The world’s youngest preachers
LAUDED AS MESSENGERS OF GOD, THESE CHILDREN ARE CAPTIVATING AUDIENCES WITH FIERY PERFORMANCES AND HEALING HANDS. ARE THEIR CONGREGATIONS BEING DUPED?
WORDS SARAH KOOPMAN
the congregation is transfixed by the voice booming over the sound system. If you’re sitting further back than the second row, you’re not likely to see more than the top of a young boy’s head as he darts from one side of the pulpit to the other. Gripping a microphone that’s too big for his four-year-old hand, Kanon Tipton has every adult and child in the room entranced. They’ve come for a message from God and he is there to deliver it. ‘Hallelujah!’ Kanon begins. ‘I’m preaching about,’ he whispers into the microphone and then pauses, ‘I’m preaching about… the one God. Like a man’s church to the man’s church of Pentecost.’ He pauses again before repeating ‘Of Pentecost! Of Pentecost! Of Pentecost!’ His voice, filled with emotion, gains volume and urgency. Hand on his Bible – wrapped in a Disney book cover – he wipes imagined sweat off his young brow with a white handkerchief, glances up at his congregation and dramatically whispers once more: ‘It’s what I do for the one Lord. The red, hot revival!’ Not allowing his limited vocabulary to hold him back, the toddler sounds far older than his years. He looks the part too, dressed in a suit, shirt and tie. ‘I love to preach here tonight!’ he shouts into the mic before pausing once more – and in the silence his congregation waits anxiously for the next words, regardless of how incoherent, to come from the young Pentecostal preacher, who has become an internet sensation since he first started preaching at the age of 21 months. But even with more than twomillion YouTube hits and umpteen Facebook followers, seeing Kanon in action is apparently a rare occurrence. Or so photographer Stephen Hart tells me of his 2010 experience behind the lens for National Geographic Channel, capturing footage for its ‘Pint-Sized Preachers’ documentary. ‘After his grandfather’s sermon in his Pentecostal church in Mississippi, Kanon started to preach and did so for 20 minutes or so. There was never a guarantee that he would; his father had made that clear from the start. This was [apparently] not a regular occurrence at all,’ says Hart of his first encounter.
In 2010, Hart was contacted to work on the project along with Stuart Clarke, company director of Wild Dream Films in Cardiff. ‘I was shown a YouTube clip of “the world’s youngest preacher” – Kanon Tipton – when he was a toddler, not yet able to speak. Nevertheless he was most definitely “preaching” in his baby suit in front of a real congregation. Shouting enthusiastically into what appeared to be an oversized microphone. This was scary stuff, I thought, the boy appeared to have been possessed. National Geographic Channel wanted us to film this young boy along with two other child preachers. [I knew] it was going to be an exciting shoot.’ Hart knew this was going to make for eye-opening viewing. ‘I was shocked by what I witnessed during the first day’s filming. This was Christianity in a different form to what I knew. This was extreme. This was so different to my church-going days as a youngster in Wales, where we sang traditional hymns accompanied by a pipe organ,’ says Hart. That was in stark contrast to the second boy captured in action for the documentary, then 11-year-old Terry Durham. ‘We followed Terry as he was taken to preach in a small church in Florida. When we met him earlier that day he was a quiet boy, softly spoken and shy. I was amazed when he entered the pulpit and began preaching. He was transformed – full of confidence and with a raised voice, he engulfed the souls of his congregation. Accompanied by a group of young musicians, he began to sing at the top of his voice. It was so loud in that church. The sermon eventually came to an end with shouting, singing, crying and healing hands, and some of the churchgoers collapsed as Terry, sweating profusely, delivered to them whatever it was they had come for.’
