I was creeping down the streets of Zion, Illinois, transporting a newly purchased antique table in the back of my Jeep, when I was overcome by a sneezing fit. When the eruptions subsided and I opened my watery eyes, I was in front of a low-slung brick building with a stenciled sign reading healing rooms of zion in the window. I was in the market for healing: yet another infection had attacked my chronically screwed-up sinuses, and I had a cough like a death rattle. I don't like taking antibiotics. If I took them every time my sinuses acted up, I'd be popping pills all winter. But the natural remedy I'd been trying was getting me nowhere. I pulled over and jotted down the number on the window.
The following Thursday evening I pushed open the glass doors of the Healing Rooms. A portly woman with poufy silver curls greeted me warmly from behind the front desk and handed me a questionnaire. It was designed, she explained, to help the "prayer technicians" work more effectively. "Have you been saved?" "Born again?" "Has the spirit moved in you?"
"I'm not sure," I told Alvia Burleson, the woman behind the desk. "How do you know if the spirit has moved in you?"
"Has he ever used you, spoken through you?" Burleson asked.
"You mean speaking in tongues?"
"Yes," she said.
I wrote down "No."
"Do you have to be a believer for this to work?" I asked.
Burleson shook her head. "Although a lot of people are led to Christ," she added.
I must have looked edgy because Burleson continued, "There's nothing to be nervous about. They just pray over you. It takes about 15 or 20 minutes. They've already seen six people tonight. There's someone in there now."
I handed her my questionnaire, and she passed me a handout titled How to Keep Your Healing.
"Sickness is the result of an oppression of the devil," I read. "Acts 10:38 says, '. . .and Jesus went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him.' The devil inflicts us with sickness and doesn't like it when God's Word brings healing and destroys his work.... When we receive the Word on healing and are prayed for and a healing takes place, we receive it with joy, but it must become firmly rooted in us because the devil will always try to inflict us with the very same symptoms to change our minds. If the devil can cause us to look at symptoms, pain or whatever it is, doubt and unbelief come to our mind and this gives entrance for fear to reestablish the sickness. . . .So when the symptoms return, we must set our faith in God and his Word and tell the enemy, no matter what, we are not going to believe his lies."
"We have a really good success rate," Burleson said, doing a Vanna White thing under a bulletin board full of handwritten testimonials. "We get a steady stream of clients on Thursday night. Word has gotten out that the prayer team is really good. There's a donation jar over there on the table for whatever you feel like giving."
As if on cue, a woman came into the reception area and dropped some money in the jar. After she left, Burleson introduced me to one of my prayer technicians, Charlie Hass, a middle-aged man with graying brown hair. Hass led me down a hallway to one of the facility's two healing rooms, where I met three more prayer technicians, Dick Biank, Marla Helstrom, and Pam Hood.
"You get the comfy chair," said Hass, guiding me to a cushioned office chair that stood in the middle of the room. "Just try and take it all in. Absorb it all. You don't have to understand or follow what's being said, just be open to it and take it in. Some people experience a tingling sensation, which indicates healing is happening. But some don't, and that doesn't mean healing isn't going on."
Hass produced a vial of fluid and explained that in biblical times the sick were anointed with oil before they were prayed over. The prayer technicians would be touching my shoulders and back, he continued. They might be moved to lay hands on other parts of my body, but they would ask my permission first.
Helstrom and Biank pulled up folding chairs and sat down, flanking me. Hood stood to my right. Standing in front of me, Hass dabbed oil onto his thumb and traced the sign of the cross on my forehead. Helstrom placed her hand on my back. Hood put her hand on my right shoulder. Hass raised his hand over my head and began to pray.
It was a rambling prayer. Hass asked Christ to come into my heart, to let me know I was loved, to fill me with the knowledge that Jesus was there. Behind me, Helstrom murmured, "Yes, Jesus, oh Jesus, you are the one." On my right, Hood did the same. I felt a tingling sensation. Goose bumps.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Biank grasping his left arm with his right hand like he was having a heart attack. "You feel like you need to do something for Jesus to be with you," he said, leaning over me. "But there's nothing you need to do. You're already God's child. God loves you. You can sit on Jesus' lap and rest your head on his chest--like in that picture of Jesus and the children. You're the apple of his eye." Biank resumed praying, asking for all I was hearing to sink into me.
From behind me, Helstrom said I was filled with God's spirit. "When you were being knitted in the womb," she explained, "he breathed his spirit and a soul into you." Hood began praying for the Lord to draw me into prayer and allow me to feel his presence.
Hass took both of my hands and told me to repeat his words after him, as in an oath-taking ceremony. We asked the Lord to heal me, to clear my sinuses, to make my allergies vanish. We prayed that I would keep my healing and that if symptoms recurred, they would be banished.
