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Preaching conspiracies: Coronavirus puts Tampa pastor’s beliefs into mainstream spotlight

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne has downplayed the pandemic and held services at the River at Tampa Bay Church last month, leading to his arrest.

TAMPA — Two hours into the service, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne headed for another crescendo.

The collection envelopes had circulated and parishioners had given testimonials about physical and financial ailments that had been healed by the power of God. Now, during this recent Sunday service at the River at Tampa Bay church, Howard-Browne preached about the coronavirus.

Pacing and holding an open Bible, the Pentecostal pastor said enemies of the church were using the virus as a weapon to shut them down. He contended that America was under imminent threat from a foreign nation, though he didn’t say which one, and was headed for “an actual physical war."

“The church is not going to sit hiding on a back burner somewhere in some dark corner because the pastors lost the fire and are more worried about their life,” he shouted into a headset microphone. "We’re not worried about our life! We’re not worried about our safety!”

Scores of people in the sanctuary shot to their feet and cheered.

The next day, deputies showed up at Howard-Browne’s Hernando County mansion and arrested him for holding services, thrusting the church — and its pastor’s beliefs — into national headlines.

Howard-Browne’s sermons and nightly shows reach thousands on television and online, but he’s drawn little mainstream notice over the years.

His story began in his native South Africa, where he decided to come to America to spread God’s word. Now a megachurch pastor and author, he has cast himself not just as a faith healer and evangelical saver of souls but also a crusader against what he describes as a globalist agenda to destroy the church and steal Americans’ liberty. His actions have drawn the scorn of more mainstream pastors who call him a false prophet.

Howard-Browne sprinkles scripture readings with conspiracy theories, and his own predictions and pronouncements. He has called climate change “garbage" and claimed Donald Trump would delay the arrival of the New World Order and the Antichrist.

Since COVID-19 emerged, Howard-Browne, 58, has suggested the outbreak was planned at an event hosted by Bill and Melinda Gates to complete a socialist takeover of the U.S. government and kill off people with vaccines. Calling the virus a “phantom plague," he is among evangelicals who have downplayed its threat.

Hillsborough officials say they warned Howard-Browne late last month that holding services at the church would put his congregation at risk and violate a county order. He held two crowded Sunday services anyway.

He told his flock not to believe the news media that “pump propaganda and fear” or the politicians who “have not a clue.” He asked if they trusted God with their lives.

“Your life’s not going to be cut off early," Howard-Browne assured them. "You’re not going to be taken out by some stupid bug. Are you with me?”

The congregation cheered some more.

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne preaches during a service at his church, the River at Tampa Bay, on March 29, two days after Hillsborough County officials approved a stay-at-home order to limit the spread of the coronavirus. [ Facebook ]

Howard-Browne grew up in a Pentecostal family with three brothers in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

In his book The Touch of God, he recalls asking God to touch him at the age of 18 and feeling as if he’d been set on fire. He laughed, then wept and spoke in tongues.

He graduated from the Rhema Bible Training College in Johannesburg and in 1981 married Adonica Weyers. The couple had two daughters and a son. Their daughter Kelly died of cystic fibrosis in 2002.

In 1987, Howard-Browne has said, he had a vision to come to America as a missionary, so he and his family came here with just $300.

“Even though there are churches on every corner, there are still millions of unsaved people here," he told the Tampa Tribune in 1999.

Related: Coronavirus hoaxes, conspiracies and false reports: All of PolitiFact's coverage in one place

The Howard-Brownes, who eventually became U.S. citizens, established the Rodney Howard-Browne Evangelistic Association in Louisville, Ky. Howard-Browne spent most of the year on the road while his wife home-schooled the children in hotel rooms.

In 1993, Pastor Karl Strader invited him to speak at Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland. As Howard-Browne walked the aisles preaching, pointing to people and urging them to drink of the Holy Spirit, some fell to the ground, convulsing in laughter. Others wept.

“I was on the carpet about half the time," Strader, who died last month at age 91, told the Tribune. "Rodney would just look at me and I’d go down on the power of God.”

Howard-Browne’s visit lasted about four months, cameras rolling as he whipped up the crowds in the 10,000-seat sanctuary. It was the start of a “Holy Ghost laughter” revival movement that would spread across the world. Howard-Browne called himself “the Holy Ghost Bartender.”

The Howard-Brownes settled in Tampa and founded the River at Tampa Bay in 1996. A few years later, Howard-Browne hosted a six-week revival at Madison Square Garden in New York City. By then, the revival movement had reached mainline churches and crossed denominational lines. Howard-Browne was a regular on Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Howard-Browne’s attorney, Mat Staver of the conservative Liberty Counsel, said the pastor is not granting interviews, and Staver’s office declined to provide answers to a list of questions for this story.

