Holy Ghost Bartender

Tampa preacher Rodney Howard-Browne, who serves up the new wine of Christ, has been leading controversial happy-hour services for years. Now he heads to the Big Apple for a six-week crusade to win souls.

The Tampa Tribune, June 27, 1999
By Michelle Bearden

Who is Rodney Howard-Browne?

On July 7, many across America will ask that question when the Pentecostal preacher from Tampa opens his six-week revival in Madison Square Garden.

For 24 nights, he will lead what is being hailed as the largest religious event in Manhattan since Billy Graham took his historic crusade to the world-famous arena in the summer of 1957.

The revival - called Good News New York - will cost up to $10 million, including $3.2 million for arrangements at the Garden. Howard-Browne, a big man with big ideas, wants to fill the 19,000-seat arena every night with ``the unchurched and spiritually lost.''

Thousands of volunteers, including many from the Tampa Bay area, will roam the streets by day, giving away tons of food and clothing to the needy, along with free tickets to the nightly meetings.

In the New York City area, more than 2,000 churches across denominational lines - including Episcopalians, Baptists, Lutherans and Catholics - have signed on, offering their services and support for the effort.

``I think God is using Rodney Howard-Browne as his servant to orchestrate a great dramatic move of the Holy Spirit,'' says the Rev. Allan Jackson of First Park Baptist Church in Plainfield, N.J. ``This could have a ripple effect through the whole United States and possibly the world.''

Supporters say he's a visionary. A man of God leading this country into a much-needed spiritual awakening. A generous giver with a heart of gold.

``With Brother Rodney, what you see is what you get,'' says Joe Cruse, a church associate.``The man is the genuine thing.''

Critics paint a different picture. They say he's a world-class hypnotist. A manipulator leading followers into a cult. A circus ring leader making a good living.

The 38-year-old simply calls himself ``a boy from South Africa that God sent to America as a missionary.''

Religion has made him prosperous. He came to this country in 1987 with just $300. Now, he and his family live in one of New Tampa's most exclusive gated communities.

Howard-Browne is the pastor of The River at Tampa Bay, a high-energy, racially mixed church in Tampa he founded in December 1996. Nearly 1,000 people spend about four hours in a service led by ``the Holy Ghost bartender,'' as he calls himself.

Here, he serves the new wine of Christ, and they get drunk with joy. It's not uncommon for worshipers to break into uncontrollable ``holy laughter,'' shaking with mirth, dancing in the aisles or falling to the ground. Some are so affected they feel physically unable to get up, stuck in what they call ``Holy Ghost glue.'' These believers say they are ``slain in the spirit.''

The movement has swept churches in Lakeland, Pensacola, Southern California and Toronto. Although holy laughter has caused quite a controversy in charismatic circles, historians say it has been around for centuries.

``It's better than doing crack cocaine; it's better than drinking alcohol,'' says David Wilson, a 38-year-old carpenter and former substance abuser who now attends the River. ``It's a spiritual high I never want to come off of.''

Laura Corson was so struck after seeing Howard-Browne a few years ago in New Hampshire that she quit her teaching job and moved to Tampa to attend his River Bible Institute. The three- year program trains evangelists for pastoral and missionary work.

``When he prays for me, there's such a power from God that flows through him that it overcomes me and I can't stand on my feet,'' says the 25-year-old nanny.

``To the mind, it seems strange. Why would God want people to laugh and cry and things like that? But when you're healed deep inside your heart and spirit, there's a release that comes.''

THOSE REACTIONS make Hank Hanegraaff's blood boil. He's president of the Christian Research Institute in Santa Margarita, Calif., a nonprofit countercult ministry. He also hosts ``Bible Answer Man'' on more than 100 Christian radio stations nationwide.

He calls Howard-Browne ``nothing but a good stage hypnotist.''

``What he is doing is not harmless,'' he says. ``Rodney Howard-Browne is using sociopsychological manipulation tactics to make people think they've encountered God.''

In his 1997 book ``Counterfeit Revival,'' he warns about ``false prophets'' such as Howard- Browne and maintains what they are communicating has nothing to do with the Christian world view. What they are dispensing, he says, is ``fast-food Christianity.''

``So many people who come through the front door of these `revivals' end up falling out the back door into the kingdom of the cult,'' Hanegraaff says. ``He's not leading us into a great awakening ... but a great apostasy.''

