NIAGARA FALLS – Jimmy Swaggart doesn’t draw a crowd like he used to, but even at age 78, he commands a stage.
The once hugely popular televangelist enchanted an audience of about 500 people Friday evening, singing gospel songs and preaching for about an hour inside Sal Maglie Stadium.
“We’re going to be able to say, ‘God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit came to Niagara Falls,’ ” Swaggart said before launching into a passionate sermon in his trademark Louisiana baritone drawl.
In his heyday in the early 1980s, Swaggart preached to tens of thousands of people in large stadium crusades across the country.
But the relatively sparse crowd on Friday – the stadium seats were less than half full – didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm.
Wearing a dark pinstriped suit and tie, Swaggart frequently punctuated his remarks with “Glory to Gods” and “Hallelujahs” and paced back and forth across the stage gesturing dramatically. He spoke at times in a slow whisper, building to a full-throated crescendo.
Swaggart’s worldwide following took a massive hit following revelations in 1988, and again in 1991, that he visited a prostitute. For years, he was largely out of sight, but he launched a new television network in 2009 and agreed earlier this year to appear in Niagara Falls as part of “Field of Miracles, the Return,” a three-day family crusade that will feature his grandson, Gabriel Swaggart, preaching today.
The audience Friday held little against Swaggart and his past indiscretions, which were magnified because he had preached with such fire and brimstone against the infidelities of others.
“He humbled himself and asked for God’s forgiveness and now he’s raised again,” said Rose Maldonado, who drove from Schenectady with her husband, Jaime.
Joan Meyers, a fan of Swaggart’s gospel singing, said the evangelist’s stunning downfall in the late 1980s was unforgettable.
“I don’t think any of us are perfect, but you don’t look at him in the same way. Everybody’s allowed forgiveness, but if they did what they’ve been forgiven for, I don’t know,” said Meyers of the Town of Niagara.
“Who in life doesn’t make a mistake?” said Rose Messina-Russell of Niagara Falls. “I know some very good people, but I don’t know anyone who’s perfect. And really, why not listen to someone who’s made mistakes and learn from them?”
Her husband, Timothy Russell, was surprised by the small turnout on a perfect summer evening.
“This place should be filled up,” he said.
“There isn’t a lot of people here, but you can feel the energy in the crowd,” said Rose Messina-Russell.
Indeed, some people traveled great distances to get a glimpse of Swaggart, who rarely does public events outside of Baton Rouge, La., anymore.
Jerry and Ruth Brown drove six hours from Battle Creek, Mich., to see Swaggart in person.
“He’s been my church for two years,” she said. “I get so much more from him than I get from my own church.”
Swaggart’s wife, Frances, joined him on stage. At one point, Michael Chorey, organizer of the crusade, announced that Friday was her birthday, prompting a section of the crowd to sing a verse of “Happy Birthday.”
Swaggart later remarked that he and his wife will be celebrating 62 years of marriage in October.
“I don’t know how to explain that considering Frances will be only 39 years old,” he quipped.
Swaggart’s sermon touched briefly on the recent verdict in the Florida court case against George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin.
“It’s been nothing but talk about race, and hatred,” he said. “In this crowd tonight, there are Caucasian-Americans, there are Hispanic-Americans, there are Native Americans, and there are African-Americans. And you love each other. You’re not spitting on each other, you’re not cursing each other. ... It’s because of Jesus Christ, who lives within your heart.”