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A Jesus Explosion In the Garden

Sold-out hallelujah: A concert hall famous for hosting hell-raising rockers is born again as a revival hall

Jesus Freaks

Jesus Freaks on February 24th, 1975.

Jodi Cobb/The Denver Post via Getty

New York — Ted Beckett is talking to Jesus. Right here, slumped on an aluminum flolding chair just a few feet from The Cross, with his legs open and his pants strained across his sinew so that they’ve ridden up a good few inches above his mustard socks and the two-tone shoes on his huge Christian Soldier’s feet. Ted Beckett from Dallas, just coming off a hot streak in real estate that’s made him a lot of money, more money than he’s ever had.

What he would’ve done ten years ago with a stake like that was catch a plane to Vegas and keep rolling until it was gone, but that was ten years ago before Ted was … saved. So now he’s stopped off in New York on his way home from Haiti, where he’s been opening a foundling’s home and doing a little open-air preaching as well, casting out the Devil from the deep dark satanic hearts of the knife-dancers and fire-walkers, and where he even stopped the rain — when a big black cloud came heading for his meeting he just prayed and raised up Jesus and the cloud went away.

He’s stopped off in New York for the Compassion Explosion in Madison Square Garden, and here he is, slumped down in his chair clapping his big meaty mitts and leaning over and slapping me a good one on the knee and he says he’s been talking to Jesus and Jesus is waiting for me, waiting to fill me with the Spirit if I’ll just get down on my knees and open up my sinful heart —

“There’s room for you at The Cross,” he says.

The Cross is about 40 feet long and carpeted in flame-orange and dripping with gross white carnations laid out across the middle of Madison Square Garden like a mannequin’s catwalk. The Cross is the stage. And up at the Eighth Avenue end there’s a mighty platform set up, hanging with blue and pink and grey rayon draperies and smothered with flowersprays. The Speer Effect, like the great billowing banners and swastikas Albert Speer designed for Hitler’s rallies in the Thirties.

Things are starting to hum up there. As the Hammond organ feels out a few ministerial chords, all the visiting castors are getting fidgety in their seats, starting to raise up their arms and roll their heads. The front row can hardly sit still any longer, the Reverend Kent Rogers is starting to kick and hallelujah, and already, before the Explosion’s properly begun, we’re starting to have church here in the Garden, the folks are starting to raise up Jesus right where Sly and the Family Stone were raising hell the night before.

The whole blessed place is packed to the rafters with saints. They’ve come from Atlanta and Nashville and Phoenix and Philadelphia and Detroit and Washington, busloads of the faithful, row after row of black mamas in their church-going best —  gay florals and flowing rayon prayer-gowns and $5 wigs all bent and lacquered into little helmets and hats, Sunday hats, miraculous gear, laden with fruit and honeysuckle. Twenty thousand cleaning ladies and their kids all packed into the Garden for the Explosion, all just itching to testify, all the saved and soon-to-be-saved and wish-they-were-saved brothers and sisters of Don Stewart. Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus! Somebody say Amen! Don’s going to preach them happy tonight.

Don, in case you’ve never heard of him, is the Man from Miracle Valley. He’s the anointed spiritual heir of A. A. Allen, who was one of the truly great raving fanatics on the Hallelujah Trail until he met his homegoing, they call it, about a year ago. A pentecostal evangelist who preached thunder under the biggest gospel tent in the world, he had preached salvation and damnation all over the country and abroad for 30 years, and performed miracles as well. He lay his hands on the lame and the blind in Jesus’ name and cast out the afflictions of the Devil — the Miracle Restoration Revival he called it, and it made Billy Graham and Oral Roberts look low key.

Young Don took up A. A.’s torch last year, and since then there’s been some changes made. He’s just 31, and God forbid he might overlook one precious soul among all those 200-pound black ladies who make up 90 percent of the congregation, but Don’s on a new trip. He wants you. More precisely, taking his text from the first chapter of First Corinthians:

“The apostle Paul said, God chose the foolish, the despised, those that are not — and young people, the longhairs, the hippie-type individuals, all of them have been, as far as the middle class goes, they’ve been looked down upon, scorned upon, even despised and hated. I may have even had a few hangups myself, I’ll be honest with you. But it could be that they are the ones chosen by God, to confound the wise.”

