Leap of Faith

More than a decade after helping lead one of the largest religious revivals in this country's history—a revival that news reports deemed a hoax and a scam—Michael Brown has brought his brand of faith to Concord. And he sees revival in Charlotte's future

Written by Mike Giglio
Photographs by Carrie Campbell (unless noted)

Photo by Carrie Campbell

Photo by Carrie Campbell

Religions spring up like strip malls in America, a modern playground of the gods. Rival prophets call out from every corner; truth and myth blur together against a backdrop of freedom and faith.

Stop for a moment and stare. Religion runs deep in the national psyche, interwoven with the country’s destiny as the shining city upon the hill. Personal and protected, it must be addressed with care. Only in small parts can one approach the sublime.

A vehicle speeds down Interstate 77 one warm October evening. In the rearview mirror there is Charlotte, sprawling city of banks and churches.

Dr. Michael Brown rests his elbows in his lap, knees brushing against the wheel of a tan Buick LeSabre. The fifty-two-year-old bear of a minister wears a modest black suit and thin glasses. A thick mustache complements the stately white in his otherwise gray hair, but it is an imposing, authoritative chin that lends the man an unmistakable air of gravitas. This much he was born with.

When Brown smiles, as he does often on the drive to Columbia, South Carolina, he becomes strangely endearing. His eyes flicker as his jawbone moves forward and up. He grins at another displaced New Yorker's complaints about pizza in Charlotte. He produces a disarming, nervy chortle when confronted with disbelief during his tales of dangerous exploits in faraway lands, all in the name of spreading the Word. Brown's version of God, and what God has done through him, brings an undeniable flash of fascination to his eyes. His voice trembles slightly, excitedly, as a remarkable brand of American religion unfolds. The final chapters, it soon becomes clear, have yet to be written.

Brown's pulpit now is FIRE, the nondenominational ministry school and church he founded in Concord almost five years ago. Every Sunday morning, its lively services fill the basketball courts of the Concord YMCA.

Tonight he will deliver the keynote address at a convention of messianic Jews (consider them evangelical Christians dedicated to converting their spiritual forebears). He doesn't know what to expect, having never visited the church in Columbia nor met any of its members. His staff did not thoroughly vet the appearance beforehand. This, he says, is very rare.

 

He seems eager for the attention, and an e-mail conversation forwarded earlier by his public relations manager has given him away. Toward the bottom, in an earlier, private message, Brown had written: "Let us see if the Lord opens up this door with the Charlotte Magazine." He mentions receiving a sample issue in the mail a few days earlier as if it were God's own doing.

Brown attributes much to God. For instance, on an annual trip to India, he once closed his eyes, placed his hand on a blind child, imagined his hand as the hand of Jesus, and delivered sight. Years ago, on a beach in New York, he cured a man's cold. His wife has been freed from a degenerative back condition. But faith healing does not constitute Brown's primary message—only, perhaps, some of his most extreme assertions.

He wants religious revival for Charlotte. Not the tame, scheduled events held now by churches throughout the Bible Belt. The real kind, the Great Awakening kind. Think "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," the spider dangling over the flame. The masses tremble in fear, or love, are immersed in water, go out and spread the Word.

Brown led such a revival once, one of four men behind one of the biggest religious events in this country's history, its head theologian and president of its ministry school. The Brownsville Revival—which took place in Pensacola, Florida, at the end of the millennium, leading up to what could have been the end of the world—drew a cumulative audience of two million. Many now serve in missions overseas, or in churches in America, or have, at the very least, given their lives to God.

Critics called it a hoax. The local newspaper painted it as a great big scam. Brown venomously denounced them all. Now, he smiles, calm and reassuring. Can a man's religion really be disproved?

 

We arrive in Columbia late, because Brown's GPS system didn't recognize the small road that leads to the church, which looks more like a faded old house—paint peeling, old shutters, and in a bad neighborhood, too. Two men in suits watch over the cars clustered out front. Brown had regaled me with stories about preaching in front of megachurches in places like South Korea and India during the drive. Now he is embarrassed. He mentions again how he accepted the invitation on a whim in the middle of a very busy week, and he assures me under his breath that we will be out of here as soon as possible. Then he puts on his star preacher face, glowing eyes and a knowing smile, and starts shaking hands like a seasoned politician.