Howard-Browne says his critics ``just don't get'' what he's doing. He calls Hanegraaff a ``sensationalist'' who disagrees with everything he says and does.

``I believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ; it's that simple,'' he says. As for holy laughter, the evangelist says he wouldn't give up the joy for anything. If God wants to use him in this way, he accepts it.

``It's something that just happened,'' he says with a shrug. ``But I think it's great. I've traveled and preached in enough churches with no joy that when it came along, I was very happy.''

HOWEVER, HE WON'T bring this joy to New York next week.

That's good, says Joe Davis, general manager of WMCA-AM and WWDJ-AM, two New York Christian radio stations with a half-million listeners. He once attended a Howard-Browne meeting in Long Island and was shocked by the number of people worked into a frenzy and out of control.

It was one of the ``most bizarre'' events he has witnessed.

``We're too religiously jaded here in New York to put up with sideshows like that,'' Davis says. ``I think his success will depend on whether he sticks to a straight presentation of the Bible.''

Aware that his revival needs to appeal to a mainstream audience, Howard-Browne will steer from his usual Pentecostal expression of faith. He promises a strictly evangelical meeting, with praise and worship music, speakers and a Gospel message. It will be patterned after the Billy Graham crusades.

In fact, Howard-Browne says, Graham inspired the New York event. He says the evangelist came to him in a dream two years ago and spoke to him about the 1957 crusade. During those four months, 2 million people came through the doors - and 55,000 made commitments to Christ.

When he awoke, Howard-Browne says, his pillow was wet with tears. He took the dream as a sign from God that he was meant to go to the Big Apple and launch another soul-winning crusade.

Although he's never personally talked to Graham about the dream, Howard-Browne says, he believes the evangelist would support the mission before him.

``I don't think I'm being delusional,'' he says. ``It wasn't like I had pizza before I went to bed and this was the result. This is the real thing. We're going to make this happen.'' He always knew he would serve God.

Growing up with three brothers in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, young Rodney played preacher for hours in his bedroom. He'd line up his teddy bears and give fiery sermons from the Bible.

At age 5, he committed his life to Christ. As he grew older, he had the build for rugby and played it well. But sports was only an outlet. Religion was his destiny.

At age 18, trapped in a spiritual crisis when he didn't feel a connection to God, he called for the Lord to touch him. His prayers were answered.

In his book ``The Touch of God,'' Howard-Browne remembers a ``liquid fire'' running through his body, ``like someone had poured gasoline all over me and set me on fire. My whole body was tingling. The best way I can describe it is that it was as shocking as if I had unscrewed a light bulb and put my finger in the socket.''

He was overcome with laughter from deep within his belly. He wept and spoke in tongues. He says he knew then he was plugged into ``heaven's electrical supply.'' From that moment on, Howard-Browne was ready to set the rest of the world on fire for Christ.

In 1981, he got his diploma from Rhema Bible Training Center in Johannesburg, and he married Adonica Weyers, ``my rock and best friend.''

He worked for Youth for Christ, served several churches and taught at his alma mater. Two daughters and a son were born. Then in 1987, he had another vision that changed his life.

``It was heavy in my heart to come to America,'' he says. ``Even though there are churches on every corner, there are still millions of unsaved people here.''

He says he and Adonica gave away or sold everything they owned, paid their debts and came to the United States. They established the Rodney Howard-Browne Evangelistic Association in Louisville, Ky.

The ministry put Howard-Browne on the road 46 weeks a year, a schedule he still maintains. Adonica home-schooled the children in hotel rooms of the cities where he led meetings.

In 1993, pastor Karl Strader invited him to speak at Carpenter's Home Church in Lakeland. Neither man had any idea what was about to happen. Howard-Browne was bold in his preaching as he walked the aisles of the 10,000-seat auditorium and pointed at people. Some fell to the ground, convulsing in laughter. Others wept.

As word spread of the boisterous meetings, the crowds grew, packing the sanctuary. His visit was supposed to last three weeks; it stretched into 18. He claims 18,000 conversions.

``It was a beautiful experience,'' recalls Strader. ``I was on the carpet about half the time. Rodney would just look at me and I'd go down on the power of God.''

