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Hope After Faith

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In this excerpt from Hope After Faith, Jerry DeWitt describes his mother's disappointment when a Pentecostal revivalist preacher is unable to "heal" his sister Britney, who has Down's syndrome.

My reevaluations of what had been the most cherished moments in my life of faith — my conversations with God — were both energizing and enervating. I was feeling more in control of my life — particularly when it came to the panic attacks that were plaguing me — yet I believed that I could have a deep, intimate relationship with God. When a minster named Charles Pierce, who had a reputation within the United Pentecostal movement for presiding over a healing ministry without peer, held a revival at the United Pentecostal Church in Leesville, I felt that I had to attend to revalidate what I had experienced in my revival days. Arriving at the United Pentecostal Church on a cool Sunday morning in the early spring of 1999, I took in its tall, cathedral ceilings, white molding, and color-coordinated pews and carpet with a mix of disdain and envy. Its clean, sparse design reminded me of a funeral home and I had long felt whenever I walked into expensively decorated sanctuaries that it was wasteful of the Lord's money. At the same time, I was envious — and desperately wanted to be a part of — the upper class of Pentecostalism and could be just as harsh in judgments when I visited a poor church with an old, staticky sound system or an unpaved parking lot.

  But when Brother Pierce, a slender, square-shouldered, middle-aged minister who wore a clean white suit, began the ser­vice and ministered to the congregants individually, I was far from impressed. Brother Pierce addressed churchgoers with a very vague and general diagnosis of their problems — Sister, are you feeling ill? Brother, are you dissatisfied with your job? — and he ministered from the distance of the stage, which only added an even more imper­sonal feel to the proceedings. About halfway through the service, however, Brother Pierce walked down the small set of stairs from the stage and into the aisles. To my horror, it seemed as though he was walking directly toward me. God is using Brother Pierce to chastise me, I thought nervously to myself, about just how doubtful I had become and how far I had moved from my Evangelizing days. To my great relief, Brother Pierce passed by my seat to focus on a slender man in his early sixties with scraggly facial hair who was seated in a pew behind me. The man had a disheveled look about him and he wore a tattered suit jacket that appeared to be about 30 years old with threads poking out from it. There were deep stress lines in his face — he was, as the saying goes, rode hard and put away wet. When Brother Pierce stood three feet away from the man, he asked him to stand up. The man rose from the pews and stood silently before Brother Pierce.

  "Let's talk about your relationship with God," Brother Pierce said. "I know that you've been closer to God than you are now." The man nodded his head in agreement. "Yes, Brother Pierce," he murmured. "I know that you've had habits, that you've gone to smoking," Brother Pierce continued, bringing another nod of the head from the man and another "yes." An intensely serious look came over Brother Pierce's face. "Yes, indeed, you have gone to smoking. And you are smoking... Pall Malls." Just then, the man's eyes became as big as saucers. He opened his well-worn suit jacket with his right hand, rustled through an inside pocket and thrust out a pack of Pall Malls for Brother Pierce and the church to behold, bringing an ecstatic Ah­hhhhh! which rose from the congregation and echoed throughout the sanctuary. In those first few seconds after the Pall Malls revelation, I felt that I should get on my knees right then and there and pray and perhaps even bow before God. But as the worshipper slid the Pall Malls back into his rumpled suit pocket, I grew suspicious of Brother Pierce's ministering even though a part of me was shout­ing, screaming, and berating the naysayer inside of me, "Move on!"

  Steadying my nerves, I realized that what had unsettled me about Brother Pierce was that his ministering seemed all too much like a parlor trick — this was far from the personal dialogue with God that I had been seeking when I attended the revival. Belief, I thought to myself then, had to be larger and greater in spirit than a magic trick.

  My feelings about Brother Pierce, unfortunately, did not dissuade my family members from seeking out his healing ministry. Just a few days after the services at United Pentecostal Church in Leesville, Brother Pierce brought his revival to the First United Pentecostal Church — known simply as "First Church" — in DeRidder. My mother took my sister, Britney, to the revival in hopes that Brother Pierce would heal her of her Down's syndrome. I remember thinking that the idea of Brother Pierce healing Britney was ridiculous because I did not see Britney as being ill — I saw her as genetically different. If Brother Pierce heals Britney, I remember thinking, it truly would be a miracle because God would have to heal her all the way down to the chromosomes. I didn't have any confidence that Britney's Down's syndrome would simply disappear due to Brother Pierce's prayers and, worse, I worried that the services would make her feel afraid or like a lesser person. I couldn't bring myself to attend the revival with Britney and my mom. My skepticism about Brother Pierce was confirmed when my mom told me after services that Britney simply got in line and was prayed for. Brother Pierce offered no special prayer for — or individual attention to — Britney and, of course, she was not "healed" of her Down's syndrome. But what was of no surprise to me was a huge disappointment for my mother. She had been reluctant to attend the revival at first but once she committed to going she had high hopes for how Brother Pierce might help Britney. My mother was all too aware of what made Britney but she still allowed herself hope. My grandmother, meanwhile, expressed a quiet disappointment about the revival. "It just wasn't God's will," she said and purposefully left it at that.

  Neither one of them attempted to explain why Brother Pierce's healing ministry had not worked wonders on Britney — it was simply a mistake to not be repeated or talked about.

Reprinted from Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor's Journey from Belief to Atheism by Jerry DeWitt and Ethan Brown. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

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