For Critics of Extravagant Faith Healer Benny Hinn, the Good Book Isn’t Enough. They Want His Ministry to Be an Open Book.
Los Angeles Times Magazine, July 27, 2003
BY WILLIAM LOBDELL, Times Staff Writer
The hands of faith healer Benny Hinn—tools of a televangelist recognized around the world—are slim, almost feminine. The fingers are delicate, nails manicured and polished. A gold wedding band, so wide it covers the bottom of his left ring finger from knuckle to knuckle like a piece of copper pipe, bears the insignia of his church. The dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, sparkles with a cluster of diamonds.
These small, soft hands could be one of two things: anointed by God to heal the sick, or props in a televangelist money-making scheme that preys on the vulnerable. Shades of gray aren’t a part of the Benny Hinn story.
Financially, at least, he’s the world’s most successful faith healer, having received $89 million in donations last year, according to officials with his ministry, World Healing Center Church. His followers pack stadiums here and abroad for his free events called “Miracle Crusades.” He conducts about 24 of these each year, traveling in a leased Gulfstream jet. Attendance averages 50,000 to 60,000 people over two days, with a crusade in Kenya two years ago drawing 1.2 million worshippers, organizers say.
From his broadcast center in Orange County, Hinn’s “This Is Your Day” show is one of the most-watched Christian TV programs in the world, with viewers in 190 countries. In the U.S., it runs on purchased air time more than 200 times each week on 80 stations, ministry officials say. The shows are translated into Spanish, Romanian, Norwegian, Italian, Hindi and Tamil.
In response, a pack of self-deputized watchdogs has made a cottage industry out of critiquing and mocking Hinn. They check the pastor’s broadcasts for theological oddities such as this one: “Adam was a super-being when God created him. I don’t know whether people know this, but he was the first superman that really ever lived. . . . Adam not only flew, he flew to space. With one thought he would be on the moon.”
They also hold up unfulfilled prophesies as evidence that Hinn is a charlatan: “You’re going to have people raised from the dead watching [the Trinity Broadcasting Network]. I see rows of caskets lining up in front of this TV set . . . and I see actual loved ones picking up the hands of the dead and letting them touch the screen and people are getting raised.” And they monitor, as best they can, the results of Hinn’s Miracle Crusades, events that they believe give false hope to the sick and handicapped.
“Of course it bothers me,” says Hinn of the criticism that often focuses on his lifestyle. He lives with his wife and three children in a multimillion-dollar oceanfront mansion near the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point. “I know me, and those close to me know me. But sadly, the outside world thinks I’m some kind of a crook. I think it’s time for me to change that.”
Hinn, 50, is known to casual channel surfers as the televangelist with the thick Middle Eastern accent, the white Nehru jackets and the swirl of salt-and-pepper hair that’s been described as a soufflé. He’s perhaps most famous for the seeming ability to send believers fainting backward with a flick of his hand. As the climax of each crusade, Hinn touches devotees—people who say they have just been healed—and they fall over onstage, arms and legs shaking, eyes rolling up in their heads. They are said to be “slain in the Spirit”—overcome by God’s presence. Sometimes it only takes a mighty wave of Hinn’s hand, and entire sections of an arena crowd fall back in their seats.
But now, Hinn says he wants the public to know more about him than the controversies, or his physical appearance and showmanship—distinct enough to be mimicked by Steve Martin in the 1994 movie “Leap of Faith.”
He admits that even one of his daughters, now 11, had a difficult time figuring him out: “One day she asked me a question that absolutely blew me away—from my own child! ‘Daddy, who are you? That man up there [onstage], I don’t know.’ If my own child is asking that, surely the whole world is asking that.”
The pastor says he’s come to believe that his insular ministry needs to be open to public scrutiny for its prosperity to continue. The secrecy, Hinn says, has led to unflattering exposés in the media, including several network television investigations.
The latest was an hourlong “Dateline NBC” special in December that revealed allegations of financial impropriety by one of Hinn’s former associates, dubious claims of healings and details of the pastor’s luxurious lifestyle. Hinn tried to limit the damage by rebutting the charges in front of faithful viewers on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or TBN.
Looking into the camera, Hinn said the attacks were orchestrated by Satan and that he has prayed to the Lord repeatedly that before “I injure Your name, take me out. Before I harm Your kingdom, kill me.” The spin didn’t work. Donations dipped by 12% for the first quarter of this year, say ministry officials, a result of bad publicity and the weak economy that has hurt other nonprofits.
