On the first day, God created the line.
The line, 100 people strong, wound through the cramped lobby of the Town & Country Hotel and Resort in San Diego, a sprawling mid-grade property studded with those high King Palm trees that aren’t native to California. In the line, ever so slowly, the pilgrims moved closer to salvation with each step.
There were elderly black church women with their husbands in sober suits. There were white Midwestern mom types with sensible short hair and sweaters. There were men with bushy Wild West mustaches and dusty t-shirts. There were families from Mexico, and the Caribbean, and the Philippines. And very soon, with god’s grace, all of us would be checked in for the beginning of the 45th annual Morris Cerullo World Evangelism Conference—in time, we hoped, to TAKE HOLD of the promised DOUBLE-DOUBLE PORTION anointing, which will release HEALINGS, MIRACLES, FINANCIAL BREAKTHROUGH, and PROSPERITY like never before. For on that day, this conference constituted the very epicenter of the global “prosperity gospel” theology: the strain of Christian belief that teaches that god wants you to be not just happy but rich—and that the only way to show god that you deserve his financial blessing is to give to his earthly representatives, as lavishly as you can.
Beside me in line was a tall and jittery man in a dark suit and shades, possessed of the greatest possible amount of outgoing-ness that can be bestowed on any person. He was the sort of man who would never stop talking, ever, under any circumstances. At least not until Jesus returned. He was an itinerant preacher in Los Angeles who preached on buses, and on the streets, and anywhere else where needy people were available to hear his message.
“You here for the conference? Where you from? How long you been with Morris? I been with him 30 years,” he said. “Thirty five years ago I was a drug dealer, I was getting high. I haven’t got high in 35 years. Well, I haven’t paid to get high— I got the Most High!” He was already energized by the prospect of what was to come. “We gotta be radical for Jesus! Just like ISIS and them radical for the devil… I’m thinking of moving to a new city. Church in L.A. is like a fashion show. I’m out here with the homeless. You can’t get these other preachers out here. There ain’t no money in the poor! You gotta give a man some shoes before you can preach the gospel to him. You gotta sow that seed. You gotta give that last dime.” Occasionally he would become so invigorated by his own message that he would start dancing a little jig right there in line. Once or twice his well-intentioned spittle flecked my contact lenses as he spoke.
“I say scare the hell out of you—scare the devil out of you. That’s my thing. I don’t know any other preachers that say that,” he said. “When I was preaching on the bus, this young guy, he looked like a gang banger. But he came up to me and said, ‘What was that you was saying?’ I took him right out and laid him on his back on the platform and laid hands on him and anointed him.” He reached into his coat pocket and whipped out a vial of holy oil the color of urine. “I keep one on me!” he said. At that, a short and kindly older man in front of us reached into his pocket and produced a matching vial. “I keep one on me too,” he smiled.
By the time the line finally wound around towards the front desk, my new friend had gone full circle in his spiel and started preaching it all over again from the start. Upon hearing that this was my first of these conferences, he promised me that I was in for a life-changing awakening. He assured me that I would be speaking in tongues before the week was out.
“Anybody asks you why you’re here—” he said, “Tell em god sent you!”
“And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’”
- Acts 2:40
What does god want for you? Does he want you to abandon worldly goods, and dress in rags, and live as a monk? Or, on the contrary, does he want you to enjoy all of the prosperous things that this world affords, as a reward for your faith and obedience to him? Those who preach the prosperity gospel argue the latter, and few have argued it longer or more successfully than Morris Cerullo. For half a century, he has travelled the world, preaching before crowds that routinely number in the tens of thousands, promising that the sick will be healed and the poor will be rescued through sheer faith in the power of Jesus. Taking in many millions of dollars in donations from believers, Cerullo has built a worldwide ministry that includes a publishing arm, extensive TV broadcasts, and an entire family of televangelists and megachurch preachers across the world who call Morris Cerullo “Papa” and credit him with being their “spiritual father.” His ministry is in the midst of raising money to build an 18-acre “Legacy Center” in San Diego that will include corporate headquarters, a gospel training school, gardens, a museum, a movie theater, restaurants, and 127 luxury timeshares. He has been derided by secular types as a fraud, and even blamed for the death of an epileptic girl who stopped taking her medication as a result of his faith healing, but his popularity with true believers persists. Each year, thousands of the faithful gather for an annual conference: five days of marathon preaching, worshiping, miracles, and—most prominently—requests for donation. For it is only through reaping that we may sow; and it is only by giving past all reasonable bounds of generosity that the faithful can hope to win enough of god’s favor to collect on the double anointing that Papa so confidently promises is waiting for us.
