Leroy Jenkins, once Central Ohio's most notorious televangelist, died Wednesday in Florida. Columbus Monthly published this cover story about him in May 2003, as he dealt with a shrinking flock, a fugitive son, a disappointing biographical movie and "miracle water" suspected of causing diarrhea.
Soon after the Healing Waters Gospel Quartet warms up the crowd in the Howard Johnson’s conference room, the Rev. Leroy Jenkins walks onto a stage from a side door. A spotlight held together with four strips of duct tape shines on him. He wears a pink shirt and tie and two sparkling pieces of jewelry—an 18-karat gold cross necklace and a $30,000 diamond ring on his right hand. He sings “How Great Thou Art” in his trademark baritone, best described as Elvis in an echo chamber. The speakers amplify his voice to an ear-splitting volume.
Once, Jenkins filled some of the nation’s top arenas, turning away 10,000 people at Madison Square Garden. But on this Saturday night in March, his new home—a 550-seat ballroom in an east-side hotel—is half-empty.
Jenkins finishes the song and moves into his favorite sermon topic—himself. He speaks extemporaneously as he paces in front of the plastic trees and plants on the stage. “You’ve known me for how long? Thirty-three years?” he asks. “And we’ve had a lot of problems—I mean, I’ve had a lot of problems.”
The crowd chuckles. Why does he have so many problems? Because television stations and newspapers spread lies about him, he says. Because “reprobates” in the federal government brought trumped-up tax evasion charges against him. Because people hate a prophet of God. Jenkins opens a Bible on the pulpit. “The Bible says if they slap you, turn the other cheek. Now let me give you my version of it—Leroy Jenkins 1:1: Thou shall not hit me, because if you do, you shall get hit back.”
Go ahead, laugh at Leroy Jenkins. It’s easy to do.
Laugh at his hair, the jet-black helmet that crowns his perpetually tan face. Laugh at his rhinestone-covered jackets and his gaudy jewelry. Crack jokes about his grammatical gaffes and his down-home expressions—“He’s stingier than last year’s crops.”
Snicker at his trademark exclamation—“I heal you in God’s name from the top of your head to the soles of your feet!"—delivered in a high-pitched South Carolina accent. Chuckle when he turns the Sinatra standard “My Way” into “God’s Way.”
Unleash the poop jokes. The reverend says his “miracle water” can cure cancer, end drug addiction and get you the house of your dreams. “One lady said she took it and poured it in the yard of a house she wanted, and God gave her that house,” Jenkins says on his television show. But do you know what the state says the water can give you? Diarrhea.
Roll your eyes at his movie, “The Calling,” an independent film he produced that boasts big-name actors—Robert Wagner, Faye Dunaway and Brad Dourif. But instead of praising the movie that could give his ministry a needed boost, he calls the film a disappointment and blames Damian Chapa—the film’s star, writer and director—for ruining it. “Did he say anything nice about me?” asks a puzzled Chapa. “I’d think he’d be more grateful than that.”
Call Jenkins a has-been. The televangelist who once owned a 39-room mansion now lives in a motor home and struggles to fill a hotel ballroom.
But the reverend’s a resilient fella. Gotta give him that. How can any minister survive so many fiascoes, disappointments and embarrassing headlines? How can he sell his home base of three decades, Healing Waters Cathedral in Delaware, and somehow start over at 66, an age for retiring, not rebuilding? And how can any faith healer—let alone an ex-con with a boatload of troubles—continue to preach in an era when more people believe in Prozac than prophets?
It makes you wonder: Who does Leroy Jenkins think he is—a miracle worker?
The dark-haired man walks into the room. He wears a white shirt, a red tie and a blue sports jacket, which he says was given to him by his friend Liberace before his death. He looks fit and trim, but the wrinkles around his green eyes reveal his age. He doesn’t introduce himself—and he doesn’t need to. Everyone in Columbus knows Leroy Jenkins, a man who has spent four decades in the headlines. Some highlights:
1960: Claims the hand of God floats through a revival tent in Atlanta and heals his severely wounded arm. He becomes known as “The Man with the Miracle Arm” and says he has healing power.
