Soul Salvation

Wayne Cochran was one of America's most energetic and exciting entertainers. But the fast life ruined him. Then he swiped a Bible.

Cochran broke up the C.C. Riders and came off the road for good in 1978. He kicked his numerous dependencies (cold turkey, he says, through the determination and strength he found in the Bible), and Monica came back to their Miami Springs home with the kids. He started attending a Kendall church a few months later, formed a gospel group with his daughter Diane, and, as he puts it, "was called to the ministry by the Lord in April of 1981."

Despite his all-consuming faith and devotion, despite the fire in his voice and eyes when he brings the subject around to what religion has done for him, Wayne Cochran doesn't see himself as a preacher. He likes to think of himself as a teacher, offering instruction and guidance to anyone willing to pull up a chair and lend an ear and an open mind. "I've never talked about sin or finding the Lord or anything like that," he says emphatically. "That's not how I found the Lord. I found the Lord through reading and doing and putting those words into action and seeing the evidence. I just wanted to tell people what I learned, to say, 'Look, you can do this too. I've found the solution to my problems right here in the Bible and it works. It works every time.'"

That simple edict may provide the foundation of the Voice for Jesus message, but Sunday services are slightly more sumptuous, with deep blue and rich red lights bathing the stage in a concert-worthy glow. Banners hanging around the hall offer inspirational instructions such as "Celebrate the Kingdom" and "He Has Shepherded Us, Now It's Time." Unlike most church services, the Voice for Jesus affairs are events, full-blown productions with an emphasis, naturally, on music. Although the choir handles most of the songs -- rollicking spirituals in the Deep South gospel tradition -- Cochran will every now and then turn in a gravelly line or two. Parishioners sway in unison, eyes closed, hands raised.

The quick spins and knee-drops are a thing of Cochran's past, gymnastic moves that are beyond the abilities of his 57-year-old frame; he leaves the choreography to the shimmying choir. Instead he presides over the affair like a dignified elder statesman; the blond pompadour of old has turned white but is still a marvel of maintenance and grooming. More times than not, Cochran shares the stage with his wife and co-pastor Monica and the occasional parishioner. On a recent Sunday, an elderly woman testified before a full house that a long-time spinal injury had miraculously disappeared; a middle-aged member had a similar story about a mysteriously vanishing cancerous tumor the size of a small lime. It was faith and prayer, they say, that wiped out their illnesses. "Praise the Lord!" Cochran chimed in. "Jesus is Lord, is he not? Let's worship God!"

It may look easier than his role as a dynamo soul wonder, but Cochran says running Voice for Jesus is a full-time job. "When you're dealing with people, and dealing with them usually at their weakest and most frail point in life, you've got to be there for them seven days a week," he says. He clearly enjoys talking about the old days, but there isn't a trace of bitterness when he talks about the missed opportunities or acknowledges the fact that there isn't a single Wayne Cochran record in print.

"I've already lived about ten lifetimes, and really I'm supposed to be a dead man by now. But I'm so far removed from the past. This is what I want," he says, pointing to the door beyond his office that leads out to the ministry main room, the sound of choir rehearsal echoing in the distance. "It's been a long road, but I can't complain about the way it ended. I love what I'm doing and I love where I'm at.

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