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Tampa preacher realizes his New York dream

(ran PW PS editions of Pasco Times)

Following his dream and the footsteps of Billy Graham, the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne leads an evangelical crusade for 24 nights at Madison Square Garden.

As the "Good News New York" crusade band started to play and the scoreboards at Madison Square Garden announced Christian book sales instead of sports scores, Digna Carmona was filled with anticipation.

"It's about time the Lord sent somebody to the city," said the 50-year-old passport agency employee. "I never see anything like this here in New York. It's awesome."

Carmona, a Pentecostal Christian, came to the Garden to hear the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, a Tampa-based preacher who says God told him through a dream to hold a crusade in New York four decades after evangelist Billy Graham held a 16-week crusade at the same location.

"Religion and tradition walk through the streets of New York and pass judgment on those who are bound by sin," shouted Howard-Browne, shadowed by an enthusiastic Spanish interpreter throughout his 40-minute sermon. "But Jesus walks the streets of New York and says to New York, "Your sins are forgiven you. I paid the price for you. You can go free. Only believe.' "

In an interview, Howard-Browne, a 38-year-old South African native, said he is "one very small part" of a movement of evangelists who want to take the gospel to the nation's urban centers through big meetings such as the ones at the home of the New York Knicks, as well as through person-to-person street evangelism.

But his dream of filling the 19,000-seat arena on each of 24 nights from July 7 through Friday did not come true. Unlike Graham, who spoke to more than 2-million people during his event, Howard-Browne drew only a few thousand each night. While the fuchsia seats in the lowest sections of the Garden filled up _ predominantly with Hispanics on the weekly "Latino Nights" _ the green seats of the upper sections remained empty.

Howard-Browne said he's more concerned about the seats that were filled than those that remained vacant.

"I'd do it all over again," said Howard-Browne, who said donations to his organization helped pay the $3.2-million cost to rent the Garden. "The thing is to get the attention of the city."

That's also the goal of other groups, from the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, to Mission America, a consortium of about 400 evangelical groups. Both speak of "strategic" plans to evangelize the nation's cities.

Whereas Graham could fill the Garden in 1957, Howard-Browne's effort comes in a different era, a time when more people live in cities and evangelists are struggling to find the best ways to share their gospel message with them, said Roger Johnson, editor of CityVoices, a Chicago-based newsletter about urban ministry.

He called Howard-Browne's turnout "pretty bad" but indicative of the challenges faced by evangelists who come to the cities.

"Evangelism has still got to find the magic button, if there is one," said Johnson, whose bimonthly newsletter circulates to 20,000 mainline and evangelical Protestant city churches. "I think it's a lot of hard work."

Mission America is seeking to pinpoint "lighthouse champions" in each city who will promote the "Lighthouse Movement," a plan aiming to get evangelical church members to pray for and share their faith with every person in the country, said Naomi Frizzell, the coalition's communications director.

At the June meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, officials trumpeted plans to evangelize cities outside the denomination's Southern strongholds. They plan to focus on six U.S. cities during the next three years: Chicago and Phoenix in 2000, Las Vegas and Boston in 2001, and Philadelphia and Seattle in 2002.

Phil Roberts, vice president of strategic cities strategies for the SBC's North American Mission Board, said millions of dollars will be spent on "saturation evangelism" and the opening of new churches in the chosen cities, rather than focusing primarily on large, crusadelike gatherings.

"This is more a roll up your sleeves, grab the shovel and let's do the spade work on evangelism," Roberts said.

Roberts, like Johnson, said local churches are a key factor in urban evangelism. Churches representing the diversity of the cities, including African-Americans, Hispanics and Koreans, have been invited to participate in the SBC campaigns, he said.

New York, Roberts said, will be a focus a few years down the road because it requires "a lot more thought" and SBC leaders want to learn from other urban evangelism efforts before they face the Big Apple.

While others plan their city focus, teams of volunteers _ from local churches and foreign countries _ participating in the Good News New York effort have blanketed the metropolitan area, passing out more than 8-million free tickets to the evening crusade meetings and witnessing to their faith in one-on-one encounters with strangers.

Some New Yorkers hurriedly wave off the volunteers as they approach with a wad of tickets. Others listen patiently, chatting and praying with them on park benches between high-rises.

"If anybody stopped me out on the street and they talk about the Almighty, I give them time," said David Summers, 45, a Manhattan man on disability benefits. "Those guys on the street, they're more serious than those guys with big churches."

Summers spoke with Jercoby Winder, a member of Howard-Browne's church, when Winder approached him one early August morning.

Winder, a 20-year-old student at Howard-Browne's River Bible Institute in Tampa, said he heeds Howard-Browne's words to remind people they can't take their possessions with them when they die.

"You can't take things. You can only take people," said Winder, a Bahamas native. "I want to take people to heaven."

At the crusade's Volunteer Information Center at an Assemblies of God church in Manhattan, 60 new volunteers _ some from as far away as Manila, Philippines, and South Africa _ attended a brief training session one morning and watched a skit in which they were guided to ask whomever they approach, "If you were to die today, do you know for certain that you'd go to heaven?"

At the center, one room contains boxes of evangelistic tracts in English, Spanish and Chinese and a board that read: "Souls saved total: 32,648 through Aug. 2."

Those who come forward at the altar call in the Garden or give street evangelists their names on a commitment card are sent literature in the mail and matched with a local church, organizers said.

"We don't want anyone to fall through the cracks," said Bojan Jancic, 23, of Queens, the street evangelism coordinator and a graduate of Howard-Browne's institute.

A 34-year-old woman with a T-shirt reading "Life's short. Make fun of it" said she'd been offered tickets to the crusade "five or six times" in three different boroughs.

Responded Jancic: "I think God really has her number."

Howard-Browne, who has been known to encourage "holy laughter" and other unusual Pentecostal manifestations at his Tampa church, has led more sedate meetings at the Garden.

"We have to be finished at 10 o'clock," he said.

Garden officials said crusade organizers chose that option to avoid paying overtime for Garden staff.

Howard-Browne said the focus of the 24 nightly meetings was on the altar call, the time when people come forward to dedicate or rededicate their lives to Jesus.

"The spirit is moving toward souls," he said. "This is an altar call. The service is one giant altar call."

Organizers said that although the majority of people who responded to street evangelists were Christian converts, those in the Garden often were in the category dubbed "rededications."

Yet Howard-Browne remains convinced "without a doubt" that lengthy city outreaches are part of the future of evangelism. He intends to spend six weeks in Shreveport, La., next summer and a similar stretch in Los Angeles in 2001.

Like others focused on city evangelism, he said the success of such crusades depends on the local churches, which support the work of crusading evangelists before they arrive and after they're gone.

"Well, it's the start of something," he said of his New York effort. "I just come in as a fresh outsider. . . . It just brings a different perspective. It's like an injection, a shot in the arm."