Belief in cure attracts crowds

Faith healer runs lucrative operation

The News and Observer, North Carolina/August 31, 2008

Raleigh - Thousands of church services will take place in the Triangle today, but none is likely to match the religious -- and financial -- performance that has already come and gone in Raleigh.

Through two days of four-hour services last week, a racially diverse collection of believers crammed into Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium to receive the Holy Spirit, sing along with a rocked-out gospel band, and to maybe find a cure where doctors had failed.

They came to see the Rev. Benny Hinn, an international preacher and native of Israel who claims that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, sick people are supernaturally healed in his presence.

Where he preaches, women cry. Men do, too. And the spirit knocks people to the floor when Pastor Benny waves his hand.

Hinn is one of the country's best-known faith healers, with a television ministry that claims viewership in more than 200 countries. Earlier this month, he preached in Taipei, Taiwan.

On Thursday night in Raleigh, a boisterous crowd nearly packed the 2,300 seats of Memorial Auditorium. After a Friday morning service that filled about two-thirds of the hall, Hinn returned that evening to preach his Pentecostal-steeped, tongue-speaking Christianity to a capacity crowd, with hundreds more watching on a big-screen in the room next door.

"Hallelujah!" he would shout.

And the crowd gave it right back to him.

Hinn preaches a version of the prosperity gospel, which holds that God wants his followers to have financial wealth. To become prosperous, one must give money to God, who returns it multiplied.

"The only way to get out of debt is to give to God's work," Hinn said during the Friday morning service. He then challenged his audience. "It doesn't take a whole lot of faith for $50."

Instead, he asked for $1,000. Those who wrote checks or filled out their credit card information for $1,000 donations (the form was on the outside of the envelopes distributed by the ushers) were asked to come to the stage. About 70 did, holding their envelopes in the air.

Hinn shouted his elation.

"Thank you, Jesus!"

Despite his success, Hinn is not universally loved. A Durham street preacher protested outside Thursday night's service, shouting "Benny Hinn is a false prophet!"

In an interview, the Rev. Stephen Davey of Cary's Colonial Baptist Church was just as direct. "The long and short of it, I think he's a con man."

Ill man clings to hope

Jimmie Stewart of Wilson attended both of the evening services. Stewart, 61, had worked in construction and masonry until he had to quit due to stiffness on his left side. Stewart thought he might have injured himself on the job. His physician told Stewart he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

In conversations between the services, Stewart described the physical affects of the disease -- "it's like your body needs oiling" -- and the emotional challenge he faces with a terminal affliction: "You're not ready to die. Even though as a Christian, you're prepared to die."

On Thursday night, just moments after the service, he seemed hopeful, though, about his immediate future. Before transferring himself into his blue-padded wheelchair, the one for which his wife, Jenise, provides the muscle, Stewart spoke of miracles. He has seen them on television.

According to believers' testimony at previous events, back pain has disappeared, cancerous tumors have shrunk, and arthritis symptoms have vanished.

When asked if he thought something similar might be coming his way Friday, Stewart answered.

"That's my expectation."

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