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The God Biz - part 1

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Gospel fervor gleamed in 3,000 faces at the $30-million city arena at Charleston, W.Va. People around me, arms upraised, jerked in spasms as they loosed the unknown tongue: "Shend-a-la-goosh-a-ma. Dee-dee-dee-dee." A young woman beside me leaped and squealed. Others wiped tears, swaying and rocking.

Evangelist Ernest Angley from Akron, a squat dynamo in a toupee, evoked the passion like a symphony conductor building a crescendo. He chanted faster into the transmitting microphone concealed in his elegant three-piece suit. His voice boomed from huge banks of speakers on each side of the stage:

"You've got to have the old-time power at this final hour. How many want to be blessed during the Ernest Angley program?" All hands rose. "Just open up to God. Say, 'I'll take the anointing, Lord.' Say it: 'Lord!' " The crowd shouted, "LORD!" "All of you that God has spoken to at some time, raise your hands." Two thousand hands went up. "See, we're not so crazy. We're in touch with heaven. It doesn't matter what people say, because we're on our way to heaven. The Lord's with us! The Lord's with us! Come on, everyone: The Lord's with us! The Lord's with us!" The chant spread over the arena. Vaguely, I recalled "Gott Mit Uns" on Wehrmacht belt buckles.

While the fever was high, Angley launched a 40-minute money collection:

"Everyone say, 'Lord, tell me what to give in this offering tonight.' It's good to make a covenant with God. I'd rather give my money to God than to doctors and drugstores. I know there are some here who could make a $1,000 covenant, or $500. Don't be afraid. God will stand by you."

He asked a show of hands by all who would make a $100 covenant. Barely a dozen hands rose. He exhorted and pleaded: "Not a penny goes to me or the singers. It all goes for TV time. Your money will reach new souls. Through TV, I preach to more people every weekend than Christ did in his whole time on earth. Isn't that wonderful? And you're part of it.... Don't worry about your finances. Put it all in the hands of God."

Then he called for $50 covenants. About 100 hands went up. "All right, everyone who can make a $25 covenant, stand up and say, 'Lord, I love you.' Stand up for Jesus. Stand and say, 'I love you, Jesus'.... Now $10 covenants: Stand up and say, 'I love Jesus. I love him. I love him. I love him'.... Now $5 covenants...."

Finally, after all had stood, the stocky preacher told the crowd to sit and write checks to insert in envelopes that had been distributed. While the people wrote, Angley's gospel-rock combo - with electric guitars, trap set, and grand piano - sang about going to heaven when the Rapture comes.

Afterward, the evangelist asked everyone to wave the filled envelopes over their heads. Then he called for a second offering of dollar bills to pay $1,000 arena rent and stagehand cost. Angley asked everyone to wave envelopes in one hand and dollars in the other. An ocean of fluttering mammon engulfed us. Ushers gathered the money in buckets and took it to a locked room under the bleachers.

The show concluded with a healing line. A mother presented her brain-damaged little boy. The preacher seized him with a shrieking "Heeeaaalllll!!!" and then chortled: "He felt that, all right." Arthritic crones and hard-of-hearing laborers went through the line, many falling backward in a holy swoon when they were grabbed.

Angley also bestowed healing upon various cripples in wheelchairs in the front row. After the service, relatives wheeled them away.

In the arena lobby, assistants sold Angley books and magazines containing endless testimonial letters from followers saying their cancers or diabetes or rheumatism or warts had vanished at the healer's touch. Angley's columns say that God gave him the power to "discern spirits"; thus he can see ugly demons inside the ill. Likewise, he says, he can see an angel beside him onstage at every arena, while other angels move through crowds, plucking out demons and curing ailments.

After the show, Angley's troupe boarded two vista-dome buses and two tractor-trailers for the next city, and the next convention arena. On weekends the evangelist returns to his home base: a garish Akron cathedral that cost his followers $2.5 million. It has imported chandeliers, Italian statues, 24-karat gold veneer on the pulpit and piano, a red-lit "fountain of blood," and side-by-side pictures of Angley and Jesus. The cathedral is dedicated to the healer's late wife, who died of ulcerative colitis despite his demon-extracting powers. Her tomb is under a 23-foot-high, 20-ton marble angel on the church lawn.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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