Karin O’Dell, 58, and Vicki Reynolds, 44, rose from their wheelchairs and walked toward Joel Osteen when the televangelist and best-selling author came their way Friday.
But Osteen wasn’t working a miracle. He’s more of a soul soother than a faith healer.
The youthful, blue-eyed minister, who leads the 48,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston, came to sign copies of his latest book — about 600 of them — at the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Turkey Lake Road.
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The able-bodied O’Dell and Reynolds, who brought wheelchairs to wait in comfort, drove up from Fort Lauderdale on Thursday for the first of Osteen’s back-to-back appearances at Amway Arena.
Afterward, they drove to the Wal-Mart, where they spent the night in a Ford Focus station wagon so they could be first in line at the book-signing.
“I had a preacher who condemned me, and I felt like I wanted to die,” O’Dell said. “But Joel saved my life. He told me that God loved me.”
The Fort Lauderdale friends were joined by more than 300 other Osteen fans, including two local television reporters. WKMG-Channel 6 anchor Jacqueline London went to the head of the line with her mother to get books signed by Osteen. Her fellow Channel 6 reporter Charnel Wright had Osteen sign a book at a news conference.
Such is the drawing power of Osteen, who was named the most influential Christian in America in a 2006 poll and who commanded a $13 million book advance.
What makes this televangelist so popular?
“The message is positive and hopeful and relevant,” said Osteen, 44. “I don’t talk down to people. That’s what enabled me to cross over and reach a lot of nonchurch people.”
Trim and steady of gaze, Osteen gave off the casual vibe of a scratch golfer, confident in his game and willing to offer tips on the first tee.
Fundamentalist preachers may speak of hellfire and brimstone, but Osteen offers warm encouragement and images of God as a loving father figure.
“Joel doesn’t follow the usual preacher’s routine,” said Joyce Kellenberger, 48, of Jacksonville. “It comes from his heart.”
Some hail Osteen as “the next Billy Graham,” but Naples nurse Angela Miller, 39, said at the book-signing that Graham is “like a CEO, while Joel is like one of your co-workers.”
Marsha Berning of Seminole offered that you can take the religious references out of Joel’s message and it is still the same message.
“You don’t have to be a Christian to get his message of hope — that no matter where you are in life, you can be better and do better,” said Berning, 51.
Osteen connects with a broad audience, including many who do not attend church regularly or watch Christian television.
“My core message is to bring hope and encouragement, and that’s what I’m best at,” he said in a soft Southern accent.