The television evangelist Benny Hinn has an audience of millions - and makes millions. David Millikan joined the throng on stage intent on asking the American preacher a tough question.
There is nothing mysterious about how you earn $US200 million ($215 million) a year promising people prosperity, healing and eternal salvation. No one knows how to do it better than Pastor Benny Hinn. I was at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre last month and saw the Hinn machine in action - healing and sucking in the money.
I went with my friend Greg Toohey, who was in a wheelchair. There is nothing wrong with him - he wanted to get on the stage in front of 8000 people and pretend he was healed. The idea was to put a question to Hinn at the moment Toohey was meant to collapse under Hinn's touch, "slain in the spirit". This was the question: "Pastor Benny, is it true that the US Senate is investigating your finances?"
No one does it like Benny Hinn. In the world of televangelists, he reigns supreme. Leadership in the charismatic movement is established through "the anointing". Theological or pastoral studies mean nothing. If people are healed and you raise a lot of money, you have the anointing.
No one churns out the healings like Benny Hinn. His This Is Your Day! show is one of the most-watched Christian TV programs, with viewers in 190 countries. In the US, it runs on paid-for air time more than 200 times a week on 80 stations. It is translated into Spanish, Romanian, Norwegian, Italian, Hindi and Tamil.
No one knows how much Hinn makes personally. In 1997 he said it was somewhere between $US500,000 and a million. More recently some documents stolen from his rubbish pointed to a salary close to $US2 million. His lawyers deny this. The "parsonage" built for him cost $US3.5 million. It has seven bedrooms, eight baths, a view of the Pacific and room for 10 cars including the odd BMW and his favourite Mercedes-Benz G500.
Last November the US Senate Committee on Finance asked for audited financial statements. It wanted detailed explanations of all compensation to Hinn, housing allowances, clothing, jewellery, personal grooming, loans, credit card statements, and a list of all vehicles and aircraft, including a $US36 million Gulfstream jet that Hinn no doubt used to fly to Australia.
Hinn is outraged by these demands and sees the hand of Satan behind them. He claims to have prayed to the Lord repeatedly: "Before I injure Your name, take me out. Before I harm Your kingdom, kill me."
We arrived at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre two hours early. Already a press of people was streaming out of the car parks, many like Toohey in wheelchairs. The air buzzed with expectancy. Some walked past offering encouragements. An elderly woman put her hand on Toohey's shoulder and said: "I have faith that the Lord will be here for you tonight. Do you?" Toohey replied: "Yes I do."
We followed the signs to the "wheelchair entrance", which took us directly to the floor of the centre and our place with the sick, behind 15 rows for VIPs. Next to us was a young man with his profoundly retarded son of three or four years. His boy showed no reaction to the world around him. With infinite and loving patience this young father tended his son, rarely taking his eyes off him, adjusting his bed in the stroller, lifting and cuddling him, putting in a dummy, offering a bottle of juice. This was a life without respite for him.
Behind us a man struggled to assemble a camp bed. Since 2.30 that afternoon he had been working to get his friend to the centre. It was a painful sight. His friend in a wheelchair was desperately sick. He was dishevelled and dirty. He had on wide-legged shorts displaying pathetically thin legs. A colostomy bag balanced on his lap. An inflatable mattress was produced and after an agonising effort it was in place. He was laid on it and his friend tenderly put a pillow under his head and laid a coat over him. Within minutes he was asleep and didn't wake until it was time to go home.
Hinn brings a large group of operators with him, veterans of a hundred events like this. A Brisbane crowd of 8000 is small stuff. They have meetings of more than a million in Kenya, Latin America and Indonesia. A couple of men I recognised from Hinn's TV show cruised the rows of the sick like sharks, looking for prospects for healing. They were not interested in the profoundly ill. The man and his boy, the poor fellow asleep on his bed, were of no use to Pastor Benny.
One of them saw Toohey and came over, sleek expensive suit, suntanned face shining, reeking of expensive perfume. "What happened, brother?" he asked.
We had rehearsed this answer. It was osteoarthritis with an infection in the synovial tissue which had deteriorated to the point that he had been confined to the chair for five years.
Toohey began: "It was while I was rock climbing … I fell off a mountain." He laughed nervously. The Hinn man laughed with him, but I was worried. I said: "This man hasn't walked for five years. That's why I brought him tonight." He looked at me: "Who are you?" "We're brothers, where ever he goes I go …"
He seemed reassured and bent over Toohey and put his mouth beside his ear and whispered. Toohey nodded and bent his head. I put my hand on Toohey's shoulder and also bent my head. For two minutes we were locked together in prayer. Toohey shifted in his chair, and began tentatively straining his left leg. The man stood up: "Do you feel anything?" Toohey stared at his leg: "I feel a sort of tingling?" The man smiled and moved back: "Brother, the Lord is going to heal you tonight … praise God … praise God." Toohey nodded and muttered: "Praise God."
Hinn preached a sermon straight out of Elmer Gantry - 1950s hellfire and damnation from fundamentalist Southern American Protestant Christianity.
Several hundred people surged to the front to pray the sinner's prayer and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as saviour. They were given a booklet by Pastor Benny and an invitation to attend a list of churches that sponsored the crusade.
