Stephen Nolan: Interview with firebrand pastor McConnell was not so much a clash of titans as a surprising and touching meeting of minds
Controversial pastor James McConnell, cleared of making grossly offensive comments about Islam, is a formidable character but also, a disarmingly welcoming human being, as Stephen Nolan finds
It was a long shot. My production team called Pastor James McConnell to say I wanted to make a film about him. I expected him to slam down the phone because we had 'fallen out' in spectacular style. Or more to the point, he had fallen out with me. The Pastor blamed me for him being taken to court over his comments about Muslims. Of course, all I had done was ask him questions on BBC One Northern Ireland's Nolan Live. That's kinda my job.
He had described Islam as "Satanic" and "heathen", and he wasn't backing down. The media had a feeding frenzy.
McConnell still to this day won't apologise. In the first programme of returning series, Story Of A Lifetime, on BBC One Northern Ireland tonight, he tells me: "My story is not of regret, I would do the same thing again. I attacked their doctrine, I attacked their belief. Their beliefs are devilish.
"If a Muslim person came to me looking for help, they've got it because I love them in Christ, but I am against their theology and teachings, that's it."
I ask him in the programme if he had any regrets during the whole saga?
"No, honestly no. I believe I was witnessing for the Lord Jesus Christ," he replies.
Around the time of the court case, there was the pantomime of sorts surrounding me which played out in court. His legal team claimed I was the "biggest no-show in the country" because I hadn't attended a meeting he had requested with his solicitor, but it was always made clear I would go to court if it was required.
McConnell grabbed the headlines. I was branded as "the biggest no-show in the country." And I found myself getting some of my own medicine.
So that was the context. We decided that we would film my very first words with the Pastor. As I walked up the driveway to his house, I was expecting a mixture of anger and pain. Actually, what I got was kindness. He reached out his hand and welcomed me into his home.
I met Mrs McConnell - a small, gentle woman who politely offered me tea. I didn't take it. To be honest, I was uncomfortable. I was now in the McConnell's inner sanctuary and I was all too aware how they felt about me. Indeed, as I sat on the sofa, James whispered to me that his family didn't want him to make the film with me.
His deep, gravelly voice informed me they were fearful of me. I felt like I was cornered. His voice heightened, now above a whisper. "You tried to put me in jail," he said. Then he grunted, as he often does, and told me he had been praying for me.
I don't want to give too much of the film away (it's on tonight at 10.45pm) but let me share with you some of what you will see.
McConnell could be said to be offensive to some. He tells me this is because of his deeply held religious views, and I sense he may represent a growing number of Christians who are tired about being labelled when they stand up for their religious beliefs. Pastor McConnell can't help but speak his mind. When I asked him about his views on gay marriage, I wondered if he would close the subject down. Not a bit of it.
He says: "If they - homosexuals -seek the Lord, He will help them and give them grace. Help them to live a clean life, not to be involved in homosexuality or lesbianism…
"Homosexuality is an unclean life as far as the scriptures are concerned." He continues: "Homosexual people have been lovely people to me. I pray with them. I do all sorts of things like that."
And he claims to have helped gay men through his ministry: "Some of them have got married to ladies and some of them have kids. So something has happened."
It would also appear that the Pastor is used to getting his own way. I'm intrigued about the amount of power these self-appointed, charismatic speakers create for themselves. They say they need to build a church because it's God's will. Then they build a massive church which towers magnificently above working class chimney pots in the middle of a socially deprived area. Their reasoning? According to Pastor McConnell, only the best for God will do.
Pastor McConnell tells me: "God deserves the very best, that's why I built it… God gave me the money to build it… God spoke to people's hearts and they gave me the money to build it."
I travel to Vegas a lot, and, to me, the Whitewell Tabernacle on Belfast's Shore Road had similar trimmings to the rich, boastful hotels, from the imported chandeliers to the opulence in the theatre where the Pastor would perform to the masses.
"I am the Moses of Whitewell," he says. When I try to probe, to understand if he realised how that sounded, he tells me, "I was the Moses of Whitewell, not the Moses of the country, I was the Moses of Whitewell. This young Moses started with 10 people and 10 people grew and Moses grew with them until today."
In a way, I envy his peace with himself as he slips into the latter stages of his life with a cast iron belief that the best is yet to come.
Of course, others will have their views but I think the programme gives people the chance to make up their own minds. Perhaps that Pastor James McConnell is a good man. A stubborn man. An honourable man. A man who, I suspect, misses the power and adoration that came with him being in charge of the church.
As I left the pastor, he gripped my hand and told the crew what he thought of me.
"I saw a loneliness, a searching… a soul that needed help, that needed God."
But was this just the Pastor turning the tables, taking control and having the last word?
Story of A Lifetime : When Nolan meets Pastor McConnell , BBC1, tonight, 10.45pm. Later in the series Stephen meets a transgender woman who shares her struggle to feel accepted, a woman suffering from dementia, and two well-known Northern Ireland faces, Belfast singer-songwriter Brian Kennedy and Ardoyne priest Father Gary Donegan