The Famous Faith Healer Who Was Not At All Interested In My Health
Last June, you might have read a short story about it in the local newspaper, heard a snippet on the radio, or vaguely recognized a face that flashed on a TV screen.
In June 2017, the death of televangelist and faith healer Leroy Jenkins at the age of 83 was not a story that was likely to dominate the headlines.
But, in the 1970s, millions of Americans knew his name; and, in Delaware, Ohio, just north of Columbus, he began the Healing Waters Cathedral from which he ruled his empire of "miracle water" and dramatic on-stage "healings" of the afflicted, his endless catalogue of books and CDs, and his non-stop traveling across the country holding rallies which drew crowds in both small towns and big cities.
His schtick consisted of calling total strangers up to the stage from his audiences. He would begin telling them all about themselves, their backgrounds, their lives.
Most of it was the kind of generic stuff you could say about 90 percent of the population (You were not always an obedient child; you eat way too much snacks and sweet stuff; you are obsessed with the NFL; etc., etc.)
Then, if they had an illness or an injury, he would lay hands on them, praying up a storm until the poor souls collapsed in his arms. A little splash of "miracle water," and voila! They had been made whole!
Most of the time, the newly-healed would kick in a bit of the old do-re-mito make certain Leroy could pay the mortgage on the Cathedral and keep churning out that miracle water, which didn't grow on trees, you know.
Many saw him as a saint.
I, sadly, was not among them.
Well, no, I wasn't sad about it at all.
The man had something of a checkered past. In 1979, in his native South Carolina, where he had moved his ministry, he spent time in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit arson and assault.
In Ohio, the authorities had been after him for years over the "miracle water," which he bottled and sold to his followers. Turns out the stuff was contaminated with coliform bacteria. Coliform comes from human and animal waste and can make one seriously ill.
Jenkins disputed the claim that his miracle liquid was contaminated.
"Don't you think that after 30 years we would have one complaint out of our congregation?'' Jenkins was quoted as saying in the Delaware Gazette.
At any rate, he was fined $200 in 2003 for selling it without a license and quit hawking it to the faithful.
I had an encounter with Jenkins in 1977, when he was at the height of his popularity, that started out as just another funny, somewhat snarky newspaper column by a young journalist (that would be me) and ended in an ugly confrontation where I was convinced that I had just been physically threatened by this "Man of God."
December 6, 1977 was my 25th birthday – the first birthday I had spent as a reporter for the Troy Daily News. It was also when Leroy Jenkins had scheduled a Heal-A-Thonat a movie theater on the north side of town. Troy is 72 miles west of Delaware, Ohio, so it was just a short hop for Jenkins.
Several days before that, Jenkins himself called the Troy Daily News, got me on the phone, and offered me an interview and invited me to attend his mass healing session that night at the movie theater.
He showed up at our offices on S. Market Street that afternoon – on my birthday, and I took him upstairs to a room with a pool table that the pressmen used on their lunch hour (and that I wore out myself).
We sat across from each other in comfortable chairs and he began telling me his life story – how, in the 1960s, he badly injured his arm. He went to a tent revivalist in his hometown of Greenwood, S.C. He told me he made a promise to God that if God healed his arm, he would serve Him for the rest of his life. Well, the tent revivalist came through – no more injured arm.
I remember talking to him about why he believes he was chosen to have this great power to heal; he, of course, said it wasn't him, but the power of the Lord working through him.
We went on for a half an hour or so, and Jenkins left for his room at a local motel to spruce up for his evening performance at the movie theater.
As I recall, the event was to start at 6:30 p.m. It was only about a mile from our office and I showed up in plenty of time. The parking lot was filling up; Leroy's fans were streaming into the movie theater.
I grabbed a front row seat on the right-hand side of the stage.
With strobe lights flashing and recording music busting everyone's ear drums, the great man strode onto the stage.
He burst into song, which sent the audience into ecstasy. After the music died down, he began preaching to the crowd about the power of faith to heal the sick of body and spirit.
And, finally, after all the preliminaries were over, he got to the main event – calling people up to the stage to do the healing thing.
He went through four or five of them, with the crowd gasping in awe at his ability to describe their lives and then he set to work on what ailed them. Crutches and canes were thrown aside; those who came to the front wheezing and coughing walked off the stage, loudly proclaiming they were cured.
Then it happened.
He looked over at me in the front row.
Now, here's this fine young man from your newspaper here in Troy; we had a nice talk this afternoon.
I kept my head down, taking notes.
But I sensed that he has an injury to his leg. Come up here, young man, and let us see and heal!
Then it dawned on me. When I was sitting there talking to him that afternoon, he could see that one of my pant legs had hiked up, exposing a nasty looking bruise with a big old scab that I had "suffered" a week before in a basketball game.
He had seen the wound; and filed it away in his head for use later.
Come up here, my friend, let me pray over you.
I finally spoke up: Absolutely not. Move on to someone else, Leroy.
The man shot me a look of pure hatred. I had spoiled his fun.
I wouldn't play along.
The healing went on for another half hour or so.
When people started streaming out of the theater, we discovered that a full-blown blizzard had hit Troy while we were inside. The snow was piling up on the streets.
I dug my dilapidated old car out from under the snow and started slowly driving the mile to the Troy Daily News office. I only lived a block away from the newspaper, so I decided to go to the office and write my story before trudging home through the snow.
We were an afternoon paper, so I had plenty of time.
I wrote a humdinger of a column. It was not what you would call reverent. In fact, it was pretty snarky. It described in great detail how he tried to get me on stage to be part of his act; and explained my theory of how he knew there was something wrong with my leg.
The next afternoon, the newspaper was published. I was pleased with the story; I think the editors were too.
But, late in the afternoon, I got a phone call. It was Leroy Jenkins.
There were no faxes or internet or iPhones in those days, so someone must have gotten him a copy of the paper. At any rate, he had read my story and he was not pleased.
After a torrent of obscenities aimed at me and everyone who knew me, he said something that got my attention.
Let me tell you something, you rotten creep. I have a warning for you. If I were you, I would make sure I never set foot in Delaware, Ohio again. It might not be good for your health.
I was taken aback.
Excuse me, what did you just say? Is that a threat? Not a very Christian thing to say, is it?
He started yelling again.
Don't talk Christian to me! You know exactly what I said! Come to Delaware and you will regret it!
Then he hung up on me.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), I never encountered the man again.
I wanted to tell him that the following September, I drove over for Delaware's most famous annual event, the Little Brown Jug.
I always loved watching harness racing and the Little Brown Jug is the best.
A trip to the Little Brown Jug trumps being threatened by some faith healer every time.
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