PUBLISHED TUESDAY NOVEMBER 20, 1997
Copyright 1997 The Pensacola News Journal. All rights reserved
Hill's boasts often exaggerate the facts
By John W. Allman
News Journal staff writer
Steve Hill opens his front door with a welcoming smile. He likes to talk to interviewers, he likes to talk about his work for God and he likes to hear himself talk.
Even before he completes a tour of the buildings, pastures and fields on his ministry's 40 acres in Lillian, Ala., he goes to a VCR and turns on a video to show his success as an evangelist.
It is a tape of himself on stage in a Dallas arena, coaxing hundreds of people down to the floor for an altar call.
"By the time it was over, we had to move all the chairs from the center," he says, standing by the television set and pointing at the screen.
The tape shows Hill working his audience, churning his way around the stage like a human lawn mower cutting a swath through sin.
Hill's message to the Dallas audience: God does not welcome a prideful man.
Hill's enthusiasm for his success and his mission supersede that message. The way his eyes gleam as he describes enemies he has attracted through his evangelism, the way his fist pumps as he cites the number of people he has saved, the way his voice resonates as he describes himself as God's messenger all suggest he is a man who takes pride in what he does and who he is.
The stories come fast and furious. His blue eyes often brim with tears and just as often blaze with intensity.
He tells countless stories of his past, casting them as freshly recalled anecdotes though they come verbatim from his books and sermons.
He also tells present-day stories, casting them in vague details and dramatic references for which he provides no documentation.
He says there are businessmen who want him dead because he saved a stripper who also worked as a prostitute.
He says covens of witches have threatened him and even sent a gunwoman from Mississippi, armed with silver bullets, to kill him.
Recognizable in public
Hill, 43, faces the spotlight dead on and does not turn away, despite the demands and disadvantages of celebrity.
He says he is so recognizable now that he cannot take his family out in public to eat dinner or shop because he would be surrounded by a throng demanding to be saved.
He says he sleeps no more than four hours a night. Since June 14, 1995, he has held center stage for hours, four nights a week, at the Brownsville Revival.
He says that on his off days, he rarely rests. He takes the revival on the road to larger cities such as Dallas, Memphis, St. Louis and Anaheim, Calif.
Yet, there is much he does not say.
He does not argue when people draw comparisons between him and Jesus Christ.
He does not disclose what he has done with one-third of the $2.2 million his ministry collected over the last year.
He does not expound beyond his scripted life story unless he is confronted with contradictory evidence. He says no one in the media who interviewed him in the last two years closely questioned his account of his past; instead, he says, each one became a friend and a believer.
When the News Journal asked him to clear up contradictions between what he says about himself and what police and court records show and between his self-description and others' description of him he had no ready answers.
After the News Journal interview, Hill asked his mother and his attorney to call the News Journal and dispute the record.
The News Journal, during a four-month investigation of the revival and its leaders, interviewed people whom Hill said played an important role at every stage of his life.
Each told a story far different from the one Hill wrote in his autobiography, "Stone Cold Heart." The young man they remember is unlike the young man Hill says he was.
They tell of a bright boy who was an average student.
They tell of a business-minded teen-ager with a creative flair who was capable of convincing others to follow him, no matter what.
Many things have been written about the already-legendary day when Steve Hill came to Pensacola in June 1995 with three sermons tucked in his bag.
The legend holds that he was supposed to stay just one day Sunday to preach a Father's Day sermon at the Brownsville Assembly of God church.
Hill has said often that what happened on Father's Day 1995 was an unplanned, monumental move of God the Holy Spirit literally descended spontaneously on the church and has remained.
June 1995 was not the first time Hill had spoken at Brownsville; he and Pastor John Kilpatrick are old friends, having met in the mid-1980s in Marianna, when Hill asked for money to further his missionary crusade.
In recent years, Hill and Kilpatrick talked frequently, and Kilpatrick told Hill that he and the congregation urgently wanted a revival.
Hill could see it in the making.
"John Kilpatrick told me, All this glitter, this glamour, this big church, a television ministry none of it means anything to me. I want revival. I want revival,'" Hill said in a recent interview.
Hill was well versed in revival methodology.
He had spent more than seven years in foreign missions and had witnessed huge, dramatic revivals. He observed the renowned Carlos Anaconda, the man responsible for the Great Argentine Revival. He visited a church in London Holy Trinity Brompton Church where a world-famous charismatic movement is under way.
Just before coming to Pensacola, Hill conducted an eight-day revival in Saraland, Ala., which he had hoped would build into something far larger.
Hill had told close friends that he yearned to lead an extended revival.
"I've always been praying for revival," Hill said in the recent interview. "And after Argentina, after seeing it, I came back. You just won't settle for anything less."
