For the last 20 years of her professional life, Bibi Gittens worked as a home health aide, looking after people with disabilities. Then, last March 2, she suffered a stroke.
Ten weeks later, on June 12, the 63-year-old woman was sitting in a wheelchair, waiting for a van in front of The Universal Church in Canarsie, where she had come to seek spiritual healing.
“I saw on TV how the church prayed for and healed people from several diseases,” said Gittens. “I am here to be healed, too. Today was my first day in church and it went well because I was anointed and prayed for. I will keep coming back until I receive my healing.”
The Universal Church has branded itself as a place where no disease is incurable. Each month, the church publishes photographs and testimonials of people who say they have been healed from diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. Similar testimonies appear in the church’s telecasts and website.
Many religious denominations have made claims of faith-healing. Benny Hinn of the Benny Hinn Ministries and Pat Robertson of The 700 Club are examples of United States-based televangelists who have attracted millions of viewers across the world by broadcasting images of themselves healing the sick. These televangelists even claim that viewers can receive healing by touching their TV screens during prayers.
Such is the case with Nigeria-based T.B. Joshua’s Synagogue Church of All Nations. The Synagogue Church of All Nations has a TV channel, millions of followers, and church branches in several African and Western countries. Christian Scientists train and use their own practitioners to heal people through prayers. Similarly, pilgrims visit the Catholic shrines of Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal to be healed.
The Universal Church is a Pentecostal Christian denomination founded by Bishop Edir Macedo in Brazil in 1977. It preaches the doctrine of the Trinity, according to which God is perceived as three divine persons – father, son and Holy Spirit. By the end of 1999, the church had 12 million members worldwide, mostly in Brazil, with 5,000 churches and 20,000 pastors.
The Universal Church in Canarsie operates under the leadership of Bishop Carlos Decasto, who left his teaching job in Brazil 35 years ago to become a minister. The church holds four services every day. Each day is focused on a particular issue, notably emotional, financial, spiritual and familial.
Bibi Gittens chose to come on a Tuesday, because that’s when prayers for healing are held. About 40 people, most of them women in their mid to late 50’s, gathered for the 45-minute service led by Bishop Decasto.
“Nothing but your faith shall heal you tonight,” said the bishop. He went on to say that people never doubt what doctors prescribe for them in hospitals, even if it means spending much money with no significant result. Bishop Decasto asked all who had come for healing to invest that same trust in God.
“Trust and believe, faithfully, in your God and you will experience miracles tonight,” said the 54-year-old bishop. “Don’t worry about costs because that was already paid for when Jesus Christ died on the cross for us.”
After a brief scriptural reading, preaching, praying and singing, it was time for healing. The bishop invited everyone to the altar, which he described as “the dwelling place of God’s Holy Ghost fire.” The bishop said, “If you walk across this altar with faith, you would be healed.”
Accompanied by David Santos, his assistant, Bishop Decasto began laying hands on the sick people’s heads as they walked – one after another – across the altar, casting out the illness in them.
“Be healed,” screamed Decasto, as he laid his hands on them. “You are healed by the blood of Jesus.”
After the exercise, all the worshippers were asked to stand up, stretch their arms, jump and move around to show that they were no longer in pains.
“Do you believe that God has healed you?” asked the bishop.
“Yes,” the crowd shouted.
“Do you still feel any pains?” Bishop Decasto continued.
“No,” the people responded.
At the end of the service, no one openly testified that he or she had been healed. The people left, however, bearing in mind that healing is a process and it happens at God’s will.
“You don’t come once and expect miracles to just happen,” said David Santos. “It is a process, and miracles happen to people as their faith grows each day.”
But when he was asked by a visiting reporter how one could get in touch with some of the persons who had allegedly been healed from cancer and other diseases for an interview, Santos said some of them never come back after receiving their healing. He said it was not his place to invite someone on the phone to come for an interview about their healing.
“You never know when they’ll show up,” said Santos. “ It’s best to talk to them when you meet them in church.”
The recently disabled Bibi Grittens referred to The Universal Church as her only hope. She has no aide because her insurance company provides very limited coverage. She said the hospital has not been able to heal her paralysis and her insurance will soon be terminated because she does not work anymore.
“I can’t do anything because part of my body is paralyzed,” said Gittens. “My lone daughter who could help me died two months ago in a car accident. My only trust now is in God and I’ve seen what God does for people through this church. I believe and I know that I’ll be healed.”
Leonie Andrews, a 56-year-old woman who became a member of The Universal Church 10 years ago said, “They evangelized me when I was at the edge of a depression. I got to the church, they prayed for me and I was healed from a protracted pain in my head. They also prayed for me to find a job and two weeks later I had a good job.”
Andrews also testified that she has seen many people come to the church in wheelchairs and some with H.I.V, and leave completely healed. “The church always sends you back to your doctor where it is confirmed that you are no more sick,” said Andrews.
Doreen Moore, 59, said she became a member of the church in January 2012 because she wanted God to heal her from hypertension. “I want to get the kind of treatment that frees me from all those medications with deadly side effects,” Moore said. Her health situation has not yet changed, but she is convinced that God will soon heal her.
Claims of faith-healing have been an issue of controversy in different parts of the world over the last five years.
In October 2011, for example, BBC News reported that three H.I.V patients in London had died after they stopped taking antiretroviral drugs on the advice of their evangelical Christian pastors. Their pastors had assured them that they had been healed.
According to a June 2009 report by the American Cancer Society, “Death disability, and other unwanted outcomes have occurred when faith healing was elected instead of medical care for serious injuries or illnesses.” The same report stated, “Available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can actually cure physical ailments.”
In March 2010, an Oregon couple, Jeffery and Marci Beagley, were sentenced to 16 months in prison after a jury convicted them of criminally negligent homicide in the death of their teenage son. They had relied solely on faith-healing while their 16-year-old son, Neil Beagley, lay severely ill.
It should be noted that in the United States, parents are not required under federal law to provide their children with medical treatment that is against their religious beliefs. States are allowed, but not required, to prosecute parents who rely on faith-healing rather than medical treatment for their children.
It is not uncommon to hear people accuse some pastors as fake healers and money mongers. Asked to comment on the healings happening in The Universal Church in his Canarsie neighborhood, Jean de Souza, 39, said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t believe them. My mother just died after giving 10 percent of her monthly income to another church down the block for several months, with the hope that she’ll be healed. All I remember is that her money is gone and she too is gone.” De Souza is not a member of, and was not referring to The Universal Church.
Bishop Carlos and his assistant, Santos, made it clear that it is God who heals people through them. “No one can take credit for God’s work, you know.” Santos said.