Amen-uh to All That
A Las Cruces tent revival turns out to be a few miracles short of "Elmer Gantry."
By Jeff Berg
"I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false."
Greg, a protester, with an acquaintance who holds another sign that I do not read, clutches a sign that makes reference to the above Bible passage. The two men are standing on a corner near the large empty lot that holds the large tent that has housed this year's annual Miracle Crusade in Las Cruces. The tent revival is sponsored by the local branch of a Christian group called the Potter's House, which claims to be part of a Christian Fellowship that numbers 1,400 churches in 100 countries.
The other side of Greg's banner reads: "Why isn't this miracle healer in our hospitals?"
Blasphemy? Hardly, according to Greg, a member of the Mountain View Baptist Church in Las Cruces.
He explains, "We (Greg and his picketing companion from Temple Baptist Church) went to last year's crusade, and we sat right in front. It was outrageous—the speaking in tongues was fake, they pulled a guy up off his seat, and when they were done 'healing' him, he still had back pain, so they ushered him quickly back to his seat. They passed the collection plate three times."
Greg clearly feels that the "Miracle Crusade" is a sham.
The tent is big and blue and white. On the outside a large banner reads, "EXPECT A MIRACLE." There are about 30 to 40 cars outside the tent, with parking attendants who clearly expected more, as they direct the slow flow of traffic. This is the seventh night of the crusade, which lasts for nine nights in June.
The ad in the daily Las Cruces Sun-News heralded a gentleman named Pastor Wayman Mitchell. Plastered across a small picture of a child of color in the ad it says, "HEALED! RUMATHOID ARTHIRITIS." Another photo alludes to the idea that the depicted was HEALED! of CHRONIC BACK PAIN!
The ad also claims that the possibility of being healed from "cancer, arthritis, diabetes, malignant growths, pain and suffering, and all kinds of sickness" exists. Come one, come all.
Although another banner says "EVERYONE WELCOME!" that invitation does not automatically extend to members of the press.
Stopped at the entrance to the tent by two burly tattooed Latino men in suits, I am asked, "What do you want here?" They have espied my conversation with Greg, and tell me that they don't want any trouble or members of the daily press attending. Apparently the two are synonymous.
I have to wait while one of the bouncers for Jesus goes to fetch another man, so that I can pass muster. This man, an Anglo with a tight face, suit, glasses and a missing front bottom tooth, is one of the pastors who will lead this hellfire-and-brimstone show.
He asks me the same questions. I tell him that I am a freelancer and assure him that I will not take pictures (although several people in the tent will later take cell phone pictures). Then I am allowed in.
I take a seat close to the back of the tent, near one of the open flaps. The tent is set up with a table or two offering some coolers of water for this hot and slightly muggy evening. Fire extinguishers are positioned near each doorway.
There are about 75 people seeking salvation tonight, many of whom are singing as I take my seat. Most seem to know the words to the songs, although a few hymnal-type booklets are placed on empty folding chairs.
There are four men on the stage, three Latinos and the tooth-missing pastor who decided that I was perhaps salvageable material. There is no sign of the good Reverend Mitchell.
The young Latino leading the singing looks like he would blow away in a strong wind. Thin as a rail, his suit hangs on him, as it would a scarecrow.
A small band accompanies the music, led by a woman with a hearty voice who drowns out those who are nearly silent.
The singing ends, and the young Latino pastor makes a few announcements, and this is where things start to rev up a little—but not much.
Each of tonight's speakers/preachers talks fast—faster than I do. Many of their sentences end with "amen." All three of the pastors who speak at this rally have the evangelist's affliction—that being ending many words or sentences with an "uh." As in "Praise Jesus-uh!" Or "Thanks be to God-uh!"
It is kind of like listening to an auctioneer for "Jesus-uh."
After the announcements, the donation baskets are passed, and this, contrary to Greg's observation from last year, is the only time that money is requested. It is accompanied with a meek plea of "Let's make an investment here tonight-uh" by one of the ministers.
The second man of the cloth, a Pastor Torrez from Tijuana, Mexico, will be delivering tonight's sermon and conducting the faith healing.
Torrez' sermon is about addictions he recounts from his own checkered past, which he says included drugs and drinking. He cites his own reform, railing on gently, and with a pleasant sense of humor that I did not expect to find at this meeting, about the "friends" he made during his drinking and doping days, who tried many times to get him to return to his old lifestyle. They are gone, it seems, perhaps back to the bars and other dens of sin-uh from which Pastor Torrez has escaped.
"Can you say AMEN-uh?" he calls out frequently. Each time, a few in the audience reply quietly. His tempo moves up and down, sharing, admonishing, encouraging.
Torrez and his cohorts are not of the same bolt of cloth as the fictional Elmer Gantry, the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis' novel by that name about tent revivals and traveling churches. Gantry was an addiction within himself. His voice resonated; his message was captured. Torrez and the others have a long way to go if they want to make it to the "big show," with churches that hold thousands and coffers that hold thousands more.