1966: Moves to Delaware and founds his own Central Ohio-based faith-healing ministry.
1977: Runs for Ohio governor.
1979: Sentenced to 12 years in a South Carolina prison for conspiring to burn the homes of a businessman and a South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper and assaulting the trooper and a newspaper reporter. The state released Jenkins on parole in 1985 and pardoned him eight years later.
1993: Celebrates his acquittal on tax evasion charges by using a wood chipper to shred financial records the IRS returns to him.
2001: Marries Eloise Thomas, a 76-year-old member of his church who won a $6.9 million Ohio Lottery jackpot in 1992, 16 days after her husband dies. A judge later declares that Thomas was incompetent and annuls the wedding.
2001: Accuses a Westerville woman of trying to run him over on Good Friday. The woman claims Jenkins threatened to “smack the shit” out of her. Both were heading to the same tanning-booth business. No charges were filed.
“To me, he’s a piece of local history,” says Harold Smith, a retired IRS agent who investigated Jenkins for six years. “In fact, the day I was retiring, I got a phone call about him.” Even in retirement, Smith remains fascinated with Jenkins. “He had a birthday party,” says Smith, who still watches Jenkins’ cable television show. “I saw the invitation on that TV channel. I was thinking about going.”
Jenkins is a busy man. On this Wednesday in March he is supposed to meet with a reporter, pack his belongings and prepare for a trip to Florida. By the end of the week, he will have moved out of the Miracle House, his longtime private mansion at the 10-acre Healing Waters compound on South Sandusky Street.
Still, Jenkins doesn’t seem rushed as he settles his six-foot frame into an armchair in the Miracle House’s spacious, circular great room. A painting of a blue-eyed Jesus walking on water hovers above him. Jenkins had said two days earlier he wanted to limit the interview to recent events—“The Calling” and his ministry’s move from Delaware—but other topics proved irresistible.
He calls the people of Delaware “the biggest bastards I know.” He says his 1979 conviction in South Carolina was retaliation for his outspoken views. And he calls the Rev. Benny Hinn, a rival faith healer and perhaps the most successful Christian evangelist in the world today, a fake: “I didn’t see anybody getting healed when I was there.”
The 18-karat gold cross hangs around Jenkins’ neck. Until recently, you’d never see Jenkins wearing the piece of jewelry, a gift from his son David. In November 1994, David Jenkins was charged with masterminding a plan to rip off about $1 million from dozens of elderly people around Tampa, Florida. The Rev. Jenkins also was charged with two counts of theft in connection with the scheme and was arrested at a crusade near Orlando.
David Jenkins, who faced the most serious charges, was able to reduce his sentence by agreeing to testify against his father and four other codefendants. In February 1996, the Rev. Jenkins was sentenced to an 18-month, probation-like diversion program and agreed to pay $15,000 in restitution. He says he had no idea his son was doing anything illegal, although David had been convicted of theft in Florida and South Carolina before. “David is a charming person,” says June Buckingham, the Rev. Jenkins’ secretary for three decades. “You would love him if you met him. But he’s untrustworthy. You cannot be near him without being hurt.”
David Jenkins was released from prison in March 2001, but he allegedly stole $500 from a business associate; now, the Florida Department of Corrections’ absconder unit is looking for David, who has been charged with a probation violation and grand theft. “He’s a scam artist, from the word go,” says Tampa police Detective James LeFevre.
Earlier this year, the Rev. Jenkins, who says he had cut ties to his son, received a letter from David in which he apologized to his father. Since then, Leroy has been wearing the $21,000 cross again, which he says he refused to wear after the betrayal. He says he doesn’t know his fugitive son’s whereabouts, but he wouldn’t say if he did. “He has enough problems without me giving him anymore,” Leroy says. “I wouldn’t tell on him. He would me, probably, but I wouldn’t do that.”
