MIAMI - By the time the Rev. Reinhard Bonnke edges toward the stage, anticipation in the thundering arena is swelling. A crowd of thousands has been told of his decades of preaching in Africa, the tens of millions of souls he has saved, the countless healings for which he has been a conduit and the modern-day Lazarus he saw risen. The floor is vibrating, the air filled is with fog, sleek videos are flashing on massive screens.
"This is an hour of salvation," he tells the crowd. "Miami shall be saved! Florida shall be saved! America shall be saved!"
Bonnke came to the cavernous home of the Miami Heat to launch his first great American crusade, even as his name is unknown to most in this country. After what he said was a childhood call from God to preach in Africa, it took years to find legions of receptive ears on that continent. Today, 74-year-old, German-born Bonnke is among the world's best-known faith healers, a Pentecostal minister who claims to have saved the souls of more than 72 million people in gatherings so large they've twice spurred stampedes.
On stage, he outlines no transgressions for which sinners must repent, gives no soaring evangelism and no lesson in morality. He returns repeatedly to the same simple theme, telling the faithful to turn from darkness to light, from Satan to God. When his sermon is over, he invites those ready to make a spiritual commitment to the arena's floor and a crowd amasses, arms outstretched: Some tremble and cry, some shout "hallelujah," some speak in tongues, a few dance and one jumps up and down relentlessly.
"Jesus Christ, son of the living God: Save me now!" Bonnke screams. "Jesus! Save me now!"
Like other charismatic preachers, Bonnke has made healing a hallmark of his services, and claims those who've attended have been cured of everything from AIDS to cancer to paralysis. In the most widely-told story about him, he says he witnessed the resurrection of Daniel Ekechukwu, a Nigerian man whose wife brought his body to a church where Bonnke was appearing. Both Bonnke and Kolenda claim, matter-of-factly, to have witnessed other resurrections, too, but they and their adherents repeatedly tell the story of Ekechukwu, saying there is so much evidence of a profound miracle, that it cannot be questioned.
"It is watertight. It could not be denied. And yet people still - some people - still doubt it," Bonnke said. "Well, may God forgive them."
In Miami, Bonnke does not lead the prayers for healing. An hour after appearing, he slips off stage right with little fanfare and is replaced by the Rev. Daniel Kolenda, the 33-year-old tapped as his successor. Kolenda serves as president at Christ for all Nations, the international ministry that Bonnke started, and has taken over the bulk of overseas crusades.
And in this night's fevered climax, Kolenda commands a litany of illnesses to be cured. Around the arena, people claim to experience healing.
Daphne Bonas, 82, said she felt a heat run through her body and is convinced her bladder cancer has been cured. Though she hadn't yet seen a doctor to verify her healing, she is convinced tests will validate a miracle.
"I'm looking forward to them telling me, 'There's nothing there and you're OK,'" she said.
June Williams, 77, came searching for a miracle too, after suffering a painful hip fracture. But she tried to walk after the healing prayers and only made it a few steps. She left in her wheelchair, and for four days afterward, was in such pain she could barely get out of bed.
"It's not that I don't believe," she said. "It's either that I'm not supposed to get better or the time has not come yet."
Belief in healings is a chief driver of the crowds to Bonnke's events, as it is for preachers including Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn, two men with whom he is closely linked. All three have been associated with the so-called prosperity gospel, which stresses God will reward the faithful with health and wealth, and all three have led ministries that have made them rich.
Bonnke lives near Palm Beach in an expansive $3 million Ritz-Carlton condo with prime ocean views. Though Bonnke's total compensation from Christ for all Nations was $178,784 last year, it was down significantly from $289,546 two years earlier, according to IRS filings. Overall, from 2006 through 2013, Christ for all Nations reported to the IRS more than $105 million in donations.
Rusty Leonard, whose MinistryWatch analyzes religious groups' finances, said he is concerned by the number of affiliated organizations Christ for all Nations spends money on, and from which he says Bonnke is likely to receive additional income.
"It's a classic way to funnel money to yourself," Leonard said. "It tells you that they're working every angle."
Bonnke's crusades are free to attend and no offering was taken at the Miami event. Bonnke rejected questions about his lifestyle, saying he has just one apartment and no stocks or other investments.
"Sometimes, when God blessed me with something, I would feel guilty," he said. "Then I realized this was wrong, because a blessing is a blessing is a blessing."
Bonnke says Christ does not want people's money, he wants their hearts. And so he will bring his crusade to Greensboro, North Carolina, next, then to Long Island and Houston, Chicago and Pittsburgh and beyond.
He expects it will mirror his African experience, that stadiums will become too small to hold growing throngs, and that they will eventually move events to open fields. His writings are filled with numbers of those he has reached, but he refuses to limit his goal as he embarks on his American tour. He says he wants to win over everyone for Christ.
"He has a claim on all people. He doesn't speak in percentages," Bonnke says. "I will aim at the moon to reach the highest bounty."