"Another man said one time Elvis Presley is the biggest thing that ever happened," the Reverend Leroy Jenkins says. "No, he wasn't, Jesus was. Amen. Elvis Presley's dead and almost forgotten; Jesus is still remembered and you haven't seen him in 2,000 years!"
The Reverend Jenkins is witnessing toacrowd of 500 hardened followers/donors on a recent Sunday evening at theCapstone Cathedral on Shea Boulevard.
Who would have guessed that the Rev would prefer Jesus over Elvis? Anybody with an eye for pop royalty would pick the Rev out of a police lineup of aging Elvis impersonators. His dubious gospel pitches all smack of considerable Elvis envy. His walk even incorporates an unhurried strut similar to the one the King employed in his Vegas/hamburger days. The Rev's feigned pompadour mocks the King's coif.
Like any Elvis get-up, the Rev's radiant red sports jacket -- worn, he asserts, so he can be seen when offstage restoring bodies and souls -- fits his persona hand-in-glove. The gold and diamond cross hanging around the Rev's neck says he knows on which side God butters his bread.
The Rev's indoctrination into the lucrative world of hawking and healing came on Mother's Day 1960, when he was in his early 20s. On that day, a broken plate-glass window severed his arm. The account, according to his bio:
"Please God, save me," he cried silently, and God restored him to his body. The doctors stitched the arm back on, put it in a cast, and sent him home, where they told him he would soon die of gangrene, for all the blood vessels were severed. In agony, with his arm petrifying [sic] within the cast, he was taken to a MIRACLE CRUSADE at the Atlanta fairgrounds, where the Reverend A.A. Allen was conducting services, and praying for the sick.
"Young man, tell these people that God will heal you," demanded the Evangelist. ... "I believe," stammered the weak and frightened young man, and at that moment the tent appeared to split open, and a giant hand appeared. "If that hand would but touch me, I would be healed," he thought, as he spoke he was filled with the Holy Ghost, and his dead fingers began to move.
"Look at him, he's using that dead hand," cried the Reverend Allen. "God has healed him and I didn't even pray for him!" His arm was instantly restored. That was the beginning of a great move of God, and since the[n] countless thousands have been healed, delivered and saved through the Reverend Leroy Jenkins ministry.
A.A. Allen would not be among those delivered. He would succumb to alcoholism. (Allen, who founded a religious colony called Miracle Valley on donated ranch land in southeast Arizona, once told an aspiring evangelist how to recognize when it was time for a revival to fold its tent and move to the next town: "When you can turn people on their head and shake them and no money falls out, then you know God's saying, "Move on, son.'")
The large pyramid that is the Capstone Cathedral is as close to garish Vegas as anything found on surrounding Indian reservations; missing only are the card dealers' chat and the endless whir of slot machines. The cathedral features a lighted apex that appears to be patterned for heavenward travel. Through narthex doors, the interior to the $10 million dig teams a tent revival feel with a sterile, air-conditioned purr.
Of the mainly African-American congregation here tonight, most are locked in studied concentration, some with bowed heads and arms held high. If nothing else, one senses a surprising note of spirituality. Onstage, a four-piece band kicks through "I Saw the Light." Off-time tambourines clang around the auditorium.
With pearly grin, semi-spiked locks, Italian suit and a carnival barker poise, "opening act" Curtis Frisby -- son of Capstone Cathedral pastor, healer and evangelist Neal Frisby -- sums up his night with this comely couplet: "Jesus can do ya/Like no other can do ya," before sending around the ushers to collect money for the obelisk parish.
Enter the Reverend Jenkins, who has Show-biz Pro written all over him. And a façade as brittle and icy as much as it appears waxed -- like a post-Trek Will Shatner. It seems bound to crack or melt, and whatever holy potency that lies beneath would stand or evaporate under the lights. But nothing ever cracks or melts; the Rev is all polished self-assurance as he spreads the good news with absolutely no hint of irony.
