Give them old-time religion

Revival: Thousands in Baltimore's convention center say 'Hallelujah!'

July 24, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

The crowd could see the spirit welling up inside Bishop Neil Ellis. For more than an hour, the preacher from the Bahamas roamed the stage at Baltimore's convention center yesterday, shadow-boxing, bouncing on the balls of his feet and citing Scripture until his voice grew hoarse.

"The devil is putting a beating on you," said Ellis, as his image filled five giant TV screens and organ music swelled to punctate his sentences. "Some of us are catching hell. The devil is fighting us and winning."

As thousands held their hands aloft, Ellis told the faithful not to despair. "The word from God is: You win!" he said.

"Hallelujah!" shouted Vanessa Copeland, a retired Army sergeant, tears streaking her cheeks.

"God is real," she said as she grasped her neighbor's hands and looked into his eyes. "He's going to do everything he said he's going to do with you."

Copeland, who lives in Virginia, was among more than 8,000 people who celebrated "Kingdom Conference 2004," a three-day, modern revival organized by the Rev. Walter Scott Thomas, pastor of Baltimore's New Psalmist Baptist Church.

Part spiritual pep rally, part self-help seminar, the conference, which concludes today, was designed to help people renew their faith and integrate the teachings of Jesus into their daily lives.

It follows a long evangelical tradition going back to the 18th century. In the 19th century, camp revivals became particularly popular on the frontier. Without churches or other religious institutions, settlers circled their wagons and relied on itinerant preachers to help them refresh their faith in open-air gatherings.

Twentieth-century descendants of this tradition include the Rev. Billy Graham and today's marquee preacher at Kingdom Conference, Bishop T.D. Jakes, who is scheduled to speak at 10:30 a.m. today. Jakes recently drew 100,000 people to a revival in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

Although revivals are common on the evangelical landscape, it's unusual for a local congregation to mount something as big as Kingdom Conference, which costs more than $1 million to produce. Thomas said New Psalmist has had separate events for men, women and youth for years, but decided to bring the operation under one roof for the first time last year.

Organizers said the conference drew half of its participants from New Psalmist, which claims 7,000 members. Most of the rest came from other Maryland congregations, along with church groups from Boston, Detroit and Charlotte, N.C.

Thomas' reputation reaches well beyond Baltimore because of his relationships with preachers around the country and because his sermons are broadcast on cable and satellite TV.

In addition to rousing oratory, the conference offered self-help seminars with titles such as "Christ and the Church: The Foundation for Your Marriage."

The Rev. Johnny Parker, who runs a spiritual counseling organization in Beltsville, told couples to solve their marital problems by placing Jesus and his teachings at the center of their relationship. "God is our ultimate soul-mate," he said.

Based on the nudges and knowing laughs, many couples connected with the seminar's message.

"I love it," said Janine Tinsley, who sat with her husband, Tracy. Members of New Psalmist who live in Middle River, the couple split up for three months earlier this year.

"We're trying to salvage our marriage," Tracy Tinsley said.

They appeared to find spiritual inspiration yesterday. "I think every couple in a marriage loses focuses," said Tracy Tinsley, 39, who inspects helicopters for the Maryland National Guard.

"It just put everything back in perspective," said Janine Tinsley, 37, an administrator at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Pediatric Specialty Clinic. "You have to have God first and everything else second."

Revival meetings are common among black and white evangelicals, but have a particularly deep resonance with the African-American community, said Thomas.

"Over the last 50 years, we've been subjected to a pressure and stress that has taxed even the limits of our spirituality, said Thomas, who started at New Psalmist nearly three decades ago with a congregation of 200. "There is a sense of struggle like I've never seen before," he said.

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