Many at healing service find at least some peace
St. Bernadette Catholic Church be gan to fill up hours before the healing service on Saturday, March 19.
The extremely ill and the children were directed to the front. Those lucky enough to get in before traffic to the church was halted filled every available pew, then began lining up along the walls and standing in the community room.
The room was filled disproportionately with middle-aged and older white women. There was lots of coughing and sniffling as they waited patiently, stoically accepting their own misfortune — diabetes, paralysis, cancer, back and shoulder pains or other ills worshippers hoped to be released from that night.
Slowly the people sitting down moved forward, advancing pew by pew as hundreds of others filled the seats behind them, awaiting the opportunity to be prayed over for a minute by Dr. Issam Nemeh, the region’s rising star of faith healing.
“I want miracles,” said Mary Sherman, 52, of South Euclid.
In Northeast Ohio, the ancient hopes for spiritual healing that travel throughout all cultures in all times are being pinned by many on this Bay Village acupuncturist, who last year at this time was laying on hands for smaller groups at Catholic Masses and healing services.
On Sunday, Nemeh tests his growing popularity with his largest venue yet: the Cleveland State University Wolstein Center. Arena seating is free on a first-available basis for the 11 a.m. healing Mass.
As with his recent healing service at St. Bernadette, Buddhists, white and black evangelical Protestants and New Agers will be among those in attendance seeking a miracle.
Nemeh has said he sees this as just the start of something bigger, an international movement. But with the growth of these services, where worshippers are told they are entering “a miracle zone” and are periodically pumped up with alleged medical success stories, he is treading a fine line between meeting the spiritual needs of the sick and raising expectations beyond reason.
So much suffering. So much hope for so many miracles. So much suffering.
What does it all mean for the thousands of hurting people flocking to Nemeh’s healing services? Science and faith have few definitive answers.
For now, many of the people coming to him believe he is a person chosen by God for a healing ministry.
“I believe God’s given him a gift to heal other people,” said Olinda Frazier, who uses a wheelchair and came with her husband from Akron to the service.
“I wish to be healed.”
From the healing prayers of the Psalms to the Gospel accounts of multiple signs of medical wonders including bringing the dead to life, there is a long tradition of praying for health in religious communities.
In services each week, it is a staple of nearly all religious traditions to pray for the sick in their midst. In recent years, with the greater appreciation of more holistic approaches to medicine that appreciate the mind-body connection, there also has been a movement to augment this approach with healing rituals.
Part of the growth in spiritual healing is because of a growing body of evidence showing strong faith is associated with longer life spans and greater recuperative powers. A survey of 850 studies showed that 75 percent made a positive connection between religion and health. When the American Academy of Family Physicians polled 269 doctors in the mid-1990s, 99 percent said religious beliefs can make a contribution to the healing process.
It just makes sense that people who are at peace with themselves, are optimistic about the future and feel they are not suffering alone but are cared for by a loving God and a larger community are going to do better medically than people without those support and coping mechanisms, researchers say.
What has not been shown is any scientific evidence that single-event healing services produce any noticeable long-term health benefit. Such claims are mostly in the realm of anecdotal evidence or personal faith.
Within the Christian tradition, the healers themselves attribute success to God working through them via the Holy Spirit.
Nemeh does not consider himself a faith healer.
“The only healer is the Holy Spirit,” he said.
No one encouraged to forgo medical care
At the St. Bernadette service, Nemeh walked back and forth along the front of the church, praying individually over each person. In several hours, he did not address the crowd, nor engage in any self-promotion.
There were no offerings. In keeping with church teaching, no one encouraged any of the participants to substitute the healing service for medical care. Most of the time was spent in quiet, meditative prayer, with periodic community prayer such as the rosary led by another member of the healing team.
This approach has won the support of leaders in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, who say the healing services seem to be legitimate spiritual expressions.
In a statement, Bishop Anthony Pilla said Nemeh and his healing team “are just doing this as part of their faith commitment and their belief that God can heal.”
The Rev. Robert Franco, diocesan delegate to Catholic Renewal Ministries, said healing ministries at their best offer people who are hurting the opportunity to experience the love of a community of believers.
After visiting one of Nemeh’s services, Franco said, “I had a sense this is powerful, a sense of love and openness and support there, which is good.”
But the church also cautions that why bad things happen to good people is at its core a theological mystery. People who are not healed should not think it was because they lacked sufficient faith.
The emphasis in the public portion of the St. Bernadette service, however, was on the possibility that people there that night would be physically healed.
“This is a miracle zone,” announced Philip Keller, a spokesman for the ministry.
Throughout the early evening, there were testimonies of miracles, of tumors being cast out and of a paraplegic who a year ago got up out of her wheelchair and walked out of a service.
“If God wants drama, he’s getting it tonight,” said Keller, a radio personality better known as Trapper Jack.
And out in the pews, there are hopes for miracles.
One woman who declined to give her name brought her son, who was paralyzed in his arms from a spinal cord injury. With just one good arm, her son could become independent, the woman said as she stood behind the first row of pews.
“He has to believe,” she said of her son. “He just has to believe.”
Hoping against hope for a rare miracle
True to his word, Nemeh stayed through the night, praying for more than 12 hours, even as Massgoers began to arrive for the 8 a.m. Sunday service at St. Bernadette.
There is little indication how many of the thousands of people who came before him have been physically healed.
But for the people who flock to these healing services, who know miracles are rare but hope against hope for one in their own lives, sometimes just a few moments of peace are enough.
“It gives you a good feeling just to come into the church.,” said Marge Sweeney, 73, of Westlake. “You just feel something good is going to happen even if it doesn’t help me.”
Jean Zaharakos of Cleveland Heights described her religious affiliation as being close to a Buddhist. But she said the healing ministry goes beyond any specific church.
“I don’t know what I’m hoping for,” she said. “I just feel very peaceful being here. There’s a sweetness here.”
In the end, there is a sense that most of the people here know they are not going to be experiencing a physical miracle. At least not on this night.
“As long as you believe, as long as you keep the faith . . . God will answer your every prayer,” said 33-year-old Rochelle Hooks, a nondenominational Christian from Cleveland. “It’s not in our time. It’s in God’s time.”
In her life, Joyce Deppisch wanted the arthritis in her knees to go away.
For several hours, all the way until early Sunday morning, she waited patiently in the pews at St. Bernadette for a minute with Northeast Ohio’s rising star of faith healing.
Thousands of sick people, some of them dying, some of them children in wheelchairs or with cancer, passed by before her. Around 7 Sunday morning, it was finally her turn to be prayed over and touched on her neck and shoulders by Nemeh.
Was it worth the wait?
“They [her knees] are not hurting right now, I’m hoping,” she said in a church foyer, looking out on a parking lot illuminated now by daylight.
But it was more than that. A feeling of peace, the opportunity to spend hours in prayer, the perspective on her own problems she received from becoming conscious of the suffering of others – all were enough for her, even if her arthritis pain returned.
“I think we’re all going to be healed, but we’re going to be healed in different ways,” she said. “It may be a physical healing. It may be a spiritual healing.”