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Playing With Fire

Chris Hummel was the life of the party until he joined Life Christian Center. There, the Holy Spirit set his soul aflame -- and his joy burned so bright it blinded him.


The shot glass slid like a hockey puck -- straight down the scarred wood bar to Chris Hummel. The liquid glowed in the dimmed after-hours light, promising pleasure. Chris stopped the glass deftly (he'd played goalie back at Lindbergh High School) and spun it into a half-circle, gliding the whiskey toward the next employee.

He'd found a different kind of Spirit.

Feeling his friend Kevin Ray's soft, puzzled stare, Chris turned to grin at him, then threw his head back and sang along with his hero, Garth Brooks, on karaoke. "See?" his eyes telegraphed to Kevin. "Nothing's changed."

Nothing, and everything.

Chris didn't expect to convert anybody at E.T.'s House of Rock, an easygoing little bar in Ronnies Plaza in South County. He'd worked a second job there for five years, and everybody knew his name. But since May, he'd started attending Life Christian Center regularly, and his friendship with Suzanne Davis had deepened, and she'd moved up to St. Louis and come to church with him. In one month's time, he'd felt his whole identity breaking open, the old, restless energy burning away. In its place grew something deep-rooted and pure and hopeful, and as it pushed upward, he could feel the rest of his life shifting, reorganizing itself around a new center.

He was happier than he'd ever been; even the guys at E.T.'s could see that.

Not that Chris hadn't had fun before, going with big groups to wineries, concerts or Six Flags, yelling at Blues games. This past year, he'd even learned to skydive, startling friends who'd teased him for years because he was such a cautious slowpoke that they had to pull over on road trips and wait for him to catch up. Skydiving was different: It exhilarated him, the freedom of it, the letting go. On slow nights at the bar he'd replay the video -- "C'mere, you gotta see this," he'd call to whomever was working. "Just look at that!"

His everyday life hadn't held as many thrills. Chris, now 34, had spent most of his life struggling with epilepsy, the worst of the seizures throwing him to the ground or entwining him in his bedclothes. He'd convulse and jerk in a macabre dance, making a snoring, gasping sound as though he couldn't get enough air -- at least that's what his older brother Bob told him. All Chris knew was that when the electric current stopped zapping his brain, he'd come to feeling blank and disoriented, his only clue the sympathy and horror in his family's eyes.

The oldest known brain disorder, epilepsy takes its name from a Greek word meaning "a condition of being overcome, seized or attacked." For centuries, people blamed demons; today, doctors trace abnormal electrical discharges in the brain. They also prescribe such anti-convulsive drugs as Dilantin, which Chris took every day to suppress any sputtering of electricity in his brain. He hated having to take the pills -- but two summers ago, when his brother treated him to a trip to Daytona to see the stock-car races, he got so excited he missed a few doses and paid with a violent seizure.

The suspense of waiting for the next seizure made the rest of life seem uncontrollable as well. Chris went to St. Louis Community College at Meramec and Southeast Missouri State University but never nailed down a degree. Never found a job he really loved, either. The best had been in high school, when he and his friends worked at his dad's cafeteria in Kirkwood. But cancer killed his dad before Chris could join him in the restaurant business full time. Instead, Chris found jobs selling everything from Toyotas to large appliances at Circuit City. He didn't love selling, but he loved meeting new people and helping solve their problems. When he worked nights at E.T.'s, he faithfully managed the kitchen's chaos, schlepped sticky beer mugs, brought out more ice before the last cubes melted. Even at parties, he usually noticed what needed doing -- turning the brats, running the errand, gathering up the baked-bean-smeared paper plates.

Then Garth would come on, and Chris would hold the plates higher and dance, and everybody would laugh along with him. He had a quiet, dry, Bob Newhart sort of wit, but he could be goofy, too. He wore a glow-in-the-dark Cat in the Hat hat to a haunted house just to make the kids giggle, and when Jackie Butler, a coworker at E.T.'s, broke her foot, he piled her, her crutches, her 9-year-old daughter and her daughter's best friend into his car and drove them to the Six Flags Frightfest, where he bought everybody a silly hat.

His high-school friends already had wallets thick with baby pictures; they couldn't understand what was taking Chris, so obviously the father type, so long. A frustrated knight-in-shining-armor, he'd married young, to a woman who already had two children, but the marriage ended as fast as it had begun. He'd been looking for somebody ever since -- at E.T.'s, he was famous for falling in love with every new waitress, but the women usually wound up choosing men who were not the father type and turning Chris into their best friend.