Rodney Howard-Browne, seen in the screen in the background, speaks to attendees of his Good News New York revival at Madison Square Garden in 1999. Howard-Browne said that the idea came to him in a dream and that he wanted to fill the 19,000 seat arena every night. Attendance to the free revival averaged about 3,500 people each of the 24 nights. [ Times ]

Hank Hanegraaff, president of the Christian Research Institute in Charlotte, N.C., a nonprofit countercult ministry, contends Howard-Browne and other revivalists use “visionary hoaxes” and psychological manipulation to control devotees. Hanegraaff featured Howard-Browne in his 1997 book, Counterfeit Revival: Looking for God in All the Wrong Places.

In a recent interview, Hanegraaff recalled meeting Howard-Browne at a service in Southern California in the late ’90s. As people laughed, shook and lay about the sanctuary, Howard-Browne apparently recognized Hanegraaff as one of his critics.

The pastor walked off the platform to where Hanegraaff was sitting and told him he’d drop dead if he tried to stop what God is doing, Hanegraaff recalled.

“Then he gestured to the crowd and warned them that if they, like me, would dare to question that what he was doing was of God, then they’d committed an unpardonable sin and would not be forgiven in this world or the next," he said.

Hank Hanegraaff, president and chairman of the board of the North Carolina–based Christian Research Institute. [ Courtesy Hank Hanegraaff ]

When the revivalist movement faded, Howard-Browne re-invented himself as a megachurch pastor, Hanegraaff said.

“Unfortunately, people have short memories so they kind of forgot all his failed prophecies and all the nonsense he proliferated for so many years,” he said. “Now he is using unfounded anecdotes, conspiracy theories and misapplication of scriptural passages as a way of deluding his present devotees, leading them in the wrong direction in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic."

André Gagné, an associate professor at Concordia University who studies the Christian right, lists Howard-Browne among the Pentecostal preachers whose worldviews could have dire consequences as countries work to limit the spread of the virus.

“These neo-charismatic leaders’ battle with the virus is one they consider to be ‘spiritual warfare,’ where they confront and take authority over the 'spirit of fear’ and over the disease in the name of Jesus,” Gagné wrote in a recent piece for The Conversation.

That could spring from the belief that the church “will rise in victory” before Christ’s return, he wrote.

Howard-Browne addresses this sort of criticism during sermons and shows.

He said he isn’t fazed by the condemnation for holding services during the pandemic, just as he wasn’t bothered when he was “trashed” by critics of his laughter revival, because he’s following God’s plan.

“Somebody had to stand up,” Howard-Browne said during an April 5 show. "Someone had to draw a line in the sand and say ‘no.'”

The River at Tampa Bay church sits on a sprawling campus off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Interstate 75 in Tampa. [ Hillsborough County Property Appraiser ]

The River at Tampa Bay sits on a sprawling campus off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Interstate 75. The property is appraised at nearly $10 million, county records show. The main building is about 32,000 square feet.

Hundreds of congregants gather in the cavernous sanctuary for Sunday morning and evening services. Thousands more watch services online on the Faith USA network and Facebook Live, according to the church. Howard-Browne’s The Great Awakening program is broadcast six days a week on the Christian Television Network.

Along with the River, the Howard-Brownes also co-founded and run Revival Ministries International, the River Bible Institute, the River School of Worship and the River School of Government. The couple has conducted “soul-winning efforts” in 57 countries through campaigns, revivals and tours, according to the church.

KrisAnne Hall, who has attended the church with her husband and son since 2012, said the church provides spiritual and physical nourishment to its congregation and community and has given her own family life-changing support and guidance.

Church volunteers feed some 900 families a week and visit poor neighborhoods to distribute food and other necessities like clothes, diapers and furniture, Hall said. She called Howard-Browne “probably the most humble and generous man I have ever met in my life" and said he has given his own money to the needy.

His critics, she said, are uninformed.

“Everyone that I know that has personally met and experienced the kindness of Pastor Rodney and Pastor Adonica have nothing but good things to say about him," Hall said.

Hall and her husband attended both services on March 29, two days after Hillsborough County officials approved a safer-at-home order. She said the word of God commands them to meet, and she believes the church took precautions to keep the congregation safe.

“The spiritual and personal counseling our church provides is impossible to do with the impersonal nature of the internet,” she said.

Pastor Adonica Howard-Browne bursts into laughter as she leads a prayer at the River at Tampa Bay church on March 29. She and husband, Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, right, founded the church in Tampa in 1996. [ Facebook ]

It’s unclear how much the Howard-Brownes make from the ministry they’ve built.

Churches are not required to disclose their spending. The River is not a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an association that provides accreditation to churches that publicly disclose financial audits, among other requirements.

In 2004, the couple paid $1.8 million for a five-bedroom, six-bathroom home in Webster, just west of the Hernando-Sumter line, county records show. The Greek revival mansion, with red brick facade and imposing white columns, sits on 26 acres.

Religion has clearly been profitable for Howard-Browne and his family, said Pete Evans, an investigator for Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit church watchdog organization.

“Howard-Browne apparently follows the same playbook as some of his fellow TV preachers who are running churches and ministries that are not accountable to the public or even to their own congregations,” Evans said. “First-century believers were transparent and accountable to each other.”

Critics have assumed Howard-Browne kept the church open until his arrest last month to keep donations rolling in. He offered a response to that during a recent sermon: “You’re on crack."

