On July 19, Creflo Dollar and his wife Taffi brought their tent revival spectacular to Madison Square Garden. They stayed the weekend and played seven shows in three days. Admission was free, but one imagines they still raised a good bit of money. As Creflo said: "I aint afraid of no six-figure budgets in the service of God."
To those of you who dont watch paid programming on Sunday mornings, Creflo Dollar is a televangelist. Born Michael Smith, he drives a black Rolls Royce and his teaching is the very antithesis of that nonsense about the rich man, the camel and the eye of the needle. To Creflo, its all about the Benjamins. In the gift shop, I found the following titles on sale: No More Debt!–book: $18. The Covenant of Wealth and Exchange–audio: $15. The Intangibles of Wealth–video: $54.
When I got to the Garden on Friday morning to hear Taffi Dollar preach, a gospel quartet was already busy warming up the crowd. The stage was decorated with fake pillars, an American flag and a large globe. There were two television cameras in front of the stage and a third crane-operated camera that danced around the stage itself. The gospel lyrics were superimposed on giant tv screens so the audience could sing along: "He reigns! He reigns! He reigns!"
After 20 minutes, the music came to a crescendo and a vast bank of spotlights flared up. The stage was drowned in light and it felt like dawn was breaking over 34th St. Taffi Dollar stepped into the Sun to pray.
When I returned in the evening to see Creflo perform, the same gospel quartet was at work. I was curious to know if the trick with the lighting would be repeated. It wasnt, but Creflo didnt need it–hed filled the Garden almost to capacity, and instead of lighting effects he had what must have been 16,000 people singing in unison: "For he is coming in glorious power to crush the hand of the enemy."
At length the music died and Creflo took the stage to a standing ovation. He said a prayer for the President, the Vice President and all others in authority. Then he asked us to turn to greet our neighbors. The young woman a few seats down on my left skipped over and embraced me. "Give me some love," she said.
The next order of business was the collection. It may seem odd to take the collection before the sermon, but since the evening show lasted well over two hours, it was sensible. While the buckets were being passed, Dollar said that on the previous night a boy had stolen one of them and run off with it. "Lord, dont try that tonight. The most dangerous thing you could do to the Lord." This story shocked the audience and seemed to hurt their civic pride. I wondered if it was true.
When all the collection buckets were full, a second warmup act, a preacher, took the stage. He told a story about the fear he felt singing a Jesus song to a gathering of Muslim infidels in South Africa: "These werent no American Muslims. They were kill-you, kill-themselves and it-dont-matter Muslims." The man sang, the crowd cheered and finally Creflo Dollar came back onstage to preach.
Dollars sermon was much the same as those he broadcasts every week on channel 9, but there are two great differences between seeing Dollar live and watching him on tv. The first has to do with the racial composition of the crowd. On tv the crowd shots are framed to give the impression that Dollars audience is racially mixed. In fact it is overwhelmingly black, and the small handful of white faces are all packed into the front rows, close to the cameras.
The second difference has to do with the young man across the aisle from me who sat through most of Friday night with his head in his hands, alternately praying and crying. It is easy to laugh at Dollar on tv, but it is hard to laugh at a young man in tears. It turns out that the real star of Dollars live show is his audience, and their emotion is moving despite the wacky message.
Halfway through the sermon I heard a cellphone ring and an enormously fat man in front of me answered it: "Yeah, Im at the Garden. Its awesome. Awesome!"