Inside a conference center the size of an airplane hangar, row after row of white chairs were laid out on a broad blue carpet. The raised stage, rimmed by heavy blue curtains, was flanked on each side by big screens projecting the proceedings towards those in the back. The stage held not just whatever preacher was hollering at the moment, but a cast of holy musicians and a dozen or more other preachers sitting in chairs off to one side, looking professionally enthralled. A camera platform stood in the middle of the room, recording the events for the livestream; off to one side, a robotic camera on a boom took crowd shots. On one wall hung a banner about 15 feet square showing Morris Cerullo with a raised fist with the inscription “Declaring War on the Devil’s War!” Outside in the lobby, vendors sold prayer shawls and anointing oil ($5) and Jesus art and DVD sets of previous conferences ($210) and a wide variety of books with titles like “Demolishing Demonic Strongholds” and “Dancing With Islam’s Assassins.” Also available was a handsome, leather-bound “Financial Freedom Bible” for $69.95. It worked; by not buying it I had already put myself measurably ahead.
The three daily revival sessions all began with an hour or so of rocking hymns before the guest preacher of the day began his presentation. There was a fat soul singer and a peppy British Christian version of Michael Kiwanuka who reliably got everyone on their feet, along with woman who played the violin who reliably got everyone sitting down again. It was not possible to sit meekly in back while the hymns were sung. The singers were fond of instructing the crowd to turn and greet one another and utter some holy affirmation, which I had to do repeatedly in order to avoid the risk of being exposed as a heathen. “Shake three people’s hands and tell them, ‘Today is your day!’” they’d say, and then you’d have to do it, with enthusiasm. If you didn’t, someone else would grab you and say it to you anyhow. Might as well go along with it. There was no hiding in this crowd. Early on, it was possible even to enjoy it by maintaining an appreciation for the novelty of the unfettered friendliness of such a thing. The very first evening, I sat next to Brian, a nice, unassuming twentysomething young man from San Diego in an unfashionable outfit who warned me right up front, “This city needs god. It is pretty sinful.” As the ecstatic hymn reached its crescendo, they told us to high-five someone and say, “You’re blessed!”
“You’re blessed!” I said to Brian, high-fiving him.
From the row ahead of us, a tan man with a mustache and a mullet and the irrepressible energy of Will Ferrell’s male cheerleader character reached back as well. “You’re blessed!” I said, high-fiving him. I got carried away, lost in the moment. I turned to high-five the person standing behind me, a pretty young woman. “You’re blessed!” I exclaimed. She gave me a weak tap on the hand and a weird look. Not even Jesus has the power to salve a burn like that.
We were treated to a video greeting from Morris Cerullo himself. He is a short man with receding brown hair and pale skin and the wheezing, choked voice of Darth Vader with his helmet removed. Now 84 years old, he has reached the age when his skin begins to tighten noticeably against his skull. He referred to himself as “Papa,” and to his wife Theresa as “Mama,” and was fond of stating “I love you” in a singsong voice to all who were listening, in the manner of talking to an infant. He had been recently afflicted with “wounds” on his legs, he explained, but was now “completely healed” thanks to our prayers. To demonstrate, a graphic photo of a suppurating leg wound was displayed on the big screen. When it appeared, one woman in the audience reached towards it, as if wanting to heal it from afar with her touch.
