“Come to the Miracle Tent. Come witness the blind see, the crippled walk, the deaf hear, the prostitute and drug addict be cured. Come to the Miracle Tent.” I wasn’t looking for salvation nor did I need a pair of religious crutches from the Salvation Army. I was simply looking for subject matter to shoot for my next project, and the newspaper advertisement in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1999 had all the criteria necessary for an interesting photo essay. Mankind in conflict: with himself, his world, and his God. “Place your hand on the TV screen and be healed.”
It was a cold, brisk Sunday when I arrived at the Miracle Tent, pitched in a deserted parking lot across the street from the winter headquarters of the Chicago White Sox. “Greetings brother.”
I felt immediately uncomfortable, not because I had twenty pounds of camera equipment tethered around my body, but because I had absolutely nothing in common with these people. Religion has driven a wedge between mankind throughout the centuries, and tonight wasn’t looking to be any different. I wasn’t going to be someone’s final solution, nor their ticket to salvation.
My presence didn’t go unnoticed. I crouched down in the aisle with a press badge hanging around my neck, anticipating confrontation between myself, the congregation, and their minister. Suddenly the evangelist Leroy Jenkins pointed directly to me and exclaimed, “Faith has no religion! Do I hear an Amen? Do I hear an Amen?” The crowd returned with an, “Amen, hallelujah, praise the Lord.”And the word Amen fell from my mouth.
That first service opened my eyes to a world that I was completely unaware of: an environment of pathetic people, poor dental work, and a driving search for unobtainable answers. At the same time, I admired my subjects as I observed their passion through my lens, their commitment through prayer. Was life so difficult for these people that they could no longer come to any resolve other than to ask their God for forgiveness and redemption?
I felt strange intruding upon this private moment. Was I trespassing, violating a personal sanctuary, preventing these lost souls from communing with God? As I continued to document the Miracle Tent, I began to develop a relationship with my subjects – where disdain once walked, I now felt a sense of compassion for my fellow man.
Inside the Miracle Tent, people were going through a primal scream. Tainted by the temptations of the flesh, the latest reality TV shows, and supermarket tabloids, they were trying to cast away their sins. This was God’s emergency room, and I was drawn to it like a moth flying into the light. I was alive in the here and now, capturing such torment on film only reaffirmed my stability among the throng of lost souls being blinded by His light.
Witnessing behaviour that seemed almost pathological, I continued to document Leroy Jenkins’ revival until the last Sunday in January brought the conclusion of the service and the end of his camp meetings in Florida. As the tent was taken down, I finally had an opportunity to really talk to some of the congregants. “What are you taking pictures for?” “I’m documenting personal faith, spiritual revival.” “Have you ever been to Brownsville?” This was the third time I had been asked this question. Not wanting to appear ignorant of revival’s epicenter, I always replied, “It’s too far away. I can’t afford to travel to Texas.” This time I was immediately corrected: “Brownsville’s in Pensacola.” The following Monday I started to make arrangements for my trip to the Brownsville Assembly of God.
After making further inquiry I was told that I could photograph the service, providing that I only shoot during praise and worship, along the outer aisles of the church, and without a strobe. Upset and discouraged, I decided to cancel the trip, but after further encouragement from my wife, Sharon, I committed to the eight-hour drive with a borrowed 35mm camera and high expectations. I was ready to confront whatever Brownsville had to offer.
Upon arriving at the church, I was greeted by Kathy Woods, their staff photographer and my chaperon for this Thursday night’s service. While in her care, I felt immediately at ease. Without hesitation, I placed all of my trust with this perfect stranger.
I was outside the velvet rope, in the required attire against the walls, shooting at the religious mosh pit in front of me. I had never witnessed such mass pandemonium. I quickly became frustrated because I knew that, limited by the church’s restrictions, these decisive moments would only become memories. As I finished the first roll of film I realized that A, there wasn’t a rewind lever on the camera, and B, my glasses were in the car. Unable to see the fine print – “PHD,” push here dummy – I couldn’t rewind the film on the unfamiliar 35mm camera. I became discouraged, impatient, and angry, questioning why I bothered coming up to Pensacola.
Yes, I was in the best seat in the house without a camera when an opportunity presented itself while we were on the balcony. I suddenly heard shouts and screams from men and women. Were these the same people who stood in line all day waiting to be prayed for? Not being able to locate the source, I leaned over the balcony railing to witness the killing fields – slain bodies, lying on top of each other, some keeping still in a blissful slumber while others jerked and twitched in epileptic-like seizures. Another missed photo-op. Kathy Woods saw the utter amazement on my face and, over the sounds that filled the sanctuary, turned to me and asked, “Would you like to go down into that?” Without hesitation, I replied, “Yes.”
