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."
As a young woman, Jeri Hill prayed to God: Send "a dynamic, on-fire Christian" for her to marry.
"God gave me what I asked for," says the 43-year-old Hill, Stephen Hill's wife of 21 years.
In that time, they've traveled the world together. She recently accompanied him on a crusade to Japan, where she'd stand outside the arena where he was preaching, approaching passers-by. "What's your hurry?" she'd say, "God's in that building. You'll meet Him."
Unlike many preachers who are sons of preachers themselves, Hill's past as a drug addict, she says, makes people believe, "If he can change, you can change."
She and Hill lived for seven years in Argentina, where they'd been sent by their denomination's foreign missions unit. (They returned to the United States in 1992.) Jeri Hill saw her husband's determination there, like that day she heard him crying in his study. "Honey," he said when he emerged, "there are just too many people in the world that are lost."
That quest for lost souls still drives them. "There are too many people dying and going to hell," she says now, simply.
They spent their last four years in Argentina in a desert-area town called Neu Quen. Hill had been told that no church had ever thrived there, that it was a "graveyard for pastors."
"Well, that just lit something in Steve," says his wife, who had spent a year in Costa Rica with him learning Spanish before going to Argentina. "He wanted to go there even more." Their first week there, they held services in a garage. Fifteen people showed up. Weeks later, they used a storefront. One hundred twenty attended that time. Finally, the mayor of the town gave them a plot of land where they established a church that soon attracted 1,500 people.
"Some people say to us, 'Well, you've been brain-washed,'" says Jeri Hill. "My brain needed to be washed. His needed to be washed."
Like her husband, Hill was a "messed-up teenager." Conceived through rape, Jeri was born to an 18-year-old mother. As a teen, she did "everything but heroin" and sold mescaline and pot at school. "I usually ate more than I sold," she says.
But by the late 1970s, she had become a Christian and met Stephen Hill--off drugs himself by then--at a Lindale, Texas, Bible school.
The Hills never sheltered their children from their pasts; the kids, ages 12, 9, and 5, have sat in on Hill's sermons, heard his testimony. "We tell them all the time, 'Guys, we did these things. This is not right,'" says Jeri Hill.
"I'm his biggest fan," she says, chuckling as she speaks by phone about her husband. "I don't enjoy anyone's messages as much as my husband's."
She then says that Hill has just passed her a note. "Let her [the reporter] know," it reads, "you have a PTA meeting in 30 minutes."
No matter what you may think of his "you're either-in-or-you're-out" theology, you can't help but like Stephen Hill. Sure, there's nothing particularly remarkable about the content of his throwback come-to-Jesus sermons. But it's his delivery--the vigor with which he preaches, the tears which often well up in his eyes--that make him seem wholly accessible to his audience. This is the man who tells congregants that it takes two to commit adultery, that husbands should change the baby's diaper once in a while. Hill relishes when people from all walks of life call him "Steve," and he spices his sermons and books with the intimate refrain of "friend." Even his tears seem real. "I've never worked myself up into tears. I'm not an actor," he says. "When I gave my life to Jesus in 1975, I quit make-believe. I took the mask off and became real."
His sermons also show his self-deprecating side. Take that recent Saturday, for instance, when he told the Houston crowd that if he were alive during Old Testament times, he'd "be under a pile of rocks." He's got some lively sermon titles, too: "God Snubs Snots" and "God Wants Your Blankey" among them.
At one time, he was much more than a snot; he describes himself as having been "the scum of the earth." Twenty-five years ago, he says, Jesus delivered him from drugs and alcohol. He often shows off old mug shots from his busts in the 1970s for drug dealing and auto theft. One captures him with long, straight hair, looking like some redneck from The Waltons. Another shot--taken at a Huntsville, Alabama prison--shows him with a mound of layered hair and a cold stare.
God, Hill now says, transformed his "stone cold heart." In his two decades as a minister, he has preached in 22 nations and across America. His sermons can be harsh; God, he says, isn't some "cupcake father" but a stern force that will give you a spanking if you refuse to get in line.
Many have responded to Hill.