Hood said she wanted to pray for my immune system and began praying for my pancreas, thyroid gland, and other organs. My chest began to feel warm.
Hass asked me to breathe in deep, healing breaths and forcefully exhale the bad air through my mouth. I repeated this four times, wheezing and coughing like a TB patient.
"Praise God," the prayer technicians murmured. "That's right. Get rid of the bad. Push it out." With that, the session was over.
I was light-headed but my lungs felt slightly clearer as I left the healing room. Back in the waiting room, I scanned a shelf full of pamphlets and selected one called The Promise of Divine Healing, by Barbara Keisman. I coughed.
"Some healings are quick, others take time," Burleson said. She got up from behind her desk and walked over to me. "You might have to come back more than once. One mother brought her little boy in several times. He had severe allergies. He's doing well now. Another person was healed of liver cancer. And another--a wonderful, God-fearing woman from South Africa--was healed of HIV."
"HIV?" I asked.
"Yes, HIV," Burleson said. "Her blood work has been coming back clean."
I dropped a donation into the jar and flipped my scarf around my neck. Burleson hugged me and said, "Hugs are free around here, too."
I drove homeward through Zion, which is made up of churches, dilapidated apartment complexes, contemporary ranch houses, and homes built in the early 20th century. Some of the latter have been renovated; the rest badly need it. By far the most impressive structure in town is the former home of Zion's founder, the Reverend John Alexander Dowie, which now houses the Zion Historical Society.
Before immigrating to Illinois, the Scottish-born Dowie was known throughout Britain, South Africa, and Australia as a revivalist, faith healer, and leader of his own Protestant denomination, the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church (CCC for short). In 1890 Dowie moved his base of operations to Evanston. Three years later he made a splash at the Chicago World's Fair by erecting a wooden tabernacle outside the gates of the White City and conducting marathon church services and healing sessions there. The walls of the temporary church were festooned with crutches, leg braces, and elevated shoes supposedly left behind by those he'd healed.
One of those he healed that year was Sadie Cody, who'd come from Indiana to take in the fair and see her kinsman, Buffalo Bill Cody, perform in his famous Wild West Show. Soon after her arrival Cody developed a severe back ailment. She returned home, where doctors could do nothing for her. Eventually, she wrote to Dowie and asked him to pray for her. Dowie wrote back and gave her a specific time to join him in prayer. After praying at the designated moment, she began to improve. In time she felt strong enough to travel back to Chicago and check into one of Dowie's healing homes.
"Five of my vertebrae were worse than useless," wrote Cody in a testimonial published in Dowie's newspaper, Leaves of Healing. "An abscess as large as my fist was at the base of my spine; a large swelling was developing into a tumor; my limb [leg] was three inches short; and in that condition I was brought to Chicago. After Dowie had laid hands on me in the name of the Lord, there commenced a great struggle. . . .The feeling was dreadful, and I became insensible. I could not see, nor hear, nor speak, but immediately almost, I awoke--and what a blessed awakening: I felt new life in me. There was no pain and no aching; I had really awoke to health. From that moment I have been rapidly improving, and now I stand before you with both limbs of equal length. . . .My spine that was so sensitive that it could not be touched with a finger without my fainting, can now be rubbed as hard as anyone can rub it; the swelling from the abscess and tumor has gone."
A stern and sharp-tongued preacher, Dowie spoke out against tobacco, alcohol, purveyors of impure food, pharmaceutical rackets, political corruption, freemasonry, and the compromised holiness of other churches. But the worst of his wrath was aimed at the medical establishment. Like many other radical faith healers, Dowie dismissed regular medicine as a spiritual stumbling block, but went further than most in personalizing the issue. "Doctors," he announced in 1897, "are the most demoralized class in the community, as a rule. In Chicago there are hundreds of them that are just incarnate devils." On occasion Dowie's endless stream of abuse incited medical students to riot against him and his followers. Dowie proudly wrote about the clashes in a 1899 pamphlet entitled Zion's Holy War Against the Hosts of Hell in Chicago.
In 1899 Dowie announced his plans to build Zion on 6,600 acres of land he had mortgaged at the far northern end of Sheridan Road. Ten thousand eager settlers attended the consecration ceremony in 1900; within a year a lumber mill, a blacksmith shop, a freight warehouse, a telegraph office, and a general store were up and running, and the lace factory that was the linchpin of Dowie's economic plan was under construction. There were, of course, no doctors, clinics, pharmacies, or hospitals: the only medicine allowed in Zion was divine healing, performed by Dowie or elders of the church, called apostles. Zion's charter also forbade the establishment of churches other than the CCC.