Then he found Suzanne, a slender redhead who'd been heartbroken and thought he was wonderful. They talked for hours about God and how to follow him, they read the Bible aloud and, every week, sometimes twice a week, they drove together to Life Christian Center and sang their hearts out. Suzanne felt that "instead of just being out there floating on water and wondering why I'm alive," she finally had a purpose. Chris felt as if he finally knew God and could choose a real relationship with him. Growing up Catholic, he'd breathed incense, sipped wine and gotten his forehead smudged with ash, but the theology had seemed as cloudy as the ashes, darkened by catalogs of sins and gossipy judgments. At Life, there was none of that, just Scripture writ large and projected overhead while Senior Pastor Rick Shelton -- a funny, handsome, happily married, warm and sincere guy who wore a coat and tie and talked plain English -- applied it to your life.

Chris stopped doing shots, stopped smoking, caught himself before he cussed. Even his occasional illogical bursts of temper subsided; he met the old frustrations with laughter instead. At Life, people talked about holy laughter, which came when the Spirit filled you to the brim and overflowing. Regular folks spoke in a whirlwind of tongues. People without any fancy theological degrees stood up and made prophecies. There were miracles and cures and healings, the sort he'd only read about in the New Testament. When people were "slain in the Spirit," their limbs went out from under them, just as his did during a seizure. But they fell full of grace, caught by their brethren, and they rose up again with their eyes shining.

In the pews alongside Chris sat couples who said their marriages had been healed, teens who said they'd found a faith more euphoric than the high from crack cocaine. Chris listened to the Word transfixed, and finally the day came when he felt the Holy Spirit rushing through his own body, washing him clean, filling him with light. From then on, he knew God was holding him close, pronouncing him worthy of an ecstasy so far from ordinary life, it had to be holy.

On a Tuesday evening a few weeks later, Chris stood beside Suzanne at the front of Life Christian Center's vast auditorium, and they rededicated their lives to Jesus. Chris' widowed mother came and sat in the back, fingers twined nervously in her lap, praying to all the saints that nobody would smite her forehead or urge her forward to be born all over again.

Chris knew she didn't understand. But he also knew -- it had started him bawling right there in church, the day the pastor preached it -- that all his sins were absolutely forgiven. He'd live forever, and he'd always be loved. There was nothing left to agonize over, nothing to fear or doubt or question. With God on his side, he could do far more with his life than hawk large energy-efficient refrigerators.

Chris and Suzanne had a new apartment in Mehlville, and he had an almost-new Ford pickup -- "Chris' red truck," they called it at E.T.'s -- with a Kenny-from-South Park figure dangling from the rearview mirror to remind him of an old joke. Chris kept Kenny hanging when he drove to his new job as a teller at Bank of America. He'd do well in this job, he assured Suzanne in a new, firm voice. Within six months, he'd be a personal financial officer. Then he'd open the restaurant of his dreams, a sports theme with a bit of God thrown in. He'd call it Walking in Victory, and he'd hang photos of football players down on their knees in prayer.

Somewhere in the middle of July, with everything falling into place, Chris made the biggest decision of his life. He stopped taking the epilepsy medication he'd taken every day since he was 5. The pastor would pray for him, he told Suzanne, and God would heal him.

The first time Chris drove to Life Christian Center, just west of I-270 off Gravois, he found it easily, oriented by the welcoming message on what was surely the world's largest time-and-temperature sign. Every Sunday morning, thousands of cars stream into this entrance, directed by a team of guys in fluorescent vests. Some drive golf carts stacked with orange cones; others hold walkie-talkies, steering people to parking spaces as if the service were a huge festival.

It is.

Inside the auditorium, everybody's smiling and hugging, and a rock-concert excitement hangs in the air. The light's bright and flat -- no flickering votive candles or sunshine streaming through stained glass. No statues of saints or angels, either; no dramatic cross or tabernacle. The arched backdrop looks more like a giant fireplace mantel than an altar, and the only decoration is a simple row of flags. On stage are a band, a microphone stand and a swaying, clapping choir on risers. Down the middle aisle, a video camera is perched on a tall stand just beyond the island of sound and light equipment.

