The world’s youngest preach­ers

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

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.

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