife for what’s on offer today, in fact as soon as next week we can expect such benefits as improved career prospects, happier family relations, and better financial and physical health. “It only takes a sacrifice in your life” he tells us, “to make a giant change to your happiness.” He’s a little reticent on details, but I hear the words pain, sacrifice and obedience several times during his speech.
The man whose reputation has brought this huge crowd together is a preacher called Benny Hinn. Born to Greek immigrants in Jaffa, Israel, he’s an old fashioned faith healer and big tent revivalist, differing from that tradition only in that his services are televised and he’s given up on canvas shelters in favour of international exhibition halls. He travels the world, leading just one or two services in each place before he leaves for the next destination where sinners are in need of salvation. His TV show This is Your Day is watched by millions and the solicitations for gifts come thick and fast, alongside footage from his spectacular ‘Miracle Crusades.’
The only problem is that Pastor Benny isn’t here, and no-one seems to know why.
The perspiring man on the stage, whose name is probably Tom but might be John, it’s hard to tell with the distortion coming from the strained PA system, will say only that Pastor Benny can’t be here with us in person due to circumstances beyond his control. Voices around us mutter, some blaming the devil for Hinn’s absence.
I’m sitting quite a way back from the stage with two friends, Peter and Navid, whom I’ve brought along out of concern that the rest of the congregation might sense my atheism and try to convert me or worse. They both work in politics and they’re analysing the current speaker’s tone and inflection with professional, cynical eyes. I‘m glad to have come in a group, but I’m worried that their open hostility to what’s taking place on the stage might get us into trouble.
Our party isn’t representative of the rest of the room. We’re too tall, well fed and Western to fit in easily here. We might be in Docklands but the crowd wouldn’t look out of place in Abuja. Hinn is one of a number of faith healers whose brand of showmanship is very popular among the Pentecostal groups which have sprung up across West Africa, regularly drawing six figure crowds to stadiums in places where secondary education is unusual.
Navid leans forward and asks a group of three men in their thirties why they’ve come.
“For salvation”, one of them says, and the other two nod. “We’ve seen the TV show.”
We’ve seen it too. There are hundreds of clips on youtube we’ve watched and giggled at before curiosity brought us here. The format is always the same: exhortations for donations mixed with footage of his preaching at the miracle crusades, followed by the gimmick he’s best known for: Slaying in the Spirit.
Hinn, dressed in a white suit, white shirt and white tie, backed by reverential choral music, alternates between soft whispers and sharp commands to the audience. Cameras with soft focus lenses sweep over a reverential audience as the sick and needy make their way to the front of the auditorium, and, having been vetted by Hinn’s aides, climb onto the stage.
An afflicted person will be presented to the crowd and told to reveal their troubles which have a suspicious tendency to be unverifiable in their progress. Hinn repeats their worst experiences of arthritis, diabetes or other such ailments in sympathetic tones. After a while his voice will gradually fade and Pastor Benny will lean forward, standing very still, and, once the tension has built sufficiently, yell “Fire!” straight at them, whirling his jacket around his head, at which they collapse on the floor along with anyone standing near them. Sometimes the first two rows of pilgrims in the audience crumple too, leaving one or two hardier souls who remain standing like the thicker trunked trees left in the wake of a hurricane. Those who have been floored rise claiming healing from their ailments, praising the Lord. On television it’s very impressive, in person it must be overwhelming, and it’s not hard to see why so many have come to this hot echoing hall. Even without the man himself in attendance, there is still an atmosphere of anticipation.
From conversations we’ve had with our neighbours it seems that many here have come as part of groups from churches, which comes as a surprise. I wouldn’t have thought that any minister with a roof to repair would want someone as solicitous as Hinn anywhere near their flock in case he cleans them out of six month’s worth of donations, but it might be in their interest to compare themselves to Pastor Benny. London’s Pentecostal clergy are famed or their extravagant lifestyles at the expense of the faithful but a little dose of Hinn might make them seem like better value for money.
Navid is getting impatient with the lack of information about Hinn’s whereabouts. Being of Asian background he is less obviously an outsider here, and he goes off to dig for clues, leaving Peter and I sitting very conspicuously in our seats attracting quizzical but so far non-hostile glances from those sitting around us.
Hinn’s understudy has been speaking for about twenty minutes when the first direct instructions are issued to the audience, who seem to be getting more animated. There are odd muttered ‘amen’s’ and the odd cheer when a particular strength of faith is invoked from the loudspeakers. The tone changes from reverence to imperative.
