ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- "A faithful witness, someone'll stick with you when you need them . . . There are always people sneaking up behind you, hugging your pocket."
Thus saith the Rev. George Foreman yesterday, preaching at the Shiloh Baptist Church.
It was a sermon by the mount who will challenge Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship Friday night in the other Atlantic City. Maybe it was a shill -- getting the 42-year-old minister to Shiloh, a two-story brick building with peeling paint on a block of desolation -- a chance to get a few live minutes of ESPN time and make a few pay-per-view sales.
The hucksters and the cynics went to church, like promoter Bob Arum (who helped arrange the guest spot) and a flock of media. But it was also the Rev. Foreman doing what he had been doing for 10 years before making his ring comeback four years ago. The gospel according to George was not about right uppercuts, but how he became born again in the dressing room after his 1977 loss to Jimmy Young.
"It don't matter who wins or loses, you pray Thy will be done," he told a congregation of about 150 worshipers in their Sunday best.
They didn't know the celebrated preacher was coming. One neighborhood boy, 11-year-old Alim Parks, noticed the TV truck by the church and attended service for the first time since he couldn't remember when, but most were regular worshippers.
The Rev. James Washington, Shiloh's pastor, had given permission for Foreman to give a guest sermon. Arum, Foreman's promoter, had called up several churches in town -- a woman at the Assembly of God told him she had never heard of Foreman -- before asking the help of local officials.
But it was not a circus. It was a 100-minute church service with two choirs, organ, piano and drums.
"Even if George is here and the media is here, we're still going to have church," said the Rev. Washington.
They did. And when the choir of elders sang "The Lord Is My Light," the sun broke through the gray and came through the modest stained-glass windows as bright as a George Foreman smile and no boxing promoter could have arranged that.
Foreman gave an old sermon. He read from the Book of Matthew, about how Jesus had risen but the Roman centurions, instructed by Pontius Pilate -- "a big bad cat" -- lied that the disciples had taken the body. He told of his conversion when he didn't believe in "the sheepherder's handbook," but how he slipped "into a deep dark nothing" and thought he was dying.
"I don't mind going to funerals," he said, "I don't want to be in one."
And he told of how "Jesus Christ is come alive in me" and how he had a second chance.
While Holyfield was attending services at New Hope Baptist Church, Foreman asked the Shiloh congregation to "pray for us." He did not ask for victory.
He left in a white Lincoln limousine, driving by the the garbage-strewn hallway of a desolate apartment house where someone had long ago written on the wall of where a barber shop had been:
"Th (sic) word will make you fat."