Pastor expecting thousands to flock to Ravenhill for pentecostal rally
In America, Christian fundamentalists have been trying to get people to burn copies of the Koran this weekend which marks the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Happily, we do things differently here.
Pastor James McConnell (73), leader of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, condemns this gesture.
“I think it’s not just disrespectful but stupid and will put at risk not only the soldiers and innocent people in Afghanistan but also people in America and here in Britain.”
Pastor McConnell takes the verse in Mark Chapter 16 about preaching the gospel to every creature very seriously. And now he is holding what may be one of the last of his famous pentecostal rallies.
This 21st century evangelist is expecting an audience of 12,000 at the Ravenhill Rugby Ground tomorrow where his ambition is to convert at least 1,000 souls: “I’m asking the Lord to give me a thousand and another thousand what we call backsliders to recommit.”
There’s a kind of rock star aura about the man sitting opposite me, whose last gig at the Odyssey in 2004 attracted a full house of 14,000.
“They had to turn about 600 away,” he says proudly.
The date of Sunday’s mass rally at Ravenhill stadium, reminiscent in terms of its pre-publicity and style of Billy Graham’s London crusades in the 1960s and 1970s, seems significant. It is, after all, September 12, the day after 9/11.
So, was the timing coincidence? Pastor McConnell says with conviction: “I honestly never thought about it.”
He continues, having got into his preacher’s stride: “What’s prompted me to hold this rally now is the despair I have felt from the members of my congregation who have lost their homes and their families, and who may be affected by the divorce rate or the drug barons and the paramilitaries who are still here and not being dealt with.”
The recession looms large in our conversation, alongside his church’s ‘healing work’ (“we helped one young woman who was brought in on a stretcher with ME and is now the mother of twins”), and the impressive achievements of many members of the Whitewell congregation.
“What I’m proud of is the fact members of our church have built this place, provided the money and the work.”
Set on the Shore Road, with a splendid view of Cavehill, the Tabernacle cost £5m to build 16 years ago — which represents a lot of widow's mites — and is now worth “a lot more” as James McConnell says, his arms circling with excitement.
Money is not anathema to this church. James McConnell is unfazed by my question on God and mammon (Matthew 6:24) and explains: “I don’t have a problem because this shows what Christians can achieve.”
The figures are nonetheless impressive. Four churches, all paid for, charitable foundations in Ethiopia and elsewhere, a new youth centre, minibuses to transport the faithful and cash to fund the rental of the Ravenhill stadium.
In a way Pastor McConnell is a self-made man and autodidact in the Victorian mould who regularly consults Greek translations of the Bible. Yet on the question of received versus literal word of God, the pastor insists “It's the literal word of God.” Although he interprets Joel’s visions of pillars of smoke and fire as early nuclear explosions. McConnell was brought up down the road from the Tabernacle in Spring Street, east Belfast, and having been orphaned at seven he found himself adrift. “I remember sleeping in Ormeau Park,” he says, before stating that knowing Christ saved him in every sense. At 13 he left school and by 17 he was a preacher and on track to being one of Northern Ireland’s foremost evangelists.
At 22 he married Margaret, a girl he met at church. She hasn’t played a public role and is, like most of the church’s pastors’ wives, “somebody who supports me in the background”.
They have two daughters, Julie (44) a hairdresser and irregular attender at the Tabernacle, and Linda (49), McConnell’s right-hand woman, and a granddaughter Rebecca.
James McConnell is known for his persuasive powers. He is asking Catholics, Protestants, ethnic groups, even politicians, to come along and hear his message which is, as he says, the greatest in the universe. “People are coming from as far afield as London and Nigeria. We’d like MLAs to attend, and have provided special seating for them.”
Asked whether he's optimistic about mankind’s future, the pastor admits that we are probably in a post-Christian age, a situation that makes his mission more important.
“I’m not interested in stories like Wayne Rooney but feel we are at the end of times, maybe the end of the end,” he says.
“If Iran develops a nuclear bomb, that could be disastrous. But Jesus Christ will return for the Second Coming, literally, physically and bodily, and you can put that in.”
In the meantime, James McConnell is preparing to semi-retire and hand over to his successor Pastor David Purse, then take an holiday to see friends in Texas.
Although the Whitewell religious model is American, Pastor McConnell laughs at the idea he might follow the Swaggarts and co into the scandal sheets.
“I hope not, but as the poet said ‘The grey-haired old saint will fail at the last'.”
The Ravenhill Rally, “God’s Answer to Our Problems”, is free and open to all.
It takes place tomorrow at 7.30pm at the Ravenhill Rugby Stadium, for more details, see: www.whitewell.com.