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It was Friday night, March 22, and the big show was three hours away. Already, cars were filling the lot at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. Most sported Arizona plates, but some had trekked from as far away as Florida and Virginia. Auto tags bearing the handicapped symbol were everywhere. Lots of people in wheelchairs were being unloaded from vans.
They had come to see Benny Hinn. They believed he had the power to make them walk or see or use arthritis-crippled hands again.
People who don't know Hinn's name might recognize his face. Locals have probably flipped past his show, Today Is Your Day!, on Channel 21 and noticed people collapsing from the awesome healing power of his touch--a routine Hinn calls "slaying demons." They also may know of him as the evangelist who supposedly slew the demon causing former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield's heart ailment.
Pastor Benny, as he likes to be called, is the avatar of what televangelism-watchers call the new wave. Hinn saw his opening when Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker disintegrated on the shoals of televangelistic excess. Hinn adjusted his image--mostly by toning down expensive tastes--and then ratcheted up his shtick to the next level.
And he muted his rhetoric. A few years back, he declared that by 1996, the American homosexual community would be "destroyed by fire." He no longer claims to receive knowledge directly from God through divine revelations, and has backed off his long-held stance that a woman president would destroy America. Now he is a TV-friendly healer, more likely to make jokes about his shellacked hair than moral pronouncements about the fate of the world.
The image tweaks have paid off. Hinn's is now the second-most-widely watched show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (the world's biggest, in terms of outlets), according to officials there, and his ratings continue to skyrocket.
He is, by most accounts, the future of televangelism.
Friday night's was the last of three shows Benny Hinn would stage in Phoenix that weekend--and the best-attended. Coliseum officials say Hinn drew an average of 12,000 people per show, or "crusade." No admission was charged.
It was apparent that unwanted publicity was, well, unwanted. Signs warning "No cameras, all patrons will be searched" were common. At the door, however, no one seemed to be doing any searching, and getting in with a camera was easy. (Officials at Hinn's church, the Orlando Christian Center Inc. in Florida, denied New Times' request for press credentials for the event--unless we agreed to be accompanied at all times by a Hinn employee. Even then, access would be limited to the area immediately in front of the stage.)
Throngs lined up hours before the arena was even unlocked. They spent another two to three hours inside the arena, awaiting the miracles. Those who were most obviously crippled--wheelchair-bound, perhaps hooked to ventilators--were seated closest to the stage and the half-dozen video cameras set up to capture the event.
The long wait allowed time for attendees to browse around the many tables in the Coliseum's outer corridor, where dozens of Hinn staffers hawked everything from Benny Hinn books (he is the best-selling televangelist/author) to Benny Hinn audio and video tapes to Benny Hinn bumper stickers. Pamphlets hyped upcoming Hinn junkets. The upcoming "Israel '96 with Benny Hinn" promises the opportunity to walk with Hinn "in the footsteps of Jesus" for just $2,295, plus airfare to and from New York.
Hinn says sales of these trips, books and videos provide his $160,000-a-year salary.
The $20 million annual income of the World Outreach Center, however--and its offshoot, Benny Hinn Media Ministries--comes from someplace else entirely.
About an hour before the crusade began, as a choir sang softly, white buckets stuffed with envelopes appeared in the aisles. The envelopes told how to become a "covenant partner," a sustaining member of the ministry. One-time cash donations were encouraged; the suggested minimum amount was $30, although one of Hinn's warm-up acts--reminding miracle seekers that they shall reap as they sow--would later suggest a minimum donation of $100.
What the pitch in the envelope really sought, however, was a minimum $30 monthly donation, drawn directly from the faithful's credit-card accounts. The money, the pitch said, would "help Benny Hinn bring the message of God's saving and healing power to the world!"
The envelopes were distributed, filled, returned to the white buckets and whisked away--backstage, to what Hinn's people refer to as the "money room."
It's not easy getting backstage at one of Pastor Benny's events. Besides Hinn's ubiquitous private security people--enormous, Secret Service types who manage to be at once friendly and threatening--there was nearly a score of uniformed Coliseum security staff. Hinn also popped for six uniformed, armed state Department of Public Safety officers. All told, Coliseum officials say, Hinn dropped more than $40,000 to rent, outfit and secure the place for his three-day stay.
Besides keeping adoring, desperate fans from harming Hinn, the security people are supposed to deter snoopy reporters. (In 1993, reporters from the TV show Inside Edition found numerous "prayer requests"--as the envelopes in the buckets were then called--in the money room after a Houston crusade. The money was gone and there was clearly no possibility that Hinn had ever seen or prayed over the documents.) Hinn later gave a mea culpa to the show, and promised that the staffer responsible for the "oversight" would be fired.