The not-so-quiet man of God
Pastor James McConnell was orphaned and homeless as a teenager. Now he heads up the vast Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast, where he spoke to Gail Walker
It's a venue more usually associated with some of the biggest names in rock and pop.
It's a venue more usually associated with some of the biggest names in rock and pop.
But next month Belfast's Odyssey arena will play host to what is, perhaps, one of the most extraordinary events ever to take place there.
For Pastor James McConnell plans to pack it to the rafters with the suicidal - his response to the growing numbers of people taking their own lives in Northern Ireland.
Cynics, of course, could be forgiven for reckoning there's an element of personal publicity-seeking in attempting to pull off such a grandiose gesture as this.
Especially, given the date ... September 11, or rather, 9/11.
But, polishing off a scone in the cafe at his vast Metropolitan Tabernacle on the city's Shore Road, Pastor McConnell shrugs off such suggestions: "This is no gimmick. That happens to be the only date available.
"And I know I've an important message for these people, one that can change their lives..."
Already, his voice is beginning to rise a little, its timbre and his phrasing taking on something of the US TV evangelist.
"I will tell them Christ understands their grief, Christ understands their pressures, Christ understands their frustrations, that he wants to come into their lives and change their lives.
"And do you know what, Gail?" he asks. (He tends to do a lot of this personal kind of questioning).
"If they allow Christ to come into their lives, their pressures, their stresses, their frustrations will disappear, and they will have the peace that passeth all understanding."
Like him or not - and Pastor McConnell readily acknowledges he gets on some people's goats - his is an incredible story that has taken him go from unwanted orphan boy to presiding over one of Ulster's largest congregations.
Now 68, he oversees a huge ministry from his Whitewell base. "These men here built this by hand," he says proudly.
Opened in 1994, at a cost then of £7m, much of the building was indeed built from labour provided free-of-charge by members of the congregation.
Today, there is a 23-strong staff, including 11 pastors. The main auditorium seats 3,500 and is filled to capacity every Sunday. The church runs a fleet of 42 minibuses - as well as hiring eight 52-seater coaches - to ferry in the faithful.
For those who still can't make it, a recording studio whirrs away in an annex, copying sermons for distribution around the world. Or you could always tune in to United Christian Broadcasting (UCB) and pick up Pastor McConnell there.
Whenever I veer the conversation away from next month's Odyssey event and on to more personal matters, Pastor McConnell is fond of saying things like "Why are you interested in me? I'm just the old guy around here" or "I'm just an old-fashioned pastor, we've lots of younger pastors here" or "I'm just the last of the Mohicans."
That may be, but he's still the main speaker every Sunday, the big draw, and I suspect for all his magnanimity, he knows that.
He was born in Spring Street, off the Woodstock Road in east Belfast, but his entire family was obliterated by tuberculosis. "My mother died when I was seven, my father when I was 13, and my sister died shortly afterwards, after four years in Whiteabbey Hospital," he recalls. "For a while I simply roamed the streets."
Clearly, though, he may have been homeless but wasn't running wild since he was "saved" in the Iron Hall Mission at Templemore Avenue, also when he was seven. "From that date on, I have served the Lord," he declares.
At 13 he preached his first sermon. "Losing my family didn't make me angry with God," he says. "It threw me to God. After my father died I remember hearing family and friends talking about who would look after me and no-one wanted to.
"They were all hesitant, so I turned to the Lord and made my own way and God helped me to make my own way. I ended up staying with my maternal grandparents until I was a little older and then I moved on."
At 15 he got a job at Harland and Wolff shipyard, in the drawing office, but even then he knew he wanted to spread the Word.
At 18 and with no formal church training he headed to Gateshead, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he preached for a year before returning home.
Then, a crisis: in 1957 he was working in a small church in Greencastle, preaching to 10 people, week in, week out. Ironically, however, he'd made much greater impact on preaching gigs abroad and offers were flooding in from Canada, the US and Switzerland.
"The world was my oyster," he says, "and I very much wanted to go, but the church didn't want me to go. God dealt with me and I stayed here. For the next 12 years I was preaching in an Orange Hall and I was literally buried. No-one heard of me and my congregation was so small."
In 1969, when he got his first church on the Whitewell Road, everything changed: "God packed that church until we had to knock down the walls because we were trying to fit 1,000 people into a place that seated 600."
By 1981 a second 1,500-seater church had been built. "But we still couldn't seat everyone. People were squeezed into the toilets, the minor hall, prayer rooms ... and so, in 1991, we began work on this place."
Since then, they've also raised the money to build an orphanage in Romania "equal to a 5 star" and a 1,200-pupil school in Ethiopia.
For the past 46 years, Pastor McConnell has been married to Margaret. They have two grown-up daughters: Linda is his personal secretary and her husband, Norman Hobson, is the church's musical director. Julie is a hairdresser.
