On a sweltering August night, 600 people packed First Presbyterian Church, Downtown, seeking miracles. Beneath the darkened Tiffany windows, several of them lay crumpled on the floor, where they fell after evangelist Billy Burke laid hands on them.
Jackie Lacey, a middle-age Brookline woman, said she was healed of arthritis at July’s meeting. Now she was seeking help for back pain. Before Mr. Burke could touch her, she shouted in tongues and passed out.
When she arose, he asked how her back felt. “No pain,” she said. She began dancing and shaking her ample hips. Then she sprinted around the church.
Although such events are unusual in Presbyterian churches, they have a hallowed history at First Presbyterian, where the renowned Kathryn Kuhlman held healing services from about 1950 until her death in 1976. Mr. Burke, who grew up in Greensburg, says that, in 1962, at age 9, he was healed of brain cancer when she touched him in this church.
He has run the Billy Burke World Outreach from Tampa, Fla., since 1989. The Pittsburgh Prayer Network has brought him to First Presbyterian monthly since October.
Hundreds attend the four-hour services. On Aug. 27, they hailed from at least four continents, from Russians to Nigerians. They brought ailments: pancreatic cancer, macular degeneration, fibromyalgia.
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Mr. Burke, in an ivory suit matching his white-blonde hair and gold-tipped shoes, spoke gently with each sufferer. At his touch, most collapsed into the arms of waiting ushers. As he preached, he told everyone to repeat his words. When others mock their faith, he said: “It will settle the issue” — the crowd echoed this — “when I walk in to them … healed, delivered and anointed.”
That’s what Linda Hansford, of Oakdale, said happened to her in May. She came to the church with a list of ailments that started in 1984 with a deteriorating spine. Despite three surgeries, she said, she was in severe pain for 22 of her 52 years.
When Mr. Burke touched her, “I felt the purest peace.” The pain was gone.
“I have an inner joy that I have never had in all my life. I came home dancing,” she said.
Asked whether she had medical proof of her recovery, she said her doctor would take X-rays at her next appointment.
Ms. Hansford’s new pastor, at Berean Fellowship in Scott, doesn’t need to see tests. “She has basically become an evangelist, going up and down her street, sharing what happened. Her husband says it’s a whole new life,” said the Rev. Mark Moder, whose church supplies helpers for the service.
“You can get people excited at the moment. But three or four months later, you can’t fake anything,” he said.
Mr. Burke said that when he was a child, he entered the Downtown church in pain and partially paralyzed after unsuccessful surgery for brain cancer. He was expected to die within weeks without radiation, which might have given him six months, he said.
Over doctors’ objections, he said, his grandmother persuaded his parents to sign him out of Montefiore Hospital and take him to see Ms. Kuhlman.
They sat in the balcony, where she pointed to him and said, “You are being healed of cancer.”
He said he resisted as ushers brought him to her. But when she asked if he believed, he said, “Yes.”
When she touched him, he fell, as if pinned to the floor, he said. When she touched him again, “I could feel something moving through me. Up, down, to my feet and back up to my head, down to my feet, up to my head. Every cell in my body was energized.”
His pain was gone, his body healed, he said.
Asked whether he had medical records, he said they were lost after 1966, when his mother took her two sons and fled their father with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. His mother, Thelma, is still in Greensburg and backed his story.
Between his parents’ divorce and his younger brother’s death at the hands of a drunken driver, Mr. Burke had lost his faith by age 20, he said. But again, Ms. Kuhlman intervened
She asked him to testify at one of her Ohio meetings, he said. He went reluctantly, and regrets that he didn’t treat her respectfully.
“She said, ‘You will do what I do,’ ” he said.
And it came to pass. He attended the Melodyland School of Theology in Anaheim, Calif., then ministered in Western Pennsylvania. After a divorce, he moved to Florida in 1989.
He preaches a moderate form of what its critics dub “the health and wealth gospel.” At its most crass, this theology says that God wants all Christians to be healthy and prosperous, and that illness and poverty are because of their own sin or weak faith.
Mr. Burke appears to avoid the extremes of the movement. He tells people to get medical care.
“We believe miracles and medicine mix,” he said.
He hedges on whether lack of healing is due to lack of faith, saying it often is but that each case is unique. He said he had seen unbelievers healed.