Pastors Rodney and Adonica Howard-Browne purchased this Hernando County mansion in 2004 for $1.8 million, property records show. [ Hernando County Property Appraiser ]

The pulpit isn’t the only platform Howard-Browne uses to bring in revenue while sharing his worldview.

The River School of Government, a nine-month “government and biblical leadership course," offers classes with titles such as “Strategies To Take America Back” and “The New World Order.” Tuition is $7,900.

Along with more traditionally religious-themed books, Howard-Browne has penned The Killing of Uncle Sam: The Demise of the United States of America and its sequel, Killing the Planet: How a Financial Cartel Doomed Mankind, both co-authored with Paul L. Williams, a Pennsylvania-based author who has written about the Catholic church, Islam and Al Qaeda. Their most recent book, released this year, is Socialism Under the Microscope.

Howard-Browne refers to the books regularly in his sermons and claims they foretold the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

In Killing Uncle Sam, the authors lay out what they cite as evidence of a globalist scheme for a "new world order.” The epilogue offers solutions to restore the country.

“To prevent the ongoing mongrelization of the American people, a moratorium must be placed on immigration,” they write, and a wall must be built to stop the “ongoing invasion of illegal aliens.”

Fellow conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has hosted Howard-Browne on his InfoWars show multiple times, including a 2018 appearance to promote one of his books, and has called him “one of my favorite pastors.”

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, right, of the River of Tampa Bay church appears on Alex Jones' InfoWars show in 2018. [ YouTube ]

Howard-Browne became an early supporter of Trump, who he has called “a wrecking ball” to the system. He remains a vocal defender. The Howard-Brownes were among a group of evangelical pastors invited to the White House in 2017 to lay hands on the president and pray for him. A photo posted on the couple’s Facebook page shows them in the Oval Office, standing behind Trump as he sits at the Resolute desk.

In January, Howard-Browne lashed out at John Bolton on Twitter over the news that the former national security adviser had written a book that might confirm the existence of a quid pro quo between Trump and Ukraine, an allegation that had been made by House Democrats leading up to Trump’s impeachment.

“You are a slime ball of the highest order,” Howard-Browne tweeted. “I should have knocked your sorry butt through the door of the Oval Office into the rose garden when I saw you. I would have gladly been arrested ...”

Related: Tampa church warns: We are armed and ready to use deadly force

Howard-Browne has supporters, congregants and fellow conspiracy theorists in the Hillsborough Republican Party. Several precinct representatives and members of the executive board attend the church and the party holds meetings there, according to members and social media postings. The local party also has posted on social media saying the coronavirus pandemic is over-hyped, including one post suggesting the virus scare is a conspiracy between Democrats and the Chinese to hurt Trump’s re-election chances.

A post on the party’s Facebook page on the day of Howard Browne’s arrest said, “So Hillsborough Sheriff [Chad] Chronister wants to ARREST a Church Pastor but let criminals OUT of jail?”

In a New York Times op-ed published last month, author and journalist Katherine Stewart listed Howard-Browne among the religious ultraconservatives who have hobbled the American response to the coronavirus crisis and put congregations, and the public, at greater risk.

“Religious nationalism has brought to American politics the conviction that our political differences are a battle between absolute evil and absolute good,” wrote Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. "Fealty to the cause is everything; fidelity to the facts means nothing.”

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, standing behind President Donald Trump, and his wife, Pastor Adonica Howard-Browne, second from right, were among evangelical pastors who visited the White House in 2017 to pray and lay hands on Trump. [ Facebook ]

During the morning sermon on March 29 that led to his arrest, Howard-Browne said the church spent $100,000 on high-tech sanitizing machines and that, while congregants were free to stay home if they were concerned about the virus, "you’re probably going to be infected in some other place, not here.” He said the U.S. Constitution guarantees their free speech and assembly rights and all other laws are “suggestions.” He held an evening service that day, too.

The next day, Chronister, working with Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, got a warrant for Howard-Browne’s arrest. The pastor was booked into the Hernando County jail on charges of unlawful assembly and violating a quarantine order. He posted $500 bail and was released shortly after. Records show his first court date has not been set.

Howard-Browne's mugshot after he was arrested in Hernando County, where he lives, on March 30 on Hillsborough charges of unlawful assembly and violating public health emergency rules . [ Hernando County Sheriff's Office ]

Howard-Browne decided not to hold Palm Sunday services at the church that week, not because of the coronavirus, he said, but because he was worried he and his congregants would get arrested or come under attack.

Though Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a statewide stay-at-home order that local officials interpreted to mean churches could meet, the River’s services will remain only online for now. During recent broadcasts, Howard-Browne said there isn’t enough space for the thousands who want to come to the re-opening to do so and practice social distancing.

He’s also still worried about safety. He said a bomb threat prompted the church to call deputies last weekend, which the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office confirmed. No bomb was found.

During the Easter morning broadcast, Howard-Browne said he is waiting for God to tell him when to re-open.

He also said he’s working on a new book.

It’s about the coronavirus.

• •

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