On a humid Thursday evening, Bradley Dean Smith approaches the podium at Jesus People, a church hidden by miles of back roads and farmland 25 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
It seems immediately obvious that the audience isn't in for a traditional service. For one, it's not even being held in the church's sanctuary. Smith—better known by his pseudonym, "Bradlee Dean"—is preaching in a small meeting room barely big enough for the six tables and scattered chairs it holds.
Even so, there's plenty of elbow room. Only four people are actually paying any attention—all men, sitting as far apart from one another as possible. Three women are sitting in the back attending to a pair of toddlers who won't stop screaming.
Smith seems unfazed by the low turnout. The towering minister begins bellowing the Word as if he's delivering a sermon to a congregation of thousands.
"Before I got saved, I lived the rock 'n' roll life!" proclaims Smith, testifying with his right hand. "I did everything under the sun. I indulged in everything. I didn't know salvation was the way!"
He doesn't dress like the typical minister. With his long hair pulled into a ponytail and draped through the back of an Adidas baseball cap, Smith looks like a guy on his way to softball practice. He's wearing a Penn State jersey and basketball shorts that reveal the spider's web of tattoos that crawl up and down his arms and legs.
In only a short time, Smith's sermon manages to cover a lot of ground: Teachers are "queerifying" the kids. Americans brought illegal immigrants to Arizona by purchasing their drugs. The war on drugs and alcohol could end tomorrow if the government just started "enforcing its own laws."
Then there's the media, one of Smith's favorite punching bags. Journalists are persecuting Smith, he explains, by printing flat-out lies. Two thousand reporters wrote about a controversial prayer Smith delivered at the Minnesota Capitol a month earlier, Smith claims, and none of them bothered to call him for comment.
The sermon eventually turns to the subject of homosexuality, another of Smith's favorite talking points. He didn't start the war on homosexuals, he says, but he'll fight it in the name of God.
"Everything with them is backwards!" Smith hollers. "The women acting like men, and the men acting like women. And you want them to rule over you?!"
IT'S HARD TO TELL by the scene at Jesus People, but Smith's ministry, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, has a high profile in the Midwest.
Michele Bachmann, now a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, has publicly prayed for the success of You Can Run, and will appear at an event with Smith this fall. Former gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer—now a leading Republican voice on the radio—has also come out publicly to support Smith.
At the end of the legislative session this year, Smith became the center of state politics when Rep. Ernie Leidiger (R-Mayer) invited him to give the opening prayer at the Capitol.
Smith took the opportunity to declare Barack Obama the first president to not believe in Jesus, causing such a row that even the GOP had to denounce the man who had been their invited guest.
"That type of person will never, ever be allowed on this House floor again, as long as I have the honor of serving as your speaker," House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) told the Legislature.
Yet Smith has found a lucrative business model. Since the ministry was started 10 years ago, You Can Run has seen skyrocketing revenues, blossoming into a $1 million operation by 2009, according to tax records filed with the IRS.
Even the Capitol prayer disaster turned into a money-making opportunity for Smith: He's currently selling copies of a movie he made about it—humbly titled "The Prayer That Rocked the Capitol"—for $10 each on his website. Get the special "Family Package" for just $15 more.
You Can Run has found a way to put a price tag on everything—comic books, school assemblies, CDs, drum pads—but the majority of its funding comes from a street team that was recently banned from Walmart parking lots for being less than truthful about the church's mission. In 2009 alone, this clan of young acolytes raked in more than $444,000, according to tax records.
"You don't raise that kind of money walking around with a boot like the firefighters do," says Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "That's a lot of money."
In person, Smith can be just as convincing as he is on the pulpit. He swears he's doing the Lord's work in Minnesota.
"Did Bradlee Dean pay his taxes? Yeah," says Smith. "So what's the issue? There isn't one."
ONE OF SMITH'S FIRST memories is of being babysat by his five-year-old brother. The son of a single mother who worked full-time for a railroad company, Smith was forced to learn at a young age how to fend for himself.
Even when his mom was home, life was far from wholesome. The family moved dozens of times to various apartments in low-income areas of north and south Minneapolis. Smith tells tales of his mother's boyfriends breaking into the house late at night and beating her up in front of him.
"It was like, how do we survive this?" says Smith. "How do we as kids raise our mom?"
Religion was never in the picture growing up, says Smith. His family was technically Lutheran, but his understanding of the faith was mostly limited to the obligatory Easter and Christmas church services.
When Smith reached his mid-teens, he began taking advantage of his lack of parental guidance. Smith says his mom's place became the perennial party house, where he and his friends would frequently drink beer.
Like so many teenagers in the early '80s, Smith was mesmerized by the debut of MTV—particularly bands like Mötley Crüe and Iron Maiden. After high school, he took out a loan, bought a drum set, and started a metal band called Surprise Attack.
