“Crowds were queuing up to see the Harry Potter film when I was in Spain the other day,” the ex-bricklayer turned preacher told his rapt south London congregation of about 40. “They should be queuing up to go to church not going to see that witchcraft nonsense.”
Evangelist Melvin Banks, 71, was in Peckham on the second and last day of his "revival crusade" which had been preceded by the distribution of 10,000 leaflets to households in the neighbourhood infamous for its poverty and gun crime. A yellow flyer billed the Rev Banks as “Britain’s top healing ministry”.
The publicity included case studies boasting miracle cures. Jim Unsworth who had cast aside the steel spinal jacket he had worn “with such pain, for years”. Housewife Pat Wallace running down the street waving her walking stick in the air. Another, unnamed, senior citizen hoisting her walking frame aloft. And “invalid Jessie cured”.
Shepherd’s Bush-born Rev Banks, who lives at Chippenham, Wiltshire, said he drowned in the River Avon, aged two and a half. But his mother refused to accept he was dead and after 10 minutes his father detected a pulse. But he says a bigger miracle occurred when he was 17 and, while at the cinema watching a film about the American evangelist Billy Graham, he had an apparition that Jesus was sitting next to him. “From that time I became aware that I had special powers. That I could heal people,” he told The-Latest.
The challenges for Rev Banks on Sunday at Peckham's Life For The World Christian Centre were as awesome as any he had ever faced. But he was undaunted. “You can get to the top of the mountain or have a mountain on top of you,” Rev Banks exclaimed.
The half dozen people who stepped forward at the healing highlight of the three-hour service included Colin, who lost his speech after suffering a stroke, and the wheel-chair bound Margaret and Roy.
Margaret Wilkes, 81, a former religious education teacher, who had travelled from Highgate in north London, with her carer, Bob, had been in a wheel chair for three months after a hip replacement operation a year and a half ago that had gone wrong. Wiring had come loose and it was giving her great pain.
After five holy roller hymns sung in quick succession and a prayer, Margaret was summoned to receive the healing hand of Rev Banks. “This is your moment,” called out Brother Melvin, theatrically. “Let every pain come out of the hip.”
The healer, whose talents clearly didn’t extend to reading people’s minds, asked of one of his five assistants: “Left or right hip, John?” He urged: “Let the swelling go down. Healing. Stretch it out. More, more. Every pain go…A wire will have to join up in the hip bone. Ouch! Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Give her another scripture, John.”
It was as if the Rev Banks himself was taking Margaret’s suffering from her body. His attentive aides helped Margaret out of her wheelchair. And, yes, she walked a few faltering metres on her own. But, afterwards, she told me: “It was wonderful. But I can’t lie, I’m still in pain.”
Nonetheless Margaret handed over £50 in an envelope. Afterall, Rev Banks had admonished the congregation, during one of his many appeals for donations: “If you give nothing then you will receive 100 per cent of nothing.”
Rev Banks knew how to make the congregation feel good about themselves, saying he might have to tell English pastors about how to fill a church but not African and Caribbean ones. “Many evangelists won’t come to a small church, a new church like this. But Brother Melvin will.”
Like eccentric Spanish painter Salvadore Dali, Rev Banks talks about himself in the third person.
He chided his hosts, who had paid for his petrol, given him the venue free of charge and provided overnight accommodation in swanky Docklands, for not placing advertisements in newspapers to fill more of the 100 pews.
Ever the showman, Rev Banks cracked jokes that he said were from the Daily Mail as part of his working man’s club warm up act. Some were tasteless. “Bacteria is the only culture some people have.” And: “If you find you have to try and try and try again, make sure you don’t get caught next time.”
A little funnier was: “The problem with a gene pool is that there is no life guard.”
Hinting at his conservative politics, Rev Banks railed against what he described as the anti-Christian British Labour government who he said would be “swept from power” next year.
At one, surreal moment during his healing session, Rev Banks caught my eye and exclaimed: “They look almost normal don’t they?” in reference to members of the congregation whom he was attending to with his healing powers.
At one point he stopped what he was doing and yelled across the room: “How are you doing, Margaret?”
She was back in her wheelchair, somewhat befuddled and didn’t respond. So Rev Banks barked at an aide: “Tell her to listen to me. She’s not listening, John.”
Hapless Margaret was almost yanked from her wheelchair, to walk again as an inspiration to others with whom Rev Banks was not doing so well.
When I later put it to Rev Banks that his behaviour verged on bullying, he rejected the suggestion saying he was just being “compassionate”.
No one was cured on Sunday. But Rev Banks said his prayers might take “a week or a few months” to have an effect and those he had healed should still take their medication and go to the doctor.
Was he a charlatan; a fraudster, I asked. “Oh, no. No one, not even doctors, have ever said that about me,” he claimed.
Photography: Grace Boateng