MIAMI — By the time the Rev. Reinhard Bonnke edges toward the stage, anticipation in the thundering arena is swelling. The crowd of thousands has been told of his decades of preaching in Africa, the tens of millions of souls he has saved, the countless healings for which he has been a conduit and the modern-day Lazarus he saw risen.
The German-born Pentecostal minister most Americans have never heard of began his evangelism an ocean away and a lifetime ago, becoming a household name across Africa, a magnet for colossal crowds and a fundraiser who has brought in more than $100 million since 2006. Answering what he says was a message from God to bring his first great crusade to America, the 74-year-old walks into the spotlight with confidence.
“This is an hour of salvation,” Bonnke tells the crowd. “Miami shall be saved! Florida shall be saved! America shall be saved!”
Bonnke was born in East Prussia. He says he was 10 when he heard God’s calling to preach in Africa. In time, his crusades there would save the souls of more than 72 million people, he claims. The throngs became so indisputably huge that on two occasions, Nigerian crowds clamoring to touch him resulted in stampedes that killed at least 17 people. He says his largest single gathering was a staggering 1.6 million people in Lagos, Nigeria.
After taking the stage in Miami, he outlines no transgressions for which the sinners must repent, saying it is not his place to weigh which sins are big and which are small. He makes no forays into politics, though he was preceded on stage by Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Bonnke’s audiences hear no soaring evangelism and no lesson in morality. In dramatic bellows and near whispers, he returns again and again to the same simple theme: He tells the faithful to turn from darkness to light, from Satan to God.
He invites those ready to make a spiritual commitment to the arena’s floor. A crowd amasses, arms outstretched: Some tremble and cry, some shout “Hallelujah!” a few dance.
“Jesus Christ, son of the living God: Save me now!” Bonnke screams. “Jesus! Save me now!”
At the end of the two-night crusade – a masterful, $1 million production – Bonnke’s aides estimate 15,000 people came. But he says he measures his success by the more than 1,800 who came to the floor to proclaim their faith and receive a booklet titled Now That You Are Saved.
Almost an hour after appearing, Bonnke slips off stage right with little fanfare. His mission, as always, was simply to get people to accept Christ – and so his work, for tonight, is done.
But the evening is far from over.
Taking the stage is the Rev. Daniel Kolenda. He is 33, with blond hair and blue eyes. In 2010, he became president of Christ for All Nations, the ministry that Bonnke started, though the elder pastor remains its CEO. Kolenda has taken over the bulk of overseas crusades, and this night he assumes the responsibility of prayers for healing.
Bonnke’s ministry will claim hundreds of healings on the first night in Miami alone.
Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School who has written about Bonnke, says it remains to be seen whether his “dramatic supernaturalism” can attract American audiences. Still, she said, “He will be remembered by history as one of the most important faith healers of the 20th century. He will be known much longer than a Jimmy Swaggart or a Jim Bakker, because far more people have seen this person in real life than almost any of those other cast of characters.”
Like other charismatic preachers, Bonnke has made healing a hallmark of his services, and claims those who have 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 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. And yet people still – some people – still doubt it,” Bonnke said. “Well, may God forgive them.”
On stage, Kolenda instructs those searching for a miracle to place a hand on the part of their body in need of a cure. The night reaches its fevered climax as he recites a litany of illnesses he commands be fixed, from blocked arteries and kidney stones to cancers and addictions, in the name of Jesus.
Afterward, Kolenda asks the crowd how many experienced healing, and hands go up around the arena.
Daphne Bonas, 82, says she felt a heat run through her body that she is convinced has cured her bladder cancer. About two weeks later, she hadn’t yet seen a doctor, but she said she still felt stronger and healthier and was convinced tests would validate a miracle.
“I’m looking forward to them telling me, ‘There’s nothing there and you’re OK,’ ” she said.
Even Bonnke says he does not fully understand the healings. He says there is no special power in his hands or his prayer. He’s not sure if everyone is truthful when they claim to be healed.
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. From 2006 through 2013, Christ for All Nations received more than $105 million in donations; last year it brought in nearly $15 million, about $6.8 million from four donors alone, according to IRS filings.
Crusades are free and no offering was taken at the Miami event, just as Bonnke says is the case at each of his stops.
Rusty Leonard, who runs MinistryWatch, which analyzes religious groups’ finances, says Christ for All Nations has above-average spending on fundraising and administration, but he is most concerned by the number of affiliated organizations it spends money on, and from which he says Bonnke is likely to have received additional income.
In an interview, Bonnke rejected questions about his lifestyle, saying he has no stocks or other investments, just one apartment, which he said he and his wife will sell when he’s no longer able to preach and live off its proceeds.
“Sometimes, when God blessed me with something, I would feel guilty. Then I realized this was wrong, because a blessing is a blessing is a blessing,” he said. “I had to learn my lessons … and I thank God for his provisions.”
He says Christ does not want people’s money, he wants their hearts. And so Bonnke will bring his crusade to Greensboro, N.C., on Sept. 12-13, then to Long Island and Houston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and beyond.
He expects it will mirror his African experience, that stadiums will become too small to hold growing throngs, and that they will eventually move events to open fields. His writings are filled with numbers of those he has reached, but he refuses to limit his goal as he embarks on his American tour. He wants to win over everyone for Christ.
“He has a claim on all people. He doesn’t speak in percentages,” Bonnke says. “I will aim at the moon to reach the highest bounty.”