We are herded up to the second floor, where the two sections of about fifteen old wooden pews are not even filled to capacity. A giant foam menorah stands in front of the pews. Pieces of red cloth rise up from its branches to give the impression of real flames. There is a crucifix on the wall behind it, and a rainbow, and a cardboard replica of the Ten Commandments. To start the service, an old woman wearing a yarmulke picks up a large, snaking ram's horn. It sounds like she is strangling a duck.

The first few speakers give long, dull sermons. Then it is time for silly dances. Women and children dressed in red gowns leave their seats to perform a choreographed show up front. After that, some of the men shuffle awkwardly around in a circle while the rest of us clap to a one-count.

Brown is introduced, about thirty minutes later than scheduled, as an "author and visionary." He promises everyone that his speech will still end on time, then launches into a tirade about "microwave ministries." He chastises the audience and wonders how people can rid the world of sin when it exists in their own lives. For the first time all night, a resounding "Amen" rises up.

Brown faces the pews, hunched forward, slightly menacing. His left arm pushes down on the podium, as if to drive it into the carpet. He pans the room deliberately with his jaw. Then he begins to pace, three steps away from the podium, three steps back.

"Going to a building and getting together doesn't touch the world!" he says. "Audiences don't scare the devil!"

The audience leans forward as Brown decries the "powers that come against us." Sin, Islam, and homosexuality pose a mounting threat. So do problems within Christianity. Sex scandals and corruption have embarrassed the church. Regular Christians don't live what they preach.

"Do you think Americans don't see our hypocrisy? They don't see the real thing. They're laughing at us!"

The semicircle Brown has been making around the podium grows wider and wider. He stops, starts, speeds up, slows down.

"The real Jesus will set them free," he shouts, and punches the air.

Then the lights flicker. Brown promises it is not a sign from the Lord.

"Are you sure?" wonders a man near the front.

Brown prepares the congregation for revival. True believers must not be afraid to suffer persecution and death, which came even to the Son of God. He tells a story, one that had come up in the car, of leading a gathering in India that was interrupted by local Hindus wielding razor blades. Brown stood his ground and prayed out loud, and the situation eventually ended in peace.

"You can have controversy without revival, but you can't have revival without controversy," he says.

He pounds the podium with his fist.

"When you're asleep, and somebody turns the lights on, do you thank them? If you're called to be a light, what better place to be than in the darkness?"

A world that has overslept needs to be shaken awake. This will be met with resistance, as revivals always are. The Gospel is a threat to the world system. It's a threat to the religious system. Its proponents will be called troublemakers and bigots. They will be ridiculed and doubted.

"Let the accusations come!" Brown declares. "At least we're doing something."

Brown recounts the following story in his sermons. Parts of it appear in his books. It's posted on his ministry's Web site in printer-friendly format. It's one of the first things he tells me that evening in the car.

He grew up on Long Island, raised in a happy Jewish home. His father worked as the senior lawyer in the New York Supreme Court. At the age of eight in 1963, he learned to play the drums. He idolized the rock gods of the 1960s such as Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and started a band soon after his bar mitzvah in 1968. Not much later, he began smoking pot. Then he tried hash.

None of the drugs, he says from the driver's seat, affected him much. He moved to LSD, speed, and finally heroin, and was called the Drug Bear for his amazing tolerance. His grades and lifestyle sank to new lows. Brown recounts these stories, such as breaking into a doctor's office to steal more drugs, like an old frat boy remembering his days as the heaviest drinker on campus. Traces remain of whatever red-blooded pride drove him to achieve such notoriety.

The Jesus People Movement was under way in America in the early 1970s. The counterculture of the 1960s had sparked a counterrevolution. People rushed to church. Religion crept back into politics. Secularists found themselves entrenched in battles they had once thought won. Many former hippies and druggies became Jesus freaks instead. New denominations sprang up across the country.

One night in September 1971, at a concert in New York, someone pulled out a bag of mescaline. Brown ingested enough for thirty people. His friends took him outside and put him on a public bus headed for his house. He began to hallucinate and got off too early. Soon, he believed that he was burning in hell, and began screaming as much. A family friend witnessed this and alerted Brown's parents. When they came with the car to find him, he jumped in front of it, resolved to die and not realizing who was inside. Any driver not searching for his drug-crazed son would have hit him. But his father screeched to a stop.