Twenty-seven-year-old Patrick Waters of Destin, Florida, remembers that June day four years ago when his father invited him to the Brownsville Revival. Waters, then a bouncer at a bar, had other things on his mind, like using drugs--pot, ecstasy, coke--and making $40,000 that summer selling marijuana. But he agreed to go, just so long as his father took him to a restaurant afterward.
Waters heard Hill's altar call, but didn't respond. As he sat in the church balcony, he saw hundreds stream forward. More than half an hour passed and people were still coming. But not Waters. In that large church that seats 2,000, Waters was "minding my own business."
Hill had other plans. Waters says Hill, with a microphone in hand, pointed straight at him and spoke up. "You sir, in the balcony. God knows you've got a drug problem."
Those words unhinged Waters, who says he had only smoked one joint earlier in the day.
He was saved that night, he says, and later went to the revival's Bible school for two years.
"Steve won't tell you this," he says by phone from Pensacola, "but there were several of us who couldn't afford to go to school." Hill, he says, forked over his $3,000 semester fee and also paid for seven others.
"He has a peace about him," Waters says. "He knows how to reach down and touch that place in you where you don't want to hurt anymore."
I saw Hill's power to stir a crowd to repent first-hand at the Brownsville Revival. A reporter at the time for a Virginia paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, I was in the sanctuary, stepping over many who fell from Stephen Hill's mere touch. Weaving my way through the crowd, I suddenly came face to face with the evangelist.
The first thing you notice about him are his eyes, big and clear as a summer sky.
"Let me pray for you," he said then. I agreed--only if he promised to grant me an interview.
Hill kept his promise. A year later, I was working on a story about David Berkowitz, the serial killer turned born-again Christian whose testimony Hill believes and for which Hill coughed up $10,000 to produce a testimonial video--Son of Sam, Son of Hope.
"I wish you would give your life to Christ," he said to me by phone then. "You are such a dear person."
I didn't follow his advice, and I bashed Berkowitz in the pages of Penthouse. In 20 hours of interviews with the killer, not once did I hear Berkowitz accept personal responsibility for his gruesome crimes. Whatever scam he's running with his Christian conversion, it has nothing to do with repentance as I understand it.
Still, Hill didn't refuse this latest interview.
(As for Berkowitz, Hill still maintains the killer is sincere: "Why would he have a reason to lie? He's never getting out." As of last year, 7,000 copies of the video had been sold or donated, with proceeds going toward "missions-related projects," Hill said then.)
Hill says he's never turned down a media request--from anyone.
And there have been negative reports, for sure, about him and the Brownsville Revival. Critics--especially Pensacola's paper, the Pensacola News Journal--have charged that the revival is more about emotionalism, money, and false hopes than genuine spirituality. Two years ago, the Journal ran a story about a man who packed his dead infant in a cooler and brought her to the church, where revival leader John Kilpatrick prayed over the child. (Kilpatrick explains to the Dallas Observer that the Journal never printed the whole truth, that his staff had discouraged the man from coming, warning him that it was illegal to transport a corpse across county lines. But the man insisted and came anyway.)
Hill's own integrity has been questioned, with the paper charging that he didn't pay state sales taxes one year. Hill doesn't back down from controversy. He put the Observer in touch with Bob Rogers, who faxed a copy of Together in the Harvest's audited financial statement. As for that lapse in paying taxes, Rogers calls it an oversight, saying the ministry had received conflicting information from state officials about whether it needed to pay. (The ministry has since paid the $20,000 in taxes.)
Hill's not harping on his negative press. "When I tell you I love people, I really love people," he says. "Yeah, people are basically rotten, but I was rotten. I was like Paul the Apostle."
Anyone who's ever phoned Hill always hears that raspy voice say, "Jesus loves you." He's been greeting callers like that for 25 years, from "every phone, everywhere."
"Most people really like it," he says, chuckling. "Once in a while it will go 'Click,' but most of the time people are going 'Oh, that was sweet.'"
Now, on this late Saturday, Hill's trying to spread that message of love at Houston's Grace Community Church, located in an upscale area of the city. The congregation's pastor, Steve Riggle, met Hill four years ago in Pensacola and has invited him to speak several times this year.
