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Now Starring on Broadway

Worship: Times Square theater, with its music, spotlights and huge speakers, draws thousands every Sunday. But the theme is strict Christianity.

March 28, 1998|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — The Broadway theater is so packed that the audience spills into the lobby, the basement--even onto the stage.

The music is mesmerizing, with ushers dancing in the aisles and people leaping from the red velvet seats, clapping and shouting.

But this spectacle, fine as it is, doesn't have a chance for a Tony. This is the Times Square Church, Christian revival as show biz, pure prayer under spotlights.

Each Sunday, a screen and huge loudspeakers beam the stage action to about 8,000 worshipers at three services. They wave back, bodies swaying amid amens and hallelujahs. Shaking tambourines, they sing with the drums, saxophone and gospel choir that rock the stage of the old Mark Hellinger Theater.

This is the same stage where Julie Andrews once sang in "My Fair Lady" and where Jeff Fenholt starred in the 1970s rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." In 1987, the born-again Fenholt--a drug addict while he played Jesus--helped dedicate the theater as a church.

It's now part of a worldwide rebirth of strict Christian mega-churches. They offer "a kind of therapy rooted in God: person-to-person religious therapy," says Mark Noll, a visiting professor of religious history at Harvard University.

Here, at the heart of America's biggest city, the church ministers to prisoners with AIDS, the suicidal, the handicapped, juvenile delinquents and sex-abuse victims. At some services, the first few rows are reserved for congregants such as former prostitutes and recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.

Well-dressed and well-behaved, worshipers fill the 1,600-seat theater on West 51st Street, drawn by a marquee that reads: "A great multitude of all nations, people and languages . . . (Revelation 7:9)." Some are well-heeled. "There are millionaires praying here and there are homeless people," says Manhattan attorney Joseph Ruta. "It really moves me."

In a city of immigrants, the congregation represents 110 nations. "We're at the crossroads of the world," the Rev. David Wilkerson tells the faithful--black and white, rich and poor, Hispanic, Asian and African.

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As security guards patrol, Wilkerson also adds: "Hold on to your purses, ladies. We're in Times Square." Instead, many clutch Bibles, underlined and dogeared.

From an illuminated lectern, the evangelist's voice reaches even the overflow crowd, who watch him on screens, seated in the domed lobby and the basement.

"Who has never been here?" the preacher asks. "Stand up! Let us welcome you."

Video cameras roll amid handshakes. The moment is captured, to be shipped to those who aren't here or don't yet believe. Wilkerson's mailings of cassettes, newsletters and inspirational videos reach almost 1 million addresses.

Their star is Jesus.

"He's the answer for everything," says the Rev. Richard Wiese, one of Wilkerson's four co-pastors. "Jesus is real, he's a people lover and he reaches out to everyone, from the bum to the CEO."

Among those "found" is Howard Grimsley, a prisoner with AIDS at the city's Rikers Island jail, where a church volunteer conducts weekly Bible classes. In this church, Grimsley says from jail, "there's no discrimination. It's about inspiration--and they accept the outcasts of society like me."

But make no mistake, though God pardons everyone, this is pull-no-punches Christianity. "We shoot straight from the hip," Wiese says. So the faithful are asked to fast, and to stay clear of extramarital sex, homosexuality, and alcohol and other drugs.

Show biz saturates the theater's rose-colored interior. From the resplendent lobby, with its massive rococo chandelier, a sign flashes: "Service starts in 24 minutes." The service lasts about two hours, as long as a Broadway show, with lyrics that could have been lifted from a Southern revival meeting.

"Lord, we can trust you for every need," intones Wiese.

The response is instant: "Yessss, yesss . . ."

An electronic box flashes hymn numbers and lyrics. Behind the green velvet stage curtains, a technician stands over a light-control panel, dimming the spots as the sermon starts.

Wilkerson, 66, an Indiana native, was trained by the Assemblies of God that ordained such dramatic televangelists as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. His book about saving youths from drugs and violence, "The Cross and the Switchblade," served as a script for a Hollywood movie, inspired by Wilkerson's first years in New York in the 1950s.

The city's streets are home turf to Wiese. Involved with drugs and guns at 13, he once associated with the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. In the 1980s, he served a six-year sentence for violent assault in several prisons, including Sing Sing.

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Now 39 and a father of three, Wiese altered a skull tattoo on his arm into a wheel with wings, representing a biker's life. "We call this a switchblade," he says, displaying a tiny gold New Testament. Joking about God's word as "a sword of the spirit," he adds: "This is the mini version."

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