It might not have occurred to my parents to send me to a faith healer if it hadn’t been for my sister’s accident. Barb had been throwing rocks in the parking lot of the Desert Chapel Foursquare Church with some of the other church kids when Sister Busby’s son, Lester, threw one that accidentally hit Barb in the eye. Blood seeped between her fingers while Lester cringed on the asphalt, taking his mother’s blows without a sound. By the time Dad brought Barb home from the emergency room, her left eye was swaddled in a thick white bandage. Mom spent the next two weeks reminding her not to play with it, not to pull it off, that the doctor said no light in that eye.
We went to a prayer meeting the night before the doctor was scheduled to remove Barb’s bandage. She’d had it on so long it had turned black, the gummy edges curled. At the end of the service, Barb went to the altar with the adults. Brother Morrow knelt in front of her. He dabbed oil on her forehead while our parents and other adults hovered in a ragged arc behind her. They prayed, sometimes in unison, sometimes in turn, sometimes in tongues. People waved their hands in the air, flagging God for a healing. Hallelujah, Jesus!
I want to take my bandage off now, Barb said.
The air went still as a sealed jar.
Dad knelt in front of her and peeled off the bandage. He cupped her face in his blunt hands and covered her uninjured eye. What time is it, baby?
She looked at the industrial clock on the back wall, her mouth a small “o.” Then: 10:45!
Everyone erupted. I watched from the second-row pew as Dad wove through the knot of believers, holding his dainty miniature on his shoulders like an icon. He was King David dancing into Jerusalem before the Ark of the Covenant, carrying physical evidence of the Lord’s singular blessing. People reached for my sister, touching her leg or arm. People cried and said, Praise you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord, while she bobbed above us, beaming, her perfect eyes translucent with light.
Several years later, my sixth-grade teacher was the first to catch on to the fact that I couldn’t see the chalkboard. Maybe he noticed how I couldn’t answer the questions he’d written unless he read them aloud first, or how I spent an inordinate amount of time sharpening pencils and dawdling at the front of the room, or how when I volunteered to wipe the board and clean the erasers after class, I went more slowly than the other kids, trying to read what I’d missed earlier in the day. He insisted my parents take me to an optometrist. The week after the visit, I heard Dad tell the story a dozen times. The kid’s legally blind, he’d say, shaking his head, smiling or chuckling as though I’d done something remarkable by hiding my myopia for so long. Mom chafed at the flaw. How could I be so blind when she had perfect eyesight? Dad had perfect eyesight! Barb had perfect eyesight—even after the accident! For her, or maybe for both of my parents, I must have seemed damaged, and the damage, in our church, reflected on our faith. Maybe Barb’s earlier experience made my half-inch-thick glasses seem an affront rather than another kind of miracle, though it felt like one to me when they transformed the wholly obscure world into focused sight. In the wake of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong planting an American flag on the moon, anything must have seemed possible to my parents. Now, in a long glance back, I see what followed as an act of cleromancy to suss God’s favor and will—both of which already seemed random and indecipherable to me.
My parents called me into their bedroom one night. They sat on the edge of the bed, Dad in his standard white T-shirt and boxers, Mom in a pilled lavender gown. They asked if I wanted to be healed like my sister. Did I want perfect eyesight, too? I said, Yes. I must have been thinking they were going to pray for me, maybe cover my eyes with gauze for a week or two then pull off the bandages at church. Instead, they told me they were sending me to a healing service in Los Angeles. If I had enough faith, Mom said, I’d be able to throw away my glasses when I left the service.
I rode the hundred or so miles from Palm Springs to Los Angeles with Sister Dietz, one of my least favorite sisters at the church. A middle-aged divorcée with silver-framed cat-eye glasses and a crush on Dad even a twelve-year-old could see, she’d cleansed the sins of her former life by graduating from L.I.F.E. Bible College, the seminary affiliated with the Foursquare denomination. After several hours in traffic, we arrived at the Angelus Temple.
I’d never been to Los Angeles—or any big city—so nothing could have prepared me for it. Situated a block away from LA’s iconic Sunset Boulevard, the Temple had been built almost fifty years earlier, during the faith’s halcyon days. Founder and failed Hollywood starlet Aimee Semple McPherson oversaw the construction. Its columns were reminiscent of the Colosseum, and the length of the building spanned half a football field. Arches graced the seventeen entrances, sweeping the eye upward. The dome top, 110 feet high and 107 feet wide, was constructed from cement mixed with crushed seashells, which turned it blinding-white in sunlight. When McPherson consecrated it on January 1, 1923, the dome was the largest in North America, a fact that wouldn’t change until the Empire State building was constructed seven years later. At its peak stood a large cross flanked by two latticed radio towers. It could have been lifted from ancient Rome. Or The Twilight Zone.
