Saving America as evangelist opens U.S. crusade, zeal and questions

Associated Press/August 22, 2014

By Matt Sedensky

Miami -- By the time the Rev. Reinhard Bonnke edges toward the stage, anticipation in the thundering arena is swelling. The crowd of thousands has been told of his decades of preaching in Africa, the tens of millions of souls he has saved, the countless healings for which he has been a conduit and the modern-day Lazarus he saw risen. The floor is vibrating with the thumping of bass, fog blows into the air, sleek videos play on huge screens and each speaker who comes to the microphone stokes the fires of excitement.

Great things are coming. Anything is possible. Miracles will happen.

This is the cavernous home of the Miami Heat and concerts for the likes of Madonna, now serving as the Saturday-night host to a German-born Pentecostal minister most Americans have never heard of and whose stories many would discard as fairytales. He began his evangelism an ocean away and a lifetime ago amid similar doubt, only to become a household name across Africa, a magnet for colossal crowds and a fundraiser who has brought in more than $100 million since 2006. And so, answering what he says was a message from God to bring his first great crusade to this continent, the 74-year-old Bonnke walks into the spotlight with a confidence borne of decades of defying expectations.

“This is an hour of salvation,” he tells the crowd. “Miami shall be saved! Florida shall be saved! America shall be saved!”

Bonnke was born in East Prussia, the second-youngest of six children, who were shepherded by their mother to safety in Denmark as World War II raged. His father served in the German army before becoming a pastor — though he dismissed his young son’s ambitions of following him into ministry.

Bonnke says he was 10 when he heard God’s calling to preach in Africa and still a boy when he first spoke in tongues, first preached on a street corner and first won a convert. In time, his crusades all over Africa would save the souls of more than 72 million people, he claims. Some challenge his crowd counts, but the throngs became so indisputably huge that on two occasions, Nigerian crowds clamoring to touch him resulted in stampedes that killed at least 17 people. He says his largest single gathering was a staggering 1.6 million people in Lagos, Nigeria.

“A crowd is always impressed by the sum of its own number,” Bonnke said in an hour-long interview. “When people come in great numbers everybody says, ‘awwwwww.’”

After taking the stage in Miami, he outlines no transgressions for which the sinners must repent, saying it is not his place to weigh which sins are big and which are small. He makes no forays into politics, though he is a registered Republican and was preceded on stage by GOP Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who receives loud applause when he declares Christ is his savior. Bonnke’s audiences hear no soaring evangelism and no lesson in morality.

In dramatic bellows and near whispers, he returns again and again this night to the same simple theme: He tells the faithful to turn from darkness to light, from Satan to God.

He invites those ready to make a spiritual commitment to the arena’s floor — the “altar call,” in evangelical parlance — and they file from red and orange seats toward center court. A crowd amasses, arms outstretched: Some tremble and cry, some shout “hallelujah,” a few dance and one jumps up and down relentlessly.

“Jesus Christ, son of the living God: Save me now!” Bonnke screams. “Jesus! Save me now!”

At the end of the two-night crusade — a masterful, $1 million production that included a Grammy-nominated singer — Bonnke’s aides estimate 15,000 people came. But he says he measures his success most by the more than 1,800 who came to the arena’s floor to proclaim their faith and receive a booklet entitled “Now That You Are Saved.”

Almost precisely an hour after appearing, Bonnke slips off stage right with little fanfare. His mission, as always, was simply to get people to accept Christ — and so his work, for tonight at least, is done.

But the evening is far from over.

Taking the stage as Bonnke departs is the Rev. Daniel Kolenda. He is 33, with blond hair and blue eyes, wearing jeans with a jacket and a skinny tie. In 2010, he became president of Christ for all Nations, the international ministry that Bonnke started, though the elder pastor remains its CEO and headliner. Kolenda has taken over the bulk of overseas crusades, though, and this night he assumes the responsibility, too, of prayers for healing.

Belief in miracles is widespread, not just among evangelicals, but across Christianity. At Lourdes, France, a Roman Catholic shrine where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared, thousands have reported being healed, though the Catholic hierarchy has affirmed just 69 miracles in more than 150 years. Bonnke’s ministry will claim hundreds on the first night in Miami alone.

Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School who has written about Bonnke, says it remains to be seen whether his “dramatic supernaturalism” can attract American audiences. Still, she said, “He will be remembered by history as one of the most important faith healers of the 20th century. He will be known much longer than a Jimmy Swaggart or a Jim Bakker because far more people have seen this person in real life than almost any of those other cast of characters.”

Like other charismatic preachers, Bonnke has made healing a hallmark of his services, and claims those who’ve attended have been cured of everything from AIDS to cancer to paralysis.

In the most widely-told story about him, he says he witnessed the resurrection of Daniel Ekechukwu, a Nigerian man whose wife brought his body to a church where Bonnke was appearing. Both Bonnke and Kolenda claim, matter-of-factly, to have witnessed other resurrections, too, but they and their adherents repeatedly tell the story of Ekechukwu, saying there is so much evidence of a profound miracle, that it cannot be questioned.