The opening night’s act was supposed to be Jonathan Cahn, a Jewish preacher who caters to fundamentalist Christians by preaching about various “Harbingers” that point to the end times coming, as well as by cracking a few jokes like “I don’t like football—it’s a bunch of huge Gentiles chasing around a non-kosher pigskin.” Cahn didn’t make it due to mechanical problems with his plane, which presumably were not willed by god. Instead they showed a video of his sermon. If I am not mistaken, he made these points: the World Trade Center was built in the same year that abortion was legalized, which is a Harbinger of the end times; the Freedom Tower that was built after 9/11 is akin to the Tower of Babylon, and a Harbinger of the end times; the White House lit up in rainbow colors after the legalization of gay marriage is a Harbinger of the end times; his church in New Jersey was shut down for some reason and then a Walmart moved into the space and the Walmart now sells his book, which is a Harbinger of the end times; and several other things are Harbingers of the end times, as well. I don’t want to give too much away. There was also a load of numerology tied to the idea of the SHEMITAH, which, if you don’t already know, is a thesis of sorts about how every seven years some good stuff happens and how every seventh seventh year, the Year of Jubilee, some really good stuff happens—and, if you can believe it, that year of Jubilee is this very year, in which we sit. Purchase Jonathan Cahn’s bestselling book “The Mystery of the Shemitah” for more clarity on this point. It is possible there are other numbers involved that I’ve left out.
“Now when Simon saw that the spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!’”
- Acts 8:18-20
Charismatic Christianity can be very charismatic indeed. Its message is faith, and if you buy into that faith, it is set up so that no fact in the world can ever dissuade you. All good things that happen are due to god’s blessing. All bad things that happen are due to the devil, or are a test from god. All inexplicable things that happen are god’s will and must be accepted rather than questioned. When you feel that your faith is at its lowest point, that is when you are required to exhibit that faith the most. There is no occurrence or line of argument that cannot be deflected by this paradigm. There is no argument against this brand of belief. God is perfect; we are flawed. Thank him for what goes right; blame yourself for what goes wrong.
This leaves immense power in the hands of those who are seen as qualified to interpret the will of god. Pastors and preachers are as close as any regular person can get to Jesus for the time being. Their words are taken as undiluted wisdom. It is easy to imagine how many people could be taken advantage of if any of these pastors were unscrupulous. Fortunately, the pastors at this particular televangelist conference were all, we were often reminded, “incredible men of god.”
On Sunday, a preacher from Mexico remarked that a devastating hurricane that approached his country last year had been stopped short by the power of Jesus: “They say that the hurricane hit a spiritual wall and could not enter Mexico.” It was comments like these that could force an outsider—a meteorologist, say—to reckon with the wide gulf between what they believed and what was being taken as fact in this setting. If you are able to suppress the rational side of yourself enough to bridge that gap, you will be rewarded with the ecstasy that seemed to fill everyone in the convention, like the white-haired older man who prowled the aisles shouting “Jesus! Fire! The power of the holy ghost!” and who I saw one day lying face-down on the carpet, completely still, in what I hope was prayer. Or like the old hippie woman with long grey hair and a flowing dress who spent hours in the back of the room waving a flag that showed a dove splayed atop a large rainbow, with a Star of David crowning its head, and the words “Pray For The Peace of Jerusalem.” I imagine it is a satisfying feeling to wave a flag so grandly. (It turned out that her flag-waving was at least in part a sales pitch, because she was selling the flags out front. The next day, a large woman in a leopard-print dashiki was waving the very same flag so energetically in the aisle that I was obliged to take two steps to the side to avoid having my eye whipped out by the flagpole. A few minutes later that flagpole did indeed smack the face of a passing old woman, who responded only with a gentle pat on the dancing flag-bearer’s shoulder.)
Sunday morning, we were treated to a sermon by Mike Murdock, a rather notorious Texan televangelist who bears a passing resemblance to Kenny Powers. He was wearing some sort of silken black robe with red piping, giving him—at least from my vantage point in the back of the room—the appearance of a vampire Elvis impersonator.
“Kiss your Bible,” he instructed us in a deep, syrupy Southern accent. “Now rub it over your face. Stroke your Bible.” Murdock told the crowd that if they lacked prosperity, it was because they had not prepared themselves properly to receive the blessing that god had waiting for them; it was necessary to train ourselves to be “world class receivers” if we hoped to reap what we sowed. “A poor man believed the wrong voice. The prosperous man believed the right voice,” he said, referring to his own voice.