As Smith tells it, the vortex of the 1980s metal scene sucked him into a life of sin. He was touring around the country, living the reckless life of a rock star. But the details of exactly how depraved Smith's life was seem to change depending on his audience.
The story of the metal drummer who did "everything under the sun" has become part of Smith's born-again sermon. A 2006 article in the right-leaning Weekly Standard claims Smith was hospitalized six times for drug overdoses, arrested three times for drunk driving, and was once stabbed in the head with a screwdriver.
But in recent interviews with City Pages, Smith describes a much tamer scene. He says his greatest vice wasn't drugs or alcohol, but a rotating repertoire of women.
As far as drugs, Smith now says he witnessed other musicians indulge, but never so much as took a puff of weed. "I never touched that junk."
He does have one DWI in Minnesota, according to court records, but he says his drinking wasn't that big of an issue.
"It was never, like, a serious drinking problem for me," Smith says. "I did it because I wanted to do it. It wasn't hard for me to say no to it. It never was."
At any rate, Smith says the lifestyle became too much for him. He recalls the show when he realized he couldn't take it anymore.
"I went to talk to my Hooters calendar girl before the second set," he says. "I said, 'It's like the Lord's got a rope around me, and he's pulling me out of here. I can't do this anymore, this isn't flying.'"
THE FIRST TIME JAKE MacAulay saw Smith preach was at a church called Living Waters.
It was the late '90s, and although MacAulay hadn't been religious growing up, he was suddenly feeling the pull of faith.
"I was kind of at a point where I was like, 'I need to get my crap together,'" MacAulay recalls.
A self-described "counterculture kid," MacAulay couldn't see where he fit in among the regular congregates. That changed when he saw Smith.
MacAulay was intrigued by Smith's tattoos and long hair. After reading Smith's book, an autobiography called You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, MacAulay was sold, and became Smith's apprentice.
MacAulay wasn't the only one in the Twin Cities drawn to Smith's unconventional approach. Not long after the two met, a fellow churchgoer had the idea that Smith should speak at Little Falls High School.
Smith liked the idea, and contacted the principal to get permission. As Smith tells it, his born-again rock star routine was a huge hit with the kids and their principal.
"He liked the assembly so much that we came back and did it again," says Smith. "After we were done playing music, the kids had such a respect for us."
Which is how MacAulay and Smith got the idea to start touring high schools across the country. MacAulay likens it to a new small business starting up, and they were looking at an endless supply of potential new clients.
"In our case, it was high schools," he says. "There's no shortage of high schools."
AS THE STUDENTS FILED into the Fargo North High School gym, none of them had any idea what was in store.
All they had been told was that they were going to see an "important" presentation, which made the drums, guitars, and tattooed guys seem that much more bizarre.
Without warning, fog began pouring out of machines on stage and filling the auditorium. An abrasive drum echoed, cut by shredding electric guitars.
When the music finally stopped, the long-haired drummer came out from behind the kit and took the microphone.
"There are so many inconsistencies in the JFK assassination...you can just tell you're being lied to," Smith told the kids, according to J.R. Martin, then a student at Fargo.
"It was really intense," says Martin. "Bradlee Dean came across really angry about a lot of things—about people not caring about Christianity and its role in life in the United States."
Before his dumbstruck audience, Smith segued into a tirade about Britney Spears. He called her a "whore" who was corrupting the youth.
"We're being assaulted with this media world where Britney Spears is an acceptable public figure," Dean told the room.
Not everyone was thrilled by the evangelists touring the public-school circuit on the taxpayer dime. Though Smith brags about the binder of referrals from satisfied customers, his visits have just as often been met with criticism that they blur the separation between church and state.
"It's kind of a double injury," says Annie Laurie Gaylor, who, as founder of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, has filed several complaints against Smith's ministry. "They're preying on students, and they're being paid by school districts to do so."
But the critics didn't silence Smith and MacAulay. In 1999, the two established You Can Run as a tax-exempt religious nonprofit.
They began touring high schools full-time. At a couple of thousand tax-free dollars per appearance, the money was rolling in. In 2001, the ministry made $212,230 in revenue, according to tax records.
A FEW YEARS AFTER incorporating the roving ministry, Smith wanted to establish You Can Run as a full-blown church. In doing this, he hired Glen Stoll, a lawyer who specializes in setting up tax shelters for religious organizations, to create trusts for the ministry.
But Stoll wasn't the average tax lawyer. In addition to his firm, Stoll had close ties to an organization called "The Embassy of Heaven."
Based out of Stayton, Oregon, the Embassy of Heaven acts as an alternative government for religious zealots. It offers passports, business licenses, driver's licenses, and more.
