Masking His Biblical Teaching in Theatrics, Pastor Fred Price Gets His Message Across Swimmingly

updated 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I'm gonna wrap the Scriptures around your scrawny neck and choke out all your disbelief!" Pastor Frederick K.C. Price yells joyfully at his congregation.

"I just want to sit on this awhile until the egg hatches," he says softly, a bit later, dwelling on a point. "I want to make sure you get it."

"The Bible says we have a better convenant with God!" he cries still later, pacing, Good Book in hand. "A better covenant! A better covenant..." repeating the phrase 10 times.

Moments afterward, he is doing a deft parody of a hipster, warning listeners with such airs, "The Devil's going to shoot you down, Mr. Cool!"

However he puts it and whatever theatrical ploy he wraps it in, when Fred Price, 51, talks, people listen—whether they are the members of his Crenshaw Christian Center in Ingle-wood, Calif., who number 11,842, or the more than five million who watch his Ever Increasing Faith on 40 TV stations across the U.S., Haiti, the Bahamas, South Africa and Australia. But they do much more than listen. Price's devotees buy 40,000 tapes of his teachings a month (payment is optional; a donation is requested), send him 3,000 letters a week and provide his center with nearly $9 million a year. Whether they give him $1, $100 or nothing, the message they receive is the same. "When faith is added to the power of God, there is an explosion of healing or whatever you want."

Price has been ordained by his fellow ministers, the accepted alternative to seminary, no fewer than three times—as a Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian—but his center is nondenominational and he calls his work "teaching, not preaching." His overriding concern is faith as conveyed by the Holy Spirit; he says misery and disease are the work of Satan, and the notion that God might have anything to do with them is "back-alley scuttlebutt." While everybody might not applaud his theatrics, Price maintains, "I don't say 'I'll tell three jokes here and knock them dead.' It's just how God deals through me to get the point across."

It seems to work. Rosey Grier, the ex-defensive tackle and actor, was ordained at Crenshaw Aug. 7, and credits Price's ministry with saving his marriage. Says Grier: "Fred Price is probably one of the most gifted men ever to communicate His word."

By his own testimony, Price is an unlikely instrument of the Word. When he was a child, his mother and father, who owned a janitorial service on the west side of L.A., railed against organized religion. Price started churchgoing at 20 only to win his future bride, Betty Scott—"I was Mr. Nice," he recalls—then dropped the front after they married. But Betty persisted, and Price was converted in 1953 at a tent-revival held by Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Soon after, in a Baptist church they'd switched to, "I heard a voice saying, 'You are to preach my gospel.' It was like a bomb going off. I believe it was the voice of Jesus Christ, but then I didn't know what it was."

Price spent the next 20 years ministering, mostly part-time, often working as a paper cutter. In 1962 his 8-year-old son, Frederick, was killed by a car. Friends told him it was God's will; Price believed it was the work of Satan. During those years, he says, "I was sincere but blind." He didn't hit his current stride until the Holy Spirit reached him during a prayer meeting on Feb. 28, 1970 and he began to "speak with tongues." "That," Price says, "is when the plane left the ground." In 1970 he started the center, which now employs 139 workers, including his daughters Cheryl, 24, and Angela Evans, 27.

The Prices live in a split-level home in Inglewood with Cheryl, daughter Stephanie, 16, and son Frederick Kenneth, 4. Price won't discuss his income. "No matter what a preacher makes," he says, "it's too much in the eyes of the world." His eye is on bigger sums anyway. His congregation is raising $12 million to build a 10,000-seat sanctuary on the former L.A. campus of Pepper-dine University, whose selling price was $14 million, with $2.5 million down. The new church's capacity will be equaled in the U.S. only by New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Price will preach to 20,000 people each Sunday. Most of the parishioners are black, but on the road many of the faithful are white, and they are welcome: Price is congregationally color blind. "They all have sin problems," he says, smiling.

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