Organ notes hum in back of the Rev's mantra. The organist himself plays Ed McMahon to the Rev's televisual foils, frequently tossing in deep-throated guffaws, "Amens" or verbal backslaps.
The Rev explains how God told him personally that the Kennedy family is cursed. Who would've guessed it? (At last count, there are still some 80 surviving descendants of Rose and Joseph.)
But the Rev avers, "I don't make up stories."
He raves on about the evils of pastors seeking publicity and acclaim -- this from a man who has pursued publicity with all the charm and nobility of a leg-humping mutt. The Rev skewers televangelists who pawn their own videos: "Somebody needs to set these preachers down and preach to them. They are sellin' tapes for $150 on commercials on television, making an aspect of the ministry sellin' stuff. There ain't no tape worth no $150. Those tapes cost 99 cents; the more you buy, the cheaper they are."
He denounces the hypocrites among his peers: "How in the world can people read the Bible, explain it to other people, then go out and do worse than the people that they are talking to?"
The Rev fumes against media, machines and supermarket employees who cheat us with too many beeps in check-out lines. "Machines can't pray," he says.
In his genteel way, the Rev is a master at subliminal solicitation. "Ladies and gentlemen, let me say this to ya," he coos. "All that we have belongs to God. All that we will ever have belongs to God."
The Rev's donation envelope -- handed to each person upon entering -- includes a line for a credit-card number and expiration date.
His book, As the Wind Blows Over the Life of Leroy Jenkins, published in '91, is a low-rent pastiche of gloating homilies and fawning news clippings dated from the Seventies. It goes for $15. In it, the Rev boasts of his ranking among America's elite evangelists, his multimillionaire status, his erstwhile bid for the Ohio governorship, his mansions and his immense fan base. It serves up pics of the Rev with such life-affirming C-listers as Bo Derek, George Raft, Rock Hudson, Telly Savalas, Mike Mazurski and Liberace. It says that the Rev even went to Graceland and got to hang with The King.
Hey, the Rev met The King!
But nowhere in this book's 212 pages can a critical word be found. Of course not:
"Countless millions would hear and see the miracles that God would work, after Leroy Jenkins prayed for the sick and afflicted, and the television cameras would record the results. Thousands and thousands of people would be healed, delivered from drugs through the ministry of this charismatic young preacher. Thousands of news stories would appear in papers all across the country, as everyone followed the eventful career of the greatest evangelist of the age."
The Rev tells us he is only concerned with our health and welfare as far as Christ is concerned. He explains that he is grateful that we have come out tonight. Stepping into the audience, he chooses a woman from near the front and takes her mental inventory. The woman, he says, has cancer. He asks if they know each other, if they have ever spoken. She answers no.
"Where do you go to church?" he asks.
"I don't," she answers, crying.
The Rev places his hand on her forehead and announces he has the power of God, and that God is a cancer killer. The Rev then rids the woman of cancer and she falls back into the arms of a couple of goons. They place her flat on the floor where she remains. The crowd applauds heartily.
Moments later, he helps a woman with an ailing career. She weeps. He blesses her and tells her she will have a better job and an education to understand computers.
He helps others, placing his hand on their foreheads, then pushing them back into the arms of his goons. The crowd approves. The crowd always approves.
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The faith here is a costly one. Before the night is through, after much healing and blessing, the Rev hits up many for sizable chunks of their incomes. He reminds us of upcoming TV appearances. All this and he swears he's not commercializing God.
And the people surrounding me tote babies or families, or lovers, while othershave arrived alone and will leavealone. They have willing faces, headlong faithand a communal sense of attachment andbelonging; they are the innocent ones.
And for many, the Rev has completely altered the course of their way of thinking and, subsequently, their lives. But their inspiration is real, falling just short of religious ecstasy.
And in the end, it is the Rev fading away to a nonspecific blur; somewhere just south of Graceland, no doubt. photos by Paolo Vescia