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.
He no longer wears a Rolex. He traded his Mercedes-Benz for a Lincoln, though his staff still drives an assortment of Jaguars, Benzes and Cadillacs. He now wears plainer suits.
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.
Down the hall from the money room, there is the "interview room," in which seriously afflicted believers are evaluated for their articulateness and camera-friendliness. Camera-friendly, in the Pastor Benny lexicon, seems to mean faithful- and humble-looking, obviously crippled, but not so gnarled as to depress the viewer.
Hinn's people culled the interviewees fairly quickly; one woman, laid out in a reclined wheelchair and breathing with the help of a respirator, was shooed out in short order--too in need of a miracle. A practically crippled, arthritic Mexican man, however, followed her through the process, and must have made the grade: He was put in line to go onstage and be healed by Hinn himself.
Down the hall a few steps, a woman fumed. She desperately wanted to get onstage and have her bad back healed. But she says the interviewer told her Hinn had enough necks and backs for that night's show.
A bit farther along the corridor, the jackpot: A bona fide pre-gig party was in full swing. Long tables of catered food and alcoholic and nonalcoholic wines awaited. Expensively dressed women noshed on goodies and chatted with good-looking men.
There were no bottles of Jack Daniel's, scantily clad groupies or bowls of green M&Ms, but the whole thing felt more like the warm-up for a Van Halen show than a religious service.
Hinn himself was not present; someone said he was cloistered, preparing himself to give and receive the Holy Spirit.
When Hinn finally took center stage, he seemed almost out of control, "slaying" left and right, toppling--with a touch, a breath or a wave--members of the faithful as fast as they could fall. Winded "catchers" tried to keep up with the toppling bodies. Hinn reared back and, with a pitching motion, "slew" his entire choir with one toss. The chorus reeled back in unison. A camera operator moved frantically to keep up, trying to maneuver among the bustling catchers and the fallen "healed," some of whom were too drained by the experience to get up for several minutes.
During the show, ushers and security people were kept busy filing people through the maze of curtains, up ramps and onto the stage, while struggling to maintain some semblance of order among the excited masses. (There was good reason for concern: According to press accounts, a man who was "slain in the spirit" during an Oklahoma City crusade fell back onto an 85-year-old woman, breaking her hip. Ushers pulled her off the stage and sat her in a chair, where she cried out in pain for 20 minutes. She later died from complications related to the injury. The woman's family alleged the ushers refused to call an ambulance because an ambulance would not have looked good at a miracle service. A lawsuit was settled out of court, its terms never disclosed.)
As Hinn took care of the difficult cases onstage, other, surrogate "healers" roamed the crowd, performing miracles of their own, laying their hands on anyone who'd allow it.
People tossed handkerchiefs onto the stage. Hinn picked each up, presumably "anointing" it with his sweat, a la Elvis, then gently tossed it back to the swooning fans.
"That's power!" he yelled. "That's power!"
Amid the pandemonium onstage and the shmoozing backstage, one man remained almost chillingly calm. He was Latino, about six-foot-six, very solidly built, wearing a nice suit and a security earpiece. Earlier, he had spied (unknown to him) a reporter taking photos, and firmly, but politely, said picture-taking was not allowed. He escorted the reporter back to his seat.
Now he saw the reporter backstage, camera out again. He didn't look happy. He mumbled a few words into the microphone pinned to his jacket cuff, then approached.
"I thought you had a seat," he said in a low, unhappy voice. "I think it's time for you to go."
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He began to escort the interloper toward an exit. As he was told that the reporter would be happy to retake his seat, two more security giants with earphones appeared, followed by two DPS officers.
"This is our event," the Latino man said, "and we have the right to remove anyone we want. You can leave with your hands at your sides. Or cuffed behind you."
So the reporter left, hands at his sides.
As he was escorted, he passed storage rooms where even more faithful sat, unable to make it into the packed main auditorium. They gazed at huge video screens, watching the miracles unfold on television--just as they would have at home.
And outside the Coliseum, an old woman with a walker wept. She had been too late to get in at all.