“None of the people Jesus healed were Christians,” he said.
Amy Artman, who is doing a doctoral dissertation on Ms. Kuhlman at the University of Chicago, said Ms. Kuhlman never blamed people who weren’t healed.
“Throughout her ministry, she constantly emphasized that God chooses to heal who he will, and doesn’t heal who he doesn’t,” she said.
The Trinity Foundation, of Dallas, has a hot line to report fraud or abuse by televangelists. Ole Anthony, president of the foundation, said Mr. Burke’s file held “a couple of minor complaints.
“They’re people that were promised to be healed that weren’t healed,” he said.
Mr. Burke said he wanted everyone to leave his meeting better than they came in.
“The least I want them to leave the meeting with, the least that they get, the bottom rung on the ladder, is that they leave with hope,” he said.
His ministry deals with more than illness.
At a recent service, a woman came forward escorted by her daughter and her daughter’s fiance. Instead of attending to the older woman, Mr. Burke homed in on the engaged couple, James Winterbottom, 38, and Christina Essay, 25, both of Trafford.
When Mr. Burke asked about their marriage plans, Ms. Essay blurted out, “We’re living in sin.”
Mr. Burke questioned them further. They hadn’t set a date because they were dealing with other issues, she said. Mr. Winterbottom said he was once a strong Christian, but had slid backward.
Mr. Burke gave him a short lecture on honoring his fiancee. “If you really love each other, you will put the Lord first,” he said.
He had them face each other, as if making marriage vows.
“Repeat after me, but only if you believe it,” he said, leading them through a promise to change their lives.
He laid hands on them. Both hit the floor.
At another point, the healer reached out in a different way.
“There’s a lady here with lumps on her breasts, so she can feel them. … You are being healed of them!” he said.
Everyone waited, but no one appeared.
Some time later, a woman handed him a cell phone, to pray with her friend who was too ill to attend. Her friend had a brain tumor, shingles and “lumps on her breasts.” The call was broadcast.
“I’m going to pray those lumps will go away,” he told the woman on the phone. “Do you believe?”
“Oh, yes,” she said.
He asked those in the congregation to raise their hands in prayer. “Remove every lump. Let them begin to disappear, right now, right now, right now, in Jesus’ name.”
When he asked if she could still feel them, there was a silence.
“They’re still there,” she said.
When he is ministering, he said, the Holy Spirit covers him like a heavy coat, allowing him to perceive things beyond his senses.
“You can smell faith,” he said of why he zeroed in on certain people. “It’s like a radar.”
A frail-looking man hooked to an oxygen bottle said he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and prostate cancer.
Mr. Burke prayed, then asked him to remove his oxygen and walk down the aisle. He did, then strode to his family and embraced his weeping daughter, Brenda Samella, 45, of Latrobe.
Mr. Burke homed in on her. She wore a pink ribbon on her black tank top. She had undergone a double mastectomy for breast cancer and faced a hysterectomy for precancerous growths.
“Did you see what happened to your father?” he asked as he reached to touch her. She screamed and collapsed.
Mr. Burke continued to pray over her: “He is greater than any cancer that can hurt your body. He brought you here to live.”
Soon, her husband and daughters were also on the floor. Her father, still without oxygen, stood by, beaming. Others awaited his attention, but Mr. Burke was riveted on Ms. Samella. He told the ushers to help her up.
“Death is coming off you tonight,” he prayed over her. “Death and fear are coming off you. Cancel your plans to die.”
Her whole body shook.
“That shaking means it is leaving you,” Mr. Burke said. “Say, ‘I’m going to live. I will keep everything and lose nothing. This, too, shall pass. Let me go. Let me go. Let me go.’ “
She screamed again and fell.
Afterward, she was beaming and said she felt “really good.” Her gaze was fixed on her father, still breathing unassisted.
“Do you see my father? I haven’t seen him without oxygen for more than two years.”
Four days later, she was still praising God. She hadn’t seen a doctor, but had regained movement in her left shoulder, which had been painfully immobilized since her surgery. Her father was back on oxygen, she said, but had been for a prostate test, and his prostate specific antigen level was normal.
“I’m so at peace. God is amazing,” she said.