Don would love to embrace the Jesus freaks. To him, all those streetcrazy children of Zion hollering for Jesus are a sign, one of several, that the hour is indeed getting late, the last count is at hand, the Second Coming is upon us. He was poolside at Pat Boone’s this summer, baptising freaks off the Strip. He’s taken his hot gospel to the communes outside Taos, to the layabout panhandlers in Washington Square, because his ministry preaches directly to the strung-out and disinherited, to all the ghetto blacks and Puerto Ricans and dope-crazed teenage homeless with nowhere else to go but to The Cross. It’s his ambition to preach the gospel on satellite TV, but right now he’s having trouble just getting on the air because the National Council of Churches disapproves. He’s thinking about taking the networks to court.

What Don promises is a warm spot in Heaven come coronation time, once you surrender to Jesus and renounce sin, quit smoking and drinking and fornicating and coveting thy neighbor’s wife and dancing to worldly music and just generally heading fullspeed into the eternal fires of Hell. God’s Action For Your Miracle, it said on the buses all over New York weeks prior to the night, with a photo of Don gazing up into the heavens for a sign, looking like Conway Twitty in a faraway trance.

Don is actually a chubby dumpling from nowhere, Arizona, who spent a lot of his wayward youth in small town cathouses and big city bars before he got stung one night at one of A. A.’s revivals in Phoenix. “Turned on to Jesus,” he says. After that he did about ten years preaching under his own small tent on the Pentecostal grits circuit and filling in for A. A. in his later years.

He was among the first few apostolic pioneers who pitched camp and started a lost community in the wilderness on 2500 acres near the Mexican border south of Tucson, donated by a rancher to A. A. Miracle Valley, it was called, and today they’ve got a Bible school there, the crusade administration, their own printing plant publishing Miracle magazine with circulation over a million, their own record-pressing plant and a flock of about 500 Christian Soldiers living for the Lord in small frame houses and trailers. (Except for A. A.’s place, which is fit for a King or at least a retired Shepherd, with indoor gardens and waterfalls and that sort of thing.)

Since A. A.’s death and his own ascension, Don’s fast becoming the hottest gospeler on the trail, he’s been raising up Jesus in huge tumults in Chicago and all over the south, even in England. He’s been zapping sinners and harvesting souls and performing … miracles.

Mostly it’s a matter of giving the old folks enough of a buzz to toss off their phantom arthritis and lumbago and get up out of their wheelchairs and take a few tottering steps. But at the Garden there was a nine-year-old who’d had TB and Don had prayed him clean. And there was a whole contingent of former junkies he’d cured in a night: “I believe Jesus is going to send a sword, the Sword of His Spirit, His Holy Word, into her veins tonight!” And then there was a man who had a heart attack under Don’s tent somewhere in the Midwest and the nurse had pronounced him dead and sent for an ambulance and Don had laid hands on him and prayed and … raised … him … from … the … dead.

In his Nashville fashions and hair-spray. Don doesn’t look like much of a shaker at first. He waddles a bit when he comes to The Cross with Kathy and their two miracle children (because Kathy was never supposed to have kids at all, so they came on a prayer: she was supposed to go blind, too, but, miraculously, she’s 20/20 today; and what’s more she looks like Miss America judged by pastors and nuns — impossibly demure). By the time Don arrives, the Explosion’s already peaked about two dozen times. Ted Beckett’s shouting and stomping and slapping me on the knee and all over the Garden the saints are dancing in the Spirit.