 

That spring, two of Brown's band mates began going to a small gospel church to court two girls whose uncle was the preacher. Brown showed up one Sunday set to stop them. After that, as he tells it, the congregation began to pray for him. He never knew. But remorse and regret entered his life. He decided to get clean and return to the church in three months—that number so mystical in Christian thought.

When he did, he was a changed man, and he embraced the notion that Jesus died for his salvation. He devoted himself to learning the Bible, devouring it like he once did drugs, rapidly plowing ahead to the heavier stuff, insatiable. Before Brown rejected Judaism, his rabbi challenged him to learn the Old Testament in its original language. He received a bachelor's degree in Hebrew from Queens College in 1977. He took on Arabic and Greek at NYU so he could read the New Testament for himself as well, and received a PhD in Near Eastern languages and literature. The Drug Bear became the God Bear.

It is hard to imagine a personal story better suited to preaching conversion, or a better background for becoming a church unto oneself. Brown was ordained in 1984 at his small, independent home church in New York and has answered to no denomination since.

 

Brown's reading of the Bible in its native languages allows him to strip it down, then rebuild it as his own. In Our Hands Are Stained with Blood (1990), one of many books he has published through Christian presses, he writes:

"Now, let's pick up our New Testament and begin reading again. All of a sudden it is a different book!"

From here he weaves accounts of the persecution of the Jews throughout history and into the present with allegations of conspiracy, ultimately settling on Satan as the primary culprit. He claims that the moral bankruptcy of the church is what keeps the Jews from accepting Christ. Brown sees America as the center of the Christian world. Remaking it through revival would resonate to the heavens.

"The salvation of Israel means the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the righteous, the revival of the Church and the restoration of the earth," he writes. "The countdown has begun."

Brown's personal story of revival, however, is not nearly as interesting or dramatic as his "From LSD to PhD" narrative. In the early '80s, he tells me, while concentrating on his doctoral thesis, he grew spiritually cold. Scholarship had become an idol for him. Though he remained active in his church, friends saw him change. Secretly, they began to pray for him.

Soon he recognized that something was wrong—the first step in a revival of any scale. You don't try to bring something back to life without believing it's dead. He rediscovered his passion for Christ. He compares it to recapturing romance in a marriage.

Throughout the 1980s, Brown became increasingly cynical about the church in America. It, too, needed new life. He fashioned himself as an expert. He began to push for revival. He wrote books that called for it, the first in 1989 titled The End of the American Gospel Enterprise. Even so, man cannot create revival. God brings it down.

"You can no more hold a revival than you can hold a hurricane," Brown says.

From 1983 to 1993, he held positions at different Bible schools. Then he focused on speaking and writing. He devoted his sermons to revival. He sensed it getting closer. Like a storm front coming in. As he visited churches throughout the country, he felt a deep spiritual thirst around him. He began to pray.

God, send us spiritual rain, we're in a drought.

And God appeared. Brown says the Holy Spirit began acting through him directly. He would pray for men even larger than himself, reach out his hand to touch them, and watch as their bodies flipped back over the pews. He might shake someone's hand and find him swept to the floor, as if a bolt of lightning had struck. Preachers came clean after years of furtive sin and begged for forgiveness. People convulsed and wept and cried out from the floor.

"One of the things about revival is it has to be supernatural," Brown says. "If you can just explain it through human emotion, human manipulation, it's not revival."

He insists the divine intervention in such displays was real, more than a result of good preaching.

"When you speak and minister enough, you know what kind of responses are normal," he says.

He likens it to telling a favorite joke over and over. Usually it elicits a few chuckles. Suddenly the chuckles turn into uncontrollable outbursts.

When Jonathan Edwards first delivered his famous sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which cast man as a spider clinging to a thread above the fires of hell, it received only a small response. The second time around, he helped propel the American colonies through the country's first great spiritual awakening. Emotional and often fanatical versions of Christianity spread in waves through the middle of the eighteenth century, as an Age of Faith raged against the Age of Enlightenment.

