The lobby of the Kansas City Convention Center doesn't look like the promised "harvest of souls." It resembles an airport during the holidays. Long and winding lines of luggage-toting people wait, laugh and share hugs.
They're here for the International House of Prayer's annual Onething conference, which has promised to bring 25,000 young adults together with Jesus. That number doesn't seem exaggerated. There are people everywhere. Of course, Jesus is everywhere, too.
The 24/7/365 — all day, all night, every day, all year — Grandview church's promotional video pledged a big harvest. So for the next four days and four nights, December 28–31, IHOP has planned a variety of events: recruiting interns, healing the sick and registering students in IHOPU (its Christian university), all in a Christian concert setting. With lots and lots of sermons.
I'm here for a different reason: the alleged sex-cult killing of Bethany Deaton, a 27-year-old former IHOP intern. Deaton's body was found October 30, with a plastic bag over her head and an empty pill bottle close by, in the backseat of a van at Longview Lake. Authorities assumed that her death was a suicide. A note in the van read: "My name is Bethany Deaton. I chose this evil thing. I did it because I wouldn't be a real person and what is the point of living if it is too late for that? I wish I had chosen differently a long time ago. I knew it all and refused to listen. Maybe Jesus will still save me."
But three days after Deaton's funeral, Micah Moore, a 23-year-old IHOPU student, told Grandview police that the young woman's death wasn't a suicide. "I killed her," Moore told officers, according to court records. He said he held the plastic bag over Deaton's head "until her body shook."
Court records say Moore told detectives that he killed Deaton at the request of his spiritual leader, Deaton's husband, Tyler Deaton, to silence her, fearing that she would reveal to her therapist repeated drugging and sexual assaults by members of a prayer group. (Moore's attorney has since claimed that his confession is nothing more than fiction from a fragile mind.)
A grand jury indicted Moore for first-degree murder. Tyler Deaton, 26, now a former IHOP member and volunteer, has not been charged. Authorities say they are still investigating the allegations. Several other men who lived with the Deatons told detectives that they were involved in secret sexual relationships with Tyler Deaton. One unnamed man told authorities that after his wife's death, Deaton shared a dream in which he suffocated his new bride.
IHOP has claimed that Tyler Deaton led a secret splinter group.
Three years ago, the Deatons and a group of young people moved to Grandview from Georgetown, Texas, to be closer to IHOP's nonstop ministry.
In that part of their story, they were hardly unique. People move here for IHOP.
So I've come to Onething, the church's biggest event of the year, to get closer to IHOP.
Lou Engle has filled stadiums with believers for daylong prayer sessions, and the auditorium here shows his drawing power. The Kansas City preacher has an international reputation for championing extreme right-wing causes as part of his radical evangelism. Engle is here on Friday's opening night as Onething's first featured speaker.
Engle doesn't sermonize with his usual anti-gay agenda or mention his spiritual tag teams with conservative lawmakers, such as Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Instead, Engle encourages the attendees, who rapidly fill up the convention center's auditorium, to preach the Word to every ethnicity, tribe, tongue and nation.
Engle's gravelly voice is as threatening as a professional wrestler's. He shakes his microphone and his eyeglasses, which he then slaps on his face, and announces a recent initiative that comes via prophecy: the Ekballo movement, which has a smartphone app.
Engle promises that the app will help convert nonbelievers to Christianity before "the end of the age is unleashed." He whips himself into a fit of palsied rocking. A few of the eight gigantic screens hanging from the ceiling show him moving on a one-second delay, so Engle moves out of sync with himself.
Deep, low and loud notes begin to play, out of view, showing off the cavernous room's natural reverb and bumping the intensity level to that of a game show's final round. Engle asks the crowd to hold up their shoes in commitment to the Ekballo movement. Audra Lynn (an IHOP in-house musician, not the Playboy Playmate) begins a tender song about the harvest. Thousands of young people remove and hoist their shoes high above their heads as the house lights dim.
After a few minutes, Lynn closes her song, and a less passionate speaker takes the stage. Many exit through the revolving doors for an early evening dinner break. Some marvel at the weak snow that, according to a friendly Onethinger, never falls in Georgia.
The corner of 13th Street and Central bustles Friday night as a bespectacled 30-something on top of a peach crate shouts through a bullhorn at Onethingers.
"Mike Bickle did not see an angel in his bedroom," megaphone guy yells to apathetic passers-by.
He's referring to IHOP's founder, who has claimed to have heard the voice of God and has vividly described supposed encounters with demons, prophets and apostles. Bickle has also claimed to have foreseen 9/11 and referred to Oprah Winfrey as the Antichrist.
"Mike Bickle is a false prophet!" the protester shouts.
I laugh, which attracts the interest of a hunched man passing out a religious newspaper.
"Are you onboard with the IHOP people?" he asks.
"No, I'm just observing," I say, which is partly true.
"I encourage you to take some of this literature," megaphone guy implores at the backs of several teenagers. His gloved hand points to a cardboard box of leaflets. "Consider it a gift!"
