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OGDEN - Hundreds of bodies strewn across a hotel ballroom floor might have caused alarm if it weren't for the roars of laughter echoing around them.
As many as 800 people flocked to the Ogden Marriott Tuesday night to attend a revival led by the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne, a 45-year-old pastor who has dedicated his adult life to spreading the joy of salvation.
"Tonight's your night. Tonight's the night to fall in love with Jesus all over again," he called out to the cheering crowd. "We came to light a fire!"
Howard-Browne, originally from South Africa, heads up Revival Ministries International, a movement based out of Tampa, Fla., where he also ministers to thousands and has a Bible school to train revivalists. He's shared his message in some 50 countries, going to places as diverse as the Arctic Circle and the Australian Outback. Acting as a vessel for the Lord, he claims to have saved more than 48,000 people alone in 1999 during a six-week stint at New York City's Madison Square Garden.
Though he was raised in the Pentecostal Charismatic tradition, the pastor lays his hands on anyone who will have him.
"I just go anywhere the Lord opens a door," he said.
He'd never been to the Beehive State. So when a recent e-mail request came in from a couple of Utahns who'd attended his seven-day winter camp last month in Tampa, Howard-Browne and his entourage jumped at the opportunity.
"Obviously the people are hungry and desperate for God," said Eric Gonyon, the pastor's crusade director, as he looked out at the sea of people - most of whom were Utahns, although a good number arrived from other states including California, Montana, Idaho and Arizona.
With his wife of 25 years, Adonica, at his side, Howard-Browne beckoned people toward the stage. He wanted those seeking salvation for the first time, the ones needing to rededicate themselves and those who simply wanted added assurances.
"Come, come," he said, as hundreds filed down the aisles, their hands raised. "Surrender, surrender. . . Will you come back to your first love?"
The pastor likes to say, "Church should be the happiest place on Earth," and it is in this vein that he prays for giddiness and in many cases, side-splitting laughter.
There's been a "spiritual hardening of the arteries," he said. So as the people crowded around him, their eyes closed, he prayed for their hearts to soften and be set ablaze with love for God.
"Take out the stony heart. . .Let me never be the same again," he cried. "Tonight I am saved. . . Fill them with joy!"
In a matter of minutes after walking to the front of the room, Mignon Bowen of Peterson hit the floor, howling in laughter. Gary Abbott of Salt Lake City, a born-again Christian of 25 years, looked down in wonder, a smile wide across his face.
"Every time she comes to these things, she gets blasted," he said. And given the surgery she's had, the pins in her back, he added, "She shouldn't be able to do this."
A woman nearby rocked in her wheelchair, speaking in tongues. Another bounced up and down, her arms flapping and eyes clenched as she screamed, "Joy, joy, joy!" One man shook uncontrollably, while another yelled, "Fire, fire, fire!"
Amid the cacophony were screams of ecstasy, extended cackles and cries matched with tears.
"The sound you're hearing tonight is the sound of cups running over," Howard-Browne declared, before asking the crowd to repeat after him in unison: "From this night, I will never be the same again!"
Change is coming, the pastor believes. Like President George Bush once said, a reference made by Howard-Browne, he thinks America is due the "Third Awakening," a spiritual revival, a shift to counter the surges of violence, the rash of hurricanes, the presence of abortion clinics.
To that end, he's recently kicked off what he's calling the Great Awakening Tour, a two-year effort to hit 48 cities for four nights of revivals. Earlier this month he began the tour in Humble,Texas. Next stop is San Juan, Puerto Rico. He hopes to awaken Utah for four nights in 2008 and has already booked a one-night return for May 29.
But on Tuesday in the Ogden hotel, it was Howard-Browne's first chance to lay hands on those who had gathered. People rushed to stand in rows to take what he had to offer. Organizers screamed out for "catchers," volunteers to stand behind the faithful and help them to the floor.
He worked his way around the crowd, placing his hand on foreheads and dishing out prayers such as, "From the top or your head to the souls of your feet," or "Jesus - never the same again." And like rows of dominoes, they fell to the floor.
Many dropped in fits of laughter. Others were silent, eyes closed, in what seemed to be meditative states. Some wept uncontrollably or spoke in tongues, shouting or muttering words believed to have been brought on by the Holy Spirit. Still others shook as if they were having seizures.
When they ran out of space in the ballroom, Gonyon, the crusade director, yelled out, "If you didn't get prayed for, go outside the door."
The people followed, and soon Howard-Browne left a trail of blessed bodies along the Marriott hallway floor.
A man, wearing a wooden cross around his neck, stood against the ballroom wall, singing to himself, "Power in the name. Power in the name." A perfectly coiffed woman in a crisp white suit flailed about on the floor, rolling as fast as her body would allow, answering cheers of "Go, Sharon, go!" Casree Holland, 38, of Denver howled beside her laughing mother, Bowen, the first to drop to the floor - where the two stayed long after most people had left the hotel.
Howard-Browne, and those who accompanied him, say that it's always this way - that the Lord shows up and does His work in ways that can't be explained.
Before the Florida team turned to leave the room, their job for the night done, Mike Komis, 49, of Draper - one of the men who had requested the visit - rushed to thank the pastor.
"Utah will never be the same," he said. "It'll never be the same."
And that's exactly what Howard-Browne likes to hear.
* JESSICA RAVITZcan be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8776. Send comments to the religion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* To learn more about the Rev. Rodney Howard-Browne and Revival Ministries International, visit www.revival.com.