In an attempt to clear up his image, Hinn suggests meeting a Times reporter at the Four Seasons hotel in Newport Beach. Accompanied by bodyguards, Hinn arrives in his new Mercedes-Benz G500, an SUV that retails for about $80,000. He is dressed casually in black, from designer sunglasses to leather jacket to shoes. His trademark hair has been brushed forward, bangs hanging over his forehead like Caesar. Joining him at a table in the hotel’s restaurant are a public relations consultant and two ministry associates, while his bodyguards and another public relations man wait in the lobby. Hinn fiddles with his cell phone, which sports a Mercedes logo.
Because the World Healing Center Church is recognized as a religious institution, Hinn is not obligated under federal law to release information publicly about its revenue or the identities of its board of directors. But at this meeting, he says he has nothing to hide.
“I’ll tell you this,” Hinn says, a likable guy who is bewildered that he could generate so much hostility. “I’m an open book. I think it’s time for me to just say, ‘Let me give you the blunt truth.’ “
That’s easier said than done. First, Hinn declines to divulge his salary. (He told CNN in 1997 that he earns between $500,000 and $1 million annually, including book royalties.) “Look, any amount I make, somebody’s going to be mad,” he says.
He offers to make available his ministry’s general financial picture, along with access to his accountant—both unprecedented. “When it comes to the income of the ministry, I have no problem talking about it or what happens to the money,” Hinn says. “We believe our partners are entitled to know what happens to their money.” But two weeks later, he backtracks, saying his board won’t allow it.
The pastor also promises to expand the ministry’s three-member board—the guardians of the nonprofit—and to reveal their names. If they don’t like the exposure, Hinn says, they can resign. Several months later, a Hinn spokesman says the board was expanded to five members, but the names will remain secret “for the board members’ security.”
But just before this story went to press, Hinn and his board changed their minds and had their public relations consultant provide the names. The board veterans are Hinn; Bill Swad, described as an Ohio businessman who authors books such as “Don’t Let Satan Steal Your Harvest”; and Steve Brock, a pastor and featured soloist for the Miracle Crusades. New members, according to the ministry, are Bob Inello, a businessman from Boston, and Doug Wead, former special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and author of “All the President’s Children.”
Hinn does reveal that the $89 million taken in by his church in 2002 is a record for his Grapevine, Texas-based ministry, which has experienced double-digit growth during the past three years through direct-mail requests, viewer donations and offerings taken at the Miracle Crusades. By comparison, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn. had revenues of $96.6 million in 2001, the last year available.
Many of Hinn’s financial practices go against those set forth by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an organization that gained popularity after the televangelist scandals of the 1980s as Christian groups sought legitimacy in the eyes of donors. The council’s standards include maintaining an independent board of directors with at least five members and allowing the public to view its finances.
Dan Busby, the council’s vice president, says the lack of financial transparency in ministries doesn’t necessarily deter donors: “Our experience has been that a charismatic, religious personality like Benny Hinn tends to attract very devoted followers who donate to his or her particular ministry regardless what anyone says about the leader.”
Hinn’s disclosure in an interview that his ministry generated $160 million in revenue the past two years is a gold nugget of data that Christian watchdogs have been trying to get at for years. The Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit Christian watchdog group in Dallas, has sent undercover spies to infiltrate Hinn’s ministry, as well as to dig through trash cans to gain access to financial records at the pastor’s headquarters and television studios.
“He promised me 10 years ago that his personal and ministry finances would be an open book,” says Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, dismissing Hinn’s latest vow for more candor. “Hinn’s incredible wealth and lifestyle does more harm to Christianity than all of his preaching.”
But finances aren’t the initial question in viewers’ minds, Hinn says. The first question they ask him on the street is: Are you and the healings real?
For William Vandenkolk of Las Vegas, the answer is no. Sitting cross-legged in front of a big-screen TV, the 11-year-old squints through Coke-bottle glasses at a Miracle Crusade video made more than two years ago in which he starred as a boy who miraculously recovered from blindness. “I liked it at first because I thought I was being healed,” says William in the living room of his aunt and uncle’s home.
On the screen, Hinn bends down to William, his hands on the child’s face. “Look at these tears,” says Hinn, peering into the child’s eyes. “William, baby, can you see me?”
Before more than 15,000 people in a Las Vegas arena, William nods. In a small voice, the boy says: “As soon as God healed me, I could see better.” Hinn, an arm wrapped around William, tells the audience that God has told him to pay the child’s medical expenses and education. People weep. Today William is still legally blind and says his sight never improved, and that his onstage comments were wishful thinking.