The leaflet reads, "Want to hear God Speak to You? Read Your Bible. Want to hear God Speak Audibly? Read It Out Loud!"
Bickle has lent Christ an open ear. He has read things in the Bible that other preachers don't emphasize — teachings from Esther, Matthew and Revelation that, when added up and, according to Bickle, read correctly, help him preach IHOP's fundamental doctrine, the so-called "bridal paradigm." It's kind of a metaphor for a relationship with Jesus.
"Simply put, the revelation of Jesus as the Bridegroom is the revelation of Jesus' burning desire for His people," Bickle says in an IHOP brochure. "As a Bride of Christ, we are to walk in revelation of Jesus' emotions for us, to understand and rejoice in His commitment to share His heart with us, and to respond with wholehearted love and obedience to His will as we enter into partnership with Him. (We refuse all sensual overtones in the Bride of Christ message.)"
Only through this intimate relationship can so-called true believers hasten Christ's return. And when the world burns in tribulation and armies of believers rise up, the world will come into an everlasting embrace with Him — as any bride would.
Inside the main conference hall, a thin worship leader, her hair in dreadlocks, walks onstage with her band and begins a set of adult-contemporary worship tunes.
Hundreds of people pour through the entryway of the long auditorium as purple and yellow lights wash over like a sunrise. The rows of chairs fill fast. At a pit in front, people stand. A camera jib constantly swoops and floats over the crowd, broadcasting Onething's live stream on IHOP's website and GOD TV.
Monitors show a band playing under undulating lights. The acoustic guitarist raises an arm in praise, barely strumming when the camera focuses on him. A woman in a wide "Choose Life" T-shirt looks sometimes pained, sometimes confused as she locks down notes. Misty Edwards stands behind a keyboard and belts out praise with impressive range. With pantomimed throat cutting or bass playing, she occasionally signals for her players to stop or start.
Bickle, microphone in hand, watches from the side of the stage. He faces upward at the lights, eyes closed, never moving or singing.
The repetitive choruses — really, the songs are nothing but choruses — show up on the monitors like a karaoke machine as images of young people in the crowd, with eyes closed, air-drum and raise their hands. And they sing: I'm in love with God/And God's in love with me.
Edwards uses a break in the music to preach.
"Our God is an all-consuming fire," she whispers. "He burns with desire."
A makeshift prayer room is set up in the convention center for 1,200 worshippers. About 50 people sit, lean or pace the floor as a 13-piece band jams through a nonstop jumble of styles with one theme: God's glory.
During techno music that recalls the theme from Shaft, a white man busts apprehensive rhymes about the session's prayer focus: Israel. Throughout this and other prayer events, slide projectors display praises to sing. Whom have I but you/I want only you.
A line forms onstage, and each person solemnly prays into a microphone about salvation through Israel. The songs never seem to end, so it's apparently OK to leave the prayer room at any time.
Inside an IHOP Forerunner Bookstore, set up in the convention center, several tables offer information about the church's programs and ministries, as well as a real-estate company run by Bickle's wife.
On one of many racks of T-shirts is a premium V-neck that reads, in a hip font, "24/7 Prayer Worship Justice." This sums up IHOP's brand of visions-inspired worship. Another shirt reads, "The Spirit & the Bride Say Come!" Another screen-printed verse on cotton reads, "Do Justly Love Mercy," from Micah 6:8. This must be a sign from God because I can't help but think of Micah Moore.
I wonder, if he is indeed guilty, if he'll be forgiven. I wonder if IHOP's love and mercy are enough to forgive everyone who may have been involved with Bethany Deaton's death. I wonder if Moore or Tyler Deaton or the men who claim they engaged in secret sexual relationships with Tyler have found their way here. It's impossible to know in this throng of people.
I approach a sign at the youth evangelism table that reads, "Want to speak in tongues? We can help!"
An obese man with a nice smile greets me and asks me to put my information on a half sheet of paper, joking that he'll "look good in front of [his] boss." He gestures to a middle-aged man next to me, who is in fatherly conference with a few curious people.
I oblige, and the man gives an unsolicited overview of upcoming seminars, stressing their affordability.
"What about speaking in tongues?" I ask. "How can I do that?"
"That's free," the older man says.
"So how can I do it?"
"You mean you don't already?" he asks.
"There's a breakout session on Monday," he says, adding that about 1,000 people spoke in tongues during last year's conference. He estimates that about 2,000 will do so on New Year's Eve.
Elsewhere in the bookstore, a 50-foot table displays a "Mike Bickle" banner. I count 74 book titles and media on a merch table. There are speeches, sermons and study guides with such titles as The Rewards of Fasting, Growing in the Prophetic and The Beauty of Jesus and the Thunder of God's Love. This isn't crass consumerism. Bickle's voluminous catalog of videos, audios and literature are available for free on his and his church's websites. But if someone wants to give, IHOP has set up a "Donation Kiosk."
