Controversial televangelist Benny Hinn, who asked his followers for $2.5 million this year to lift his ministry out of debt, rolls his "prosperity gospel" into Pittsburgh this week for two Miracle Healing Services at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
For the 60-year-old Mr. Hinn, Pittsburgh has special significance. He credits a 1973 trip to see faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman at First Presbyterian Church, Downtown, as the ignition of a ministry that claims to have preached to 1 billion people worldwide through its "crusades," healing services and "This Is Your Day," his daily show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Although his organization could not be reached to schedule an interview, Mr. Hinn said in a pre-recorded show broadcast Thursday night on CornerStone Network, a Christian network based in Wall, that Pittsburgh is his "home in the spirit."
"It will be 40 years this year since the Lord touched me here at First Presbyterian," said the Israeli-born Mr. Hinn, whose family immigrated to Canada. "This is where it all began. If it wasn't for this city, people wouldn't know who I am."
Mr. Hinn's Miracle Healing Services are scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and a "teaching and anointing service" is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday. Doors open two hours before services, and admission is free.
The poster for the event includes a photo of Mr. Hinn standing next to a row of empty wheelchairs and another of him standing next to a man who is hoisting a wheelchair above his head. Online videos of Mr. Hinn's services show large auditoriums packed with people, with some invited onstage or to the front of the room to be "slain in the spirit" in the Pentecostal tradition by the silver-haired preacher, often clad in a Nehru-style jacket.
Mr. Hinn's ministry was one of six "media ministries" targeted by a U.S. Senate Finance Committee inquiry launched in 2007 by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in response to complaints that the tax-exempt organizations were spending donations on expensive houses, hefty salaries and high-priced jets for the celebrity preachers and their families.
Mr. Hinn's organization, which brought in nearly $98 million in total revenue in 2006, according to the Senate report, was one of two that responded completely to the inquiry and pledged that an array of internal overhauls were underway. Mr. Hinn's lawyer wrote that the organization ceased providing vehicles and credit cards to Mr. Hinn and his family and conducted a third-party review of its "aircraft needs," though it opted to keep an oceanside southern California home for "pastor's contemplation and study."
Mr. Hinn's healing claims also have been the subject of investigative news reports, often with the help of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a watchdog group that provided testimony to federal and state agencies on fraud and abuse of donations by media ministries.
"He's a showman," Ole Anthony, 75, a founder and the president of Trinity Foundation, said of Mr. Hinn.
Wendell Wilson, the 73-year-old executive director of Loving Hands Ministries in Bradenton, Fla., met Mr. Hinn in Orlando, where Mr. Hinn spent two decades ministering at the Orlando Christian Center.
"I don't have any criticism of Benny. ... I don't think he's a fake like a lot of people say he is," Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Wilson said Mr. Hinn -- whose ministry funds children's homes in Florida, Mexico and the Philippines and donates to hospitals and other causes -- has demonstrated his "compassion for people so many times."
On his website, bennyhinn.org, Mr. Hinn said the prosperity gospel is "one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in today's language," that prosperity is taught throughout the Bible. Poverty, he added, "comes when we refuse the word of God."
At the end of Mr. Hinn's explanation of biblical prosperity, visitors can click a link to make a donation to "help Pastor Benny take the life-saving, miracle-working Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations."
The Rev. Jerry O'Neill, president of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, said operations like Mr. Hinn's are "big business" that can take advantage of the faithful, particularly the poor.
"He certainly doesn't represent what we would call a legitimate expression of the Christian faith," Rev. O'Neill said, adding that most local churches "do not believe in anything close to what we call the prosperity gospel."
"There's a fascination in general with the supernatural," he said. "It's kind of sad that people over the years -- this is not a new phenomenon -- that people have wanted to believe and often have given substantial funds in a direction that I think is not faithful to the gospel."
Charles Self, a pastor and professor of church history at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo., said Mr. Hinn's preaching has its roots in the Pentecostal tradition, which has a central belief that the miracles of Jesus and the early apostles can still happen today.
That doesn't mean Mr. Hinn, whose ministry is independent, is without his critics even within the Pentecostal faith.
"The real concern with him isn't that we doubt God's ability to do those things -- it's the claims, the showmanship, the accountability we're uncomfortable with," Mr. Self said, adding that Mr. Hinn's lack of formal training results in criticism of his "immature theology."
Mr. Hinn has made controversial predictions, including that in the mid-'90s "God will destroy the homosexual community of America."
"Those are the kinds of things that thoughtful Christians would say, 'Would you just pray for people and shut up,' " Mr. Self said.
Robert Zullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909.