Unlike Kanon, Terry is a self-proclaimed healer who is said to be able to cure the ill and infirm by laying on hands and praying. Terry and his family claim he is the world’s youngest ordained minister. He speaks in tongues and has a strong following who fill the churches where he preaches. Ordained at the age of six by his grandmother, Sharon Monroe, in the True Gospel Deliverance Ministry – a nondenominational church she founded in Fort Lauderdale, Florida – Terry took to the road aged eight to speak to congregations that grew with his fame. In 2009, Monroe told US channel ABC News that she believed Terry to have been chosen by God ‘to let the world know that His spirit still lives’. And Terry agreed. ‘I am one of God’s chosen ones, and He uses me because I am willing to go the right way and do the right thing.’
Unlike Kanon, who seems to escape overly harsh criticism from skeptics, Terry’s preaching and healing ability is often called into question. But his grandmother remains adamant that this is what he wanted to do once
he was called by God to become a preacher. ‘He was sitting on my lap and he put his arm around my neck and said, “Grandmama, I want to be a preacher just like you”,’ she told ABC. ‘I’ve seen people being healed, I’ve seen people come in their wheelchairs and walk [out]. ‘I have seen so many miracles.’
But it’s not only his healing abilities that have come under scrutiny; his church-funded finances have too. ‘The atmosphere that Terry had created was supercharged and I found it a little threatening,’ said Hart. ‘[And] towards the end of the performance a collection tray was passed around which quickly filled up with dollars.’ It’s this payment of money for Terry’s services that does not sit well with many observers. But Monroe insists that Terry does not preach for financial gain. ‘We do not charge money for him to preach,’ she told ABC. ‘We only ask them if, you know, after he speaks, the crowd [wants to] bless him.’
The delivery of religious sermons for money has been a hotly contested issue, in various circumstances, for many years. The latest TLC sensation, Preachers of LA – following the lives of wealthy preachers, living like reality-TV rock stars, but making their money from the church – makes you uneasy enough to know, deep down, that what they are doing happens in some moral grey area.
Kanon, however, did not seem to be obtaining any financial benefit from his preaching – though his name and fiery sermons are popular internet searches – and, while a cloud of doubt hangs over Terry’s family’s intentions, Hart affirms that he ‘never saw any of the children handle money’.
Finances aside, though, both Kanon and Terry seem to have their congregations captivated and convinced. ‘Each member of their congregations looked as if they had been placed under a spell,’ says Hart. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. Adults completely overwhelmed by these kids. Many were brought to tears; others, unable to stand, were helped as they collapsed to the floor.’
Also fascinating was the third young boy featured in the documentary, Matheus Moraes, a young Brazilian preacher working in prisons in Rio. ‘Matheus took us to a prison where he preached in front of a group of male prisoners,’ says Hart. ‘He was then 12 years old and had previously toured Brazil trying to convert criminals to a new life of good. With the camera on my shoulder, I followed him into a room where his congregation was seated.’ The young preacher, wearing an immaculate, pin-sharp suit, began to deliver his message ‘with great confidence and passion’. And the inmates immediately came under their young preacher’s spell. ‘Later, Matheus was asked to enter a cell where the prisoners were allowed some visiting time. The cell was crowded as he weaved his way to the middle. I can’t imagine how intimidated he must have felt with many faces looking down at him, but if he was frightened, he never showed it.’ Throughout the visit, Matheus’s father was on hand, keeping a close eye on him. Even so, says Hart, ‘I kept wondering why any father would allow his son, only 12 years old, into such an environment.’
Matheus’s work, however, does not seem to be startlingly out of place in Brazil. The evangelical work of child preachers is, according to a 2009 article in Vice magazine, fairly common in the South American country. The likes of Ana Carolina Lucena Dias – 14 at the time of the Vice interview – have gained the kind of following who will collectively fork out close to $900 (about R9 000) for a two-hour sermon. As with the boys Hart photographed, Ana is managed by her family, and she refers to her parents as ‘more than a mother and father – they are friends, pastors and disciples. I am sure God sent them to help me.’
She discovered her gift, she says, when she nearly died at the age of three. ‘I can’t
‘Each member of their congregations looked as if they have been placed under a spell’
really remember what happened, but my mom told me I stopped breathing and my heart stopped beating for a couple of minutes. Then God sent an angel… who rescued me. So I lived and was reborn. A few weeks after that, I did my first sermon to share this miracle with other people, because I wanted to help them find God too,’ Ana explains.