Murdock had mastered the preaching technique of taking some mundane string of words and repeating each syllable in such an emphatic way that the statement became imbued with a palpable sense of meaning that was not, objectively speaking, there. “Wis-dom. Is the a-bil-i-ty. To rec-og-nize diff-erence,” he would say, pausing heavily. “Wis-dom is the ability to rec-ognize dif-rence,” he would repeat, almost whispering. The rhetorical effect was that you felt that you were hearing a profound bit of knowledge, even though if you really think about it, he was not even giving a semi-accurate definition of “wisdom.” Repeated deliberately two or three times with increasing fervor, even the most pedestrian of observations seems a revelation. This is a technique deployed by every evangelist, and it works quite well. Use it in your daily life and see if you do not gain esteem from your confused neighbors.
That evening, Morris Cerullo appeared on stage in the flesh before the adoring crowd. From a wheelchair, he croaked to us that our presence that very evening was no accident, but rather an occurrence ordained by god. As he spoke, more and more people rose from their seats and splayed their hands high, like sunflowers reaching towards heaven.
“Sabababababa. Sandelamoniaha!” Cerullo exclaimed. “Those of you that have the gift of speaking in tongues… lift your voice!” All around, the babbling began. “Eyyyoo. Sabakakay. Ooooo, babababa!” said a woman to my side. “Gasteesdemashonananana. Ooofrabababababa,” said a man behind me. Others just said “B-b-b-b-b-b-b,” like a baby blowing his lips. It was rather embarrassing not to be speaking in tongues. After several minutes, Cerullo put his hand on his heart, gazed towards the roof, and began speaking reverently of “the double portion blessing” that loomed in our future. The crowd was rapturous. Orgasmic expressions abounded on the faces of prim middle-aged women. At one point Cerullo’s eyes glazed over and he cried, “Do you see that mountain? Look at the mountain!” The crowd clapped—yes, we could see the mountain. It was the exact plot of “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” come to life.
At last, we all fell silent. Cerullo told us to look at our neighbor and repeat these words: “Tonight, you will receive the gift of supernatural ability and NOTHING shall be impossible.” A few rows ahead of me, a dapper Indian man was sitting and praying with a crewcut young man in wheelchair. With great gravity, Cerullo yelled, “Now stand on your feet!” The Indian man gave a regretful look, and rose. The man in the wheelchair did not.
“We all growl like bears; we moan and moan like doves; we hope for justice, but there is none.”
- Isaiah 59:11
Three times a day, before each sermonizing session, a fresh white offering envelope was laid upon each of the thousands of chairs in the convention center. The envelopes included suggested donation checkboxes for amounts ranging from $116 to $1,016, or a space to write in an even greater gift. White buckets sat at the end of each row to collect them all. Also passed out to all of us during the conference were donation envelopes for the Morris Cerullo Jewish World Outreach Pavilion; donation forms for the Morris Cerullo Ministries monthly partnership; registration envelopes to reserve a spot at the Morris Cerullo Worldwide School of Ministry in Orlando this September; a Morris Cerullo World Conference DVD/CD order form; and pamphlets on how to plan to leave money to Morris Cerullo World Evangelism in your will or trust.
Prosperity gospel preachers practice varying degrees of shamelessness. Some build a case for generosity based on selective quoting of scripture and then allow the suggestion to donate to float over the crowd as an omnipresent implication. Others go directly for the wallets. John Avanzini, a veteran televangelist in a slick suit, was the conference’s first stark example of the latter type. Morris Cerullo likes to promise people a double anointing, or sometimes a “double double anointing”—a return of their donations four times over, from god. John Avanzini did not dawdle in such single digits. “It’s in this room. Seldom have I felt it like this night,” he intoned. “I’m gonna speak finances—I’m gonna speak that hundredfold increase tonight! God will take whatever you put into the hands of this prophet tonight and give a hundred fold increase.”