The service starts with music so upbeat even the uptight fiftyish white guys sing loud. This is like karaoke -- you can't go wrong. Ushers pass out handheld devices so people can hear the sermon translated into Spanish or Russian (they'll soon have translators for Bosnians as well). Next comes the tithe (ushers pass envelopes for privacy, then big white plastic buckets, because people here give generously). Finally Pastor Rick takes the microphone, his style a persuasive mixture of savvy modern candor and old-time preaching. He's got the Southern twang, enunciating the ends of words with a pop, and he lets his voice crack a little as he builds to "the shoutin'" -- but he jokes about how people wait for that part, and he regularly commiserates with a congregation sick of feeling stressed, pressed for time, anchorless and unsure.

Life Christian Center was born in 1979, when Shelton was pastoring a little church in North Carolina. "God gave him a vision," explains Outreach Pastor Tony Portell. "He saw himself ministering to what he describes as a sea of humanity, and people were taking notes and getting up and going to minister to people who were hurting." The next year, Pastor Rick moved to St. Louis, rented a room at the Viking Lodge at Watson Road and I-270 and obeyed the vision, opening what he called Life Christian Center. The formal category was "nondenominational Christian charismatic": In other words, the worship flowed from the Pentecostal tradition, appealing to direct, emotion-drenched experience to celebrate the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In the New Testament account of Pentecost, Jesus' disciples were terrified by his death. They hid in a locked upstairs room and waited. There came a rush of wind, and the Holy Spirit appeared in tongues of flame, filling them with the confidence and power to go out into the world and preach God's word in every language.

Life Christian Center had similar ambitions. Within a few years, the church had grown from 18 members to hundreds, and they renovated a grocery store at the intersection of Gravois and MacKenzie roads for their services. In 1988, they bought a huge piece of property in Fenton, where their new vast church now stands. "It was landlocked; there was no access to it," recalls Pastor Tony, "so Pastor Rick bought it cheap. The man who owned one of the only means of access had cussed us out, but he ended up selling us the property. We believe God worked on his heart."

Today, more than 11,000 people call Life Christian Center their church, and between 3,000 and 4,000 attend every Sunday, from doctors and media professionals to addicts and a few homosexuals eager for a Christian home. "Jesus will love it right out of them," predicts Pastor Tony. "Anyway, homosexuality's not gonna keep anybody out of heaven. We will be judged for one thing and one thing only: Did we follow Jesus?"

That focus eases the hearts of single moms, divorced and remarried couples, people judged and shamed in other traditions. From Life's 15 pastors they hear no recrimination; instead, they're told again and again how deeply God loves them, how he yearns to be close to them. They also hear steady acknowledgment of their struggles for time, money, love and wisdom -- and they don't hear hollow words, abstract theories or mystical hocus-pocus. "We believe that God actually becomes present in our services," says Pastor Tony, explaining the deliberate absence of icons. "You can feel the presence, and that's what people want. They don't want to hear philosophy; they want to be inspired."

Life Christian Center has earned a reputation as a celebratory, powerful place. Last year, more than 24,000 people flocked to a four-day rodeo event at the church, eating foot-long corndogs; watching 300 cowboys rope calves, ride broncs and wrestle steers; listening to music from Charlie Daniels and poetry by Days of Our Lives star Austin Peck. In September, Pastor Rick announced his newest vision, which includes people of every race and creed (there's a special group to bring Jews to Jesus), as well as singles, single parents and blended families. "God told me years ago, and then gave a prophetic word this past week, that God was going to give us tithe of our city," he added. "A tithe of St. Louis city would be approximately 35,000 people. A tithe of the St. Louis metropolitan area would be 250,000. Those numbers seem as big to me as this crowd today did when I was lying on my bed in 1979 and received the vision."

Wednesday, July 26, 3:30 p.m. Steven Lundgren was heading east on South County Center Way, entering the Lemay Ferry intersection, when he heard a loud crash. He looked to his left and saw a southbound truck careening toward him at high speed. He swung the steering wheel hard, trying to get out of the way, but the truck crashed into the left side of his maroon Chevy Malibu, sending him flying into the center median and light standard. The truck came with him, still at high speed, its passenger door flying through the air as it hit the pole. When police arrived at 3:47 p.m., the truck was crunched on top of the Chevy, both vehicles facing east, their dented metal sides pressed against the electric signal pole. Lundgren climbed out on his own, his shoulder and leg slightly injured. The other driver's limp body was pinned inside the truck.

