Here is Rex Humbard onstage, microphone in hand, television cameras rolling. "What America needs," he cries, "is an old-fashioned Holy Ghost-God-sent-soul-savin'-devil-hatin' revival!"
Amen, some in the crowd murmur. When he prays, he kneels center-stage and clenches his eyes shut. At the end he whispers. "Thank you Jesus," and just at that split second the background music stops. "Amen," he says, and then: "Thank you. You may be seated."
Later, Humbard calls everyone who wants him to pray for them to come to the foot of the multi-tiered stage. As they move forward, a woman in red starts to climb onto the stage; she is led off. Another starts yelling "Halleluia, halleluia," and a young woman begins to cry. Humbard prays for her.
Rex Humbard offstage is a man with gray hair combed back without a part, with a paunch he acknowledges is somewhat overendowed. Seated in a hotel coffee shop, wearing a black, three-piece, double-knit suit and a polka-dot tie, he sounds as much the preacher sitting down as he does pacing on his round stage:
"I fell God gave the public media to us to fulfil the great commission. What is the great commission? There is no place in the Bible that says build a church. There is no place in the Bible that says go on television. There is no place in the Bible that says have a choir. But the Bible did say go into all of the world with this GOOD NEWS!"
At 60, Humbard is one of the grand-daddies of television evangelism, having been on radio 47 years and on television for 28. "They call it the electronic church now," he says. "That's the wrong term. It's the electronic evangelist."
He was in town this week to join over 2,000 other electronic evangelists at the National Religious Broadcasters' convention. Monday night he taped one of his Rex Humbard Television Programs before an audience of convention delegates and members of the public attracted by advertisements he has been running for the past few weeks.
His broadcasts are seen on 226 television stations in the United States, 650 television stations in other countries and heard on 700 radio stations worldwide. His programs are translated into a score of foreign languages -- including two Chinese dialects -- and lip-synched by teams working around the clock in his studios in Akron.
He works with a budget of $25 million a year, he says, and is $9.5 million in debt. In addition he is planning a three-year $45 million program to get his Christian message spread even further. His goal: "that you could go anywhere on the face of the earth and pick up our message, by radio, television, and short wave."
Already it's happening, he says, the words rolling on like a Sherman tank: ". . . Half the world's population can neither read nor writre. Now this is startling. Now the governments realize this all over the world, so what they're doing, they're saying unless we can communicate with these outlying tribes and these people we're going to have civil uprising. So what are they doing to cure that? They're building satellite transmitters for television . . . for radio, and they're building cultural centers or social centers and they're placing television sets (in them)."
Tribes all "up the Amazon, all in the Andes," people in remote areas, can see or hear the words of Rex Humbard and his tribe of cheery singing relatives preaching the word of Jesus Christ. He thinks it is the only way the world will be saved from its present path of imminent self-destruction. w
Why, just last December, he says, he and his traveling entourage were in Liberia, and he was told his program was on the television at one of these cultural centers.
"Well, our men went there and here's these people, they're so primitive the women wear nothing from the waist up. They live in grass huts and they can neither read nor write. They come down from the hillside in the afternoon, took the chairs out of the social center so more of 'em could stand, and for one hour they stood in front of that talking box and they listened to me . . . Now to me this is beautiful."
When Humbard meets you, he is likely to reach out and fasten to your lapel a small pin that says "You Are Loved." That is his theme. And when he says "I'm not in management, I'm in sales," it is clear what he means.
What seems to have made Humbard more successful than the average evangelist is not superior theatrics but persistence. When he first decided to go on TV after seeing a crowd gather to watch a ballgame on a storefront display set in Akron, he was turned down 12 times before a station agreed to let him buy the time to air his show. And when he talks it would probably take a hand grenade to interrupt him with a question.
He also has a highly efficient staff of public relations men who produce, from a "Rex Humbard Foundation' office in New York, packets of information about their man. The press kit comes complete with a color decoder explaining that the news releases are on white paper, background information is on green paper, biographical information is on blue paper, television information is on yellow paper, and introducing Rex Humbard is on cherry-colored paper.
Humbard's "ministry" includes a "government-financed, nonprofit apartment" complex for senior citizens, a 24-hour a-day prayer hotline (213-929-8691), monthly publications, family conferences as well as the multi-million dollar studios and the Cathedral. He employs 800 people around the world, and 450 in Akron, Ohio, where he has a home base and a church that seats 5,000 people.
At one time the Cathedral also owned the Real Form Girdle Co., United Electronics Co. and Nassau Plastics Co., in New York, as well as an advertising agency and an office building in Akron. But Humbard says "we eliminated those things" when the tax laws were changed in 1969 to say that income from businesses given to nonprofit enterprises were not tax deductible, as he explained it. In any case, he says, he never spent "a penny of contributions" on the businesses.
"The law says stop on a red light, but if it was changed and said stop on a yellow light, that's what I'd do," he says.
In 1963 Humbard was saved from bankruptcy with a $1.2 million Teamsters Union loan arranged by Jimmy Hoffa.
He came from a family of traveling evengelists, and says he "made a deep spiritual commitment at age 13" in his parents' church in Hot Springs, Ark. Years later when he wanted to go into television, his father disagreed, and they amicably parted company, he says. Now Humbard's wife, Maude Aimee, their four children and six grandchildren sing on the Rex Humbard Television Program. They are on the road six months a year, traveling in their four-engine turbo-prop.
Yesterday Humbard had breakfast at the White House with President Carter and about 15 other evangelical leaders.Humbard's staff put out a press release that began, "Internationally known television minister Rex Humbard will attend a breakfast meeting . . . hosted by President Carter."
He is asked for an assessment of his flaws. "There's a temptation to withdraw from people -- but I've never done that . . . We need always to be conscious of God to know what His will is."
There's an urgency to Humbard's often-repeated litany than may come from his belief that soon "it's going to be too late" to save the world from destruction.
The Prophet Ezekiel warned 2,600 years ago that Russia would "march south after something," he says. All the conditions Ezekiel described before the beginning of Armageddon are happening now, he says.
So he feels that his mission to reach the world must be accomplished soon -- before inflation, political turmoil and starvation make it impossible.
"I feel within the next three years people are going to be starving to death for just the lack of food," he says mournfully. "This is going to create a situation that's going to close many doors. The have-nots are not going to appreciate the haves very much. I go across India and I just stand and cry . . . but how can you feed them some kind of message through the mass media, and let them know we're praying, we love 'em, and we're concerned.
"Jesus said, 'before I return, this Gospel shall be preached in all nations as a witness' . . . I believe He has entrusted television, radio and short-wave so that we can go to all nations."