Torrez carries on more about how his eyes used to glaze over in a cantina, not a church—a gentle dig at his own sermonizing.
"Can you say amen-uh?" he calls out again. He is trying to rally this audience, and slowly, slowly they are coming to life.
I start to lose my train of thought. I try to focus on what Torrez is saying, and am glad he is not thumping the Bible, quoting obscure scripture with his own definitions. Quite the contrary—his message is straight and simple: Give up your other addictions, come home to Jesus-uh.
He encourages those who want to be saved to approach the stage. No one does. "We've saved 49 souls this week-uh, won't you-uh be next-uh?"
Finally a very heavyset man gets up from his chair and approaches the stage. The ice broken, about 15 more people follow him. Torrez grabs the top of each person's head as though he is palming a basketball. He briefly prays, ending each chant with an amen-uh!
I look around at the audience. It is pretty much evenly split between Anglo and Hispanic. If there is an obvious addiction here, it is to food. Many—many!—of the folks in the audience are obese, some morbidly so.
The energy in this place is tepid. It feels sad and very, very weary. It seems like most of the crowd has been here before, and perhaps they have. Most know the routine. And most of them do not look like the wealthy retirees who are beefing up Las Cruces tax rolls. They look poor but hard working, tired but determined.
No cell phones ring. The group seems a bit restless, and their attention span appears to waiver. There are many children, most of whom wiggle around, but do so quietly, just like they would in a regular, non-tent church.
"Break the curse of your habits-uh. Anointing God breaks the yoke-uh. Can you put your hands together for Jesus-uh" Amen-uh!
Torrez swirls his discourse into the announcement of hands-on healing. Immediately there is a murmuring among the crowd. He has spoken of speaking in tongues—are they doing it now?
Torrez calls out for those who have problems to approach the stage. Four people step forward, two of whom have to be helped up on the stage. He asks the first what needs healing.
"I have back pain."
Two attendants stand on either side of the man, a dark-haired man of 60 or so.
Torrez puts his hand on the man's head. In a firm tone, with loudness to it that he had not exhibited before, he tells the man to give forgiveness to those who have hurt him. Testify! Let go! Torrez admonishes.
"Loosen them you foul spirit-uh!"
The man's eyes are closed. Torrez asks him about the pain, and the man says he feels better. The audience applauds politely; the man leaves the stage.
A woman with high blood pressure is next. Same routine. Same words. Same result? Torrez asks her to let him know when, not if, her blood pressure is back to normal.
The third, an elderly gentleman with a cane, sits on a chair. Same routine. Same questions. The man leaves the stage with his cane, but not using it step for step as he was before Torrez instructed the foul spirits to loosen him.
The last to be healed is a young man who claims to have phantom pains in his legs. He is seated, the routine continues, however this time Torrez cries out, "The pain is gone, it is in the Devil's head!"
The young man disagrees, and says his legs still hurt. The attendants surround him; Torrez calls upon the crowd for help. "Pray with me-uh. Pray for this young man to be rid of his pain-uh!"
The crowd begins chanting, mumbling, and many are certainly doing their version of speaking in tongues. Torrez, firm and in charge, releases the young man, who shrugs his shoulders and says he feels somewhat better.
It is time for the grand finale, and Torrez, the thin young parson and Missing Tooth are all up on the stage.
"Glossolalia," defined as "fabricated and non-meaningful speech, speaking in tongues," may have something to do with being part of a miracle, for true believers, repenters, born-agains. The occurrences and different definitions of this phenomenon are numerous, and this is something this one-time congregation is really getting into.
Although decidedly not very charismatic, Torrez and the others have almost everyone in the tent babbling, crying out, lifting their arms to the heavens.
"Give God a clap-uh!"
The crowd claps, the chants increase—no rhythm, no coordination, just the sound of many voices making guttural sounds and tones.
Torrez falls quiet. One woman, and only one, continues her version of speaking in tongues: "lah, lah odbu, mihelah." Hands raised high above her head, she is sobbing, wailing, speaking. The spirit is within her. She stops after about a minute of solo performing. She continues to sob quietly.
Torrez thanks the audience, encourages them to come back for the final two nights of the revival. The noted Pastor Wayman Mitchell must have taken the night off, as he has not appeared.
And just like that, the tent meeting is over. People gather sweaters, water bottles and kids and head for the exits.
I am an atheist. I have been for many years. I do have spiritual beliefs, which I guess I would call a version of Pantheism. I find my spirituality most heightened while alone in a wild place.
I have tried to remain objective throughout this article, and not infer my beliefs or lack thereof into anything that I write.
But in spite of the nature of the "Miracle Crusade," I find it sad, unbelievable, and—as I find most assemblies of this kind—something where the word "prey" is more fitting than the word "pray."
The noted English writer Aldous Huxley once said, "At least two-thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity—idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious and or political idols."
Senior writer Jeff Berg dodges lightning bolts and bill collectors in Las Cruces.