Despite his rocky personal life, the reverend insists he’s the happiest he’s ever been. The reason: his recent sale of the Healing Waters property. The deal frees him from a bunch of responsibilities—the Miracle House, a 1,400-seat auditorium and a second mansion on the grounds—and gives him a chance to start over. Jenkins doesn’t sound remotely sad as he gives a visitor a tour of the Miracle House’s 12 bedrooms, two kitchens, two workout rooms, family room, living room and ballroom. “I can go where I want to now,” he says, standing in the empty second-floor ballroom where his musicians used to rehearse. Later, in the first-floor kitchen, he looks through a window and spies his motor home parked in the barren Healing Waters parking lot. “There’s my home,” he says. “That’s what I got left.” He actually sounds relieved.
In February the Yogi Divine Society, a Hindu sect based in Baroda, India, bought the Healing Waters compound for $1.4 million. The society first expressed interest in the property two years ago, but the sect failed to make headway with Jenkins until Tom Shelat, a Divine Society member, took over the negotiations. The owner of the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel in Columbus, Shelat offered to lease space to Jenkins at his South Hamilton Road facility until the minister found a new location.
Jenkins says Healing Waters is worth more than triple what he sold it for. And the IRS reports that his ministry lost $140,496 in 2001 and $57,059 the year before. But Jenkins says he didn’t make the sale out of financial desperation. Rather, he liked Shelat and wanted the property to remain in the hands of a religious organization. “He’s a real honest person,” Jenkins says. “He trusted me. He said take the furniture that you want and leave what you don’t want. By him saying that, I left most everything.”
The Divine Society will use the Healing Waters property as a temple—with separate places for men and women to pray—expected to attract people from Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Shelat says Jenkins has been straightforward and honest with him. “I do not have any bad experiences with him,” Shelat says.
Still, generosity wasn’t Jenkins’ only motivation. The Healing Waters congregation isn’t what it once was: Jenkins has no need for a 1,400-seat auditorium anymore. On top of that, he would like to relocate to Columbus, where most of his congregation lives, and to escape painful memories. In September 2001, Jenkins’ 4-year-old grandson, Shelby, died in an elevator accident at Healing Waters. “He just couldn’t get over it,” Buckingham says. “He just breaks into tears when he starts to talk about it.”
Despite the sale, Jenkins says he will keep the rights to a well about 75 feet behind the auditorium, to the chagrin of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Last June, the department accused him of selling contaminated bottled water from that well.
In the early ’70s, Jenkins says, God told him to dig the well and, “I called a guy out here. He drilled a hundred feet deep. I told him how far to go, how far until he hit water. And it would be the purest water. And he found it, just like that.” Since then, Jenkins says, the “miracle water” has cured thousands of people of cancer, diabetes and other ailments. Every Sunday, he sells one-gallon jugs of it for $1.40 each.
He also pushes the water three times a day on his television show, Revival of America, urging people to call an 800 number to try a free a sample. The program is on at 2 a.m., 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. every weekday on the Word Network, a cable television channel that reaches 31 million homes. “I got 800 phone calls last night,” he says. “I get close to 5,000 a week.”
The department of agriculture, which regulates bottled water in Ohio, began its investigation after receiving report that an elderly woman in Marshall County, West Virginia, was hospitalized with clostridium difficile—a serious form of diarrhea—after drinking Jenkins’ water. When state agriculture investigators tested a jug of water obtained at the church, they discovered coliform bacteria, which are found in animal and human waste. (An Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official says the well is too close to a sewer line, a potential source of contamination.)
In September 2002, Jenkins pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor counts of selling bottled water without a license. He paid a $200 fine and $150 in court costs. Delaware prosecutors dropped three other charges, including selling contaminated water. But Jenkins expressed no remorse and continues to sell the water even though he never obtained a bottling license, as the state says he needs to do. He says the water is safe and pure and “thousands” have used it without getting sick since he started selling almost 30 years ago. He isn’t worried he will face prosecution again. “I couldn’t care less,” he says. “I’ve been there, done that.”
