SELMA, N.C. (AP) - His sermon complete, the visiting preacher offers a benediction, then steps out into the vestibule to shake hands and perhaps sell a few copies of his testimonial book.
From the mob that forms, a girl pushes to the front and thrusts out her hand to reveal a bejeweled Elvis Presley wristwatch. The preacher smiles graciously as a white-haired woman bends his ear about her pilgrimages to Graceland and confesses to keeping a cloth painting of “the King” on her bedroom wall. Others tell of watching Elvis on television or driving with friends to the next town over on Saturday afternoons to catch his latest movie.
The pastor beams. He knows most of the people who have turned out for evening service at Branch Chapel Freewill Baptist didn’t come to hear Rick Stanley, evangelist.
They came for Elvis’ stepbrother.
“Those little ladies, telling them stories. … They think I’M Elvis,” Stanley whispers, almost conspiratorially.
“Well, I’m the closest thing to it _ to them.”
Elvis has been dead 33 years, but his stepbrother is still on the road. For about 10 months of the year, the silver-haired evangelist crisscrosses the country, speaking in school auditoriums and preaching for “love offerings” in churches big and small, his message equal parts Holy Spirit and Elvis’ ghost. Where he once worked behind the scenes as Presley’s personal aid, Stanley has since become something of a celebrity himself _ sharing the stage with the likes of Billy Graham and holding hands in prayer with former President Bill Clinton.
“I wouldn’t have ANYTHING without Elvis,” he says, simply. “I mean, I was trailer trash.”
Stanley makes no apologies about using Elvis’ name to minister. But there are those who feel he should. Some of those who were closest to Elvis question the sincerity of Stanley’s conversion. They say he has exaggerated his association with the singer, that the money he accepts for speaking is for his own personal gain.
Worst of all, they say, he has yet to come clean about the day “the King” died.
Says Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ boyhood friend and manager: “He doesn’t exist to me, OK?”
Sliding into a booth at a chain restaurant off Interstate 95, Stanley lays a cell phone, an Apple iPad and a leather-bound New King James Bible on the table. He is nearing the end of a swing through east North Carolina tobacco country _ five schools, a community college and three churches in eight days.