The day we visited, a red banner hung at the entrance, proclaiming, Kathryn Kuhlman Miracle Service! Sister Dietz pulled me inside and pointed to various photographs. McPherson posing in a slinky white gown at the top of a staircase, her head thrown back, eyes half-closed, framed in an ecstasy of light. McPherson clasping a girl of seven or eight to her chest, an empty wheelchair behind them. McPherson in aviator goggles and leather cap, waving from her personal plane. On another wall, framed newspapers: the Bridal Call Foursquare (“An Aimee Semple McPherson Publication”) and the Foursquare Crusader (“Official Organ of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel”), published from the 1920s through 1944, the year McPherson died of a drug overdose. In one, dated September 16, 1936, the banner headline read Reds Hammering at Our Gates. Along the left margin, under the caption Miracles at Temple, I saw two first-person accounts of healing. One from cancer. One from blindness.
I thought about asking Sister Dietz if she’d ever seen anyone get healed, but I was afraid of seeming skeptical. Even though everyone at church believed Barb’s mended eye had been a miracle, I wasn’t so certain. I knew my doubt might kill any chance for healing, but I couldn’t help it. If I could see a kid in a wheelchair stand up and walk again, I knew I’d believe. Or if I saw a missing limb sprout from its empty socket—the kind of miracle that regularly happened at these services, according to church members—that would clinch it. I’d heard that Aimee Semple McPherson had healed thousands of people when she was alive, and her protégée, Kathryn Kuhlman, had already healed hundreds, but I couldn’t help thinking that if all these miracles were really happening, surely they would be reported in papers circulated outside the church. I’d seen articles about current events in My Weekly Reader. It covered the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. and the presidential election. Those were big stories, I knew, but if someone was growing a new limb and tossing away crutches, wasn’t that a big story, too? Was the silence part of the media’s conspiracy of ignorance, as Brother Morrow called it? Could be—I’d already witnessed grownups outside our church conspiring in mass delusion in other ways. Like the time I got in trouble at school for telling other kids Santa didn’t exist. My second-grade teacher excoriated me in front of the class before documenting Santa’s existence with newspaper articles and an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. If the media were perpetuating outright lies, who was to say they weren’t also suppressing truth?
Sister Dietz elbowed us through the crowded foyer and into the auditorium, where ushers handed us tracts and pointed to the balcony. We climbed two flights of carpeted stairs and wedged ourselves into two of the 5,300 crushed-velvet theater seats. While the auditorium filled, we watched a pictorial montage of the church’s history. It consisted primarily of scenes from Aimee Semple McPherson’s famous illustrated sermons, starring McPherson dressed as a motorcycle cop (Stop! For Jesus!); posing in a milkmaid outfit; feeding the poor; and holding a white Bible in her left hand, her right fist raised to a towering cardboard gorilla (Keep Darwin out of our schools!). The final image dissolved as though eaten by acid, and the screen retracted to the ceiling. Lights dimmed. A figure floated from the dark wings to center stage.
Beloved, she whispered into the microphone she cradled with both hands. The acoustics were so perfect, we could have heard her even if the crowd hadn’t gone quiet.
A spotlight snapped on, revealing a pale, wraith-thin woman with curly hennaed hair, wearing a bridal gown reminiscent of those in McPherson’s earlier photographs. Kuhlman’s sleeves trumpeted lily-like around her wrists; she resembled an angel when she reached her arms toward the crowd.
She brought the microphone to her lips. Bent double.
Jesus. Her scarlet mouth nearly touched the microphone.
Jesus. The last ess sizzled to silence.
She told us we were perfect. Already whole. She spoke in a raspy whisper, stressing every other syllable in a way that gave her voice a chant-like cadence that comforted but didn’t convince. Was I broken and damaged—the reason I’d been sent here—or already whole?
I tried to work out whether it would be worse to admit I didn’t feel the call or to go forward, hoping to hear the call on my way or to find it there, at her feet. Sister Dietz glanced at me, her forehead holding a tiny furrow. She might have felt complicit in my failure. All I could do, though, was watch other people pour down the aisles, wipe their eyes, and straggle up to the stage. Kathryn Kuhlman paused in front of each trembling person. Do you want healing? she whispered into the microphone. When they nodded or said, Yes, she placed her hand on their heads and said, Then you have been healed. At those words, some people fell to their knees, others staggered backward, and a few slipped to the floor, boneless as eels. Those on the floor lay slain in the spirit while men covered them with Army blankets. A few people in wheelchairs slumped sideways. Men wheeled some away and helped others to their feet, holding their elbows as they stumbled to the dark wings offstage, making room for more people to scuttle into the light. At the end, I remained rooted to my seat, wondering if I’d missed a miracle or a humiliation.
Decades later, studying the mystics Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich, I wonder at the thread of heresy woven into Kathryn Kuhlman’s words that day. When she told the despairing, broken bodies lined up in front of her that they were already healed, was she trying to tell us about a God who finds perfection in our imperfection? Was she suggesting the absurdity of a God who favors perfect bodies while continuously creating imperfect ones? Was she commenting on how sadistic it was, really, for that God to heal some people but not others? Was she whispering out of fear or sorrow, the way I imagine Meister Eckhart did when facing papal inquisitors: How long will grown men and women in this world keep drawing in their coloring books an image of God that makes them sad?
I didn’t think about mystics or esoteric ideas of God on the silent drive home with Sister Dietz, though. Instead, I stared out the sand-pitted windshield, dreading the moment I was headed for, when I’d walk through the front door to face my parents, my glasses revealing what I could no longer hide: my faith was even weaker than my vision.