All of a sudden, in the middle of a 1000-voice choir leading the whole 20,000 singing “I’m Saved Saved Saved,” with old Kent Rogers, A. A.’s co-evangelist, up at the mike in his silver tux doing this highstepping godly dance and screaming I’m Jesus’ Fan! and Hallelujah! and Somebody Amen!, all of a sudden one of the black mamas gets stung and goes into a holy convulsion, a heavenly seizure, writhing and jerking and speaking in tongues which is like yelping and groaning — God’s Epilepsy! — and some of the kids get into a weird motivatin’ boogie, their eyes rolled way back in their heads — Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus! — and now they’re all waving white handkerchiefs and Kleenex, 20,000 white fluttering handkerchiefs in the dark, so that it looks like the Garden’s been invaded by a multitude of moths.

After that, three platinum honeys called the Sunshine Singers — who look like they got saved going down in a bad lounge in Reno — are singing snappy hymns, and then one 200-pound grandmother is singing better than Mahalis Jackson even, and then there’s the Reverend Eugene Martin. He’s an anointed preacher, another Georgia genius like Little Richard and Otis, and when he gets going, scooting up and down The Cross strutting his stuff and pretending to bathe his feet in a collection pail and leading the saints in a long gospel call and response — I just want to testify! — the whole revival’s got the same kind of threatening ecstasy that a very few good rock and roll bands manage on their best nights.

It’s that intense. The whole place is totally gone, so gee’d up and ready to burst that by the time Don arrives it seems quite likely he could indeed raise the dead and heal the sick, if he can focus all that raw righteous faith and zero it in on all the slipped discs and swollen limbs and creeping anemia like a holy laser.

That’s what he does. He starts out singing, very suave, a bit like Jack Jones: and then he introduces a couple of testimonials, like the guitar player whose arm was crushed in a dozen different places and cast in plaster, and one. afternoon at Miracle Valley it was mended in a flash. “There’s nothing too wonderful can happen to a child of God!” cries Don, starting to feel it now, starting to swivel on the balls of his feet and reach up to catch the Spirit. “I feel the anointing of God upon me now! He’s the Lily of the Valley! He’s the Bright and Morning Star!” — and then they roll out the wheelchairs.

“I’m not a healer! I could not heal a healer! I could not heal a fly if it had a headache! But I’ve been talking to the Healer all day long and His name is Jesus Christ!”

One after another they come, the first old lady crippled with arthritis, and Don calls on Jesus, asks everybody to clap their hands for Jesus, rebukes her arthritis, lays his hands on her old twitching body and shouts Heal! Heal! Heal! He looks her in the eye and says, “I have felt the touch of God upon my sister! Your faith has made you whole! Rise and walk in Jesus’ name!”

It’s easy, she’s up on her feet and hopping around like a frisky chicken and the Hammond organ’s about to hemorrhage and Don’s screaming “Look at that! Look at that!” and the crowd goes berserk. Don’s working up a glow now, starting to shake and roll, and the saints are crying Holy! and falling down in the grip of the Spirit all over the place.

He does it again, this time to a colossal old lady with a bad heart and incipient elephantiasis. This is what they came for. And then out of nowhere a little hippie boy runs to The Cross and dumps an ounce of grass on the floor and renounces his sinful ways — Hallelujah! Just the way God planned it.

Don doesn’t let it slacken for more time than it takes him to get his breath. Next thing he’s up on The Cross, prowling the catwalk, sniping for Jesus. “I can see the Glory of God! Right there! The young man in the lavender! Stand up sir! The Lord’s gonna touch you! There it is! Receive your touch!” He shoots out his arm at the brother in a jumpsuit and gets him right between the eyes. He contorts and convulses as if snapfried by ten thousand volts.

That’s the warm-up. Things cool out a little while Kathy sings a psalm, and then the sermon itself begins. The theme is revolution and the salvation of the young.

“I will raise up my voice and I will cry aloud against all those that would pollute the minds of our young people with ungodliness and pornography and drugs and the works of the flesh! God did never intend for our young people to waste their lives in the jungles of Communistic Revolution, but God has intended for them to walk in the peaceable paths of Eden! Yes! I believe in a revolution of your mind and heart that will tear the tradition of man down and inject the power of the Holy Ghost! When our young people get turned on to Jesus, we’re going to see the dawning of a new day! Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy!”