In his four trips to the Brownsville Revival, Riggle heard Hill preach and saw how hundreds responded to his altar calls.
The whole of the revival--the fervency with which people prayed--emotionally undid Riggle; he went back to his hotel room and cried.
It wasn't the first time he'd felt God move him, he says. Twenty years before, he and his wife, Becky, were ministering to prisoners in the Philippines when four took them hostage. His wife was shot, and Riggle was stabbed seven times. Rushed to the hospital, he had a punctured lung, and the doctors had to remove his spleen. But he and his wife survived, and he felt a peace; whatever he'd experienced, so had Jesus.
The Brownsville experience was an extension of that spiritual journey, one he wants to share with people. And he knows that Stephen Hill, in particular, gets through to the masses. "For whatever reason, God's chosen him," says Riggle, a slight man of 50 with blond hair.
Hill preached at Riggle's church several times in May. His August 12 appearance was his third straight night of preaching.
Before the service, Hill said he was rarin' to go. Just last night at the altar call, a man came up to him. "He was squalling and moaning," Hill says in his Southern twang. "Well-dressed. Even had his Nokia phone hanging on his belt."
The man asked Hill to pray that he get off cocaine.
Again and again, Hill tells the masses that flock to him that Jesus set him free from drugs: cocaine, LSD, mescaline, heroin, marijuana, alcohol.
That change occurred within 30 seconds, he says.
"October 28, 1975, at 11 o'clock in the morning on a Tuesday," he says, chuckling at his total recall.
He had been having convulsions that morning because he hadn't used narcotics in weeks. Hill's mother, a devout Lutheran, called a minister to her son's side.
"Steve, I can't help you," the man told Hill, lying on his bed in his mother's home. "But I know someone who can. His name is Jesus."
"I don't believe in God," Hill said.
"That's OK. He's still here. Just say the name Jesus."
Even now as Hill recalls that moment, his eyes tear up.
"Lisa, I feel something," he says, recounting that time as if it were just happening. "I feel the power going through me and I'm going, 'What is happening?'
"I'll never forget my past," Hill says. "I should be dead. Many of my friends, they're in the grave. Why am I still alive? So when people respond to the messages, to me it's an honor.
"I'll show you something," he says, pulling from his briefcase some snapshots of his recent crusade in Singapore, where he was invited by an Assembly of God church to speak. At each of the three nights there, some 2,000 people came forward during the altar calls.
One shot shows a sea of people prostrating themselves before the stage.
For anyone who sees the fervency with which Christians like Hill worship as something scary, Hill has this to say: "Get real."
"If you can scream over a piece of pigskin flying over a goal post," he says, "we should be excited about the possibility of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."
"This song takes me to heaven," he says, as a keyboardist near him knocks out a tune.
"Jesus, lamb of God, glory is your name," sings Hill, joining the choir and the congregation in song. He stands to the side, tears streaming down his face.
This isn't the same Stephen Hill who, at 16, says he didn't shed a tear when his father, a former military man, died of a heart attack.
Soon, he addresses the crowd.
"I want you to give to world missions tonight," he says, soliciting money for his Together in the Harvest.
He looks around.
"Young people, I want you to hear me. Cough up some of that pizza money. I want you to put that to the Kingdom tonight.
"Make out your checks...Thousand is spelled T-H-O-U-S-A-N-D," he says coyly. "Everybody ready to give?"
"Yeah," says a man in a tie.
"I like you," gushes Hill. "I pay him 20 bucks a service to say that."
The plastic buckets make the rounds, with cash and checks flowing freely. Combined with the last two nights' offerings, tonight's total will make Hill's ministry $26,000 richer, he later says. (The Houston church doesn't receive any of it.)
Hill's ready to preach.
"Some of you are going to be a little upset tonight at the message," he says. "I don't apologize for the word of God. You break one of God's commandments, you pay!" he shouts.
"Yeah," rumble some in the audience. (Hill's not just preaching to the choir tonight. Later, the church's pastor explains that though he doesn't have a definite number, "hundreds" were present that night for the first time, based on the visitor cards they turned in.)
"If you're going to believe the word of God, you need to believe it all," he says over the cries of a child in the crowd. "You need to take the cream puffs right along with the brussels sprouts."