Some people have been critical of what they see as the opulence of the Metropolitan Church, though more is probably made of that than there ought to be. Apart from the sheer scale of the place and the glittering chandelier in the foyer, it's more smart than luxury.
Pastor McConnell lives in Greenisland in "a very normal house, believe you me. It's taken me a lifetime to pay off my mortgage. In fact, I just finished doing so a month ago."
As for his car? It's a Peugeot and was a gift from the church to celebrate his 50 years in full-time ministry. "Recently 20 of the staff took me out to the Culloden Hotel," he says, with a smile. "They swung open the doors of a big room and there were 600 or more from the congregation waiting for me. Then they give me the keys to the car. It was a lovely gesture."
He's an avuncular man, and one not afraid to turn on the charm. "Two cups of tea and some of your lovely wee things... well, apart from yourselves," he jokes with the two ladies working in the cafe.
And though he scrunches up his face and squirms at many of my questions - "I didn't know you were going to go into all this," he parries - he answers them all.
Surely he understands the public interest in himself, given the sheer force of his personality evident in his preaching? He probably does. "Once a politician told me that what I say on a Sunday night has been heard by 30,000 come Wednesday," he tells me.
At one point he plays a short clip from a video of himself and, on stage, he is a man transformed, self-aware, charismatic. He walks from one side of it to another, arm upstretched, voice on the rise.
"I do appreciate that people are interested," he says eventually. "Of course, I know why you're asking those questions. And, in my position, you are always up for so much scrutiny. I live in a fishbowl."
His congregation is a mixed bag - something he delights in. There are ex-paramilitaries, both loyalist and republican, and prominent politicians. Husband and wife DUP MPs Peter and Iris Robinson are both regular attenders as is their party colleague, Sammy Wilson.
"I look down the lines at our communion table and there could be a doctor, a university graduate, a terrorist and someone just delivered from drugs, all side by side," he says. "That's fantastic."
Mmmmm. Lucky paramilitary - able to have killed and now feel forgiven, I say, but a bit rough on the victims, who are dead, and their families.
"I agree," he replies. "In my last sermon I preached about the state of the nation and this province, the injustices in the land, the Disappeared, the tragedy of homes broken and people suffering from the violence of the paramilitaries now out walking the streets.
"I teach paramilitaries that they have to make restitution. They have to think 'Well, if God has forgiven me but I have hurt someone's family, then if I can't directly help that family, can I secretly make restitution?'"
What does he mean? "For example, I've told them to find out where that person's family lives and make a wee trip in their car and put some money in an envelope and post it anonymously through the door," he continues. "Or help their children by anonymously delivering a parcel of toys to them."
Pastor McConnell says he's beginning to feel his age. "I do feel old and I do look old," he says, catching my eye. Oh no you don't, I say, because, well, he doesn't actually.
"I do," he insists. "You've just caught me on a good day." And then he says again: "I'm just the old fogey around here."
Still, he's been out and about from 7am. "I'd all the hospitals done by 9 o'clock this morning," he says, referring to the daily visits he makes to churchgoers suffering ill-health. "It's important to go early because, if someone is going to have an op or chemotherapy that day, they often ask for me to pray with them beforehand."
He claims to have seen many miracles in his church. "I've seen people with, say, rheumatoid arthritis get out of their wheelchairs. I have seen people with cancer healed," he says. "But I have also seen people who have not been healed, but who are godly people."
Why should God choose to heal some and not others?
"That's the $$64,000 question," he says. "That's what I'm trying to find out. But God saves who He wants and heals who he wants. There is a method and a purpose in His plans for people."
World politics - "the return of the Jews to Palestine, the Atomic bomb..." have convinced Pastor McConnell that we are living in the end days: "No man knows the day or the hour that Christ will return, but he said we would know when it was near. He said that when these things come to pass, lift up your heads for your redemption draweth nigh."
But even Pastor McConnell gets weary sometimes. He's still turning out three sermons a week, and it's not unusual for him to arrive at the Tabernacle at 7am "to find a queue of people with personal problems" waiting to talk to him.
"I go home, get into bed and try and sleep and, of course, the problems are there with me. Yes, it's difficult for my wife, too, but I would never discuss anyone's personal problem with anyone else, even her. Maybe I'll go out for a walk to think it over or drive down the highway until I find I've no petrol..."
If he has time to relax, he watches documentaries or a John Wayne movie. His favourite is The Quiet Man.
He adds: "As you get older you look back and you say 'I should have done this or that.' I would have loved to have blazed a trail.
"But you also look at what you've got. God took an orphan boy with no prospects and lived inside him. And I would be lost without Him.
"Over the years I've had terrible flak hurled at me. But all of the people who did that are dead. I have outlived my critics and I have now entered a time of rest and respite.
"But in a way I miss them. When people are hurling criticism at you, you're always wary and watching."
n Pastor James McConnell, Odyssey, Belfast, September 11, 7pm.