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Despite Scandal, Thousands Turn Out for Weekend of Old-Time Religion

March 30, 1987

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ They came by the thousands, despite television, despite Saturday night dates, despite the sex scandal rattling the Assemblies of God. They came to hear the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart preach the Gospel.

And Swaggart is one TV evangelist who doesn’t believe in going easy on his flock.

″Men are sinners,″ thundered the preacher from Baton Rouge, La. The fabric of society is unraveling. Salvation is only for those who accept Jesus as their personal savior and live the Ten Commandments.

He also pleaded with them to double their contributions, saying he needed $7 million to continue the work of Jesus.

On Sunday, Swaggart lamented the fact that it’s taken word of a minister’s sexual indiscretion to get the press interested in the evangelical ministry. ″If the news media got as excited as it has this last two weeks, think what it’s going to do when the trumpet sounds and every child of the living God gets up and leaves this world.″

His message comes wrapped in rousing gospel music, delivered in an atmosphere of joyous good fellowship, and the faithful respond. Swaggart’s Los Angeles Crusade this weekend packed the Los Angeles Sports Arena: 12,000 on Friday, 16,000 on Saturday and 14,000 Sunday.

″It’s exciting. It’s love,″ said Dianne Finneran, explaining why religion for her is a full-time state of mind instead of a weekly duty.

″When you open your heart to Jesus everything changes,″ said Ms. Finneran, 37, a city water department employee who attends Christ Chapel in Walnut Valley. ″I’ve been down in the pits, and he’s changed my life so dramatically.″

She joined the others who stood, hands raised heavenward, swaying to the strains of ″How Great Thou Art.″

Like others in the crowd, she said she feels hurt by the revelation that another television preacher, the Rev. Jim Bakker, hushed up a sexual encounter, and by the way the media and Bakker’s fellow evangelists have responded.

″It’s very sad, but it just goes to show you that man’s going to fall,″ said Roy Tyler, 25, of Lomita.

″It’s not for me to judge,″ said Shirley Blasingame, 64. ″The Lord can turn it around and make it good.″

Swaggart, already one of the top-rated preachers on television, suddenly popped up on news shows like ABC’s ″Nightline″ after Bakker’s fall.

Bakker’s lawyer, Roy Grutman, accused Swaggart of leaking word of Bakker’s 1980 fling in a Florida motel room with Jessica Hahn in hopes of taking command of the PTL ministry. Grutman warned Swaggart to back off, claiming there was ″smellier laundry″ of Swaggart’s which might be disclosed.

Swaggart denied any takeover ambitions, defied Grutman to do his worst, denounced Bakker to the media, and continued to jab at his rival during the weekend revival meetings.

″God deliver us from these pompadour boys, hair done, nails done, fresh from the beauty shop, preaching the gospel,″ he said on opening night here.

But mostly, he gave his followers old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone oratory.

Swaggart can recount his conversations with God, and give the date they took place. He challenged other preachers to stop telling people what they want to hear, to ″look the devil in the eyeballs and say, ’I stand firm.‴

On Saturday his subject was the decline of America and its religions, and the parable was AIDS.

″They tell me the only way you can guarantee you won’t die from AIDS is to be monogamous. Marry one woman, mister - that is, a virgin. And if you cheat, you’re dead.

″You see, this book is right, after all,″ Swaggart proclaimed, brandishing an open Bible. ″The Bible is right after all. ... God is right after all.″

Swaggart stalked the stage as he spoke. He stabbed the air with a forefinger. He lunged toward the congregation to make a point. He sweated, and sometimes his voice broke into a barely audible sob.

Three video cameras recorded all for later nationwide broadcast.

″There’s a lot of preachers who won’t tell you no, they won’t tell you yes,″ said Tony Abat, a 26-year-old glazier, explaining why he drove three hours from San Diego with his wife and infant son. ″Jimmy Swaggart isn’t afraid to call a sin a sin.″

The evangelist is just back from a ″crusade″ through Latin America and he needs money to keep the momentum rolling there with TV broadcasts. Crusade Director Jerald Ogg said it takes $3 million a week to keep Swaggart’s organization running.

On Sunday night, Swaggart went on television to plead with his followers for $7 million, saying that although their contributions have increased only a slight 5 percent, expenses have risen a sharp 25 percent.

″That is the reason for the shortfall, until today we have our proverbial back to the wall, and I have got to have your help,″ he said. ″We either get some help or there will be drastic consequences.″

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