By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Stephen Hill's at the edge of the stage, beckoning this crowd of 1,200 with his hand. His face is red and sweaty; pacing, he looks desperate to save them before heaven's gate slams shut forever.
Hundreds--young and old, from all walks, all races--rush forward, falling at the altar.
The choir sings: "Lord have mercy..."
"Hurry!" shouts Hill in his Alabama accent, so raspy and scratched up that, in the thousands of times he's preached, he once coughed up blood.
A teenage boy drops to his knees, crying, shaking.
"Come on!" Hill yells.
A heavyset woman kneels with her young son, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"He'll wash you clean!" roars Hill, as hundreds stream forward in this sanctuary at Houston's Grace Community Church, one of the biggest churches in the city, which has invited him to speak today. "He'll cleanse you!"
Within minutes, the altar's full, with sinners spilling over into the aisles.
The choir stops singing. Silence.
Hill--a 46-year-old evangelist who, for five years, helped lure 4 million people from 175 nations to Pensacola's Brownsville Assembly of God, the site of this century's longest-running Pentecostal revival--looks around, his large blue eyes piercing the soul of this church.
"In Jesus' name, Amen!" he says, his voice now subdued, as if he's been to hell and back with these repentant sinners.
There's nothing like a Stephen Hill altar call. Nothing like hearing him shout with utter urgency for the sinner to "Hurry" before he's condemned to that dark place of weeping and gnashing of teeth--hell.
Hill lives to save souls. As for whether people respond to Hill's altar calls for some spiritual high, Hill isn't concerned. "I cast the net," he says, "and let God sort the fish."
Hill has just moved his multimillion-dollar ministry, Together in the Harvest, from Foley, Alabama, to Dallas, joining two other big-time Pentecostal preachers--T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn--who in recent years have made this city their home.
Living for the time being with his wife, Jeri, and their three kids in an apartment in Euless (1,300 square feet, for those interested), Hill's quick to point out that he isn't some flashy traveling preacher. He doesn't mention the names of Jakes and Hinn--both known for their gaudy custom suits and cavernous houses--but the contrast is clear. Hill says he shipped his furniture here in a Ryder truck, that his children are enrolled in a Euless public school. He makes available an annual audit of his ministry through the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a respected organization that keeps close tabs on 950 ministry organizations like his. For 1999, the audit shows $3.9 million in revenues, of which $3 million was donated. Although the report doesn't show this, Hill draws a salary of $175,000, according to the Rev. Bob Rogers, vice president of Together in the Harvest. Unlike many big-name evangelists, Hill signs over all of the royalties from his eight books to the ministry. The royalties exceed Hill's salary, Rogers says.
Hill has big plans here. For five years, many evangelical Christians came to know him at the Brownsville Revival. In that time, the revival sparked a Bible school there, which in the last three years has attracted some 2,500 students.
But last February, Hill thought the time was right to go directly to the world, rather than have it come to him. He set his sights on Dallas. The airports are the main attraction, giving him the flexibility to jet off to worldwide crusades. "That sounds chintzy, doesn't it?" he says, smiling. "No, I love the big city. Dallas is one of my favorites."
Now that he no longer preaches regularly at Brownsville, he'll spend 285 days on the road this year, going abroad--Denmark, South Korea, Germany, among other places--as well as to 15 crusades in America, including Fort Worth this September. Evangelical churches worldwide want this old-time fire-and-brimstone evangelist, who credits 18th-century clergyman Jonathan Edwards as a favorite, to preach; he's booked through 2002.
These days in Dallas, he spends his time setting up shop. About half of his staff of 25 will follow him here, and the ministry is searching for office space.
A non-profit organization, Hill's Together in the Harvest was established in 1992 in Tyler. Then, three years later, when John Kilpatrick--the pastor of Pensacola's Brownsville Assembly of God--asked him to preach to his congregation, Hill agreed and, in turn, helped spark that five-year revival.
In that time, there seemed to be no end in sight to the millions--both from across America and the world--who flocked to the large brick church, searching for an encounter with a personal God. Hill often delivered; almost every night, he would stand at the pulpit shouting, crying, begging the seeker and the weary to "get right with God."
The revival is still going on, but for anyone who ever had the privilege of seeing Hill in action there, one senses that any revival isn't as compelling without him.
"I think there's a spiritual hunger for reality," says Darius Johnston, the 44-year-old pastor of Fort Worth's Christ Church Assembly of God, where Hill will be speaking September 1-3. "People have been showbized so much.
"People that go to Steve Hill's meetings," adds Johnston, whose church has 1,200 members, "they want to share that fire that they sense is in his heart."