A few miles away, at E.T.'s, owner Joe DeBisschop got a call from a friend who was on his way to the bar, saying there'd been a big accident and he was stuck in a sea of rubberneckers. About 45 minutes later, Suzanne called, concerned because Chris hadn't shown up to give her a ride to work. "Oh, don't worry about it," replied Joe. "There was a big accident up here at Lemay Ferry -- he probably can't get on the highway."

Suzanne said she was worried something might have happened, because Chris had stopped taking his Dilantin. Instantly Joe flashed back to Chris leaning against the bar, talking about his new church and describing how he'd actually felt God's presence, how his whole spine had tingled with the supernatural force of it. Joe -- who usually talked and joked a mile a minute -- had cut the conversation short.

He reassured Suzanne with all sorts of possible explanations, but later, when his girlfriend phoned, he mentioned the incident. "Joe?" she interrupted in a worried voice. "That accident on Lemay Ferry and 270? There was a fatality. And it was a guy in a pickup truck."

Joe couldn't answer. "A chill went through my body like somebody touched me," he recalls. "When I found out what happened, I wanted to burn the church down."

It took a while to accept the fact that he didn't really know what had happened; nobody ever would, not even Bob, who went to the scene, climbed inside Chris' red truck and talked to the police. "They told me all about the speed he was driving, and how he hit cars and bounced off light poles." He must've had a seizure, Bob reasoned, and lost consciousness. "My brother didn't drive like that. He was in no hurry; he wasn't late. Besides, if you're conscious and you hit something, you hit the brakes immediately. Chris's sandal was still on the accelerator.'

When Dr. William Logan, Chris' neurologist, heard of his patient's death, his voice went husky. "He was a really nice guy," he said, and he repeated it. Then he regained his clinical crispness, noting that Dilantin is an immensely effective drug that, "in most people, prevents virtually every seizure discharge. You need to take it daily, though, and if you miss it for several days and it's out of your bloodstream, you're at risk again. Chris knew that." Logan sighed heavily. "When people with epilepsy die, it's usually because they quit taking their medicine and had a breakthrough seizure. If you're up on a ladder -- or driving a motor vehicle -- it's pretty unforgiving."

On July 28, the line of friends and family stretched out to the sidewalk of the Kutis Funeral Home in Affton. Inside, they played Garth Brooks songs and hung photos and talked hopefully about eternal life. Suzanne confronted the whispered rumors head-on, saying to each person in turn, "I know you heard that he was told by me, and by his church, not to take his medicine. That never happened."

"People who say he was gullible -- the man I knew was not gullible," she says now. "I don't think he knew how bad his seizures could be. I didn't know. I'd only seen the mini-mals (petit-mal seizures, lapses of consciousness lasting five to 15 seconds)." Suzanne didn't know how dangerous Chris' decision to forgo his medicine could be ("If he hadn't been taking it for a week, it was a ticking time bomb," says Bob), but she could understand his impulse: "He was at a point in his life where he was saying, "I don't want this thing to control me anymore.'"

After Suzanne assured Joe that the church hadn't even known Chris' intentions, his anger toward them softened -- a little. But just a few days after Chris' death, he says, a customer came into E.T.'s and described a man she knew who'd started going to Life Christian Center, stopped taking his anti-depressants and then hung himself. The next day, the beer distributor brought the week's delivery and mentioned a band musician who'd gotten all excited about that Life Christian Center -- and blown his brains out soon after. Three weeks later, word filtered back about yet another man caught up in the spirit of Life Christian Center. He'd thrown away his anti-depressants, and family members had to intervene.

Pastor Tony says the church never heard about any of those incidents: Chris' death was their first and only tragedy, and he'd been coming to Life such a short time (less than two months) that he hadn't even made it to the beginners' class. "We have had a number of people who, with enthusiasm, want to get rid of their medication," he remarks, "and we say, "That's presumptuous. If a doctor prescribed medication to you, then he's the only one who should tell you to stop taking it. If you are truly healed, that should be obvious to a doctor."

After Chris' death, the pastors at Life Christian Center met to make sure no one had talked with Chris about his plans to quit medication or given him the wrong impression of healing. "We've ministered to the family,' says Pastor Tony -- although all Bob remembers is a sympathy card from Donna Shelton, wife of Pastor Rick. "My mom may have talked to one of them," he says dubiously, "and I think I talked to somebody from that church for a while when the bar held a benefit in Chris' honor. But I didn't need any "ministering.' That's a mighty big word for them to be using."