In Brown's small claim to history, the greatest sign from God came on Father's Day 1995. A fire-and-brimstone preacher paid a visit to a church in Pensacola, the story goes. He planned to stay for the day and move on. As he spoke, people shook and wept. Some even fell to the floor, slain in spirit—an occurrence not uncommon to Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity. Then, a mighty wind swirled through the church and across the altar, where it knocked the pastor off his feet. He remained stricken down for hours. More people dropped. Those in attendance swore they had witnessed God's own presence.

Soon thousands flocked to nightly services at the church. The preacher stayed on with the pastor and music manager to lead the swelling revival. Eleven months later, Brown joined them.

Brown stands alone on the large altar of his school in Pensacola, ten years younger. As a video rolls through a grainy glimpse of his past, at last he seems to fit. The enormous crowd before him has risen to its feet. He paces calmly, confidently, taking long, smooth strides. He speaks slowly and softly into the microphone in his hand.

"We magnify you, great king."

His voice wavers a little. It becomes tender.

"We magnify you, we magnify you. We magnify you, great king."

The next words come out hushed, each letter delicately touched, drawn out.

"Jesus. Jesus."

Brown came to the revival with a dream for a school. He dances through what has become of it. The campus spans fifty acres. Enrollment tops 1,000. Students refer to him as Dad.

"When you hear the blast of the shofar I want you to raise your voices, and shout. To God. Jesus."

A young man enters the scene with a large ram's horn. Brown lowers his head, closes his eyes, and puts his microphone to the shofar's mouth. It sounds like a call to battle, deep and heavy at first, then lifting higher as the crowd raises its hands and shouts to the sky.

The call is made again; the cheers grow louder. Brown pulls up the microphone and tilts his head back and screams, exalting.

"Yes!"

The word takes him clear across the stage. He stops and pivots toward the roaring crowd.

"Mighty God! Mighty God! Mighty God!"

The horn blasts again into the microphone.

"Yes! Mighty God! Jesus!"

Each word is longer and louder than the next.

"Fire! FIRE! FIRE!! FIRE!!!"

Brown stalks across the stage in the background as the camera pans the crowd from behind. Then it returns to him. He is calm again, pacing slower.

"Lord, this is your day. Your. Will. Be done. In power."

Then the microphone cuts out as he prepares to pass it on.

On November 16, 1997, the Pensacola newspaper unleashed its first damning portraits of the revival. For the next four days the headlines dominated the talk of the town.

"Pastors orchestrated first revival"… "Sadness, fear fill members who left Brownsville". . . "Worship turned bizarre, frightening". . . "Top ministers cash in with own products". . . "Revival for sale through merchandise". . . "Give at least $100, revival leaders urge; ‘God knows how much you have' " … "Church budget is $6.6 million, 2% devoted to assist mission" … "Leaders shield finances, make many false claims"

For two and a half years the Brownsville Revival had received enthusiastic coverage across the country. Even the Pensacola News Journal, a daily newspaper with a circulation of 65,000, had published nothing but glowing articles from the start—forty-four in all, including a special commemoration of the second anniversary. Five months later, however, it unveiled the results of months of investigation in a series that would go on to win some of the most prestigious prizes in journalism.

The report identified four leaders: Steve Hill, the preacher; John Kilpatrick, the pastor; Lindell Cooley, the music minister; and Brown. It focused on the first two, but cast an ugly light on almost everything.

"The revival was well-planned and orchestrated to become a large and long-running enterprise," the opening article read.

According to unofficial church estimates—its official budget was closed even to members—the revival had brought in millions. Most of the money came from offerings, which were aggressively pursued. Only a small fraction made it to the missions and local community. Instead, revival leaders used a substantial portion to support revenue-producing cottage industries such as conferences, books, and tapes. The church courtyard had filled with stands selling merchandise. Brown said his ICN Ministries (Israel, the Church, and the Nations) was bringing in $50,000 a month.

