The pastor of Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral was sitting in the Soviet Embassy's formal dining room Thursday with 50 other famous Americans, straining to hear Mikhail Gorbachev's translated luncheon speech, when his companion nudged him in the arm.
"You're coming up next," said Gennady Gerasimov, spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry, who was seated next to the Rev. Robert H. Schuller.
Moments later, the television minister recalled, Gorbachev pointed out Schuller to the crowd and offered his assessment of Schuller's second religious broadcast to the Soviet Union, aired last Sunday. According to Gerasimov's translation, Schuller said, Gorbachev concluded that Schuller's talk had had a "calming influence" on his nation.
"My heart gave a little bumph, bumph," said Schuller, the white-haired preacher who presides over the "Hour of Power," the most-watched religious television program in the United States, according to the latest Arbitron ratings.
And that was only the middle of a day that Schuller, 63, later described as "the highlight of my life."
Schuller was in Washington to take a ringside seat at the welcoming ceremonies for Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, and to attend the luncheon and a reception for Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, at the Library of Congress.
In an interview at day's end, Schuller insisted that Gerasimov's impromptu warning was the first notice he had that Gorbachev would mention him by name. But, never at a loss for words, Schuller quickly recovered and followed the likes of Henry Kissinger, Jesse Jackson and John Kenneth Galbraith to microphones that had been set up in the audience.
Using a Russian translation fashioned on the fly by Gerasimov, Schuller quoted from the title of one of his own books and told Gorbachev: "Tough times never last, but tough people do." Then he added, "God loves you, and so do I."
Schuller is scheduled to begin monthly religious broadcasts on Soviet television in late September. He already has appeared twice: once last Christmas, and again last Sunday.
Schuller's "Hour of Power" has some 1.8 million viewers. Schuller recently made a public appeal for $3.2 million in viewer donations and warned that without it, the "Hour of Power" may be forced off the air in several major markets because of the skyrocketing cost of commercial air time.
The broadcasts to the Soviet Union were arranged with the assistance of a longtime Schuller friend, Armand Hammer, Schuller aides said.
Hammer, the chairman of Occidental Petroleum, has had a relationship with Soviet leaders since he met Vladimir Lenin nearly 70 years ago.
What about the longstanding conservative assessment that Communists are "godless"?
"I've come to understand now that many people who are Communists, or were Communists, are not godless people," Schuller said. "To join those two words without qualification . . . has been a very irresponsible thing."