Meanwhile, the Howard-Brownes had fallen for Tampa. They stayed in hotels here and loved the warm weather and family-oriented lifestyle. They decided to make this their home.

The ministry had prospered enough that the evangelist was able to purchase a $365,000 waterfront home in Cory Lake Isles. The 3,600-square-foot house is now appraised at $426,000.

A CHRISTIAN BIKERS association awarded him a Harley-Davidson. He purchased an 18-foot Donzi fiberglass boat. For a while, his ministry - now called Revival Ministries International - had a Gulfstream plane for jetting to meetings.

His vision for America grew to the world. The ministry expanded, run by a staff of 45 in offices in Tampa, London, Australia, the Philippines, Canada and Hong Kong. He opened a church, bookstore and Bible school.

With a schedule that can last 19 hours a day, seven days a week, Howard-Browne says he's earned everything he has. He just wishes he had more time to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

``It's not like I live in a million-dollar house, and own other homes all over the place,'' he says. ``This is it.''

Besides, he says, he believes that good works are rewarded. The more he makes, the more he gives. Last year, he says his ministry gave nearly $800,000 to missions throughout the United States and the world.

``There are blessings that come to you,'' he concedes, ``but the thing is, if that's your purpose and intent, you're going to fall short. Your purpose should really be to touch people's lives and set them free.''

Although Billy Graham encourages religious leaders to be open about their salaries and publish their finances, Howard-Browne would not disclose what he earns. He says his salary is determined by his board of directors, which is comprised of four pastors , himself and his wife. The couple does not vote on his salary.

``People get hung up on the figure,'' he says. ``But they don't take everything into account. I don't get a housing or clothing allowance. We take our kids on the road and that's very expensive.''

NOT GOOD ENOUGH, says Paul Nelson, president of the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability in Washington. Revival Ministries International is not among its 925 members.

``When you hold yourself out as a public trust, it's just good practice to be open about your finances,'' he says. ``If you're not forthright, you leave a question in the minds of your potential givers.''

For the past five years, the ministry has been audited by Katz & Kamm, a Baltimore accounting firm. But the tax-exempt church association is not required to open its books to the public.

``While I applaud them for getting the audit, I would strongly suggest they go one step further and make their records public,'' Nelson says.

Howard-Browne says he intends to do that with Good News New York, which has been established as a separate corporation. After the meetings conclude Aug. 14, he plans to publish the finances. He says he also plans to work with his board to make the records of the $6 million Revival Ministries International available for inspection.

That's the right thing to do, says Ole Anthony, of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit organization that serves as a watchdog of televangelists.

``Christianity loses its power when its leaders begin to copy the world's idea of success,'' Anthony says. ``They give themselves false degrees in order to put titles in front of their names, they live in expensive homes, they drive luxury cars. They already get their rewards while on Earth.''

Howard-Browne lists degrees from the School of Bible Theology in San Jacinto, Calif. According to his rsum, he was awarded a bachelor's, master's and doctorate of ministry between 1989 and 1992. Anthony calls the school nothing but a ``diploma mill.''

The Tampa Tribune could not find any accreditation. Howard-Browne acknowledges it's a Pentecostal correspondence school, designed for traveling evangelists like himself. He says he got the degrees to satisfy critics who say he doesn't believe in the Bible.

The Trinity Foundation has collected meeting videos of the ``Holy Ghost bartender,'' and what Anthony sees disturbs him.

``It's a phony euphoria,'' Anthony declares. ``He's telling people what they want to hear.

``What happens to these converted people when the crusade packs up and leaves town? They get depressed. They get confused. So all they can do is wait for the next one so they can go back and get another fix.'' Sometimes, in a rare moment to himself, Howard-Browne wonders what he's gotten himself into.

Raising money for the New York revival drains his time and ministry. In the last month, $450,000 has been spent on radio and television advertising alone. When a reporter mentions checking out the revival at the halfway point, he resorts to his self-effacing humor and wearily says that might not be a good idea.

``By then, it might just be me and Meadowlark Lemon playing hoops on the court,'' he says, referring to the Harlem Globetrotter who is among the revival's celebrity speakers.

His mood passes quickly. Within minutes, he's excitedly talking about future crusades in Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia. God will make it happen, he says.

He so loves this country that he and his wife Adonica plan.

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