Who’s that preacher?

Gospeler’ uses creativity, great memory to broaden stock of roles


By Bill Boyd

(part of an ongoing series Bill Boyd’s Georgia)

The Macon Telegraph,

Sunday, June 8, 2003 – page 1F



Reporter's errors are corrected in brackets [  ].     

      He’s a man of many faces. He can be the apostle Paul, old and withered, reciting teachings from 2,000 years ago.  He can be Abraham Lincoln and give an impassioned rendition of the Gettysburg Address.  He can be the mythical scoundrel Ebenezer Scrooge and make you rejoice that there is a Christmas.  Or he can take the stump as John [Charles] Wesley and preach a stirring sermon to the pilgrims.

            But regardless   of the many faces, this man has but one goal in life – to preach the Gospel, to spread goodness, to gladden the heart.  To do that, he uses extensive makeup, a truckload of costumes and a sharp mind that can memorize an entire chapter of the Bible.  He’s a penny pincher who travels thousands of miles without any promise of pay, spends only about $10 per month on groceries and doesn’t really want to live any other way.

            He calls himself “The Gospeler,” but his name is Dwain Penn.  And, yes, this man could have done something else with his life.  He earned a college degree in architecture and held down a good paying job at the Bibb County [City of Macon Traffic] engineer’s office in Macon until he felt the calling to spread the Gospel full time.  And come this Saturday, he will mark 15 years of a unique ministry.  He will celebrate with a banquet in Thomaston, [near] where he lives, and it, like his performances, is free.

            How has this most unusual man managed to do so much with so little for so long?  Let me tell you his story. He was born and grew up in Upson County.  Both of his parents were mill workers and, having three siblings, he learned early lessons in how to conserve from his parents. 

            “My father was a very frugal man, and I learned from him,” he says.  “Prosperity is being where God wants you to be and doing what he wants you to do.  So I’m really very prosperous.”

            After graduating from R. E. Lee High School in 1973, Dwain went to Southern Tech and earned a degree in architecture.  During his junior [senior] year, he “entered the Christian faith” while his mother was fighting a losing battle with brain cancer. At age 22, he says he “heard the audible voice of God urging me to enter the ministry,” be he waited four more years for what he calls “clear confirmation.”  That confirmation came in July 1983.  “While visiting a Christian retreat in Bradenton, Fla.,” he said, “I experienced the baptism of the Holy Ghost.”  And that set him off on a mission.

            “I preached anywhere and everywhere I could,” he recalled.  At first, he was a street preacher, often seen and heard in Macon, Milledgeville, Thomaston, Griffin and McDonough.  Thousands of people heard him during those years, and  invitations came to preach revivals [one revival].  But his true calling began to emerge after he says the voice of God told him to commit parts of the Bible to memory. 

            He went all out and memorized the entire book of Romans [only a few chapters before hitting a roadblock].  By the mid-1980s, he was holding down his full-time job, preaching on the streets and spending countless hours “closeted in prayer,” he said.

            The Gospeler found his niche when he combined Ephesians with dozens of other [Pauline] Scripture to form a drama about the apostle Paul’s imprisonment in a Roman jail.  He presented it for the first time on June 15 [14], 1988, at Prayer Mountain Church in Meansville, about 50 miles northwest of Macon.  The response was so overwhelming, Dwain says, that he added two more dramas in the next year – the intriguing story of how Abraham [God] used a ram’s horn to save his [Abraham] son’s life, and the story of Jesus’ emotional struggle before the Crucifixion [and other aspects of His life].

            With that trilogy, he took his ministry to places as far away as Louisiana and Ohio, and in 1990, he finally decided to give up his full-time job and spend all of his time as the Gospeler.  He never sought ordination, he says, so he never carried the title of “reverend.”

            In 1994, he expanded his repertoire of dramas to include the story of the prophet Isaiah, and the following year he added others.  Now his dramas number 16 [12] and include King David, St. Nicholas, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Ludwig van Beethoven and old Scrooge.  This fall, he will add another about Adm. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, whom Dwain calls “a distant double cousin.”

            The dramas run from 25 minutes to 80 minutes, and he performs 20 to 25 per year.  He recently staged his 300th performance, and he’s proud of the fact that he’s never canceled a single drama.

            He came close.  In 1990, he sustained third-degree burns while fighting a [containing a brush] fire at his father’s house.  But he got bandaged up and made a scheduled appearance at the New Life Worship Center in Byron just three [two] days later.

            He laughed as he recalled the tragedy and said, “You know, that was one of my best performances.  It’s unreal how the devil works against you.  But there are always obstacles, and we just have to overcome them.”

            Among the many lessons his ministry has taught him is how to put on make-up.  The most complicated of those tasks is the “aging process” needed to portray the apostle Paul.  It takes about 45 minutes to prepare for that role.

            Speaking of aging, Dwain Penn will turn 48 tomorrow, and he’s never been married.  He says he is “still looking.”  However, he cast some doubt on his chances for matrimony by recounting a recent prayer session.

            “I asked God for a wife, but he said, ‘I gave you a (ministry) [church] that you didn’t ask for.’  I think that was his way of telling me to shut up about a wife.”  But even as he cruises through middle age, the Gospeler voices no concern about his financial future.  “God always provides,” he said, “When I had regular paychecks coming in, God wasn’t obligated to do anything for me.  But when I go out into the ministry without a salary, then God is obligated to open doors, to provide.  And he does.”

            He still works part-time jobs when the need arises, though.  For instance, when it became necessary for him to get a new set of wheels several years ago, he cleaned churches.  As soon as he accumulated the money for a down payment, he bought a Toyota pickup to carry the costumes and props for his dramas, and then we went back to ministering full time. But Dwain always seems to have a money-making project going.  He realizes some income from the five books he has written, and he’s a regular writer for area newspapers.

            Finally, I asked how he manages to survive – and look healthy, too – on $10 worth of groceries a month.

            “Well, when I make soup,” he said, “I make a big pot so I can eat out of it for five or six days.  It isn’t hard to do if you put your mind to it.”
            I decided to do my bit for his ministry and took him out for a good lunch.  We ate heartily, and when I paid the tab, it was half again as much as he usually spends for a month’s supply of groceries.  And I didn’t even feel like we splurged.

            I think there’s a real lesson in frugality here.