I hesitate to buy Omega: The End Times Board Game. Instead, I thumb through a copy of Sexaholics Anonymous, scoff at the price of a plastic-bound tract on Freemasonry, maintain a strange curiosity for Howard O. Pittman's Demons: An Eyewitness Account, and try to glean some information from Paula Sandford's shrink-wrapped Healing Victims of Sexual Abuse. I select the cheapest CD: How to Recognize Cults: Seven Characteristics. I put down my $5.
In the prayer room across 13th Street, people listen to wispy, beachy worship tunes. More young people line the hallways' baseboards than the day before, looking a bit tired as they chat and text.
An easel near the prayer room holds a sign that reads, "The Healing Ministry." A woman tells me that I'm the last one allowed in this session. She puts a sticker with the number "638" on my shoulder and directs me to a mostly empty conference room, where I'm led behind a partition to a spot with clusters of chairs in triangular formations. Boxes of facial tissue sit next to tiny, already filled wastebaskets.
"Are you OK with two women?" a minister asks.
I'm led to two female IHOP employees who ask for my medical and spiritual histories.
"Do you have any forgiveness issues?" asks Amber-Lynn, who has moved to Kansas City from Canada to be with the church.
"I don't think so," I say. "I know I am forgiven."
My eyes are closed. Either Amber-Lynn or Lateasa, who has moved from Michigan to KC for IHOP, anoints my forehead with oil. The women give an earnest prayer for my real and imagined ailments of mind, body and soul. They repeatedly thank Jesus for loving us.
With calm breathing and closed eyes, I listen to their unpolished prayers. Their voices are soothing. They remove their hands, and I open my eyes to the dim room.
"How do you feel?" Amber-Lynn asks.
"I feel great," I say. And I do feel quite collected. I later learn through social media that the ministry this weekend mended a broken ankle and cured a case of spina bifida with prayer.
Bickle doesn't mention Bethany Deaton during his sermon. Why would he during IHOP's four-day infomercial? The church has distanced itself from everyone allegedly involved in her death.
Bickle shares the stage with a vice president of IHOPU. She shares her testimony of how secular humanism and Western postmodernism pulled her away from Jesus. It's an anecdote of a college-age reawakening that fits with Bickle's youth-oriented ministry.
In his sermon, "Encountering Jesus and His Transforming Power," Bickle denounces "lukewarm believers" and those who pervert the Gospel or distort God's grace. He yells and strains in beseeching tones that dip into a Southern drawl when he's most passionate.
Young and old in the audience flip through workbooks. In an all-business tone, Bickle points to sections with Bible quotes, under which he has provided summaries.
"These questions are not complicated," he says, slowly pacing the stage. "But if you don't have a biblical foundation, a good communicator can twist all of these around and spin you in circles. But the truth is, the answers are quite straightforward and quite simple. It just a little bit of biblical foundation to have confidence in these answers."
I move closer to the stage to get a look at Bickle. He's a solidly built man, wearing a silky button-up shirt. I snap a picture of stacks of tithing buckets, which I never see deployed, even after Bickle's made-for-TV pitch on how Jesus dealt with the lukewarm.
"Tell them that I will vomit them out of my mouth," Bickle yells. "That doesn't mean that they are repulsing to Jesus. What I believe this phrase means: Jesus is not saying, 'You're repulsive to Me.' He's saying, 'When I look at the way you're living in responding to the Love of God ... my stomach hurts when I look at how much I love you! And how little you respond! And how little you understand the delusion you're in! My stomach is hurting because of the relationship of love! Do you know who I am? Do you know who you are to me? Do you know the deception you're in? My stomach hurts when I look at you!' "
I feel a serious hunger just before Bickle announces a 10-minute break, so I make for the Brookside Grille, hoping to beat the concession lines and break my fast with a lamp-warmed cheeseburger.
Two women sit nearby on the floor, one in tears of prayer. I saw the crying woman the day before in the prayer room, where she wept and swayed to the beating heart of Jesus, her hands pressed on her big, beautiful curls.
Later, I listen to Bickle's How to Recognize Cults CD. He says cult activity could happen anywhere. It's foretold in prophecy, and it's up to us, the believers, to keep watch and to challenge it.
"Some of you are actually going to change the way you function in leadership," Bickle says, paraphrasing the Holy Spirit. "You'll speak perverse things. You will become cult leaders, some of you. I mean, that's in the Bible. I read that and thought, Oh my goodness! So Paul tells them: 'Watch not only the new leaders coming in, watch even your own leadership.' Now he's not trying to make everybody suspicious ... so everybody's guilty until proven innocent. But he's saying, 'Be alert, be attentive. The problem will never go away.' "
Inside the Onething program is an advertisement for next year's conference. The top of the page is washed out in off-white light that bleeds from an image of a stage to a view of thousands of young adults with outstretched arms, on fire with passion for Jesus. "Come back next year," the tag line reads.
Many will — likely many more — as long as Jesus doesn't come first.