It is worth pausing to wonder why people come to these events. At its core, this conference is a five-day marathon at which people are asked to give money to evangelists several times per day. The hymns and the band and the dancing are all just warmup acts to the main event: the stemwinder sermons concluding with an order to give. It is a financial BDSM relationship, without the sex. Why subject yourself to such a thing, voluntarily? Why not just sit by the pool? It is easy to understand poor people going into preaching as a vocation—all of the preachers were in possession of very nice suits—but it is harder to understand merely being a member of the congregation. The answer is that people do not come here to give; they come here to get. People follow the prosperity gospel for the same reason that they buy lottery tickets: they hope that their investment will be multiplied many times over. And, like the lottery, most of the players here are poor people. The fervent faith required to buy into this promise is a type of faith born only from desperation.
John Avanzini paced the stage, warm now. “I’m gonna ask god to speak to your heart now and tell you what to give,” he said. “I thank you god that this night is a financial miracle night. In Jesus name, amen.” He was waving around a donation envelope. He told the crowd that the time had arrived, and well over half of the people in the house trooped up to the stage with their envelopes and dropped them on the stage. “If you’re watching on the internet, make your offering now,” he said. A sickening feeling rose in me as I watched the procession of retirees and working families tossing their money onto the pile. At that moment it felt as if the charming vampire had finally flashed his teeth. Before he stood to pray over the pile of offerings, I noticed Avanzini cram his own envelope back into his pocket.
In the coming days, preachers laid hands upon the faithful to heal them as they crowded around with grasping arms; they told frail old people to run using the power of god, sending them hobbling slowly if purposefully through the aisles; they prophesied that 2016 would be a year of JUBILEE; they called the devil many rude names; and they instructed how to “activate the blood of Jesus Christ” and “bring things from the heaven realm to the earth realm” and “embrace the double portion anointing.” No one brought all of these talents together as forcefully as a holy man by the name of Steve Munsey, the pastor of an Indiana megachurch with 30,000 members and a Starbucks in its lobby. Munsey sported a well-tailored light grey banker’s suit and floppy blond hair that took on crazy shapes as he grew sweatier and sweatier. “You may have to pardon my sweat,” he said halfway through his testimony. “I feel like Mike Tyson! The good Mike Tyson.”
To call Munsey’s sermon meandering would be an injustice. From politics to scripture to pop culture to supernatural miracles to pure standup comedy it did indeed meander, but always towards a goal that grew ever more certain with each passing minute. “If you wanna be wealthy you gonna have to start saying amen to business,” Munsey declared. “This is the year that god is gonna speak to your debt!” Perhaps realizing that such a declaration is quantifiable, he added, “It’ll start this year—the completion of it may happen next year.” Regardless, we were assured that god would supernaturally baptize us with the spirit of wealth… if. If! “If you know the season and you know the declaration, you will proclaim it, and it will be jubilee unto you.”
It’s just that simple.
Munsey boasted of his $20 million church, attended by R. Kelly (or Robert, as Munsey called him) as a snippet of “I Believe I Can Fly” played right on cue. Here he was, Steven Munsey, a man of god, a man of the people, come to save the needy from the predations of the brainiac elites. “If you’re sitting there, B.B. Brain, judging my tie, you need to go get a hamburger. I’m talking to real people… I’ve come to release it. For those that don’t believe it, you’re like the religious people who want to kill Jesus!” He dove into a long, very long, play-acting version of a Bible story of the old sickly woman who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ robe, a performance that entailed Munsey crawling back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, alternating pep rally preaching with exaggerated fits of fake coughing. After nearly 40 minutes of this, someone handed him a white hand towel. He wiped his dripping sweat, then leapt up and hollered, “Stand on your feet and shouttttttt!”
The crowd complied. Munsey called for a vial of anointing oil, which was delivered. He poured it onto the sweaty towel, held it aloft and declared, “Morris Cerullo, this afternoon I will lay this on you and if your leg isn’t healed I will never preach again! A miracle will occur.” Then he waded into the throbbing crowd, two security escorts at his side, the towel held high above his head. The crowd rushed him like teen girls descending on a tween pop star, everyone stretching desperately to touch the hallowed rag. “Don’t push me,” Munsey repeated again and again as he was propelled down the aisles. “Don’t break my fingers. Just touch it. Don’t grab it.”