In his neatly pressed dark suit, he walks to the lectern, to the opened New Testament before him. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God."
He looks up, his image appearing on the two huge monitors on both sides of him. Tonight's sermon will later be broadcast on a local TV station.
"Tonight many of you will find yourself under the consoling hand of God," he says, and reaches for a sign near him bearing those words. "Hallelujah," he shouts. The crowd joins in.
"Are you watching movies that would grieve the Lord?" he says. "Are you in adultery? Fornication?" He hurriedly walks the six steps down from the stage.
"For those of you living in sin, Jesus is not here to condemn but to console you," he says, and quickly returns to the stage, where he grabs a chain from his briefcase. "These are shackles from the Civil War," he says, twirling them as sweat pours down his face. "Sin will hold you back.
"You're hanging around people you said you'd never hang around," he now shouts, chastising the sinners in his midst. "I speak from experience. Twelve years," he shouts, "I was high on drugs. I was in and out of jail. Busted! Going to jail!
"I was shackled by sin. I was bound worse than Houdini," he bellows. "And the consoling hand of God came down...and changed my life!" He drops the chain, bends his knees and clenches his fist as if he's just scored a home run.
The crowd goes wild. Clapping. Shouting hallelujahs.
"This isn't a fairy tale. This happened to this old boy. That's why 20/20 put my mug shot on television.
"Everybody look this way," he says, the chandeliers catching the gleam in his eyes.
He starts singing, softly, as if he's putting a child to bed. The crowd joins in. "Jesus loves me, yes I know, for the Bible tells me so..."
"I've rewritten a bunch of verses," he says with a grin.
He begins singing just as softly, his slightly longish, dirty blond hair bobbing from side to side. "Jesus will judge me, yes I know, for the Bible tells me so. If I choose to live in sin, hell awaits me in the end. Yes, Jesus will judge me...
"America's got a one-sided attitude toward God," he shouts.
A middle-aged woman calls out: "Preach it!"
"God is not some sugar daddy up there," he roars, "just constantly pouring out blessings. There are times when God says, 'Enough is Enough! I'm going to give you a whuppin.'"
"I was in Argentina and there was a man," he says, his voice lowered now. "I used to go by his store. I figured, 'I have time to talk to him about God.'"
Hill pauses, collecting himself.
"I need everyone to look this way," he says sternly, lifting a finger like a teacher, "because..." His eyes brim with tears, his chin quivers. "...I'm sharing something intimate with you.
"I pulled up at the store and there was a huge wreath," he says. "My heart sank." The man, Hill learned, had died of cancer.
"Young people," he continues, looking around with teary eyes, "I want you to hear me. I'm sharing something intimate with you," he repeats, his voice trembling.
"I got in the car and the Lord said, 'I told you to share the Gospel with him.'" Hill lifts a rod next to him. "This is what I felt," he says tearfully, and smacks the rod against the lectern. The noise pierces the heart of this church.
"The Lord said, 'Don't you ever take souls for granted!'"
A woman in the crowd cries, wipes the tears from her eyes with a handkerchief.
A man on stage starts playing a slow, sad tune, "Lord Have Mercy," on his keyboard.
Hill chimes in, looks at me seated in the front row. "This reporter here asked me tonight, 'What's going to happen in America?' And I told you, Lisa," he says softly. "It's gonna get worse. It's gonna get worse.
"Don't fall for this facade of economic bliss," he says, "This country's so in debt that half this nation's gonna go down the tube."
"That's right," shouts a man with tattooed arms.
The music continues.
"If you need forgiveness tonight, you better come quickly," says Hill. "Don't lie to me. Don't lie to God. The only thing that's keeping you back is pride.
"This is pride," he says, lifting those chains.
The music rises to a higher pitch.
"Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!" he roars, pacing the stage.
Fourteen-year-old Kevin Shushtari, his short hair a bright blue, joins the hundreds stepping up. So does his friend, Cory Ost, 15, his hair bleached blond, his tongue pierced.
"My aunt told me about it," Shushtari says later, referring to Hill's appearance in Houston. She wanted him to quit the "bad stuff. Smoking, doing weed."
