Evangelist Bonnke embarks on his first American crusade

MIAMI – By the time the Rev. Reinhard Bonnke edges toward the stage, anticipation in the thundering arena is swelling. A crowd of thousands has been told of his decades of preaching in Africa, the tens of millions of souls he has saved, the healings for which he has been a conduit and the modern-day Lazarus he saw risen.

“This is an hour of salvation,” he tells the crowd. “Miami shall be saved! Florida shall be saved! America shall be saved!”

Bonnke went to the cavernous home of the Miami Heat to launch his first great American crusade, even as his name is unknown to most in this country. The 74-year-old, German-born Bonnke is among the world’s best-known faith healers, a Pentecostal minister who claims to have saved the souls of more than 72 million people in gatherings so large they’ve twice spurred stampedes.

On stage, he returns repeatedly to his simple theme, telling the faithful to turn from darkness to light, from Satan to God. When his sermon is over, he invites those ready to make a commitment to the arena’s floor and a crowd amasses, arms outstretched.

Like other charismatic preachers, Bonnke has made healing a hallmark of his services, and claims those who’ve attended have been cured of everything from AIDS to cancer to paralysis. In the most widely-told story about him, he says he witnessed the resurrection of Daniel Ekechukwu, a Nigerian man whose wife brought his body to a church where Bonnke was appearing. Both Bonnke and Kolenda claim, matter-of-factly, to have witnessed other resurrections, too, but they and their adherents repeatedly tell the story of Ekechukwu, saying there is so much evidence of a profound miracle, that it cannot be questioned.

“It is watertight. It could not be denied,” Bonnke said.

In Miami, Bonnke does not lead the prayers for healing. An hour after appearing, he slips off stage right with little fanfare and is replaced by the Rev. Daniel Kolenda, the 33-year-old tapped as his successor. Kolenda serves as president at Christ for all Nations, the international ministry that Bonnke started, and has taken over the bulk of overseas crusades.

And in the climax, Kolenda commands a litany of illnesses to be cured. Around the arena, people claim to experience healing.

Daphne Bonas, 82, said she felt a heat run through her body and is convinced her bladder cancer has been cured. Though she hadn’t yet seen a doctor to verify her healing, she is convinced tests will validate a miracle.

“I’m looking forward to them telling me, ‘There’s nothing there and you’re OK,’” she said.

Belief in healings is a chief driver of the crowds to Bonnke’s events, as it is for preachers including Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn, two men with whom he is closely linked. All three have been associated with the so-called prosperity gospel, which stresses God will reward the faithful with health and wealth, and all three have led ministries that have made them rich.

Bonnke lives near Palm Beach in a $3 million Ritz-Carlton condo with ocean views. Though Bonnke’s compensation from Christ for all Nations was $178,784 last year, it was down significantly from $289,546 two years earlier, according to IRS filings. Overall, from 2006 through 2013, Christ for all Nations reported to the IRS more than $105 million in donations.

Rusty Leonard, whose MinistryWatch analyzes religious groups’ finances, said he is concerned by the number of affiliated organizations Christ for all Nations spends money on, and from which he says Bonnke is likely to receive additional income.

“It’s a classic way to funnel money to yourself,” Leonard said.

Bonnke’s crusades are free to attend, and no offering was taken at the Miami event. He says Christ does not want people’s money, he wants their hearts.

And so he will take his crusade to Greensboro, North Carolina, next, then to Long Island and Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh and beyond.