Mike Ferree is not your average, tithe-soliciting evangelist. He has been shot during a drug deal gone bad, married a woman he once planned to murder and demanded a lower salary for his last job. These days, he's happy to drive more than 500 miles for a couple dozen needy souls and a pocketful of change
Jesus Way Temple Christian Church is a plain brick building that stands at 1700 Maryland Ave. NE, across from a derelict parking lot whose jagged heaps of ruined pavement resemble the site of a meteor strike. Parked on the church lawn out front is a white 1998 Cadillac DeVille, its back seat filled with a week's worth of hanging laundry. The sun visors are crowded with mail and paperwork. The ashtray holds a toothbrush, a ballpoint pen and three plastic forks. Scattered around the seats are an electric razor, a bottle of Pantene Pro-V Volumizing Hairspray, a brick of saltines, a can of Van Camp's Pork and Beans, a copy of the Bible and an edition of The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. The Cadillac's odometer is crowding 230,000 miles. The car belongs to traveling evangelist Mike Ferree, and he has driven it 600 miles from his home in Tennessee to deliver a sermon here tonight.
Before tonight's service, Ferree sits in an upstairs office, drinking strong coffee with Kenneth Eller, the pastor of Jesus Way Temple, one of the dozens of churches along Ferree's revival route. "How many you think we'll have tonight, Brother Eller?" Ferree asks.
"If we're lucky, 20 people," Eller says. "Maybe 25."
Though Ferree makes his living on what he takes up in collection, he does not seem put out that he has spent all day on the interstate to preach for a crowd whose offering will probably total less than he paid for gas getting here. Ferree stays on the road roughly 300 days a year. In the winter months, he travels a grass-roots circuit of small Pentecostal churches in the Southeast and Midwest that have invited him to preach. In the summer, Ferree hits the road with his tent and trailer, and is part of a dwindling band of evangelists still preaching the Gospel at roadside tent revivals, usually for smaller sums than a celebrity evangelist might spend to have his hair done. That his work is so unremunerative is, in fact, a point of pride with Ferree (he bought the Cadillac used, he is quick to announce). He believes that trying to live as Jesus did calls for a certain comfort with penury.
"Money's a chronic worry with this kind of work -- there's no guarantee you won't go broke," Ferree says. "But, I mean, Jesus was born in a cow's stall. When it came time to pay his taxes, he had to get it out of a fish's mouth. This is God, man! He says a word and makes worlds appear! But when he had to go to town, he borrowed a donkey to ride on! Does that sound like a rich man to you, Brother Eller?"
"No, sir," Eller says.
Ferree considers himself an old-line Pentecostalist, a tradition distinguished by its ecstatic, free-form prayer meetings in which people speak in tongues, attempt feats of healing and topple before the pulpit "slain in the Spirit." All of this, Ferree says, makes people like him something of an embarrassing anachronism in the eyes of the Christian political elites, televangelists, megachurch pastors and other figureheads of American Protestant Christianity's present golden moment.
Though Ferree's audiences are holding steady in the dozens, he sustains hope that American Christians might soon turn away from the mass-manufactured religiosity of the current megachurch boom to seek God on a humbler scale. "I think people are going to start getting fed up with these bigger churches," he says. "They're gonna want something a little more sincere, a little more intimate, and they'll start coming to meetings like the ones I put on. But even if they don't, I'll keep at it till I draw my last breath. If I keel over at the pulpit, I couldn't think of a better way to go."
Ferree, 55, is a tall, somewhat forbidding man with an assertive jaw and forehead and a potent smile, which, when fully unleashed, looks large enough to swallow you whole. Ferree and his wife have nine children, and he gives off an air of well-seasoned paternal authority. He has a large, pleasing voice, left somewhat coarse from years of delivering the Gospel at high volume.
When he can find the audience, Ferree preaches seven times a week, twice on Sundays. He eschews television and movies, and he reads no books other than the Bible, he says, for fear of crowding Scripture out of his head.
"We have no outside interests," he says. "I don't play golf; I don't go to the ocean; I don't surf; I don't hunt; I don't ride a bicycle; I don't fish; I don't own a four-wheeler; I don't own a boat; I don't take cruises to the Caribbean. Brother Eller, when's the last time you took a cruise around the Caribbean?"