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'John Wayne' brings pilgrims to Jesus (video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Nov. 18, 2012 at 5:18 a.m.
Updated Nov. 19, 2012 at 5:19 a.m.

John Wayne impersonator  Gene Howard gives a spiritual message about freedom and sacrifice to congregants of the Western Hills Baptist Church in Victoria County on Sunday morning.

Impersonating iconic American film actor John Wayne, the Rev. Gene Howard, Ph.D., moseyed into Western Hills Baptist Church on Sunday, searching for pilgrims and little ladies who would hear the word of God.

Grasping a Winchester 44 magnum rifle, the Western-attired Howard walked through the church spreading a Gospel-infused message about God and country.

"It's not theatrics. It's preaching the word of God. And it's entertaining for those in the audience," said Howard, 73, of Bryan.

For more than 20 years, Howard has captivated audiences with his spot-on vocal and physical likeness to the Duke.

And what started out as an act for car commercials 26 years ago produced a full-time career of John Wayne-styled evangelism that has taken him across the nation and led to appearances on major network television shows such as "Good Morning America," and "The Sean Hannity Show."

"Shoot, I've preached in every state in the Union," Howard said. "I'm traveling as many as 229 nights a year."

On Sunday, Howard stood behind a lectern and in front of an American flag and spoke of the patriotic pride he carried for veterans and American freedoms.

But he also encouraged the congregation to consider their walks with God, asking them to evaluate their willingness and fervor to spread the message of Jesus to the unsaved.

"If John Wayne were here, he'd say, 'Don't wait as long as I did,'" Howard joked. "I've never seen anyone who was sorry to be a Christian, although I have seen some sorry Christians."

Dee Vegkley, of Elgin, said she was moved by Howard's sermon as John Wayne and thought it was a great way to keep the attention of a congregation.

"It was a great blessing. He's definitely a soul-winner," Vegkley said about Howard. "It's easy to lose sight of what we're here for, and he definitely preaches a convicting message."

Western Hills Baptist senior pastor the Rev. Roger Parrish said he's known Howard for many years and thought his act would be an interesting change in the usual Sunday sermon delivery.

"We weren't trying to attract religious people to this today. We wanted to attract people who wanted to know Jesus," Parrish said.

Howard said he's enjoyed using his John Wayne talents to introduce people to Christ and believes generations old and new can be inspired and rejuvenated by his talks.

Even though the real Duke has been dead since 1979, Howard is convinced his legacy will live on through the generations.

"He has the highest recognition of any film actor. His movies are played every week. He's an icon," Howard said. "I never grew up saying I wanted to be like John Wayne, and I don't know how long God wants me to do this. But I'll do it until he calls me home."



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