Sunday, Aug. 20, 9:15 a.m. Most of the crowd pouring into Life Christian Center this morning never knew Chris Hummel. One man who did, a police officer, says Chris was as nice a guy as you'd ever hope to meet: "He really took in the word of God, and he had the faith -- but you know, miracles don't happen very often. God can make anything happen if he wants to, but it's not an everyday occurrence. I would've told him, "Chris, it's terrific that you've got the faith and you've been born again -- that is probably the most exciting thing that could ever happen to anybody -- but you have got to take your medication. God works through medication.

"I've never seen them teach or say anything like, "Don't ever take any medicine,'" he adds. "Now, every once in a while -- and maybe this is where Chris got some of his ideas -- the pastor will call people up there and put his hands on them, and 99 percent of them will fall to the ground. They actually work themselves up that way, get in a different zone. I think Chris maybe got into that altered state. But I don't want to say nothing bad about the church, because they do a lot for a lot of people."

After a good 45 minutes of soul-stirring music, Pastor Rick takes the microphone to emphasize today's topic: the unchanging certainties of Christianity. "We will be studying the Blood Covenant," he promises the congregation, "and it will give you a new boldness." He reads a few verses from Scripture, and hands fly into the air -- some bent at the elbow in the ancient open-palmed posture of praise, others raised high and angled forward, palms downward, as if to quiet the world. Pastor Rick is talking about Jesus as the only way to salvation, and the surefire fulfillment of prophecies that come from God" "Hindus might say that Mohammed prophesied ... what did Mohammed prophesy?" Laughter. "I lost my train of thought. Aw, the heck with it -- let's get back to the Bible." He returns in seconds, though, to his mislabeled refutation of Islam: "Mohammed fulfilled his own prophecies. Well, whoop-de-do." His index finger draws tiny, mocking circles in the air. The crowd's loving it.

Moving further into his sermon, Pastor Rick uses the undeniably brilliant colors of a rainbow, split from sun-pierced mist, as a bridge to faith. He harks back to the Old Testament covenant with Noah, then forward to an automatic proof of God's existence: "The rainbow does not belong to the New Age," he announces. "The rainbow does not belong to the gay movement. The rainbow belongs to God. And every time you see that rainbow, you will know that God is there."

People nod, first in happy agreement and then sadly, as Pastor Rick reminds them how easy it is to slip away from simple, absolute faith. "We will believe a doctor," he exclaims, "before we believe the word of God!"

Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1 p.m. Pastor Tony offers a tour of Life Christian Center -- the school that educates grades kindergarten through 12, the family center with restaurant, pool hall and bowling alley. There's an editing room to prepare videos of every service and a sound studio to record CDs.

After the tour, he talks about some of the more frequently misunderstood practices of Pentecostalism -- the allegations of "gibberish" when people speak in tongues, the TV-slick healings. "In the Bible, Paul speaks about the nine gifts of the Spirit," he begins, first explaining the "vocal" gifts of tongues (in which the mind is silenced so the Spirit can pray perfectly through the supplicant, for whatever God wills), interpretation of tongues and prophecy.

Next come the easily misused "revelatory" gifts, in which someone receives knowledge, wisdom or powers of discernment straight from God, with no chance for human error. Such gifts can be claimed too impetuously, and they're powerful tools for manipulation, so they require utmost pastoral caution. "We get people that are flaky," admits Pastor Tony, "but you don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Other churches have said, "We don't want the problems and the emotionalism, so we will just throw out all the gifts."

Instead, Life Christian Center relies on the prudence and wisdom of its pastors. Some graduated from established seminaries; others were "raised up" from the congregation. "We don't need a lot of theologians on staff; we need people who know what people are going through," notes Pastor Tony. You must have to know an awful lot about human nature to guide people through such fuzzy discernments, right? "No, you really don't," he replies easily. "It's more about sensitivity to God and being humble enough to recognize when God is speaking to us."

The last three spiritual gifts are the "power" gifts: miracles, healing and supernatural faith. "These are what you can build a career on," Pastor Tony jokes. "But miracles -- gosh, we've had people who have had financial miracles; out of nowhere, finances came to them. One couple was deeply in debt, and they hadn't shared their financial situation with anybody, and suddenly someone they didn't know wrote them a check that allowed them to pay off all their bills. Why? Because God prompted that person.

"Miracles are instantaneous," he continues, "but then there are gifts of healing, where we pray for someone and they just steadily get better. And sometimes God doesn't heal, and we don't have an answer for that. These are God's gifts; he chooses when to use them. We have had a number of people healed of cancers."