Then Hinn moved to money. For 20 minutes he cajoled, prophesied, pleaded, shouted and demanded. This is the engine room of the crusade. No one does this better than Hinn. His white Nehru suit glistened like a halo in the spotlight. He moved urgently around the stage. "I'm going to tell you something. This is a prophecy. You are about to see the biggest transfer of wealth in the history of the world. You are going to see prosperity like you never dreamed of. Money is being transferred from sinners to the righteous." His voice boomed out: "Are you righteous?" "Yes," we cried. "Are you righteous?" "Yes," we cried a little louder. "This is money you never dreamed of. Are you righteous?" "Yes," we thundered.
Hinn believes the great cosmic drama of the end of the world is around the corner. Because of these unusual times, when evil will abound and God will call forth extraordinary men to great things, special things are in store.
God gives money to people who use it to preach the Gospel and show the world how wonderful it is to be a prosperous Christian. Just as the children of Israel plundered the gold of the Egyptians when they were led out by Moses, the righteous with the right faith in God will plunder the wealth of this world's sinners. That was money argument one.
Argument two: "The Jews were taught by God how to give. When they brought their gifts to the Lord, it was only the best. We have lost the gift of giving. God deserves the best. You give God the best and you'll get the best from him. Are you here for God's blessing? What are you going to give the Lord tonight?"
Money argument three is used universally in charismatic churches around Australia. It is called "sowing the seed". God rewards those who sow seeds of faith. As a grain of wheat is sown in the ground and comes up multiplied by 10, even by 100. "God will multiply your gift to him. You give him a little he will multiply a little."
The close: "The Lord is going to speak to you tonight. He is not asking you to give to Benny Hinn. This is a gift to the Lord. To some of you he will say $1000, to others $2000 or $5000, to some it may be $10,000. Don't turn your back on the Lord … "
With a 250-voice choir singing about the joys of faith, and Hinn warning us not to miss the opportunity, the envelopes were distributed around the centre. Visa, MasterCard or bank account details. He is not interested in $20 and $50 notes. Cash is small time. He needs big licks to keep his machine going. I have no idea how much he was collecting that night, but I cannot see how it would be worth it for him to come to Australia without clearing $200,000 a night. One report said his three Brisbane shows raised about $800,000.
Then came the healing time. Hinn gave us another 15-minute talk about the healing power of Jesus. His argument went like this: Jesus healed people in the Gospels. Jesus is alive today and Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. So he is healing today. "I don't care what your pastor says. I don't care what your doctor says. I can tell you what the Bible says. Jesus is here tonight and is waiting to heal you. DO YOU HAVE THE FAITH?"
Toohey struggled out of the chair and unsteadily took the handles at the back and began to move forward. I whispered: "We've got to get down the side to the front."
We found ourselves in a strange melee of people, a sad crowd urging towards the stage. If you made it, Hinn would slay you in the spirit: the final confirmation of divine intervention.
Toohey and I were stopped by a large Pacific Islander, who said kindly: "You need to stay back there." He was pointing to white tape on the floor. Why were we stopped when others were moving over? Then I overheard one of the Hinn veterans speak to another volunteer: "I told you. No one over here who is not 100 per cent healed. Don't just point - move them out."
I whispered to Toohey: "We've got to lose the chair." In a couple of minutes we were in with the 100 per centers.
The Hinn man grabbed Toohey and pulled him into the open. He put his arm behind him and pushed: "Come on brother, praise the Lord, come on." Toohey responded until he was almost running. The man stopped and put him at the front of the line. He directed a volunteer to get the wheelchair and park it at the bottom of the stage.
I took my place beside Toohey and waited. By this stage he had perfected a stunned wide-eyed look, and was holding his hands in the air. I whispered: "Have you got a follow-up question if you get the chance?" He said: "Yes, the one about Jesus." We had in mind: "Pastor Benny, why do you live in a multimillion-dollar house and drive around in a Mercedes when Jesus lived like a poor person?"
Over the next 15 minutes people struggled over the 100 per cent line and joined us along the wall. Suddenly, a huge black security guard came over and said: "You're up first." He looked at me: "You can go up with him."
We were herded to the stairs and started up. I looked at Toohey and something worried me. I grabbed him hard on the arm and whispered: "Don't you bloody fall over, Toohey."
We burst into the dazzling light and there was Pastor Benny. Up close he looked soft, almost feminine. His skin is smooth but flabby. His hands were small and the nails were highly manicured and polished. He walked towards Toohey and asked: "What has the Lord done for you?" Toohey began muttering about falling off a mountain again. Hinn looked annoyed: "What has happened?"
Toohey returned to his story about the mountain. I was muttering to myself: "The question, the bloody question." Hinn reached out and with thumb and first finger pushed on Toohey's neck. The minders behind him reached forward and pulled him back, and Toohey collapsed. Hinn moved up stage to reveal a more obvious miracle of healing. Toohey was dragged to his feet and we left the stage, collected the chair and returned silently to our seat.
So what happened? Hinn and his handlers are seasoned professionals at the miracle game. Toohey was too contained. They needed the trembling ecstasy of a person overwhelmed by spiritual power. So in a second they had him on his back.
Could it be that my scepticism blinded me to the possibility that God was in that place? Were we mocking God's work and, despite the excesses, Hinn is an instrument of healing? It is possible that a very few were healed? But I say that is despite Hinn. I judge him by the measure of the one he claims to be following. Jesus never promised people wealth, or instant healing. He didn't promise his disciples houses on the coast. Pastor Benny has recast Jesus in his own image. He has forgotten that his Lord died, humiliated, tortured, alone and penniless. But how do you sell that?
The Reverend Dr David Millikan is a Uniting Church minister. He is a part-time producer with Channel Seven and lectures at Charles Sturt University.