The Zion project hit a snag in 1903 when Dowie became convinced that he was really the prophet Elijah and began dressing in a flamboyant Old Testament costume. Around the same time he began draining Zion's financial resources to fund another, bigger utopian project in Mexico. In 1906 the apostles wrested control of the town and the church away from him. Dowie died the following year, but his successor, Reverend Wilbur G. Voliva, kept the town running as a theocracy until the mid-30s.
Zion is still a staunchly Christian community today, but in place of a single, official denomination there are many. Doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies have taken root there too. But vestiges of Dowieism persist: many descendants of Zion's first generation still belong to the CCC, although since 1996 those letters have stood for Christian Community Church. The name change reflects the fact that the church has drifted away from Dowie's teachings. It has no connection with the Healing Rooms. But Pastor Jon Wiziarde told me that some of his older congregants still speak about their miraculous healings under the old order. "Certainly, there was something happening with Dowie," he said. "We believe God can miraculously heal people, but sometimes he chooses to heal and sometimes he doesn't, for whatever reason. Dowie taught that it was always God's will to heal, and we just haven't seen that."
Many Christians would probably agree with the CCC's current stance on divine healing, but the staff at the Healing Rooms agree with Dowie's. They believe illness is caused by sin--if not personal sin then original sin, the kind that's stained all our souls ever since Adam and Eve and that damned apple--and that God is the cure for both.
Most of the prayer technicians are Pentecostals. Originating in Kansas in 1901, Pentecostalism has grown into one of the largest Protestant movements in the world and has played a central role in bringing formerly marginal charismatic practices like speaking in tongues and faith healing into both the Protestant and Catholic mainstreams.
Zion occupies a special place in the history of Pentecostalism: in 1906, Charles Parham, widely regarded as the father of the movement, slipped into Zion to hold secret prayer meetings with a small dissident group. Parallels between his teachings and Dowie's made his message attractive to CCC members, and the movement began to snowball. Dowie unsuccessfully tried to order the Pentecostals out of Zion; his successor, Voliva, used violence and intimidation against them, also to no avail. The early Pentecostals in Zion coalesced into a church, the Christian Assembly of God, from which emerged several preachers influential to the further spread of Pentecostalism.
Even though Pentecostals faced decades of persecution in Zion, the movement has since reclaimed Dowie as one of its own. It was Pentecostals who decided it was important to reestablish divine healing in Zion, explains Roy Lovegrove, an Assembly of God pastor who moved there from Tampa, Florida, to serve as the Healing Rooms' first director. "Dowie's church distanced itself from the healing aspect embodied by Dowie, and we're following Jesus's healing heritage, which Dowie confirmed," says Lovegrove. To get the project off the ground, Lovegrove and a group of like-minded ministers from across the country staged a tent revival in Zion in September 2001. About 20 churches made financial contributions, said Lovegrove, and "a lot of people got healed." Currently five local Pentecostal churches fund the center and supply the prayer technicians who staff it.
Unlike Dowie, the staffers don't speak against modern medicine. "I believe God uses doctors too," said Lovegrove, who used to be a paramedic. "But I believe in giving God the first chance.
"We have prayed for people from as far as northern Wisconsin, Indiana, and South Dakota," he continued. "They come in with everything: cancer, blindness, high blood pressure, strokes, you name it. Half have medical problems, but half are just spiritually beat up. We just try to love on people, give them biblical counseling. Not everyone gets healed, but about 75 percent do. Some come in once a week, some are healed instantly--like the woman who came in with food poisoning. This woman was sick as a dog. We laid hands on her and prayed. She drank a little water and was 100 percent better. People limp in and walk out."
Lovegrove managed the Healing Rooms for less than a year before he walked out too: as director he held the only paid position there, but was getting only half of his agreed-upon salary. It wasn't enough to support his family, and he moved on to a youth ministry position in South Carolina.
Succeeding Lovegrove as director is Hope Ramos, a prayer technician and wife of a Pentecostal pastor who sits on the Healing Rooms' advisory board. Ramos reserves comment on Lovegrove's claim that the facility enjoys a success rate of 75 percent. She's not sure how many patients have been treated there, but estimates it's around 450.
One Saturday morning I spoke with 73-year-old Larry Kaczmarek at the Healing Rooms. Kaczmarek has no doubt that divine healing occurs. "I've had rheumatoid arthritis for eight, nine years," he said. "My hips deteriorated and I ended up in a wheelchair. I'd be sitting in my wheelchair and I would get up and be hardly able to take a step. I would put my right hand out and say, 'I won't fall, the Lord's got my hand,' and I would take one, two, three, four, five steps and back up and sit in my chair. I never fell. I started praying for more faith. I just prayed and prayed."
