May 1, 2014

Taking It to the Streets

Ter-Tech's BMW 3 Series Drift Car at PBIR During Sunset | via flickr user Kim Seng

Ever since NDSP fellow Ebenezer Obadare wrote his delightful piece about Africans praying in their cars, I’ve wanted to reference it in a blog about “auto prayers.” When I started writing that post at “Pray for Me,” my Psychology Today blog, I realized that the practice is one I’ve heard a lot about in the United States too.

People often talk and write about praying in their houses or in the house of God, or at hospital beds or over meals. But one of the places people pray the most and talk about the least is in the car. In fact, lots of miracles center on cars.

Read the full post, “Taking It To The Streets.”

June 5, 2013

When Jesus Saves

The Sunday after tornadoes ravaged Texas, killing six, The Dallas Morning News front page, five-column, lead headline read “Faith seeing them through.” Newspapers don’t traditionally banner such affirmations of religion; seeing this newspaper do so caused a tumble of contradictory feelings in me. I winced at the parochial look of it. And then I sighed. Faith probably did get the little town of Granbury, Texas, through the disaster. What was my problem?

I had been part of The Dallas Morning News team in the 1990s that pioneered new openness to religion among journalists. One of our goals was to eliminate the various ways that journalists covertly sneered at certain manifestations of faith. 

Readers sometimes mistook our even-handedness for advocacy. I was often accused of holding and furthering beliefs that were not mine at all. So now I was a reader instead of a reporter. I read on, and I didn’t have to read far before I found the prayer story I’d been expecting.

A family hidden in a closet, called out to God, “Jesus, save us. Jesus, save us.” Minutes later they opened the door “to a world of splintered wood, jagged metal and naked, broken tress. Everything was gone except for the closet they were standing in,” the story read.

Their pastor, who was relating the story, then finished it: “Somebody standing in a closet calls out to God to save them, and everything is destroyed except their closet,” the pastor said. “That’s no coincidence.”

I smiled to think of how happy the reporter must have been to get such a quote. I imagined that he had kept his head down writing the quote, as I would have. I wondered if he’d looked up then and nodded encouragement. I wondered if he’d been thinking at the same time about the six people dead and the scores more maimed and injured. I wondered whether or not he wanted to ask, “Did they die because they didn’t call out to Jesus?”

I hoped the reporter had thought of that. I was sure he hadn’t asked. And I am sure that he shouldn’t have asked.

He’d played it straight. Just as he should have.

And I had come full circle. I was now a reader, bridling just a bit, wondering if the reporter was really reporting or feeding me his own beliefs.

Which is fine. Just as it should be.

Reporting is relaying. Faithfully. Honestly. Making a record of a time and a place and a people. Playing it straight.

April 30, 2013

Vehicular Religiosities: Importuning God Behind (and Concerning) the Automobile

Fueled by Faith: Driven by Prayer

The General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Pastor Enoch Adejare Adeboye, once told his congregation about an extraordinary event that happened to him while on a road trip in Nigeria. He had left the city of Onitsha in the eastern Nigerian state of Anambra, and, as is frequently the case these days, the region and the rest of the country was in the grip of an acute petrol shortage. Because of this, he was unable to buy petrol for the car he was traveling in, as was his intention, in the adjoining city of Asaba, a short six miles away. By the time he arrived in Ore, about 134 miles from Asaba, his fuel indicator was firmly leaning toward “empty,” meaning that he had to get petrol for the car immediately. But then, something out of this world happened. According to Pastor Adeboye, it was at that juncture (junction?) that God, apparently seeing his dilemma, instructed him to proceed without looking at his fuel gauge. From that point onward, pastor Adeboye, so the account went, drove his car straight on to his residence in Surulere, Lagos (an additional 103 miles), without bothering to stop for—and apparently not needing—petrol.

Some will argue, and correctly too, that this account strains credulity. But in the context of comparable testimonies of super-ordinary “divine interventions” (the gold standard here being the Sorcery-to-Salvation accounts of Emmanuel Eni and Kaniaki Mukendi respectively), the truth is that it is by no means unique. In the world of African Pentecostals in fact, there is actually a correlation between the spectacularity of the specific “tribulation” that a believer, often through prayer and fasting, purports to have “overcome,’ and his or her perceived spiritual bona fides. Pastor Adeboye’s testimony did his halo no harm at all. Yet, while a Waoh!-eliciting testimony certainly benefits the testimonier, it would seem to benefit their congregation or church even more. At the very least, it is a certificate of apostolic authenticity; proof that the congregation—if not the pastor who is in charge of it—is on good terms with God. In West Africa, certainly in Ghana and Nigeria, testimonies are thus powerful drivers of inter-congregational mobility.


April 11, 2013

A Child's Eye View of Faith Healing








I recently wrote a piece for The Huffington Post featuring an insider’s look at whether faith healing by one of the country’s biggest tent revivalists delivered or deceived:

They wanted to know if the miracles were real. They asked about the preacher’s affairs. About the money he made. They asked if Donna Johnson, the woman who considered the preacher her stepdad, had forgiven him. But what they really wanted to know, they asked only after that polite number of other questions. Had Donna ever seen a miracle that she believed was real?

David Terrell was once one of the country’s most famous tent revivalists. During the 1970s thousands of his followers sold their possessions and relocated to encampments across the South and Midwest because he’d told them that the world was about to end. Donna Johnson’s mother was his pianist, the woman who left her two oldest children with various church members while she followed him about the country. She bore him three children while believing that someday he would divorce his wife and marry her. He never did.

Donna is the oldest of her mother’s children. Her new memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, has just come out in paperback.

Read the full piece here.

March 6, 2013

What Prayer Can and Cannot Do

My interest in prayer has to do with what prayer can or cannot do. Mine is the quest of the doubter who would believe. I want to know what efficacy there is in prayer.

Can our prayers change the outer world? I suspect not, but I’m interested in stories that claim otherwise. Once a woman, whose beliefs I’d challenged, told me that she needed a swimsuit so that she could go into a medicinal spring that would help ease her back pain. She told me that she would pray for a swimsuit, and God would provide one that was within her rather meager budget. We were on a trip and in a hotel. So off she went to the hotel gift store. They had swimsuits, but all were far too expensive. A woman had overheard us talking, however, and followed my friend to the store. She offered to lend my friend a swimsuit and did. My friend returned to me triumphant. I protested that the woman had eavesdropped and thus her offer couldn’t be counted as an act of God. But my friend only laughed and said that I couldn’t restrict how God answered.

Many people in my family believe that God hears their prayers and intervenes to heal minor illnesses and to remedy daily difficulties in their lives. They find such a God reassuring. I find a God who would heal my sprained ankle while doing nothing to stop rape, torture, and starvation to be horrifying. But I don’t tell them that. I like it that they can believe. It helps them. And we all need help.

I’m more inclined to believe that prayer can change us. I’m interested in how. And why. And whether some forms of prayer change us more deeply than other forms.