Ministries are nonprofit 501(c)(3)organizations and thus, like churches, tax exempt. All of the profit from merchandise sales and appearances flows to them. Those running the show receive a salary determined by a board of directors, which can consist of friends or associates. Many ministries register with transparency agencies to show that their funds are used properly. After being confronted, all four revival leaders promised to seek membership with Billy Graham's respected Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

 

The report said Hill and Kilpatrick modeled their revival after a similar event in Toronto. Kilpatrick had even prepped his congregation for it. A video of the famous Father's Day service disputes the myth it created. It takes Hill hours to work a large portion of the crowd into emotional fits. He seems desperate and pathetic, cajoling the congregation in small increments, going after children when adults don't take the bait.

The report also dismantled Hill's autobiography, like Brown's a tale of teenage drug use and delinquency leading up to a dramatic conversion. Unlike Brown's, it is peppered with specific claims of delinquency. Many were disproved using public records. In an interview with the newspaper, Hill admitted that he fabricated certain aspects for effect.

"He tells countless stories of his past, casting them as freshly recalled anecdotes though they come verbatim from his books and sermons," the report said of Hill. "He also tells present-day stories, casting them in vague details and dramatic references for which he provides no documentation."

The revival's claims of spectacular faith healings were rebuked with medical records, or lack of them. It was criticized for boasts of raising the dead. Mainstream Christian scholars questioned its teachings.

Brown penned a long rebuttal entitled "The Facts of the Brownsville Revival" and placed it in a full-page ad in the newspaper. He accused the report of "misquotes, serious misrepresentation of facts, and misleading innuendos."

The revival went on unchecked for three more years.

By January 2001, the crowds had thinned. The Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world to which the Brownsville church belonged, now sought to rein in the school as well. It demanded accountability, citing as justification a $3 million loan that had helped pay for the expansive campus.

Instead of giving up power, Brown reached for more. He refused to accept credentials from the Assemblies, citing personal convictions. He demanded to be released, and he got his wish. Now he had a fledgling church and school of his own.

Eight of the ten full-time faculty left with him. In his parting address to the student body, Brown asked those teachers to join him on the stage. Then he portrayed a struggle in which he did everything possible to avoid the split—pleaded, sobbed, even attempted to wash Kilpatrick's feet. He called his firing "unethical" and "unjustifiable." He said he could be fired as president, but not as father. He pledged to "raise up a holy army of uncompromising, Spirit-filled radicals who will shake an entire generation with the gospel of Jesus—by life or by death." More than half of the 1,000 students left with him.

The following spring, the big classes had graduated, and the man from New York found himself leading a small congregation and school out of a shared church in the Florida panhandle. A little over a year later, he brought his remaining flock to Charlotte.

Now he sits across from me inside the Dilworth Coffeehouse off Prosperity Church Road in Highland Creek, dwarfing the tiny table and chair. He wears jeans, a green button-down with pockets on both breasts, and a black fleece. He and his wife are staying in a rental nearby while they build a new home.

Brown casts the move to Charlotte in divine terms, as he does the rest of his life. He says he felt it in his heart, and the feeling was strengthened by prayers and signs from God. Then he gets serious.

"Now here's what we thought logically," he says. "It does have an international airport—we do so much international travel. It's a rapidly growing city. It could be influential in that it's a major financial base. It does have a university presence, which is good, to reach out to those students. We had all of our logical reasons."

The congregation at FIRE has grown to about 400. The school has a little over 100 students, each putting around $3,300 a year toward a three-year degree in practical ministry, which is approved but not accredited by the state. FIRE International oversees more than 150 missionaries from before and after the split in places like Thailand, China, Africa, and Egypt.

Brown says the school subsists on miracles, what he calls "monthly supernatural help from the outside." One business will decide to donate, just at the right time, when money gets tight. Another might enjoy unforeseen success and decide to help. In all cases, Brown says, the money is unsolicited.

Despite what would seem a precarious reliance on chance, he expects his church and school to grow. He has met with architects to plan for new facilities on the school's current grounds off of Westmoreland Drive in Concord—a church to hold 1,000, a school to fit several hundred, and parking. He sees a spiritual stirring on the horizon.

"God's going to send revival to this region," Brown says. "I don't know what it's going to look like, but I'm convinced that we have a heritage in revival and that we're supposed to come here and be a part of something. We have this deep sense that something's going to happen in this city, a positive thing, a positive spiritual thing, that gets the attention of this nation."