Pastor Rick's father was one of them. Woody Shelton describes his healing in Catch the Fire, a video produced by Life Christian Center to tell stories of faith healing hatred, addiction, desolation -- and disease. "Woody had cancer all throughout his body," the narrator says. "Doctors didn't give Woody much time to live." They removed his prostate in 1994, the narrator continues, and six months later a test showed more cancer in that area. Next, Woody tells how he went to church that Sunday, and the first song they sang started with the words "You have considered your God too small." "I said, 'Lord, forgive me for --'" Sobbing, he tries several times to finish the sentence, and finally prevails: "'Lord, forgive me for not trusting you.' And I told the Lord, 'From this time on, I will not take any more medication; I will not go to the doctor....' God's big enough to take care of anything. So I came home after the service and I got my medicine and I flushed it down the toilet."

Woody next describes how, at the evening service on the following Tuesday, an usher walked down to the front row and handed him a one-page letter that read, "As you lay there, I bathe your face with the light of the moon. I know all about the cancer. I'll be with you all the way." The letter, says Woody, was signed "Jesus." Trembling, he put it in his suit pocket, but he says when he went home and reached for it, the letter was gone. Woody adds that he'd situated his bed so the moon shone on his face when he prayed but that he hadn't confided the habit, even to his wife. He also says that, the following Sunday, when he asked the usher about the letter, the usher told him he'd never delivered any such letter.

For the next 30 nights, Woody says he was awakened with a burning pain but that on the 31st day it vanished. He knew he was healed.

Catch the Fire tells another story of physical healing, Leigh Aswad's dramatic deliverance from breast cancer, but the church was unable to arrange an interview with her -- or her physician, or Woody's physician -- for the RFT. Instead, they connected us with Roy Davidson of Pacific, Mo., who since the age of 7 had mystified doctors with abdominal pain so severe, he says, he'd "just curl up in a ball three or four times a year. For days after, my stomach would be so sore I couldn't even walk." When he was 30, Dr. John Eckrich did exploratory surgery, found four areas of erosion, diagnosed peptic ulcers, prescribed Tagamet and suggested that Davidson avoid stress. The pain worsened, so in 1984 he quit his job (administrative manager for an Anheuser-Busch subsidiary) and volunteered for a Pentecostal mission to Haiti. There, he suffered a bout so severe he was afraid he was going to die: "I was lying on an Army cot, and these guys walked in the room with a bottle of Mazola oil. I thought, "This is the ultimate joke -- they are going to crown me with Mazola oil?' But when he touched my forehead with his finger, I tell you, I thought somebody had shot me to the moon. They started praying in tongues, which I had never heard before. I fell asleep, I guess, and when I woke up, my pillow was soaking wet from crying. The next day, I had no bleeding in my stomach -- I used to pass (blood) -- and I went home feeling fine.

"Two years later, Davidson started having problems again. "I thought, "Oh no, here I've been telling everybody I was healed, and maybe I wasn't," he recalls. "But they did another endoscopy in 1987, and all the ulcers were gone." He drew great comfort from the surgical report: "No evidence of peptic disease" -- although the pain and bleeding, reclassified as irritable-bowel syndrome, continued until 1994.

Meanwhile, in 1993, Davidson joined Life Christian Center. He and his wife had attended a revival there, and he'd felt immediately at home. "This is real God," he told himself. "This is truth." He began attending services regularly and soon understood what his wife had meant by "joy." "To me, being a man, that was the silliest, girliest word I ever heard," he admits. "I always said, "I'm a happy guy' -- but now I know the difference. Joy is something you can only get from God. It's an indescribable peace and pleasure. People get drunk on a bottle of wine, but if you get dizzy and drunk in church with God, then you're crazy."

At a Tuesday-evening service in October 1994, Pastor Rick stopped preaching in midsentence. "He said, "The Lord's put on my heart that there's some healings going on now,'" recalls Davidson, "and that's when I heard this voice -- I always cringe when people say, "God talked to me,' but you really do hear an audible voice. God said to me, "You have been healed.' So I got up on the stage and told everybody I'd been healed, and Pastor Rick said, "Well, how do you know?' and I said, "I feel it.' And I have had absolutely no pain, no bleeding or anything, to this day."