So many of the Embassy's members have gone to jail that the organization brags about it with a running list of martyrs on its website. There's even a book that teaches its members how to "not fear" jail, an inevitable part of following God, according to the Embassy.
"If you have given your allegiance to Jesus Christ, and you live your beliefs, you will go to jail," reads the introduction to the book. "It is inevitable because the world will hate you."
In 2005, Stoll was served with a federal injunction for giving religious nonprofits illegal tax advice, according to court documents. One of his clients, a theme-park mogul named Kent Hovind, was charged with 58 counts of federal tax fraud, and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Stoll is visibly a touchy subject with Smith. "I had nothing to do with that individual," he says. "Glen promised us the world, and then judgment was brought against him by an attorney."
Though Smith admits doing business with Stoll, he denies his ministry did anything illegal. Smith also notes that he has since taken legal action against Stoll to distance his ministry from Stoll's services.
Smith is equally reticent about the subject of the Embassy, but he had a registered license with the group that expired only last year. When asked about this, he writes it off as more "hurtful crap" perpetuated by his critics, not even worthy of comment.
"If I can be so bold as to say this, man—bro—we're in this together," Smith says. "It was Martin Luther King that said we're going to go down in history as fools unless we can come together on this."
YOU CAN RUN EVENTUALLY did re-file as a church called Old Paths. Because the IRS demands almost no paperwork from religious organizations, public records are scant. MacAulay describes Old Paths as a place to instruct missionaries.
"Its purpose is to basically train leaders," MacAulay says.
Some of these "leaders" went on to make up You Can Run's street team, a small group of mostly young ministers that hangs out in front of Walmarts and gas stations to collect donations.
In 2008, after You Can Run reestablished itself as a nonprofit, the group's fortunes rose quickly. The ministry collected $385,670 in revenue that year, according to tax records.
The following year, the church's earnings nearly tripled. Tax records show You Can Run claimed $985,319 in revenue for 2009. Both MacAulay and Smith nearly doubled their salaries, to $42,028 and $51,303 respectively, plus "other compensation" that included a housing allowance and added $24,869 for MacAulay and $45,887 for Smith.
MacAulay, who keeps the books for You Can Run, says the ministry re-established as a nonprofit in 2008, so tax records don't account for the full year's earnings. He also says the ministry received a large in-kind donation of equipment in 2009. But the tax records show that the largest source of income that year by far—$444,126—came from donations picked up by the street team.
MacAulay couldn't say exactly how many people are on the street team, but estimates there are about six members at any one time. By this math, each member brought in an average of $74,000.
To reach that annual haul, each street team member would have to take in $202 from donations each day and never take a single day off—including Sunday.
"That causes my antennae to go up," says Boston. "That's a lot of money to raise for a small group like that."
BACK AT YOU CAN RUN headquarters in Annandale, a pack of kids play with plastic swords, looking for something to stab.
"That's the one you want to get," says MacAulay, gesturing toward the intruding journalist.
Formerly the Annandale firehouse, the enormous office serves as a second home for ministry members. There's a classroom where kids are home schooled in the back, several spacious offices, and a radio studio where Smith broadcasts his Sons of Liberty show. One room is stacked floor to ceiling with You Can Run merchandise, and there are reserves piled up in the garage.
Smith sits in the conference room before a gigantic portrait of a bald eagle. Prints of the U.S. Constitution hang next to him on the wall, accompanied by the 10 Commandments, the crucifixion scene, and a table of You Can Run merchandise. A closer look at Smith's tattoos shows that his body is also covered in bald eagles and biblical art.
Smith points to the wall, where a map of the United States hangs pockmarked with blue tacks. He says there are 331, each representing a high school his ministry has visited. Smith tells the story of a kid who once approached him after an assembly and accused him of blurring the lines between church and state. Even thinking about the accusation makes Smith visibly angry.
"The reason they would ask that question is because you talk about moral issues like abortion, to the extent of homosexuality in public schools—" Smith pauses, realizing what he's about to say next requires some warning.
"This is probably going to shock you," he continues, "but all I ever did was cite the laws."
He goes into great detail about his interpretation of the law, particularly how it relates to homosexuality.
"Did you know it was illegal until 1961?" Smith bellows. "End of story."
When asked about his prayer at the Capitol, Smith says Republicans had no illusions about the nature of his ministry. Rep. Leidiger approached Smith after meeting him at a screening for Smith's documentary My War, which goes into great detail about You Can Run's mission.
"He sat and watched the whole program," Smith says of Leidiger.
Yet Smith won't let earthly politicians slow his holy crusade. He answers to a power greater than the Minnesota Republican Party.
"Do you think I would do what I do and say what I say if I thought I was doing anything wrong?" asks Smith. "I'm trying to right the wrongs and look out for posterity, because nobody ever took the time to do that for me."