The way he does it — the way he wrenches out the crescendoes and chokes and sobs through the pauses and stretches his voice till it cracks on the curses and prophecies — reminds you of Elvis in his flaming youth, as though each utterance cost him small agonies within.

The Garden’s Grand Canyon echo tosses his voice back a beat after he’s spoken. It goes on for close to an hour, this raging Pentecostal polemic full of blood and thunder, and by the time he’s done he’s lurching on his feet, all posture lost, his joints all askew, totally shredded. The flock, the 20,000 of them, suck it all in until Don runs dry.

The sermon ends with an altar call and after all the righteous jubilation and hell-fire and miracles, it’s another kind of climax. By now the whole place is in a trance. Don gets down on his knees and prays for all the sinners and backsliders, the organ plays long ominous chords, Gene Martin’s 1,000 voices start crooning “Come to Jesus,” and they come, thousands and thousands of stunned ecstatic believers come thronging down the aisles to kneel at the foot of The Cross and receive the Spirit, and touch Don’s garment, his blue on blue belted Nashville suit.

Billy Graham’s still on the job, Oral Roberts has endowed his own University in Tulsa, and there are quite a few others, but right now the Man from Miracle Valley’s the hottest evangelist on the Hallelujah Trail. And he’s only just begun. There’s money in it, of course. They say Billy Graham’s got eight million names on file he can call on at a given moment for an average contribution of seven or eight dollars — that’s close to $50 million — and the folks even upped their pledges during last year’s Squeeze. Don preached up the $22,000 to rent Madison Square Garden on a Saturday night, plus more than that for promotion and transportation at a series of lavish private banquets in Dallas and Philadelphia and Houston and a dozen other cities where he has support, contributions starting high at $1000.

The Explosion, of course, is church, so it’s free, but there is a collection and they sell books and records in the lobby, copies of A.A.’s book Born to Lose, Bound to Win and Don’s own The Man From Miracle Valley. And as he explains, if you give to Jesus, He’ll give to you. Why, Don once put the $50 for the next payment on his Mercury into the pail and when he got home the pastor he owed the money said he’d been talking to Jesus and He’d told him to give Don the car.

Don’s seen Jesus. He talks to Him all the time, and he’s been talking in tongues for the last eight years, but now and then he’s seen Him, a vision of Him. He’s appeared as a figure of light in a white garment. When he’s sniping, sending out God’s touch flashing out to souls like the brother in lavender, Don says what happens is that the whole congregation is bathed in heavenly light and then it all zeroes in on one person and he stands out like 3-D, and sometimes, he says, he’s seen Jesus by the sinner’s side, taking his hand. What Don would love more than anything is for the Devil to appear in the craven flesh and then he could fight him like a man, get hold of that thorny tail and batter him into Hell. In the meantime, he’s combating the Devil in the spirit, casting him out of people’s souls and bodies so they can give themselves, whole to Jesus and the sinners can see proof positive of Jesus’ power on Earth. Don’s miracles, like Jesus’, are powerplays as much as doctoring.

The night of the Compassion Explosion I had a toothache — not a nasty one, just a dull drone and a vicious reaction to hot drinks — and I was talking to Ted Beckett, the Dallas real estate man and amateur evangelist, after the revival was over, and he was telling me about how he could bind the Devil in the hearts of the Haitian knife-dancers halfway through their frenzy and they’d be cut to pieces, and I asked him if he’d have a go at my toothache. It was easy. All he did was lay his hands on my shoulders and rebuke the ache in my tooth, and because it had been a heavy night, because the accumulated atmospherics in the Garden were so charged up with raw faith and holy passion and Don had cooked up a vast orgone box of transcendental Christian delirium, my toothache went away.

As we left, it was raining, fallout from Hurricane Heidi, but there was nothing he could do about that, although Jesus did send us the first cab. As we left also, the little hippie boy was grubbing about on his knees at the foot of The Cross, trying to scrape up enough trampled grass for a joint in the subway.

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