Years later, Davidson experienced what he believes was a second healing after injuring his finger with a sander: "I laid it wide open -- must've cut an artery or something. It didn't bleed much, but it was black and blue. My wife said, "Oh my God, you've got to get that sewed up.' I said, "No, God knows what I did to my finger.'" All that night, he says, the wound throbbed. "The next morning we went to Life Christian Center, and I put my arms up in the air, and it was hurting so bad, I said to myself, "I guess I'm gonna have to go get this looked at,' and no sooner did I say that than the pain stopped. I brought my hands down and the flesh was healed. My wife and I just stared at each other. We were so taken we couldn't even talk about it."

For the first healing, Davidson gladly produces medical reports indicating that the ulcers (although not the pain) had disappeared. For the second, he has no documentation. "I tried to write it down one time, and I couldn't remember all the details," he says. "When something that profound happens, you are not in your right state of mind. But this is the reason I can go to Uganda, where the rebels are chopping off arms. I have seen God's healing power." Davidson and his wife now run a mission, under the spiritual authority of Life Christian Center, in Masindi, "where people don't have doctors and if God doesn't come through and heal them, they have no choice."

Back in the States, he must walk a trickier gauntlet. "When I testify, all I can tell people is what has happened to me," he says. "I don't try to tell them to do the same; I just try to tell them to be wise. I tell them, "If you think that medicine is helping you, then God can use that medicine.' I've known lots of people who've stopped taking medicine, and I know people who've gone back to taking it." What about psychiatric drugs, such as anti-depressants -- can faith substitute for them? "There I'd be bold and say yes," he replies. "I've had some myself, back in the '70s with all the stress, and drugs just cover it up. That's how I got into church, in fact. In '78 I was having a little minibreakdown, and I was so nervous I had to take some time off work. So I found a phone book and ran my finger down it to pick a church. It was a Methodist church near where I lived, and I went and talked to the pastor. He didn't tell me not to take the (tranquilizers), but he said, "You are not going to need any medicine. God's the healer, and he can solve your problems.'"

Tuesday, Sept. 19, 7 p.m. The music is even more intense than usual, and people throw their hearts into the lyrics projected on the wall. "Jesus, what a beautiful name," they sing. "Truth revealed. My future sealed. Healed all my pain." The tempo slows, modulating to something sweetly sad, and the melody dips down into melancholy for just a second before pumping back up again, skillfully avoiding the slough of despond. Then one of the pastors steps to the microphone, and silence falls. In a somber voice, he reminds everyone that they're family. Then he gently delivers the news: Pastor Rick's father died that afternoon.Six years after his own healing, William Edward "Woody" Shelton, struck again by cancer, had received the greatest miracle of all: He'd gone to be with Jesus.

Sunday, Sept. 24. It's a gray, cool, rainy Sunday morning, the kind God made for sleeping in, but people are already pouring into Life, wide awake, ready to clap and sing and rejoice. "How many of you know we serve a good God?" calls Music Pastor Jacque DeShetler, bringing her microphone up close. The crowd roars back, remembering it as Woody's favorite line. One woman bursts into happy tears. Then the band starts, bass reverberating in the wooden benches, and a pretty Asian teenager dances in place like backup for a Motown act. "Many are the afflictions of the righteous," read the projected lyrics, "but the Lord will deliver me out of them all."

When the music quiets, Pastor Rick takes the microphone and talks about his father's life, death and funeral. "My father went on to be with the Lord," he says quietly. "You feel the loss and you feel the pain, and that's natural. But at the same time, the apostle Paul says, "Do not sorrow or grieve like those who have no hope.'" From the pews, people call "Yes," and their rough, sure voices hold every loss they've ever weathered.

"In 1994," continues the pastor, "my dad was healed of cancer, completely healed of cancer. It was a miracle of God. But since that time there have been many, many people who have received the healing power of Jesus in their bodies and been miraculously healed by watching that testimony. After he was healed, my dad developed an instant passion for praying for the sick. A woman he prayed for was miraculously healed on that very day." He pauses. "Why didn't God heal him this time? I have an answer for that: I don't know."

There's an even harder question: Did the pastors of Life Christian Center ever stop to think that people might hear Woody's taped and oft-told testimony of healing, and others' testimonies, and, in a brave burst of faith, give up their medications, too?

Pastor Rick is unavailable for comment because of his father's death, but Pastor Tony notes, "Even when Woody would stand in the church, we would put a disclaimer on it: "This is something that Woody wanted to do; this was in his heart. This is not necessarily the best thing for you to do.'"