“If he is selling water or if he is moving his water and bottling his water, then he is doing it illegally,” says Ohio agriculture department spokeswoman Melanie Wilt. “After his court situation was completed back in the fall, we sent Jenkins and his attorney a whole package of information about the things that he would need to do to meet our requirements. … They have not sent us anything back. “
Ten-year-old Damian Chapa couldn’t believe his eyes. When the man in the red jacket touched a crippled woman, she rose from her wheelchair and walked around the Ohio Theatre in Downtown Columbus. Later, the Columbus youngster read a booklet, “The Miracle Arm,” about that man, Leroy Jenkins. It detailed how the former antique salesman was called to serve God after his nearly severed arm was healed during an A.A. Allen tent revival meeting in Atlanta in 1960. “I thought it was amazing, and I stored it in the back of my head,” Chapa says.
Jump ahead nearly three decades. In 2000, Chapa, now a Los Angeles-based actor and filmmaker, met with Jenkins in his Delaware home and asked the preacher to adapt his life story for the screen. Jenkins couldn’t resist the offer—a chance to present his side to the world—and even agreed to fund the biographical film.
For the next several months, Chapa immersed himself in Jenkins’ life. He watched videotapes and 16 mm films of crusades, read books and newspaper articles and observed Jenkins day and night. Chapa even became a believer. “Now, I know there’s a lot of fakes,” Chapa says. “That’s without a doubt. But there’s certainly something supernatural going on here.”
While living in the penthouse apartment above the auditorium, Chapa pumped out a 190-page script, with 40 locations and 100 speaking parts. He then enlisted some well-known actors for the project, including Robert Wagner (TV’s Hart to Hart, the Austin Powers movies), Faye Dunaway (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Chinatown”) and Brad Dourif (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”). “Damian used up every card he could to get people involved,” says Josef Salyer, who worked as an associate casting director on the movie.
Today Jenkins tries to be upbeat about the movie, at first. He says he he’s excited that a distributor, Harmony Gold, has put an offer on the table, and it looks as if the movie will get a worldwide release, as well as earn back the more than $1 million he says he’s invested in it. (It’s not clear yet whether the release will be video, theatrical or both.) But it doesn’t take long for Jenkins to reveal his mixed feelings. Jenkins flips through snapshots from “The Calling’s” six-week shoot in 2001. He hands over a shot of himself and Dunaway, who portrays Mae West, one of several entertainers Jenkins befriended during the 1970s. He then shows off a photo of himself and Wagner, who plays Jenkins’ father. But he stops when he comes across a shot of Chapa. “I don’t want nothing with him in it,” he says.
Chapa and Jenkins started as friends—Chapa was Jenkins’ best man at the reverend’s 2001 wedding to Eloise Thomas in Las Vegas—but their relationship soured once filming began. People who worked on “The Calling” say Chapa saw the film as his chance to become an auteur and launch his career out of B-movies and bit roles. Chapa had a juicy part in the 1993 Taylor Hackford crime drama “Blood In, Blood Out,” but many of his film roles since have been in stinkers such as “Street Fighter.” Chapa worked his crew day and night and ignored the reverend and others in pursuit of his artistic vision, four former employees say. “I know this may sound weird, but I think Damian started to think, ‘I’m hearing God’s word,’ and it changed his mentality,” Salyer says. Chapa says he wasn’t obsessed, but he does say the film was a spiritual experience. “For me, it was more about God and Christ than it was about the rev,” he says.
Jenkins says Chapa took too much creative license with the story, ignored suggestions about music and let his crew make a mess of Healing Waters. (Most of the movie was shot at the compound.) What’s more, Jenkins says he literally threw Chapa out of the Miracle House at one point during the filming and then refused to talk to the actor for weeks afterward. In fact, Jenkins is so disappointed with the movie, he wants to do the whole thing over. This time, he says, he’ll direct the film. “It’s going to be done the way I want it done, like the first movie should have been,” he says.