Eventually Kaczmarek underwent hip replacement surgery. "They did the left hip first and it healed overnight," he said. "The doctor came and took the bandage off and said, 'Look at this!' All the stitches were laying out in the bandage and they couldn't even see where they cut me!" His right hip was operated on four weeks later, but it healed at a normal rate.
Though he'd escaped his wheelchair, Kaczmarek still suffered from painfully swollen hands and feet. This was the third time he'd sought relief at the Healing Rooms. He said his first visit was a dramatic success: "They prayed and I took right off that chair." But his symptoms kept returning. "The devil's got a way of working on you," he said. "Maybe the Lord touched me. I don't know. But I'm not giving up."
Another client I met in the waiting area was Dawn Galloway, a pretty blond 43-year-old who'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer. When she was 20, Galloway was advised by doctors to have her colon removed. "I had polyps in my colon, more than the average person," she said. "I told the doctors, 'That's pretty drastic when I'm not having any symptoms.' I was pretty active. I did downhill skiing, white-water rafting. They thought I would be filled with cancer by the time I was 30. So when I turned 30, I thought, 'I'm not going to get this. I'll beat it.'"
In the spring of 2001 Galloway and her husband, Chuck, were rear-ended in a car accident. The impact left Galloway with severe lower back pain. She began physical therapy but the pain got worse. Then she developed digestive problems. After not eating for weeks, she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with colon cancer. Her colon was removed in January 2002.
Everything seemed to be going well until a large tumor began growing in her abdomen. Galloway took her records to the Mayo Clinic and physicians there told her the tumor could be removed. In January 2003, she went in for surgery.
"It was colon cancer that just went crazy," Galloway said. "It was attached to the back of my abdominal wall, into other organs, and an artery, or some kind of tube, was going through it from the kidneys to the bladder. They said it was too risky to remove and they just stitched me back up and sent me home."
It was Galloway's husband, Chuck, who encouraged her to try the Healing Rooms. He'd heard of them from a guy who sold him a Mercedes-Benz over the Internet. The man told Chuck he'd been healed of a skin condition at a healing room in California.
Prayer technicians John Langdon and Terry Cvengros led the Galloways back to one of the healing rooms. When the couple emerged 30 minutes later, they looked hopeful.
"When people come in, like Dawn, with terminal cancer. . .," Cvengros said, "I'm going to pray for her all week. The cancer patients really get to your heart. They're desperate."
"Many people don't get healed," Langdon added. "We have to reconcile that. Was it me? Was it you? We're humbled by this. It's a challenge to pray according to the will of God that you're going to get positive results every time. It said in the Bible that Jesus is the same today as he was yesterday. He healed everyone who came to him. Why he's withholding, I don't know."
Before laying a hand on anyone, the Healing Rooms' 40 or so technicians view a series of training tapes produced by Pentecostal healing authority Cal Pierce, who runs Healing Rooms Ministries out of Spokane, Washington. Then they sit in on numerous healing sessions. After six or seven weeks of observing, they begin participating in the prayers.
Barbara Keisman, a prayer technician and the author of the pamphlet I'd picked up on my first visit, says that although a person doesn't always have to be a believer to receive divine healing, lack of faith can hinder recovery. Unrepented sin is another common obstacle, as is the harboring of resentments. Then there's reaping what you've sown. "A person may have sown seeds into their sickness, whether it's eating incorrectly or harmful habits like smoking," Keisman said. "If it's a nutritional problem, you can pray all day long but you have to solve it nutritionally. Would it be appropriate for a smoker who has lung cancer to ask God for healing when he refuses to give up smoking?
"I'd say most sickness is the result of sowing and reaping, but it's still redeemable," she continued. "Jesus has authority over everything. He healed everyone who came to him and he gave his disciples the authority to heal."
Keisman said all true Christians are commissioned by God to heal, but some have exceptional gifts. Dowie did, she believes, as do the televangelists Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn today.
A month after her first visit to the Healing Rooms, Galloway hadn't improved, but she hadn't given up hope. She kept thinking about a question on the admission form: "Do you need deliverance?" "I put 'I don't know,'" she said. "Was there something blocking my healing? I don't know. The older man [Langdon] said to me, 'How long have you had the spirit of peace on you?' I said, 'I don't know what you mean.' He said, 'I don't know what's going to happen to you, sometimes people die of cancer, sometimes they're healed, but whatever happens to you I know you're going to go to heaven.'"
Galloway died two months later.
As for my sinuses, they got worse. I called my doctor and asked for antibiotics.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.