SAN DIEGO -- Dan Withum talked low and fast, blocking camera shots, commanding his crew in this long, narrow television trailer, a technological wonder on wheels. Cameramen scribbled notes. Technicians tinkered. Ten minutes and counting to the opening of a Jimmy Swaggart crusade.
Suddenly, it was quiet. In the trailer, eerily lit by the glow of lights from more than $1 million in television equipment, crew members formed a circle and bowed their heads.
"And Lord, we ask you to bless the equipment and the people who work that equipment tonight," Withum said in the hush, "and give Jimmy strength and wisdom, but above all, Lord, give him the peace and love that passeth all understanding."
A Swaggart crusade is part television technology, part crack corporate planning, part slick show business, all of it stirred with spiritual fervor.
The three-day crusades are extravaganzas of sermon and song taken around the world. They are the heart of Swaggart's quest to transform lost souls into born-again Christians. And they are the stuff of Swaggart's weekly one-hour telecasts, programs that have made him the most watched television evangelist in the nation, according to some commercial rating services.
In recent months, Swaggart has set out from his headquarters and taken his Gulfstream jet, his crusade team of more than 50 people and two 707s crammed with 80 tons of equipment to Chile and Paraguay, El Salvador and Costa Rica, according to ministry officials. The team was in Vancouver, British Columbia, last week and later this year will go to South America and Africa.
"The Lord spoke to Brother Swaggart last year in the Dominican Republic and told him to expand his crusades overseas," said Jerald Ogg Sr., Swaggart's crusade director. "This year, we're going to do it."
Ogg books the arenas, always going for the biggest. Then, in a time-tested routine, he puts out the word to local churches, seeking ministers to lead an army of volunteers. Finally, he makes a personal visit. "I talk about how we want to come and bless the church and build the kingdom of God," Ogg said.
On the weekend of April 24, his target was San Diego.
By the time the crusade caravan arrived, 6,000 posters had been plastered around the city. Buses had been booked to bring the faithful to the arena, and volunteers were ready to usher, counsel, provide security and count the offering.
Swaggart arrived at mid-week and moved to the Hyatt Islandia's 14th floor, where views of the city and marina stretched out before him. His team stayed at a Travelodge near the arena. "We have to keep him elsewhere," Ogg said. "He studies and prays . . . . It is real business with him. He has one focus, preaching and winning the lost."
By then, six gleaming tractor trailers, emblazoned with the logo of Starcom, the ministry's television production arm, had arrived. They carried more than 200 stage lights, five dozen speakers and tall, white panels with twinkling lights to adorn the stage. They also brought rolling racks of Swaggart's gospel albums and cassettes, books and teaching tapes that are sold to help finance the crusades.
On Thursday night, volunteers gathered at a local church, where Michael Bray, a member of the crusade team, rallied his troops.
"We're here to see lives changed through the power of God," Bray told them. "We want you to come with your Bibles, come with your smiles . . . . Come prayed up, fired up and charged up."
He also wanted them to be on a strict timetable.
"At 8 p.m, Brother Swaggart will talk about the offering," Bray said. The signal to pass the white plastic buckets will be, "Ushers, you may proceed," or Swaggart's move behind his piano. They would have three minutes to finish.
The next crucial moment is the altar call, when Swaggart seeks his converts, Bray said, and as people swarm around the altar, counselors are to "help them, minister to them."
They are also to fill out "decision cards" for the "born again" Christians. The cards ask for their names, addresses and birth dates. The cards come in triplicate -- a white copy for the counselor, yellow for the local churches, the original for the Swaggart ministry mailing list.
Opening night of the first free service came, and at 7:30 p.m., Swaggart's son, Donnie, took the microphone: "And now, let me present to you your evangelist, my dad, Jimmy Swaggart."
Jimmy Swaggart strutted on stage to wild applause and murmurs of "praise the Lord." His rousing gospel songs brought his listeners to their feet -- and sometimes to tears.
"We have but one desire, one purpose," Swaggart told them. "If you leave and all that you've seen is Jimmy Swaggart, as flawed as I am, I will have failed . . . . But if somehow we can lift up Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and you see him, then the thing we are attempting to do will not have been in vain . . . . "
And so the service went, with admonitions for the U.S. Supreme Court and for communists, and inspiration for all who would seek it.
Outside the arena in the control room trailer, Withum had it all on videotape, from eight camera angles. With a whispered word into his headset, Withum sent one of his cameramen zooming in to catch gnarled hands clutching a Bible. His cameras captured a white-haired man, arms outstretched to Swaggart. There were closeups of the evangelist mopping his brow, and wide-angle shots of the arena aglow with sparkling lights.
At three such services on successive nights, the white buckets brought in a total of $75,000 in donations from the 29,500 people who attended. Thirty tapes were taken back to the ministry's Vance Teleproduction Center in Baton Rouge, a $20 million facility built in 1983.
There, the tapes are edited into several Jimmy Swaggart telecasts, usually broadcast about eight months later. "There is not a pocket in this country where Jimmy can't be viewed," said Shirley Cooke, his media buyer.
To keep the pace, four editing rooms run two shifts a day, sometimes seven days a week, said Sheila Withum, the ministry's television administrator and Dan Withum's wife. In the same building, Swaggart tapes his daily Bible study program and records his albums. Ministers also dub Swaggart's crusades into 15 foreign languages for broadcast abroad.
The ministry has brought in French, German and Brazilian nationals for translations, Withum said, always a minister, "someone who loves the Lord and knows how Jimmy's heart and soul speaks."
As in all things with the ministry, the goal is perfection.
"If God led you to work for him specifically to do this," Withum said, "how could you give him any less than the very best?"