“It’s pretty sad when you mess with a little boy’s mind,” says Randy Melthratter, William’s uncle and guardian. Melthratter says it took two years, a series of phone calls and a reporter’s inquiry before his family was told where a $10,000 fund had been set up in William’s name. Family members say they still haven’t received any paperwork on how to access the money. For their part, ministry officials say they were told that William’s sight improved initially and that Melthratter was kept fully apprised of his nephew’s fund.
Brian Darby, who has worked for 21 years with severely handicapped people in Northern California, says he has witnessed firsthand the disappointment left in the wake of a Hinn Miracle Crusade. Over the years, he says, many of his clients have attended the events, where they were swept up in a wave of excitement, thinking they were about to walk for the first time or have their limbs straightened. “You can’t minimize the impact of not being healed on the person, the family, the extended family,” Darby says. “They have a sense of euphoria at the crusade and then crash down. [Hinn is not] around to pick up the pieces.”
Raymond Scott tells a different story. In 1995, the Bakersfield resident had advanced colon cancer, a disease that required chemotherapy, radiation and multiple operations. In desperation, Scott attended a Hinn crusade in Sacramento, where, he says, God cured him. His doctor, Alan D. Cartmell of Bakersfield, wrote in his medical report that Scott “experienced a miraculous healing” and can return to all normal activities “following this amazing recovery.” “My medical records prove what God’s done,” says Scott, adding that he has remained free of cancer. “[Hinn] is a facilitator of the Holy Spirit. He never claims that he does the healing. God does.”
At each crusade, hundreds of people line up to offer testimonials of the healing they have received during the service. For critics, this is the most dangerous aspect of Hinn’s ministry: People who believe they are cured and abandon their medical treatments without bothering to see a doctor.
In response, Hinn started the Miracle Follow-Up Department in 1992 to encourage those who believe they are cured to get checked out by their doctors before they stop using medications. The department also recommends continued prayer and churchgoing. Still, Hinn’s unrelenting message—if you believe, you can be healed—is contagious enough to cause fans to take extreme chances to prove their faith.
The alleged healings on Hinn’s television shows inspired 21-year-old Jordie Gibson to stop kidney dialysis as an act of faith and fly from Calgary, Canada, to the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim in late February for a Miracle Crusade. “When I told my doctors, they said they could make arrangements for me to do dialysis” in Orange County, Gibson says. “But I was going to be healed, so it didn’t matter. I needed to step out in faith.”
A volunteer usher at the event, Gibson pushed up the sleeve of his shirt to show the shunt in his arm for dialysis. “I feel great,” he says.
Back in Canada weeks after the crusade, Gibson says blood work shows his kidneys are functioning better, though he has had to resume dialysis. “Whatever the Bible says is true,” Gibson says. “And it says God can heal you. It’s true. All you need to do is ask.”
Hinn is the latest in a line of American faith healers, a group that has ranged from traveling preachers holding services in dusty tents to televangelists such as Oral Roberts, a frequent guest on Hinn’s show. Hinn was born in Israel, one of six boys and two girls. His father’s family came from Greece, his mother’s from Armenia. Their children were raised in the Greek Orthodox faith.
The family moved to Toronto when Benny was 15. As a high school senior, he abandoned his Greek Orthodox roots for Pentecostalism—an act of family defiance that Hinn says earned him a trip to a psychiatrist.
Two years later, in 1973, he heard the faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman preach. Afterward, Hinn says, he had an eight-hour experience with the Holy Spirit during a night that changed the direction of his life. “It seemed that my room had been lifted into the hemisphere of heaven,” Hinn wrote in his book, “Good Morning, Holy Spirit.”
From there, he has said his ministry work kept him too busy to attend college as he became an itinerant evangelist, preaching mostly in Canada and the U.S. Beginning in 1983, as pastor of the Orlando Christian Center in Florida, he built a rapidly growing following as a charismatic preacher who could speak in tongues and deliver God’s healing touch to the sick.
It was here that his television ministry began, first on local broadcasts and then on larger networks such as TBN. In 1990, he began monthly healing crusades around the country, furthering his national profile. In 1999, Hinn resigned as pastor of the Orlando church to concentrate on his television ministry. He moved his headquarters to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and now employs 170 people. About 55 people work at Hinn’s broadcasting operation in Orange County’s Laguna Hills.
On the road, Hinn’s healing services—sophisticated, choreographed productions that can last more than four hours—include a long warmup featuring robed choirs from local churches, hip videos and audience members shaking violently and speaking in tongues. All of it is captured on television equipment that Hinn brings to each crusade along with his own production crew—seven cameras and a staff of as many as 100 (though 35 are unpaid volunteers).
