For some of us, religion is a reason to get up in the morning -- a balm in hard times, an inspiration during bouts of temptation. For others, the only time we encounter it is during sex, football games, and/or award shows. Still others view religion as nothing more than a paycheck or a cynical tool of control. We call these people bastards, monsters, and blasphemers. Some folks simply call them "faith healers." We sat down with a man who learned the conniving ways of a faith healer when he was a teenager. Here's what he told us:
#6. This Job (Read: A Creepy Old Preacher) Chooses You
The first woman I "healed" just had a cold. Like a lot of people who agree to stand up in front of a congregation and talk about their illness, she had a thing for exaggeration. That's one of the first things you learn about faith healing -- you're not the only one operating a con. Doctors probably would've sent this woman home with a prescription for chicken soup, but I listened when she said it felt like she was "dying," and even offered up my own prescription: 50 cc's of God, delivered straight through my palm.
"I'm giving you chicken soup for the soul!"
I was still a kid at this point, and so I took on this healing with a few other children from the congregation. We laid hands on the woman, prayed for her sickness to be healed, and boom -- she went down quicker than Michael Spinks. After the service, our pastor (a professional faith healer) went to my parents and told them he saw something "special" in me. I've no idea what it was, maybe the extra pizzazz I put behind slapping the Jesus into that woman, but the pastor took me under his wing.
My formal training started when an elderly gentleman came to the pulpit to be healed. I believe his name was Don, and he'd been a member at the church longer than I'd been alive. He was in the midst of a cancer scare, and eventually stepped forward. At this point I still believed in miracle healing, and here was my first chance: I was going to cure someone of cancer. I laid my hands on him and demanded God take his cancer away. At no point did I realize how weird it was that I believed cancer was the sort of thing God assumed people were cool with unless explicitly told otherwise.
Then He asks, "Are you SURE you want to unsubscribe from cancer?"
Later that month, Don got a clean bill of health from the doctors. Cancer-free, hallelujah! It was a miracle! Or at least it seemed like one if you didn't know what I knew: Don had never actually had cancer. The "scare" started because my pastor claimed God had told him Don was going to die unless he received a massive dose of Vitamin P(rayer). The faith healer giveth cancer, and the faith healer taketh it away.
See, faith healing works best with people who are probably going to get better anyway. Some healthy young person has a cold or flu? If you tell them they're healed, the power of suggestion and a bunch of cheering people will make them feel momentarily better. And by the time church comes 'round next week, they'll be over whatever was ailing them. Yep, we are taking credit for the general concept of an immune system.
#5. The "Cheats" Are Way Simpler Than You Probably Suspect
"It's OK if we have to fake it a little bit," my mentor told me once, "because people need to see the power of God, and it's OK if we have to fudge things to make that happen."
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"And, in a sense, does this not transform us into gods?"
Our congregants would write their fears and problems down on a prayer card "for God" before each meeting. We'd read them in secret, and then repeat their prayers back to them word for word while we laid hands on them. It was easier for them to assume "miracle" than it was to think their trusted spiritual leaders were running a con.
Don's cancer scare wasn't a one-off. If you ever wondered why so many people seem to believe faith healers cured their [Horrific Incurable Disease and/or Crippling Pokemon Addiction], it's because most healers lie whenever they can about who has what. We're not some sort of Holy MRI, but they believe whatever we say. And when simple gullibility wasn't enough, we got by with a little help from our homeless friends.
They're a religious lot.
Yes, we hired hobos as actors. We often did outreach to the homeless in the city, so we knew where to look. The first time I was involved, the person we hired was just passing through. He was trying to get back home (he was somewhere from the south), and we offered to pay his way. He was our final act of the service. I had instructed him to hobble up on stage with a wooden cane. He was probably in his late 40's and wore fatigues, so he looked like a soldier who had fallen on hard times.
When he got on stage, I instantly laid in on him, screaming for God to heal this man's lame leg. After about a minute of hollerin' at God, I told the guy to start taking steps without his cane, and then encouraged him to run a bit, which he did fine. While he was doing that, I tried to break the cane over my leg, which only ended up giving me a bruise. Instead, I threw it away from the stage. When the guy finally tried to get off the stage, he ended up falling. He was fine, but he also was drunk (we said "touched by the Spirit," which is a euphemism we suggest everybody uses from now on).
You can also call them bloodofchristos.
On one occasion, we had hired a young "actor." He insisted on being called Mystique, because God might be able to fake-heal a lame leg, but nobody can truly heal a lame soul. I placed him in a wheelchair, and gave him a backstory about being struck by a drunk driver. He was the last person to be "healed" that day, and I wanted to make sure we ended with excitement. After he was rolled up on stage, I went into my God-hollerin', and then forcefully dumped him out of the wheelchair, demanding the power of the Lord compel him to walk. He toppled onto the stage, and then slowly stood up.
I got to pretend I was magic, Mystique got to pretend he was an actor, and the congregation got to pretend their weekly donation was the same as having healthcare. Everybody won except for actual sick people, and we tried not to let them up on stage.
#4. Faith Healing Involves More Chicken Guts Than You'd Think
We did something called psychic surgery. We'd have someone lay on a table, and beneath the table would be a bowl of chicken gizzards and livers mixed with blood. We'd lift the person's shirt up and act as if we were going to take out a tumor or an infected gall bladder or like, a possessed kidney or something. We'd pretend to cut the stomach open, putting a hand in front of our fingers to hide it, then pull out the gizzards and the liver, calling them "cancer" or "Yendik, the Kidney Demon." Applause and donations would follow.
We conned everyone but Kenneth, the town's shrewd chicken farmer.
I wouldn't perform this sort of act until after the first year of faith healing. By then, I knew we were phonies, so it wasn't a big surprise when I learned that the surgery act was basically performance art. My pastor told me that an act like this bolstered the congregant's faith and "portrayed a deeper reality," which is a line I plan to use if the IRS ever audits my income tax returns.
My first psychic surgery patient was a teenage girl named Courtney, whom I had known for quite some time. She was a friend of mine, and her parents were devout members. This put a lot more pressure on me, which I think was my pastor's plan all along. If I was really in this "scamming the faithful" thing for the long haul, I'd need to get used to lying to friends. Courtney's family believed she was infested with a bad case of Demonitis. Her mood had changed lately and she'd been acting depressed -- almost like some sort of teenager. Instead of talking through her issues, her parents found it easier to have them theatrically ripped out of her, as if she was the frightened peasant from The Temple of Doom.
Minus the fire and brimstone. That's more the other dude's bag.
I had her lay on the table, pulled up her shirt to bare her stomach, and placed my hand in front of where I was "making" the incision. I secretly grabbed a chicken gizzard from below the table and made a big gesture of struggling to pull it out. Then it was a matter of cleaning up her stomach and helping her back to her family. Courtney did actually get better afterward, in that she started fitting in at school. Apparently she'd just had one too many chicken gizzards in her general vicinity, and it was keeping her from socializing properly.
That first psychic surgery was a major blow to my faith. But it wasn't so easy to give it up altogether. It was ingrained into me from a young age, and a part of me didn't want to let go. I still wanted to believe we were serving God and helping our community. That got harder and harder to believe as the con went on ...