“Stand up!” shouts Pastor Tom. “Stand up if you are having money problems, if you’re behind on your mortgage, if you credit cards bill is high!”
Around a third of the room rise to their feet. Even here they stand out as looking particularly worn out.
“We’re going to pray now. We’re going to pray over your credit card, your cheque book; I can see visions of credit card bills coming in lowered, mortgages being paid off, salvation for those who make a sacrifice and believe!”
My companions and I exchange glances. We’ve read about this, phase two of the standard routine. After a sermon on obedience and sacrifice, the faithful are given an opportunity to handle their financial tools, get them out of awkward pockets and the bottoms of handbags. This way they’ll be readily available when the call comes for donations.
The preacher begins giving examples of people who’ve donated money recently and the good things that have happened to them.
“One woman gave five thousand pounds!” shouts Pastor Tom. “The next week she was delivered from debt!” Peter snorts but manages to hold it in before anybody around notices. I’m finding this part of it less amusing.
Shortly after this, a phrase which we’ll hear many times this afternoon makes its first appearance.
“I’m talking about supernatural debt cancellation. God will see your sacrifice, see your obedience, he’ll see your pain. He’ll know that when you gave it was from your wanting, and you’ll see a change in your life and circumstances.”
Pastor Tom is explicitly encouraging people to donate beyond their means, not that their means stretch very far.
“Who here believes that Jesus can deliver an alcoholic?” The crowd respond with Amen’s and raised hands.
“Who here believes Jesus can deliver someone from sickness?” The positive response comes again, this time a little louder.
“And who believes Jesus can deliver someone from debt?” Cheque books are raised in the air, and a small army of ushers appears.
“Give from your wanting, and you’ll experience supernatural debt cancellation,” cries Pastor Tom. “Those of you who make a real sacrifice, who give despite their needs, Jesus will hear.”
At this point Navid returns with some news. One of the ushers told him that Hinn had been detained at the airport as part of restrictions on religious visitors. Legislation designed to inconvenience Muslim extremists requires all those coming to the UK to preach to pass a background check. Hinn had arrived on a tourist visa, was discovered to be planning today’s service and so was turned away. What isn’t clear is whether he arrived on a commercial flight or on the $36m gulfstream jet he requested specific donations for in 2006.
Rumours swirl that he may have been avoiding the background check deliberately due to some controversial statements he has made in the past regarding the destruction of America’s gays, but a statement released later attributes his absence to a simple administrative oversight.
On his trip to the front of the room, Navid grabbed as many bits of Hinn literature as he could. There are brochures asking for regular monthly donations, advertising Hinn branded tours of the Middle East and promotions for more “Fire Crusades” like the one we are part of today.
Around us, the ushers are moving up and down the aisles collecting donation slips that have been filled in by the faithful, all hoping for miracles. It seems astonishing to us that in 2009 an audience can be told that their way out of debt and arrears is to bribe a sort of agent who can persuade Jesus to magic their records clean, but Hinn’s audience are used to claims that go far beyond the traditional inner peace and afterlife offering of the established churches.
Hinn’s televised statements on Christian doctrine seem adlibbed and are notorious among his critics. He once advised the bereaved to use the network on which he broadcasts as a means to raise the dead:
“You’re gonna hear it from Kenya, to Mexico, to Europe, to South America where people will be raised from the- so much so that the word will spread that if some dead person be put in front of this TV screen, they will be raised from the dead, and they will be, by the thousands, you wait!
“People are going to be canceling funeral services, and bringing their dead in their caskets, placing them – my God I feel the anointing here!”
Outbursts like this have made Hinn a bête noire among critics of charismatic Christianity, atheist and secular. They don’t like his reliance on ‘word faith’ doctrines, an idea which involves God rewarding people who donate money to, well, the originators of ‘word faith’ doctrines, his claims that God speaks to him more regularly than he spoke to Moses, that the Holy Trinity is composed of nine parts rather than the traditional three.
We decide to leave when Pastor Tom is replaced by another speaker who seems to be about to begin the whole agonizing exploitative again. On the way out, Navid asks one final question of a middle aged lady getting in to her car.
“What were you hoping for when you came here today?”
“My son is in prison, I gave £500 to deliver him from his problems with the police. When he gets out I want him to go back to a normal life, get a job, be free of these court problems.”
It all seems so outlandish and ridiculous that it’s hard to believe people take any of it seriously, but there are eight thousand people around me who are waiting for miracles to happen. Even if Pastor Benny himself can’t be here today, the crowd still expects magic and they are willing to pay whoever takes his place on stage for all the salvation he can muster.