In Chicago, God's Word Often Comes Out of the Mouth of a Mere Babe—the Rev. William Hudson III, 13

UPDATED 08/24/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/24/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

It's Friday night, and dingy 47th Street on Chicago's South Side is teeming with down-on-their-luck jivers, hustlers and hangers-on. But in Mt. Pisgah Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, 500 God-fearing Baptists have come dressed to the nines to praise the Lord and hear the gospel according to the Rev. William Hudson III. Decked out in a tuxedo and leather bow tie, Hudson, only 13 and 4'10", can barely be seen behind the pulpit. But he speaks with a confidence beyond his years, assuring the faithful that someday soon their children will be able to walk those streets without fear. "God said it!" Hudson calls out in a piercing soprano voice. "And if God said it, that's good enough for me!"

The congregation begins clapping hands rhythmically.

"I want to ask you one question tonight. WHO...IS...YOUR...GOD? If you are sick, can your God heal?"

"YES. HALLELUJAH!"

"When He makes promises, can your God deliver?"

"YES. HALLELUJAH!"

"Some of us get so highly educated, we use our education as our God! You can have a Ph.D. or an A.B.C., but if you don't have God, you're going to hell!"

"HALLELUJAH!"

The churchgoers raise their arms heavenward, and Hudson works himself into a frenzy. "Money can buy a car, but not the energy to drive it!" he shouts, throwing his head back exuberantly. "Money can buy a book, but not the intelligence to read it! Money can buy a television, but not the ability to change the channel! I KNOW...WHO MY GOD IS!"

"HALLELUJAH!"

Removing his horn-rimmed glasses, Hudson begins banging a tambourine and jitterbugging alongside the pulpit. Then, abruptly, he sits down and dabs his face with a crisp white hanky. As the congregation quiets down and famous gospel singer Cissy Houston gets up to sing, a matron in the second row murmurs, "Bless his heart."

At Wendell Smith Public Elementary School, where he just graduated from eighth grade, William Hudson III got Cs for conduct because "I'm talkative." By talking on the evangelical circuit, though, the young preacher is beginning to rival Jesse Jackson as the hottest ministerial attraction in the Chicago area. Every month he delivers eight to ten sermons around town, often breaking into song during hellfire-and-brimstone performances that can last as long as three hours. Twice last year he preached to crowds of 1,000 in Baton Rouge, La., and in December he released an album called Introducing William Hudson III on PS Records. Side A features his preaching and Side B his singing. "When you listen to him, you listen to a child with no sin," says his manager, Paul Serrano, 54, a former trumpet player. "His life is pure."

"I don't know what's coming up when I talk," Hudson says. "I'll surprise myself. It just comes up. I end up real hungry—eat a horse afterwards."

Unlike the preaching prodigy Marjoe Gortner, who collected nearly $3 million in the '50s hustling trusting souls on the evangelical circuit and who played a storefront psychic on Falcon Crest, Hudson personally solicits no money for his appearances. But Hudson claims he has healed two women suffering from cancerous tumors—"I believe in laying on hands," he says—and he has presided at a funeral and a wedding, for which he wrote an original vow: "We will not go to bed angry with each other, even if we have to stay up all night." Asked where he got the inspiration for this zinger, he admits, "My mother pitched in a lot."

Neither William Hudson Jr. nor his wife, Patricia, who own a novelty store, was very devout before their son developed a hankering to spread God's Word. "I wasn't really dedicated to the Lord until after William started preaching," says Patricia. "He keeps you going. He never gets tired. Mom gets tired, though." Indeed, Mom has had a tough time keeping up with William since he was 3 and began taking oratorical inspiration from an old picture Bible. "He'd go into a back room and preach and later come out sweating," Patricia recalls. He delivered his first public sermon at age 8.

Nicknamed "Rev" by his schoolmates, Hudson was officially ordained as a minister last November, after a grilling about the Bible and doctrine by seven elders of the Zion Temple Missionary Baptist Church, which his family has attended for 35 years. "I was nervous," he admits. "They asked me 13 questions, and I got 11." Now when Hudson gives a monthly sermon at Zion Temple, which seats about 600, it is standing room only. "He has quite an effect on the congregation," says Associate Minister Vernon Coleman. "If people hear him once they want to hear him again."

Hudson seems unaffected by all the fuss. After singing and preaching one Saturday for a live radio show organized by Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH, and delivering a rousing sermon the next morning at Berean Baptist Church, he shed his sport coat and his carnation boutonniere to have a relaxed Sunday chat at home with his sisters, Tina, 17, and Vanessa, 21, and to roughhouse with his 5-year-old niece, Alicia. But evidence of his success is everywhere in the modest South Side bungalow. His oratory trophies from school grace the top of the living-room TV. His ordination certificate stands on the stereo console. And the basement has been converted into a place of worship named the Prayer and Faith Community Baptist Church. There 35 people assemble every other Friday to hear Hudson preach and lead gospelfests accompanied by an organ, electric guitar and drums.

Those times are Rev's favorites. Even with his inspiration, he says, the large churches can be "kinda dead sometimes," but the little church in the basement is always jumping when folks gather. "It gets pretty emotional here," Hudson says, happily. "When we get to shouting, it be hot!"

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