Here’s a somewhat bizarre chapter from my book ‘The Prodigal Prophet’
It’ll let you see why I write and where I’m coming from!
SAINTS AND SINNERS?
‘Shortly after our holy laughter experience, Brett Hill, a world-famous tele-evangelist healer, rolled into town. It puzzled me that many of these professional evangelists were now visiting the Province with their show-biz crusades. Where were they during the height of the Troubles when the faithful needed their super-charged faith? Could it possibly be the number of affluent Christians in Northern Ireland that attracted them in our newly found time of peace? Surely not, for these men of God always claimed that their Divine boss had issued them their marching orders.
Brett’s organization had taken over the majority of rooms in Belfast’s leading five star hotel, he himself staying in its renowned Presidential Suite for security reasons. Apparently our itinerant friend regularly received world-wide death threats. I could nearly understand why.
Zan wisely wanted nothing to do with Pastor Hill, neither his particularly flamboyant preaching nor his holy roller road show. The opening night saw me, a solitary pilgrim, heading off alone to Belfast’s Odyssey Arena to register for the once in a lifetime event. Things didn’t start well.
“Sorry sir, you can’t take my bottle of water into the auditorium. It’s a danger risk,” ordered the burly security man.
“How come?” I innocently enquired.
Back came the insightful reply. “Sir, you might throw it at the esteemed speaker whilst he was on stage,” he answered with a tongue-in-cheek twinkle in his eye. I later discovered how close to the mark my security friend was.
Zan had forced me to leave my wallet at home so I felt smugly safe as I took my seat for the three hour show. Strangely though, only half the arena was full, the empty seats having been hidden behind large, black drapes.
“Probably not good for one’s TV audience,” I surmised.
You either loved or hated this guy, so I guessed that the conservative Northern Irish believers had given Brett a wide birth. Apparently most of the attendees were from the Afro-Caribbean churches of Manchester and London where the healing evangelist was almost idolized.
I have to admit it, though, the choreography for the show was top class. Warm up, massed choirs and soloists led us solemnly into what was referred to as God’s presence. When things came to a crescendo, onto the stage walked the man himself wearing the whitest suit I had ever seen. Brett looked really holy and other-worldly with the assistance of his very effective stage lighting. Carrying a large bible, the evangelist worshipfully joined in the singing to make us imagine that he was just one of us, a fellow follower of Jesus. The presence of security men at the side of the stage, with wrestler style necks and visible earpieces, unnerved me though. In the increasingly emotional atmosphere I became slightly paranoid, convinced that these muscle-bound bodyguards were staring straight at me and my now empty water bottle.
After a little introductory chat, Brett got down to the real business of the evening – not the eagerly anticipated healings but the offering. Before the meeting I’d sensed that I should chat to a pleasant middle-aged couple in front of me. Natives of Ballymena, the Bible belt town of Northern Ireland, George and Thelma had watched the slick preacher on religious TV. As the offering appeal began I made my apologies to my new acquaintances.
“Sorry, guys, that’s my cue for a visit to the restroom, my chance to escape.”
“Why?” they queried, looking extremely puzzled, as I scurried off without reply to the supposed security of ‘The Gents’.
As I sat pensively mulling over the events so far, I couldn’t believe my ears. Brett’s slick sales pitch was being piped into the very restroom.
“No escape for the wicked,” I sighed to myself.
The fervent financial appeal dragged on for ten or fifteen minutes. It was the most manipulative use of scripture that I’d ever heard, and I’d heard some good ones in my time. Obscure verses from Proverbs and the Prophet Isaiah were the misinterpreted missiles armed with Brett’s subliminal message for the faithful. “Give God, or rather me as his collection agent, your money and He will heal you later tonight.”
A number of folk in the crowd had come diagnosed with terminal illnesses. This manipulation of the desperate made me angry. Isaiah and Jeremiah, both leading Jewish prophets, had written to warn people about this kind of nonsense.
On my return to the auditorium, Thelma turned around to give me something.
“Dylan, it’s the offering envelope you missed during your planned absence,” she informed me with a large grin perched on her face.
Having received my new friend’s gift, I slowly began to tear it up, declaring tongue-in-cheek “Thelma, I’m afraid I’ve left my wallet at home.”
Thankfully that prophetic act is one that I haven’t needed to repeat since. Incidentally George and Thelma are now two of my dearest friends whose own sacrificial faith journey I deeply respect. It’s not easy to challenge the religious sectarianism of one’s own tribe in the buckle of any Bible Belt.
After two hours of warm-up we finally got to the healing part of the evening. Brett’s vetted sick climbed the stage steps escorted by those burly security men. My heart went out to these dear folk as they looked for their cures at the hands of ‘God’s anointed servant’. With a dramatic wave of the arm and a sometimes not so subtle push, the assembled hopeful fell like flies to the stage floor. I wasn’t impressed, though, having read articles on the effects of mass hysteria during my wilderness years. This guy was pure show business, with the main emphasis on business. If Spirit had healed anyone on a lasting basis that night, it was surely out of compassion and not a validation of the superstar’s performance.
“I think I’ve seen enough,” I concluded as I hurriedly left the arena before the end of the show. Feeling deeply discouraged about the state of our entertainment-based religion I headed back home to my wife and my wallet.