Evening falls, and it’s time to get right with God. Tonight something miraculous just might occur – right here at the Cleveland Civic Center.
Inside the squat brick building, the music is raw, primal – just guitar and drums. The faithful are on their feet, swaying and clapping time. Then a small, white-haired man, dapper in dark trousers and soft green shoes, leaps to his feet in a wildly ecstatic holy dance as the heavenly current runs from his soul to his soles. He is Vernon Heslep, a 76-year-old West Texas traveling evangelist, slayer of sin and self-described seer and worker of miracles.
From California to Florida, in tents and public halls, the itinerant preacher is celebrated as “The Prophet.”
“I’m a prophet like Moses,” Heslep proclaims. “I’m full of God. I’m the real deal.”
Because of his prayers, he says, the lame walk, the mute speak and the desperately ill escape death.
If Heslep’s credulity-straining claims generate skepticism, it’s not apparent at tonight’s packed house. Most of the approximately 200 filling the rows of plastic chairs are middle-aged women, and they rejoice at The Prophet’s every word.
In an era of evangelistic megachurches and super-charged television ministries, Heslep may seem anachronistic, a throwback to the time of Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson or even Methodist circuit riders of the 1800s. But, say religious academics, Heslep, who has traveled the highways for God for 47 years, likely is representative of a hardy cadre of evangelists who still find welcome in the churches of small-town and rural America.
“There’s still a lot of this going on,” says Baylor University historian Barry Hankins, especially in white and black Pentecostal and Holiness congregations.
Rooted in the Great Awakenings of the 1700s and 1800s, modern evangelism stirs believers with an emotion-packed mixture of hell fire, divine mercy and, for those hemmed-in by small-town life, extravagant novelty. One scholar called revivals “a jamboree, an awesome rite, a family picnic and a religious crisis” all rolled into one. In his 1990 book, “The Black Church in the African American Experience,” Duke University sociologist C. Eric Lincoln reported almost 88 percent of the more than 500 churches he studied hosted revivals, most with guest evangelists.
“What a traveling revivalist brings is a new voice – sometimes a voice of prophecy in a church that isn’t filled with that spiritual gift,” says Robert Hunt, director of the Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. Television ministries and superstar pastors “never have done away with the tradition of traveling apostles and prophets,” he says.
Source: Houston Chronicle | Allan Turner