Evangelist combines 'a little bit of Jesus and a little bit of Elvis'

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2001

DELAWARE, Ohio (AP) -- Evangelist Leroy Jenkins sings like Elvis and has the king's hairdo.

The stage at his church looks like a set for a community theater production: White stage lights shine on statues of elephants, camels and giraffes, surrounded by palm trees and three waterfalls.

Jenkins says Liberace called him flamboyant.

After 30 years, Jenkins' Healing Waters Cathedral has grown into an enterprise that includes nationwide TV broadcasts and steady sales of his ''healing water'' at $1.40 per plastic gallon jug.

This, despite his conviction for arson conspiracy in 1979, and his controversial marriage this year. The bride was a 71-year-old millionaire widow whose relatives accused Jenkins of trying to steal her money.

''He took a little bit of Jesus and a little bit of Elvis and meshed them together,'' said Damian Chapa, who will play Jenkins in a movie the evangelist is producing about his life.

Brodmon Drakeford, 47, a Cincinnati relative of the widow, Eloise Thomas, has a different view.

''Leroy Jenkins is in it for Leroy Jenkins,'' Drakeford said.

Jenkins, 64, said he is the illegitimate son of a Cherokee woman who abandoned him in a field. His grandmother gave him to a couple, who raised him in Greenwood, S.C., he said.

At age 15, Jenkins ran away to Texas, then Atlanta, where he got married for the first of three times. An accident that nearly severed his arm led to his life of evangelism, he said.

His doctors told him that if his arm wasn't amputated, he would die of gangrene. Instead, he said he went to a tent revival where her heard audience members speaking in tongues, typical of Pentecostal worship. Jenkins said he was ''filled with the Holy Ghost'' and his fingers began to move.

The ''Man with the Miracle Arm'' then launched his own tent revivals.

''I started the next night and never stopped. Not knowing one thing about the Bible,'' Jenkins said. ''The Bible just came to me through experiences.''

He fathered seven children in two previous marriages before his travels brought him to Delaware, Ohio.

''I lived five lives,'' he said.

Jenkins says he has counseled celebrities such as Liberace, Mae West and Elvis.

He arrived in Ohio in 1968 and opened his Holy Hill Cathedral on 80 acres of farmland north of Columbus. Twenty years later, Jenkins said God told him to drill a well, whose waters, he claimed, have since cured people of leukemia, diabetes and other diseases.

He renamed the site Healing Waters Cathedral and began mailing free samples of water to followers. Jenkins would not reveal financial details of his ministry, which has a staff of 13.

At a recent Sunday service, the crowd of about 200 filled only part of the auditorium, singing gospel songs and dancing until the evangelist emerged, wearing a white jacket and black shirt with a crucifix hanging around his neck. Worshippers rose from their seats, shouting praise for Jesus.

Jenkins sang ''How Great Thou Art'' in the style of Elvis, before audience members came forward to be healed by the well water.

''I'll always be grateful to Leroy Jenkins because he was the cause of me finding Jesus,'' Pam Perez shouts, as a band plays the Doobie Brothers' ''Takin' It to the Streets.''

Perez' husband, Rudy, 61, of Columbus, said he was skeptical until Jenkins cured him of colon cancer. Rudy Perez and his wife drink the healing water regularly.

''He told me, 'Young man you've got cancer in the worst way. You're an alcoholic. You're going out on your wife.' He just pointed his finger at me. A hot sensation just came over my body,'' Rudy Perez said. ''I didn't have no more pain.''

Jenkins said Perez' doctors were baffled.

Chapa, who grew up in Ohio, first saw Jenkins at the Ohio Theater in Columbus.

''I'll never forget this man in a red jacket touching this lady who was crippled and she got out of the wheelchair and walked,'' he said.

The evangelist is still rebuilding his ministry after his conviction in South Carolina in 1979 for conspiring to burn down the home of a businessman who allegedly owed him money and the home of a South Carolina state trooper who arrested Jenkins' daughter on a traffic charge.

The evangelist claims he was framed.

The case dramatically reduced support for Jenkins' ministry. The number of families on his mailing list dropped from 444,000 to 42,000 by the time he was released from prison in 1984, he said. Jenkins said about 300,000 families are now on the rolls. The state pardoned Jenkins in 1993.

The evangelist had more troubles this year. His Las Vegas wedding to Eloise Thomas on Jan. 12, 16 days after her husband died, drew accusations from her family that the evangelist wanted access to her fortune, estimated to be about $4 million.

Jenkins said he married Thomas, a member at Healing Waters for 20 years, to protect her from greedy relatives and attorneys. However, Jenkins agreed to annul the marriage in July after Thomas was declared incompetent by a court; the annulment was made official Thursday.

''He's not in love with my aunt,'' Drakeford said. ''She's got dementia. She don't know what she's doing. He's using his influence as a preacher over her. She looks at him like a god.''

Jenkins said he is misunderstood by those outside his ministry. He will get another chance to explain his goals with his biographical film, ''The Calling,'' scheduled to be released next year. Actress Faye Dunaway, a friend of Jenkins', will play Mae West.

''I'm a nice person and I love people and I would never do anything to harm anybody,'' he said.

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On the Web:

Evangelist Leroy Jenkins: http://www.leroyjenkins.com/

End advance for Friday, Aug. 3



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