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Publish date: 07/07/2006

A Ministry of Laughter:
CNN's Tom Foreman brings us the story of a minister who prefers belly laughs over fear and guilt.

> Click here to watch the report (Windows Media / QuickTime)
> Click here to view the complete unedited interview (Windows Media / QuickTime)
> Click here to view photos from the interview

Transcript:

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: Coming up, we'll take you inside a church where laughter is said to be a blessing and is contagious, coming up on 360. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, flashback to 1963. "The New York Times" reported a strange illness in Africa along the shores of Lake Victoria. The trouble, an epidemic of laughter. More than 1,000 people, mostly children, who could not stop laughing. In one village, an entire school was said to have shut down. Scientists had no explanation for the outbreak of hysteria.

Today, here in the U.S., contagious laughter sprouted up again at a Florida church. But this, they say, is holy laughter.

CNN's Tom Foreman explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): On a warm night in Tampa, young people are out looking for laughs. But hundreds are bypassing comedy clubs, to get their chuckles at church.

And guffaws, roars, screams, all standard fare at the laughing church, where Dr. Rodney Howard-Browne says the Holy Spirit is making folks howl.

PASTOR RODNEY HOWARD-BROWNE, REVIVAL MINISTRIES: They laugh and they're crying, they're shaking, they're falling out of their seats. And I knew it had nothing to do with me. Because you cannot take a crowd and make them do that.

FOREMAN (on camera): You don't buy the fact that you're a funny guy?

HOWARD-BROWNE: Well, I use a lot of humor because I do use humor, but that's just the way I am.

Because I've got news for you, he arose. He ascended on high.

FOREMAN (voice-over): This is worship for Reverend Howard-Browne and his thousands of followers.

HOWARD-BROWNE: He is coming back! He is coming back! King of kings and Lord of lords!

FOREMAN: Unlike other Pentecostal Christians who speak in tongues, these people say the joy of salvation makes them laugh uncontrollably.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's the most amazing feeling. I can't explain it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Flying high. Flying high.

FOREMAN (on camera): What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's the Holy Spirit.

FOREMAN: Look at this. Oh, my!

HOWARD-BROWNE: This is my little piece of Africa.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Howard-Browne was once a little known South African preacher and part-time big game hunter. But he and his wife, Adonica (ph), have fostered a global outreach program based in America and staffed by 70 people, all enthralled with holy laughter.

(On camera): The preacher says believers overcome with laughter have been recorded since ancient times in biblical passages about unrestrained joy. Yet it remains controversial, almost unknown in most other churches.

HOWARD-BROWNE: Because religion always wants to beat you down and make you dependent upon, it's like a drug. If I can make you feel guilty, then you'll come back next week and then I'll keep you in that place of guilt.

FOREMAN: that's a very cynical view of religion.

HOWARD-BROWNE: Well, maybe I have a hard time with religion because I see what it is doing around the world. Religion feels its job is to condemn. Jesus didn't come to condemn.

(SINGING)

FOREMAN (voice-over): Howard-Browne himself has suffered great sorrow. On Christmas morning 2002, his 18-year-old daughter Kelly died in his arms of cystic fibrosis. A loss he lays at the devil's doorstep.

FOREMAN: Is this about revenge?

HOWARD-BROWNE: For me? It probably is. Only way I can hurt him is by seeing people touched and set free.

(SINGING)

FOREMAN: Many people say they are touched. Some laugh for minutes, some for hours. Howard-Browne blesses them all, the saved and the skeptics alike.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I thought, God, you've got to be kidding me if you want me to go to this church.

HOWARD-BROWNE: Church should be the happiest place on the earth. People that love Jesus should be happy.

FOREMAN: And they certainly seem to be. Here where Rodney Howard-Browne sends the devil on the run and God always gets the last laugh.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Tampa.