Before the revival, the seaport city of Pensacola was known for the murder of two abortion doctors and public fighting between its thriving gay and Christian communities. In fulfilling what Brown calls its divine destiny, Charlotte too will become a battleground for moral issues. Brown, for his part, has taken up the fight against the powerful Human Rights Campaign, which he says pushes its agenda here. He criticizes Wachovia and Bank of America for embracing its platforms, like supporting gays in the workplace. He objected loudly to the pride parades that were held in Marshall Park. For the second straight year, he is scheduled to hold a forum at the Blumenthal in February titled "Can You Be Gay and Christian?" It coincides with the annual HRC Carolinas Gala, held blocks away at the Charlotte Convention Center.

If Charlotte underwent a spiritual transformation like the one that took place in Pensacola, the parking lots and pews of Brown's latest dream would likely fill up fast. With so much growth and money in the city these days, it could be even greater in scale, and so write perhaps the finest chapter in Brown's story.

"You know a crowd draws a crowd," Brown says. "If something's happening, people get drawn in. There are a lot of dissatisfied believers all over America now…A lot of those people, if they find something genuine, they'll throw themselves in."

Browns remains as genial as ever when I bring up the accusations from his past. I tell him that Wall Watchers, a financial accountability group in Charlotte, gave me a list of red flags to look out for, and that he raises several: no denomination; drawing a salary from more than one source; being associated with a movement, like the Brownsville Revival, with a reputation for "emotional" giving.

ICN Ministries never did register with Billy Graham's ECFA, and the church and school haven't, either. FIRE International has, however, and Brown suggests the rest will follow suit if they ever start bringing in more money. The only possible scandal, he says, is that his staff is underpaid. The next day I receive a fax with financial statements for the church and school that seem to support this claim.

Brown says he is accountable to himself, and to God, and to the church leadership. Many of those leaders are also his friends. Brown runs the school. A man named Scott Volk, who came to Pensacola as Brown's personal assistant, pastors the church. Josh Peters, another friend from the revival, heads the missionaries.

"Our books are open," Brown says. "It's one thing if I went out and spoke and was pocketing 10,000 bucks a week, and I drive up here in my Rolls-Royce. I come driving up here in my LeSabre. It's a little different."

As for the revival, he finds proof in the missionaries across the globe, the masses brought to God, the long lines and packed services of the past. People were drawn by something spontaneous and supernatural—revival must be true, because it cannot be otherwise.

To Brown, even criticism lends legitimacy. He stops for a moment to remember an American history steeped in revival, then hands me an old letter addressed to those who doubted him in Pensacola.

"And what has happened in the past will happen once again," he wrote more than a decade ago. "When the dust settles and the verdict of history is in, those who aggressively opposed a season of God's gracious visitation in their generation will largely be forgotten, while those who led the way in true revival, refusing to back down or let up, will be held in honor and respect."

On the basketball courts one Sunday morning in Concord, Christian rock music bounces off the walls. The hoops have been raised to the ceiling to make room for the chairs and band. The crowd is young, vibrant, and sometimes fierce. One teenage boy jumps up and down to the music, punching the air, glaring ahead. Others close their eyes and hold out their arms, palms faced up. Some clap. Some kneel. Some lay prostrate on the floor.

Brown gives a sermon about open endings. The story of the New Testament is never over, he says, citing Luke. The Holy Spirit carries on through them.

His past drug use and conversion surface here and there. He tells familiar stories about ministering to the masses overseas. Red buckets pass through the audience for collections.

It isn't over, he repeats. Proof of the Holy Spirit can be witnessed when they come together to pray—when they make something happen, something spontaneous and impossible.

"Faith does not produce deception, or naive superstition," Brown says. "Faith produces more faith."

He uses an example of curing a man's cold. It was years ago, on a beach in New York. The sick man mocked Brown's religion. Brown closed his eyes and prayed. As the wind blew in from the ocean, it swept the cold away. Suddenly, the man believed.

"If you pray and something actually happens, it's quite amazing," Brown says.

The sick are asked to come forward for an anointing, a collective laying of hands. The entire congregation prays over them.

Then Brown orders them from the church, to spread their religion and show the world that Jesus has returned from the dead.

The people around me cry out. They shake their heads and pump their fists. They have taken a leap of faith.

Categories: Feature, The Buzz