With no training, having only ‘studied the Bible because it is the strongest book in the world’ and following her parents’ lessons to ‘be good’, Ana hopes to keep preaching. ‘I want to become a federal judge and hope
Having been home-schooled and devoting her entire life to God, she doesn’t have time for ordinary things like having friends
to still have enough free time to go out on the streets and tell people the word of God.’
Life is a little less normal for Ana than it seems to be for any of the boys Hart captured. Having been home-schooled and devoting her entire life to God, she doesn’t have time for ordinary things like having friends. ‘I hang out with kids my age in school, but as long as I have my parents and God, I don’t need more in my life.’
Ana and the three boys have remarkably different stories and backgrounds, but their purpose is the same. To preach. But they are also all still youngsters, though their approach to their respective ministries is different. ‘When not in his gown, Terry was just another teenager – quiet and shy,’ says Hart. ‘Matheus was 12 years old and had the mannerisms and presence of an adult and, other than his height, there was nothing child-like about him.’ Kanon was ‘just another well-mannered little boy’.
The third generation of preacher in his family, following in the footsteps of his Pentecostal grandfather and father, the question on most people’s minds is whether Kanon knows what he is doing or is merely copying what he has seen around him. For Hart, the answer seems straightforward: ‘I believe he was mimicking his father and grandfather, simply acting out his idols. This is what kids do.’ In an interview on The Today Show, Kanon’s father, Pastor Damon Tipton, acknowledged that ‘it’s a little of both’ – explaining that although there could be an element of mimicry, the family ‘do feel the hand of God is on him in a special way’.
The families of the three boys were always on hand during the crew’s time with them, and welcomed them into their homes and lives for the few days they spent with each. ‘Their guardians were… in the wings providing them with moral support and guidance,’ says Hart. From the open access the crew seemed to have to the children as they worked, Hart says that everything they filmed appeared to be genuine, but adds that ‘some sessions did look somewhat choreographed and staged’.
Whether set up or genuine, the messages these youngsters are giving to the congregations seem to be exactly what they need. But beyond the possible exploitation of the children, what about the potential extortion of their followers? If these are indeed performances by well-trained young children, their families and coaches are preying on the desperation of people who had possibly lost all other hope. People come to these children – universally representative of innocence – for a sense of absolution, for healing from their ailments, for a sign or a message from God – and they believe God is speaking through them. In his three weeks of filming, Hart saw people who could have fitted any of these descriptions.
Remaining objective, Hart is careful not to judge what he saw as he stood among the congregations. ‘Who am I to comment on the morals of such activities? As a cameraman, I hide behind the lens and let things happen, slightly removed from the reality of the situation. I witness the scene in my eyepiece and vacuum up the shots, immortalising the moment.At the time, I get little opportunity to digest the situation.’
That digesting happens later when Hart’s camera is switched off. ‘I believe there’s no such thing as “reality TV”. If there’s a camera present, people will always behave differently. They will try and portray a certain image of themselves and will only allow us to see what they want us to see.’ Not untouched by the experience with the three boys he says, ‘I was left with mixed feelings after the shoot. Terry, Matheus and Kanon are three very different individuals.’
And each child had a very different relationship with his audience. What Hart saw may have been for show, or it could very well have been the makings of a modern-day miracle – he is still unsure about drawing a firm conclusion on the matter. ‘When I do reflect on it, I often wonder what goes on when the camera is switched off,’ he says and pauses. ‘Who knows?’
KANON TIPTON, 4
TERRY DURHAM, 11
ANA CAROLINA LUCENA DIAS, 19
Left and below Brazilian sensation Ana Carolina Lucena Dias, 19, began preaching at the age of three and regularly commands huge TV audiences. Opposite Terry Durham of Florida claims to be the youngest ordained minister in the US.