What Life Christian Center does is what the Pentecostal movement -- now said to be the fastest-growing religious movement in the world -- has always done: cut past outworn creeds and ceremonies to reach what Harvard theologian Harvey Cox calls "primal spirituality, that largely unprocessed nucleus of the psyche in which the unending struggle for a sense of purpose and significance goes on." At places like Life, believers find primal speech (speaking in tongues, holy laughter), primal piety (trances, visions, prophecies, healings) and primal hope in the better world that faith in Jesus guarantees.

They also catch the fire of the Pentecostal religious experience: unleashed emotion, contagious belief and spiritual catharsis, building to an ecstasy seldom found anywhere else in modern life. It's profound and enlivening, but it's also dangerous territory: You are lowering the barriers of caution, logic, skepticism and even common sense, and all you can fall back on for proof is a gut feeling you sure hope is the Holy Spirit.

Organized religion has long struggled to contain and interpret this kind of raw experience -- the burning bush, the voice from the clouds, the sudden manifestation of "Spirit" that convinces the faithful of God's absolute and overwhelming power. Most clerics play it safe, leavening the strong emotions with solemn, prayerful rituals and soothing litanies, doling out awe a few cookies at a time. But the Pentecostals gorge on dessert, giving themselves over to God's powerful and seductive charisma in a whirl of clapping, swaying, dancing, singing, crying, shouting, falling, testifying, prophesying, dreaming visions, speaking in an unintelligible rush. Giving up control, they enter altered states of consciousness in which they act almost automatically, moved not by the conscious mind but by a force that takes them over, a force so intense it must be the Spirit. The experience confirms itself, generating a tremendous rush of confidence.

What happens in an adult religious conversion like Chris', then, is the same thing that happens in sucessful psychotherapy: People begin to feel capable of doing things they've never been able to do before. They also feel impelled to do what they think God wants -- an impulse so ancient, the Council of Nicea had to issue an edict discouraging self-mutilation because, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said, "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off ... if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.... If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out."

In the cool light of day, it's hard to imagine someone following those instructions literally. But according to Sister Carla Mae Streeter, O.P., professor of systematics and spirituality for Aquinas Theological Institute at St. Louis University, a religious conversion can be as addictive as a narcotic -- and just as dangerous, if the person does not turn to someone wiser to check out his newfound ideas. "If someone is fresh out of a life of searching, they are as vulnerable as a newborn babe. It's easy for them to leap from sensory experience (the music, the words, the rush of feeling) into a judgment. They skip that all-important middle step, which is to question. And without questioning, it's easier to make rash decisions. You form a nice tight little judgment, and you become gullible spiritually.

"It's very easy to be manipulated, even by yourself," she continues, "if the spiritual enthusiasm of religious conversion is not balanced by a total respect for all that is human, including the body God gave us. We are always tempted to divide spirit from flesh and choose one over the other. But being human means living in the tension between the two.

"God doesn't only develop the "holy' part of the person," adds Streeter. "When God is really working on someone's life, there is wholeness, a balance that shows in the decision-making. We become peaceful, patient, temperate."

Pastor Tony says Life Christian Center guards against the dangers of impulsivity, literalism and distortion by insisting that zeal always be paired with wisdom. Only then can the Holy Spirit help someone discern what is truly "of God" and what is just that person's own wishful thinking. "Zeal is like fire," he adds. "It can warm passion, but it can also destroy people."

The pastors would have been even more direct in their teaching, he says, had they known that Chris intended to stop taking his medication: "Some people, in their enthusiasm and zeal ..." His voice trails off sadly. "As a church, we can guide people in their faith, but we can't live it for them day by day. I think a lot of it's condemnation, too, that comes from Satan, who would love to destroy the person's life, especially now that they are a believer.

"In one sense, I guess, Chris could have still been at a bar drinking," he adds. "We rejoice because the decision we feel he made assured his eternity. But we didn't even know he was sick."

At Chris Hummel's funeral, mourners again heard the classic Christian consolation: He's still alive, in a better place. "All I know is, if he wouldn't have ever heard of that church, he'd still be alive here," mutters Joe De Bisschop at E.T.'s. But Suzanne and other of Chris' friends take comfort in the completion of the circle: Chris' faith saved him, and it may have killed him, too -- but then it saved him forever. "To realize he felt like, "If I leave the earth this minute, I know where I'm going' -- that right there just makes you feel so thrilled for him," says Suzanne. "He's got what he wanted; the life he dreamed could be here, he's found in heaven. There is no more need for medicine."

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