The pastor first appears during a rendition of “How Great Thou Art,” stepping triumphantly onstage. He asks anyone to come forward who wants to believe in Christ. Hundreds, many in tears, walk down the arena’s aisles to the stage, hear a prayer from Hinn and are handed literature that includes a list of nearby churches.
After more music, Hinn starts reciting the healings that are taking place throughout the arena. Within a 10-minute span at the Anaheim crusade in February, the pastor proclaims that those individuals with asthma, cancerous tumors, arthritis, leukemia, emphysema and 22 other ailments are cured.
Though he seldom mentions it onstage, the next day at the Four Seasons Hinn says that he does wonder why God doesn’t heal some people. It’s a question that the pastor has had to wrestle with personally. He says he has a heart condition that God hasn’t cured, and his parents have suffered serious medical problems. “That is a very difficult thing for me because I told my daddy to believe,” Hinn says. “But he died. Now I don’t know why.”
The concession that some people don’t get healed is relatively new to him. “There was a time in my life I would have never said those things,” Hinn admits. “But you have to, I mean, goodness. My mom has diabetes, my daddy died with cancer. That’s life.”
He also says he realizes that not everyone who comes onstage with him is healed when he lays his hands on them. “There’s the real and the genuine, and there’s the phony,” Hinn says. “All I know is that I pray for them. What happens between them and God is between them and God.”
The highlight of the Miracle Crusades comes when people in the crowd who believe that they’ve felt God’s healing touch make their way to the stage, get past the ministry’s screeners who attempt to weed out any pretenders, and stand face to face with Hinn. Ushers take any wheelchairs that have been abandoned and place them onstage, evidence of a merciful God.
Before a capacity crowd at the Arrowhead Pond, believers tell the pastor that they’ve been healed of heart ailments, knee problems, osteoporosis, breast cancer, deafness and scores of other conditions—before Hinn applies his touch to their foreheads, leaving people scattered like bowling pins across the stage. He concedes that sometimes his showmanship detracts from God’s healing work, and he says that he has cut down on some of the theatrics—like waving his jacket or blowing on people to “slay them in the Spirit.”
“People ask why I do certain things [with] people falling everywhere and flying all over the stage,” he says. “You want to present Him properly. Because we’re human beings, we’re not always going to be perfect.”
Justin Peters, a Southern Baptist minister from Mississippi, remembers going to a faith-healing service as a teenager, wanting God to heal his cerebral palsy. Next to him, an elderly man in a wheelchair emptied his wallet into the offering bucket, a move that caught the eye of the preacher. Peters recalls the pastor pointing to the man and saying, “Brother, before this night is over, you’re going to walk out of here!”
Peters, now 29, says he remembers looking over at the elderly man, still in the wheelchair, and seeing the anguish in his eyes at the end of the service. “It was something you see and never forget.” Peters decided to become a pastor and, through his ministry, expose faith healers who give false hope. He wrote his master’s thesis at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, on Hinn. “He is a false prophet in every sense of the word,” Peters says. “His theology is wretched, and he’s also a huckster.”
Still, Peters says it would make sense that some healings occur at a Miracle Crusade because it brings together tens of thousands in prayer. “As much disdain as I have for Benny Hinn, the vast majority of people who see him are real Christians,” Peters says. “When 25,000 people are praying for God to heal them, it would be surprising if God did not heal some.”
The Trinity Foundation’s Anthony says that Hinn could blunt much of the criticism by enacting a six-month waiting period before broadcasting the healings, time enough to document their veracity. The pastor says he rejected the request for practical reasons. Besides the expense of tracking the medical histories of hundreds of people, he says, his daily viewers have an insatiable need to see footage of new healings.
“People say, ‘Look, I’m not going to watch you if you don’t have healings,’ ” Hinn says. “Our supporters support us for one reason, people pray for us for one reason—because of the healing ministry.” The pastor says he soon plans to show follow-up segments that will feature updates on people who were healed years ago.
Sitting back in his chair, Hinn shakes his head over how tough his job has become. He says being a pastor in the healing ministry is a profession he would never choose for himself, but he is called to it by God.
“It’s not been a pleasant life,” Hinn says. “[People] think we’re in it for the money. They think that God doesn’t really heal, so these guys are just fooling the world. I’d be a fool to be in this for the money. If I did not believe God healed, I’d quit tomorrow and go get a job.”