The Spirit Is Holding You

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A walk into the strange, faith-healing world of David Turner Ministries.

By Alana Massey

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Fire! Fire! Fire! (Photo: bramhall/Flickr)

I meet my former classmate Kurt for the second time in a week at the Knights of Columbus Hall in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. We are here to witness miracles that we do not believe in. It’s a Saturday and Midwood has a largely Orthodox Jewish population, so McDonald Avenue — the thoroughfare that runs through the shadow of the above-ground stretch of the F train line from Ditmas Avenue to Coney Island — is largely abandoned as we approach the nondescript building where David Turner Ministries is hosting a good old-fashioned faith healing.

I invited Kurt to attend the event a few days earlier, after Facebook’s algorithm suggested it to me. We were once students at Yale Divinity School, an institution that requires one to have at least a modicum of respect for religious beliefs, if not a deep and abiding personal faith. I am a lapsed Episcopalian and therefore too concerned with matters of propriety to ask Kurt about the current state of his faith as we enter the dim room where the healing is to take place.

“There’s a wicked spirit, the spirit is holding you.”

Though the ministry’s website boasted of massive crowds where David Turner claimed to have healed the sick and infirm, the room is largely empty. We make our way through a seating arrangement that clearly anticipated at least a hundred guests. Save for the Nigerian man who greeted us at the door and the late guests whispering apologies as they make their way past us to seats in our row, we speak to no one and no one speaks to us. Their accents are largely Caribbean and Eastern European, while older attendees, who lean on walkers and roll in on manually operated wheelchairs, offer a few heavy Brooklyn inflections.

I recognize Turner as he enters from the back, looking visibly perturbed by the low turnout and stalling the program to wait for stragglers. He wears a cheap suit and carries himself with a bravado intended to look like authority, the same kind I’ve seen on more than one tyrannical office boss. He begins the service by commenting sourly on the sound of the air-conditioning unit, his Southern drawl registering as unfriendly despite my usual affection for the accent. As a warm-up for a small crowd eager to be healed, he rattles off stories of the healing God has done through him.

First up is an elderly man with a walker who Turner theatrically calls to walk again, to be healed by Jesus. The looks of amusement that Kurt and I exchanged earlier turn to horror as Turner demands the man to walk without assistance, a command that clearly frightens him. At Turner’s repeated insistence, he nervously pulls his hands away from the walker’s handles only to return them before gravity can take him down. The man looks petrified when Turner says he is going to pull the walker away from him. Likely fearing for his own safety but realizing he had reached a point of no return, the man takes a few panicked stumbling steps under unreliable hips. That I expected anything else was vain hope but seeing it manifest as cruelty sharpens the disappointment.

I lose count of how many times Turner yells “Fire! Fire! Fire!” as he forcefully holds the head of the woman cowering before him. “Devil, I break your power,” Turner commands as her posture grows more defeated against his cries. She has just confessed to involving the occult in her child’s divorce proceedings. In an Eastern-European accent I cannot place, she explains how she and her husband have been visited by a number of ailments since they turned to witchcraft in their attempt to be helpful. “There’s a wicked spirit, the spirit is holding you,” Turner tells her. Despite my skepticism of the basic premise of the event, his words crawl under my skin in a way I had not expected. I cannot shake the visual of a demon latched onto this frail woman’s body as she cries out but finds no relief in Turner’s healing methods. Takes one to know one, I think to myself before suggesting to Kurt that we leave. He is as eager to do so as I am.

We stumble out of the building and away from earshot so that we can make our pronouncements about the spectacle we’ve just witnessed. We burst into laughter first, the awkward, exaggerated kind meant to cover the guilt of this voyeuristic enterprise. I am apologetic for taking Kurt, my curiosity having turned to revulsion. Kurt tells me he expected a gimmick but is horrified that the effort is so clearly aimed at immigrants and the elderly, populations for whom navigating the unforgiving American health-care system is difficult, if not impossible. I remark on the plainness of this kind of evil. We part ways, taking separate trains home.

The sun sets as I take the F back to my apartment, and I expect on the way to be haunted by the looks of truly desperate fear I had just witnessed. But, instead, they quickly recede into my memory, alongside other suffering I have registered but have resisted dwelling in. They numbered only a few dozen that day and back in that room, but the sick running out of venues through which they might become well are legion. They are patients of the Lord’s mercy and easy prey to the devil’s power. And they only have so much time.

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