A short woman with black hair appeared in front of me, her eyes wide. “I touched it,” she said, grabbing my hand momentarily in her oily grasp, transferring its blessing to me. When Munsey had fought his way back up to the stage, sweat stained his lapels. The crowd was fully in his grasp. Warbling in holy tongues spread throughout the room. “Satan is afraid of your heart,” he crowed from the stage. “Because what’s in your heart comes out. And your money is in your heart.” Fully aware of his power, he made his demands: he told us he wanted 200 people to come forward with $500 each, and 300 people with $200 each, and 500 people with $100. It was the boldest and most specific monetary demand I had heard yet. And they came. The people came. Women and men and couples and grandparents in sensible shoes, trooping up the aisle when summoned. He called for all the $500 donors first, and hundreds of people rose from their seats and walked up, depositing their envelopes and checks atop the holy sweat cloth that now sat on stage. Munsey praised a 101-year-old woman who donated $516 to his cause. “Her blood is gonna be healed,” he assured us. “Hallelujah!” she chirped, before tottering back to her seat with an escort at each elbow. Next he called the $200 donors, and the $100 donors, and with each call hordes of new people approached the stage to give. Assuming they all represented their donations truthfully, Munsey collected a six-figure treasure in a matter of minutes. As the people came he flicked the sanctified towel in their direction, just brushing their fingertips. The music played with more energy, urging everyone on. When almost everyone in the building had emptied their checkbooks, he tossed the cloth high into the air. “When this cloth hits the stage, you gotta act like you’re the wealthiest person in the world!” It did, and they did. Everyone cheered, and danced, and clapped. And Steve Munsey paraded around the stage, pressing the cloth on the foreheads of others, each of whom collapsed in ecstasy.
“Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.”
- Psalm 73:12
Even if you give these preachers the benefit of the doubt—that is, if you assume they are religious people who believe the things they are saying, rather that viewing them as outright con artists—it still leaves the fact that they are sucking up an enormous amount of resources from the poor in order to do nothing more than perpetuate and expand an elaborate system for selling false hope. Even in the most generous view of the prosperity gospel, it is difficult to imagine it having any true social utility, much less one concomitant with the size of the donations it is extracting from people who could really use that money in a retirement savings account. At best this sort of churchgoing is entertainment. A temporary balm for troubles, and one worth paying something for, but a movie ticket is only ten or fifteen bucks. The price of two hours of Christianity seems outrageously high.
So when the Rev. Gary Whetstone leaves his booth selling DVDs in the lobby long enough to take the stage and order this distinctly not wealthy group of people to make sure their donation is large enough to “create a want in your life,” or when Kenneth Copeland, the crooning Pat Boone of televangelists, tells them that he personally saw proof of a devout Nigerian pastor whose artificial elbow was replaced with a real elbow by Jesus one miraculous night and that they can be blessed with miracles as well in exchange for ample monetary demonstrations of their faith, it is not necessary to descend into a religious argument over the value of this advice. A financial argument will do just fine. If god invented anything, he invented math. Holiness doesn’t pay. There are plenty of devout people who are still poor. But the principles of compound interest will never change.
One night, as Morris Cerullo sat on stage evangelizing on the gift of speaking in tongues, the telltale signs of a fight in the crowd arose up front. Several rows of people jumped up in their seats; alarmed murmurs ran through the surrounding audience. A handful of large men in suits rushed towards the aisle, and emerged dragging a shorter, disheveled man who was bucking wildly. His arm twisted behind his back, they muscled him roughly down the furthest aisle, struggling the whole way. Just before they shoved him bodily through the exit doors, he raised his head and howled, “It’s the word of god!”
“Breathe, breathe,” Papa said.
“Damn,” I said.
“Bbbbrrrluplupluplup,” the woman behind me said in a holy tongue.
And only god knows whose words he chose to hear.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photos via author/ Twitter.]