“It is watertight. It could not be denied. And yet people still — some people — still doubt it,” Bonnke said. “Well, may God forgive them.”

On stage, Kolenda instructs those searching for a miracle to place a hand on the part of their body in need of a cure, and across the arena, people do so. The night reaches its fevered climax as he recites a litany of illnesses he commands be fixed, from blocked arteries and kidney stones to cancers and addictions.

“I command every tumor to disappear right now in the name of Jesus! I want every thyroid to go right now in Jesus’ name!” he says. “I speak to every cripple and I command those crippled legs to receive strength. Rise up and walk in the name of Jesus! Deaf ears open in the name of Jesus! Blind eyes open in the name of Jesus!”

Afterward, Kolenda asks the crowd how many experienced healing, and hands go up around the arena. Some come to the stage and testify of a malady they now believe to be gone: the pain of hernias, a sore throat, heart palpitations, sensitivity to light, and others.

An 82-year-old woman, Daphne Bonas, says she felt a heat run through her body that she is convinced has cured her bladder cancer. About two weeks later, she hadn’t yet seen a doctor to verify her healing, but she said she still felt stronger and healthier and was convinced tests would validate a miracle.

“I’m looking forward to them telling me, ‘There’s nothing there and you’re OK,’” she said.

June Williams, 77, came searching for a miracle too, after suffering a painful hip fracture in a fall. She tried to walk after the healing prayers, but only made it a few steps. She left as she arrived, in a wheelchair, and for four days afterward, was in such pain she could barely get out of bed. But she still believes in Bonnke and the power of faith healing.

“It’s not that I don’t believe,” she said. “It’s either that I’m not supposed to get better or the time has not come yet.”

Even Bonnke says he does not fully understand the healings. When his mother was dying, all of his and his family’s prayers did nothing to improve her health. He says there is no special power in his hands or his prayer. He says he’s not sure if everyone is truthful when they claim to be healed and his ministry cannot investigate each such report.

Belief in healings is a chief driver of the crowds to Bonnke’s events, as it is for preachers including Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn, two men with whom he is closely linked. Copeland has given Bonnke’s ministry millions in support; Bonnke helped preside over Hinn’s remarriage to his ex-wife last year. All three men have been associated with the so-called prosperity gospel, which stresses God will reward the faithful with health and wealth, and all three have led ministries that have made them rich.

Bonnke lives near Palm Beach in an expansive $3 million Ritz-Carlton condo with prime ocean views. Though Bonnke’s total compensation from Christ for all Nations was $178,784 last year, it was down significantly from $289,546 two years earlier, according to IRS filings.

From 2006 through 2013, Christ for all Nations received more than $105 million in donations; last year it brought in nearly $15 million, about $6.8 million from four donors alone, according to the filings and a June audit.

Its crusades are free to attend and no offering was taken at the Miami event, just as Bonnke says is the case at each of his stops.

Rusty Leonard, who runs MinistryWatch, which analyzes religious groups’ finances, says Christ for all Nations has above-average spending on fundraising and administration, but he is most concerned by the number of affiliated organizations it spends money on, and from which he says Bonnke is likely to have received additional income.

Harvester Services Inc., a for-profit corporation owned by Bonnke and his wife, publishes the pastor’s books and other media, and received $735,307 from Christ for all Nations in 2012 and 2013, according to the auditors’ report.

Launchpad School of Evangelism Inc., a nonprofit evangelistic training program, received $663,302 in grants from Christ for all Nations in 2012 and 2013, according to the audit. Bonnke serves as Launchpad’s president and it is headquartered out of his condo, according to filings with the Florida Department of State. A 2012 IRS filing for Launchpad says Bonnke received no salary for his work.

Evangelistic Resource Productions LLC, which holds footage of Bonnke’s past events and handles logistics for his crusades, was sold to Christ for all Nations in 2012 for $490,000, the audit found. That company’s ownership was unclear, but the audit said some members of the Christ for all Nations board were on the board of the entity that owns it.

“It’s a classic way to funnel money to yourself,” Leonard said. “It tells you that they’re working every angle.”

In Bonnke’s autobiography, “Living a Life of Fire,” he writes that “unbelievers assume that evangelists are all about money.” In an interview, he rejected questions about his lifestyle, saying he has no stocks or other investments, just one apartment, which he said he and his wife will sell when he’s no longer able to preach and live off its proceeds.

“Sometimes, when God blessed me with something, I would feel guilty. Then I realized this was wrong, because a blessing is a blessing is a blessing,” he said. “I had to learn my lessons through the years and I thank God for his provisions.”

He says Christ does not want people’s money, he wants their hearts. And so Bonnke will bring his crusade to Greensboro, North Carolina, on Sept. 12 and 13, then to Long Island and Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh and beyond.

He expects it will mirror his African experience, that stadiums will become too small to hold growing throngs, and that they will eventually move events to open fields. His writings are filled with numbers of those he has reached, but he refuses to limit his goal as he embarks on his American tour. He wants to win over everyone for Christ.

“He has a claim on all people. He doesn’t speak in percentages,” Bonnke says. “I will aim at the moon to reach the highest bounty.”

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