A whirlwind of energy surrounded Stephen Hill, Brownsville’s evangelist – he was laying hands. Hill was the eye of the hurricane as people shoved against each other in a six foot deep mob, demanding to be prayed for. With great trepidation, I found myself alone standing in the foyer. The doors opened and slammed against the walls. The tidal surge pressed against me. There were bodies dropping, screams, laughter. I am held, I am touched, I am prayed for, in His name. I feel my blood, warmed by prayer, racing down from my head, shoulders, arms, legs, and knees. I am out. I am down, I am crying, twitching, and embarrassed. I am frightened. I am a Jew! When I opened my eyes the storm had passed; bodies lay strewn in its wake. Sobbing, I got up to seek refuge in a corner. “Steven, you’re supposed to stay down so the Lord can have more time to work on you.” “For Christ sake, I’ve been circumcised, I’ve been bar mitzvahed. I’m not supposed to be on the ground so the Lord can work on me!”
The service over, I drove back to the motel, knowing that my life would never be the same again. The Friday night service started as usual — music, praise, and worship. This time I figured out how to use the camera and shot a few rolls from the sidelines, still outside the velvet rope. My chaperon was Kathy Woods’ best friend, Sharon. Again, I put my trust in the hands of a total stranger.
During Stephen Hill’s sermon, Die Right, I began to reflect upon my personal life. I hadn’t believed in God in such a long time, perhaps because of what Rabbi Kripke once told me: “God will only exist in a man’s heart once he becomes totally mature and at peace with himself.” Hence no need for any dogmatic belief system, external or internal. I am very aware that it was possible to have misunderstood the rabbi. After all, I was an impressionable eighteen-year-old going through a personal hell with my family, fathering a child while in high school who I still don’t know to this day.
I survived two broken marriages, and then met Sharon, my third wife of sixteen years. I felt deeply fulfilled and enriched in our relationship. I was at peace with my parents. I felt that I could leave this world without any regrets.
As the sermon continued, I was overcome with emotion, grief, and pain. Deep anguish burned in my gut, poison ran through my veins – I was being pulled down from the weight of all my crap, gasping for air only to be sucked down again into my personal undertow. My screams of despair became one with the congregation. I was the lost soul in my photographs.
And then there was an altar call. A young man saw my torment and came up to me. “Would you like to kneel with me before Christ?” I could barely see him through my swollen eyes. Mucus pouring from my nose, tears splattering off my camera, I looked up and shook my head, declining his offer. Sharon asked if I would like her to accompany me to the bloodline, a strip of red tape on the sanctuary floor, symbolizing Calvary. I muttered “Yes.”
Kneeling at the bloodline, I raised my hands above my head, as if to surrender. Suddenly the image of Tracy, my first wife and the mother of my son, comes through me. I am forced face down into the carpet, the concrete floor preventing my forehead from going through it. Who slammed me to the floor with such force? Where did she come from? I can’t lift my self upright. This isn’t about staying on the floor so “God can work on you.” Helpless and paralyzed, I can’t raise myself up. Tracy leaves my gut, and as suddenly as I was thrown down on the floor I am back up on my knees.
All is safe. I forgive. NO! I am thrown down to the carpet again with greater force, greater screams. Oh God help me, forgive me. Now my sister is laying in my gut. Where did she come from? I thought she was buried deep inside my mind. I can’t hear the screams of those around me, only my own, I am drowning out the congregation of two thousand people. I am one voice for so many.
I find myself back up, and without warning I am back on the floor, forehead stuck to the carpet. Another primal scream. Who is next, who must I forgive in order to be free of this torment? Justin, my son, whom I raised until I kicked him out of my house at age sixteen. Justin, who carries my birthright, and those of my ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. More tears, the carpet in front of me is soaked with my fluids. I am the new poster child of spiritual death and rebirth. Waiting for another wave of despair and torment, I slowly rise, expecting more screams and tears of anguish. Nothing. I wait. Nothing.
I suddenly realized that an immense weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Three times I found my forehead pinned to the carpet, asking for forgiveness by three people who have deeply impacted my life. The cleansing had an immediate effect on me, physically and mentally, and through this healing process I realized that my journey was now far different from the one I had originally embarked upon.
I left Saturday morning to prepare myself for the long ride back to Sarasota. What would my life be like when I returned home? I had so many unanswered questions. Mentally and physically drained, I was afraid of what lay ahead.
That Sunday evening I received a call from Justin’s mother. We had previously communicated only through court-ordered arbitration, but now I listened and gave her advice and comfort about the difficulties of raising our son. She listened with no animosity, and I was able to quietly go to sleep without anxiety or anger. The following day my sister called after a two-year exile. I told her how excited I was to be a part of the plans for her son’s Bar Mitzvah and that I loved her. Tuesday arrived and I met with Justin for the first time in over a year and a half.
Two years later, during an exhibit of this work, I gave a lecture at a local university. The question would always arise, “Why revival?” I began to explain that I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper, “Come witness the blind see, the crippled walk, the deaf hear…”At that moment, I experienced an epiphany in front of the college audience. Recalling the words from the newspaper ad, I suddenly realized that “it was I who had been blind, it was I who had been crippled, it was I who had been deaf.”