A number of people have raised questions about the Brownsville Revival and about Hill why has God decided to flow through him into Pensacola?
Hill says he too has pondered those questions. He says the answer is in his past and in his ability to connect with people.
"I have had a genuine conversion experience and a genuine relationship with the Lord," he said. "I've been down a rough road. I've been able to relate."
And his past- the drugs, the down days, the despair- has helped him.
"It definitely hasn't hurt me," he said.
Hill looks far different today than he did when he was a teen.
The hair is shorter and styled, no longer hanging past his shoulders in thick strands. His mustache is groomed; his clothes are well-designed.
All of this, he says, is the result of his being saved.
When Hill sat down to write his 55-page life story, his purpose, he says, was to show people the transformation that occurred when he converted, turning his life to Jesus Christ in October 1975.
Yet for all its colorful moments, the book fails to provide clear details about Hill in his youth.
For this, it is necessary to look back at Huntsville, Ala., and the days when he and his parents, brother and two sisters lived on a tree-lined street with nice homes and front yards teeming with kids. It was safe to walk to school and children could play outside after dark without fear.
Hill was the neighborhood leader, according to his older brother, George. They rode their bikes at night with other neighborhood boys. They all wore white T-shirts with stenciled insignias as they pretended to be the desert-weary soldiers from television's popular show, "The Rat Patrol."
They were in a Cub Scout troop in which their mother, Ann, served as den mother.
As a teen, George Hill said, Steve got into music and performed so often at the local recreation center that he enjoyed free admission.
He played trumpet in a four-piece Tijuana Brass-style band that did covers of popular songs.
"He was growing his hair longer then, getting the attention of girls," George Hill said.
Steve Hill's older sister, Marcia Pate, 47, who lives in Huntsville, had already graduated when Steve entered high school, but she remembers him as a typical kid brother.
He was closer to his younger sister, Susan, who went from fighting with him on the playground to assisting him on profitable "trash night" expeditions. She says Steve would take her around the neighborhood, picking up "good stuff" that people threw out.
"Steve was awesome," recalls Susan Hill, now 40.
"When he was in high school, he was business-minded," said Susan Hill, remembering a time when her brother ordered a kit to make yo-yos that would glow in the dark. She sat and helped him put them together so he could sell them at nearby Grissom High School.
Hill remembers that differently. He says he did make the yo-yos but he put drugs inside them. Yo-yos with drugs cost $10; those without cost $2.
The drug scene was new to Huntsville in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and adults had little awareness of drugs' rapidly rising popularity.
"There wasn't any precedent for this," said his sister, Marcia.
She remembers that he had black lights in his room, but at the time she thought nothing of it.
George said he has no idea when Steve started trying drugs. "We shared a bedroom, but he wasn't doing any of that stuff at home."
Searching his memory, George said: "I think he was into LSD and pot in high school."
Said Susan: "I know he was into doing drugs, in rock and roll bands. There was always a crowd at the house."
Marcia is certain that her brother's friends were not criminals. They were clean-cut boys, and Steve was their leader.
"Good kids followed Steve," she said.
"He can lead in any direction he wants."
A mother's son
Ann Hill has moved from the house where she raised four children and lived alone for more than 20 years after her husband died.
Today, she lives a few miles away, in a home owned by her daughter Marcia. She is surrounded by pictures of family and her table tops are laden with many copies of books written by her son Steve.
Her parents were born in Finland. Her father was a Lutheran lay preacher who regularly held prayer meetings in their Connecticut home.
Though she is still a devout Lutheran, she said, she has attended the Brownsville Revival several times and flew with her family to see her son on stage in Memphis during a two-day revival in October.
She believes in him, she said, because she saw the change.
The morning of Oct. 28, 1975, she called Hugh Mozingo, a Lutheran vicar, to come pray for her son. She feared drugs were going to kill Steve.
After Mozingo's visit, she and Steve met in the kitchen.
"He had the countenance of a little child," she said. "He was pure and clean."
Hill used that exact phrase in his book. When asked about his past, Ann Hill simply quotes what he said in his books.
She will not answer specific questions about his drug use or his condition on the morning of Oct. 28. Instead, she refers to what he wrote in "Stone Cold Heart."
It is only when asked about his days as a child that she speaks freely from personal memories.
"Steve he was always inventing something," his mother said, remembering the hours he spent outside building things. One time it was an elaborate water system he constructed with pipes. It was so unusual, a neighbor called to ask what in the world he was doing.
When she watches her son today, on stage, preaching against sin, she gets an overwhelming feeling.
"I don't think of him as my son. He's God's messenger. He has the gift of talking to Christ," she said. "I just feel as if I'm listening to someone whose sole purpose is winning souls for Christ. That's all he wants to do is save souls. People relate to him so easy because he's been there."