A South African-born televangelist based in Florida has brought his ministry to Washington for a three-week event he is calling “Celebrate America.” Rodney Howard-Browne is calling for a religious revival in the United States. His preaching style, though, is far from mainstream.
All it takes is a touch from Howard-Browne for his followers to collapse and roll in the aisles with laughter. He is a pioneer of what is known as the "Holy Laughter" movement, which began in the 1990s in New York state and across the border in Canada.
Now based in Florida, the self-described patriot has brought his ministry to Washington for a three-week event called “Celebrate America.”
Howard-Browne wants to lead a religious revival in the United States. But laughter worship, though it has spread, is far from mainstream -- even in Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, which account for about a fifth of American Protestants.
In an interview, Howard-Browne said the chortles, chuckles and guffaws are the work of the Holy Spirit.
“When Jesus touched people they went walking and leaping and praising God,” he said. “If your life has been touched and changed, then you’re not going to be quiet about it. So that’s the whole thing of the fervor of the Christian faith. ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come.’
“So joy has a voice,” he added. “And it is laughter.”
The event is held five nights a week in Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall, a landmark concert venue down the street from the White House, and broadcast on his TV channel.
“We didn’t come to Washington to play games!” Howard-Browne shouted to the worshippers.
The preacher says his aim is to bring about a new "Great Awakening." That was the name given to the Christian revivals that swept the young republic in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“That is the only thing that is going to help America. Without a "Great Awakening," it’s over, it’s finished,” he said.
In the mornings, teams of volunteers from his church - Revival Ministries International - fan out across the city, to pray with people and invite them to the event.
For those who do come, the laughter is contagious. Jennifer Reed said she just can’t contain herself.
“If something’s funny, you just laugh, right? So this is like the Holy Spirit laughter," she said. "The Holy Spirit puts joy in my belly. And one of the fruits of the Spirit is joy. Isn’t that awesome? It’s supernatural joy!”
Laughter, the saying goes, is the best medicine, and some doctors even prescribe it to relieve stress. After the hoots and howls subside, some people at the revival lie on the floor motionless with their eyes closed. Others dance and shout with glee.
Whether or not Howard-Browne’s does bring about another Great Awakening, his “holy laughter” sessions do seem to work for those who take them seriously.