For Ost, he's come forward because he knows it's wrong to "talk back to my mom."
At the altar, Shushtari's aunt, a petite brunette, puts her arms around them both.
Hundreds kneel before Hill now.
"Anyone else?" he asks.
A middle-aged man walks up.
Hill spots him: "God bless you, sir."
The preacher finally takes a seat on stage as several lay leaders walk through the crowd, laying hands on people.
"These people are not stupid," Hill tells me, wiping the sweat from his face after his nearly hour-long sermon. "They know when the truth is being spoken and finally someone's confronting them. I can't stand up and waste anybody's time with a wishy-washy message."
What about the fear factor in his sermons? I ask.
"Well, the fear of God is a good thing," he says. "There needs to be a respect."
And that God is as "real to me as Steve standing here," says Hill, grabbing the arm of the church's pastor, Steve Riggle.
Hill leaves the stage, with a man, an assistant, trailing behind him, and he walks through the crowd laying hands on people.
As the choir sings, the weary and the fallen flock to Hill.
He presses his fingers against a girl's temples. "Touch her, Jesus," he says. She goes limp. Two ushers nearby cushion her fall. (Believers say there's nothing fake about such displays, that just as the Apostle John fell "as dead" when he saw Jesus in a vision, so do they.)
Soon, a young, heavyset man asks Hill for a touch from God. "A fresh anointing!" says Hill, touching the man's forehead. The latter falls.
"I'll tell you something," Hill tells me, as the man lies before him, his eyes closed. "A grown man is not going to act like that. You hear me? It's real. That's a man. That's not a kid."
Seconds later, a short, older woman tells Hill she has cancer. "Work a miracle, Jesus," shouts Hill. "Do it, Jesus!"
One by one, he works the crowd.
"A healing touch!" he says, laying hands on a woman's forehead. She jerks forward. "Ah! Ah!" she says repeatedly, sounding as if she's having an orgasm.
A girl, looking no older than 10, sees the bodies collapsing around her and starts crying. Amid the throngs of people, Hill spots her a few feet away. "Go get me a copy of my book, Stone Cold Heart," he says to his assistant.
Hill then approaches her, kneeling to speak. She's trembling and teary-eyed.
"You know something?" he tells this girl, dressed in a checkered green dress. "When I first saw people fall down in church like this, it scared me to death. But when you receive a special touch from Jesus, some people fall."
He gives her a copy of his book, gives her a hug, and prays for her.
"Every now and then, I want you to pray for me, OK?" he says.
She nods, the tears now ebbing.
"I got me a friend for life," he says, smiling broadly at me.
"God's in the house," shouts Hill, grabbing a microphone. "Let anyone with a prayer badge pray for you tonight."
A skinny teen comes up to him, and speaks into Hill's ear.
"Your dad's in prison?" says Hill.
The young man nods.
"What's his name?"
"Jesus, I pray for John's dad Bob."
Minutes later, Hill looks at me. "Have you ever studied the early camp meetings in America? Everything that you see here, everything, is part of the history of America."
A young man approaches Hill. "I need a job. My mom left me," he says. "I live with my sister and she don't serve God."
"Open up that door, Jesus," prays Hill.
The wounded and needy surround him. One woman tells him that her son's in jail for murder.
"These are real people, real lives," Hill tells me. "That's what breaks my heart. They need a real touch."
He looks around. A woman spots him.
"Seven years ago, I tried to commit suicide," she says, adding through sobs that she was once a Muslim and needs more of God in her life.
A few feet away, a man and woman stand together, the man's arm wrapped around her shoulder.
"We're detoxing bad," this 38-year-old mother of five later tells Hill, looking at him with weary, drained eyes.
"I'll tell you something, Sis," he says softly, "God can deliver you. You know that?"
She looks skeptical, gives a half-smile.
"Pray that God can help us," her companion tells Hill.
"Plug into this church," Hill replies and moves on, laying hands on others.
"I can't take the noise," the woman says. "I got to get out."
Hill sees her walk away. He calls out to her.
"Keep going after God. You hear me?" he says, and lifts his head amid this sea of broken spirits.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.