The reverend’s comments surprise Chapa. He denies Jenkins threw him out of the house. “I don’t know where he came up with that one. Nobody has pushed me anywhere my entire life.” He notes that the reverend has signed a contract approving the movie, a test audience loved the picture and the film is on the verge of a worldwide release—not an everyday occurrence in the independent film world. “Everybody has good and wonderful things to say about the film,” Chapa says. “Leroy is the only one who has something bad to say about it. It’s kind of funny. It kind of shows you something.”
On a Sunday afternoon, Jenkins is on stage at the Howard Johnson again. He’s just as feisty as the night before, and the ballroom is a bit more crowded. About 25 jugs of miracle water are on tables in a hallway. “I have said this to you many times—a preacher that has never been through a problem has no business preaching,” he says. A chorus of amens rings through the room. “So you need to listen to somebody that has had all these things happen—and you are looking right at him, because I’m going to tell you that you don’t want to go to jail; you don’t want to get married twice.”
The crowd erupts in laughter. Gray-haired ladies shout “That’s right” and “Amen.” Others cheer and raise their arms. Yes, this is familiar material. Jenkins probably has used it dozens of times in recent years. But these people love every word. To them, he’s no joke, no dinosaur. He’s a folk hero. “Believe it or not, I got a first-class ticket to Belize,” he says. “Paid for. I could leave if I wanted. But I couldn’t leave. You know why? Look at each other.”
Later, Jenkins walks through the aisles, calling out people from the crowd and asking each person whether he or she has talked to him before. They all answer no, and then Jenkins reveals a health or spiritual problem afflicting them, puts his hands on their foreheads and prays for their diabetes, anemic blood or cancer to go away. It’s an impressive performance; even skeptics have said so. But Hank Hanegraaff, the author of two books on faith healers, says Jenkins and other ministers are simply using “sociopsychological manipulation”—peer pressure, subtle suggestion, heightened states of consciousness. Hanegraaff, the president of the California-based Christian Research Institute, compares faith healers to stage hypnotists.
But don’t tell that to Jenkins’ true believers. “The thing about the reverend is he has charisma,” says Buckingham, Jenkins’ secretary. She once was a member of Dayton’s elite society, a wife of a prominent lawyer. But after her husband died more than 30 years ago, she gave it all up to work for Jenkins and has remained loyal to him through all his troubles. “He has a gift from God that makes him who he is,” she says. “Nobody else could imitate that.”
Marvin Thorpe traveled nearly 500 miles from the state of Delaware to see Jenkins today. His son-in-law Phil Basiliko pushes Thorpe’s wheelchair to the front of the ballroom. After Jenkins puts his hand on the 73-year-old man, Thorpe slowly rises from his wheelchair and staggers up and down the ballroom’s middle aisle, raising his hands to the ceiling and praising God. Afterward, he says his arthritic knees feel better. “I’m healed,” he says. “Thank you, Jesus.”
Christine Ackah, who’s 29, falls to the floor when Jenkins touches her forehead. She lies in an aisle for about eight minutes until a red-haired woman helps the Maryland resident up and takes her to the bathroom. “There’s something in you. You feel it coming up,” Jenkins tells Ackah. “Those demons of witchcraft are like something inside of you, and they have to come out.”
Ackah looks dazed after the services. “She threw up a white mass in the toilet,” says the red-haired woman. Was she involved in witchcraft? “He had it right,” Ackah says. “It’s true.” Ackah, a native of Ghana, rode a bus for 12 hours to see Jenkins. It’s her first time at the church, but she watches his television show. Like others, she holds a jug of miracle water. The congregation has bought all the jugs that were on the tables—and a few in nearby boxes.
“Are there services next week?” Ackah asks the red-haired woman.
“Yes,” she replies.
“Thank you. I’ll be back.”