Healing rooms: an embrace of prayer

At Northshore Healing Rooms, the prayer team lays hands on and prays over a prayer-request form to gain deeper insight into the needs of the person whose prayer session is about to begin. The Northshore facility, one of eight in the Puget Sound area, operates from a nondescript office in a Bothell business park.

Debbie Honeywell had been stoic for months, through radiation and chemotherapy designed to kill leukemia cells. But as one woman lay hands gently over her shorn dark hair, and another rested her palm over Honeywell’s heart, the tears seeped beneath Honeywell’s eyelashes.

“God will collect all your tears and bring you comfort,” said one of the women.

“Father, we pray for Debbie now,” said the other.

It was old-fashioned faith healing with a new twist: no promises, no proselytizing, no pressure for donations. Just simple prayer.

The two women usually pray over the sick in an office so plain it could be used for insurance sales, but because Honeywell was in the hospital, the faith healers went to her.

“We speak life to the immune system,” said Penny Thompson, a retired Army officer and assistant director of the Northshore Healing Rooms, located in a Bothell business park.

” … That new cells will come forth,” said Terri Kepler, a nurse and the healing rooms’ director. Then they prayed for the doctors who would treat Honeywell, that “they be guided by the Holy Spirit.”

Scenes like this are playing out in free healing rooms around the world — in thatched huts in Africa, in a small town in Scotland, in churches and storefronts throughout the American Bible Belt and along both coasts.

They are part of a nondenominational Christian faith-healing ministry, the International Association of Healing Rooms, which was started in Spokane 6 1/2 years ago by an evangelical Christian from California named Cal Pierce. Fueled in part by a book Pierce wrote, the ministry has spread to 20 countries.

There are 410 healing rooms in the United States and eight in the Puget Sound area, including one at Harborview Medical Center. They are run by trained volunteers with diverse backgrounds, from nuns to nurses to retirees.

The ministry is based on the belief that Christians are called to demonstrate God’s power on Earth rather than waiting for it to happen in heaven, and that one way to do that is through the power of healing.

Skeptics are plentiful — even among conservative Christians who believe God can heal, but in his own time and way, without help from prayer teams or healing rooms.

Some wonder if sick people are given false hope when they go to healing rooms. Others say prayer is nothing but a placebo.

Prayer and healing continue to be the focus of studies, with one of the most extensive to date, by a Harvard Medical School assistant professor, concluding in March that prayer by others had no benefits for heart-surgery patients.

Some dispute the use of such research, saying science is not meant to study the supernatural. Mindful that to many, faith healing conjures up images of Bible-wielding charlatans, Pierce set strict standards: Volunteers must be trained in the biblical explanation for healing, and in what to do, and not do, in the company of people seeking prayer. Prayer teams must not speak of prayer as a substitute for medical care. In fact, the ill must sign release forms saying they won’t make medical changes without first seeing their doctor.

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Pierce was a board member of the Assembly of God church in Redding, Calif., in the 1990s when he began studying the John G. Lake healing ministry, which flourished in Spokane at the turn of the century. A real-estate developer, he had planned to retire and travel with his wife in their RV.

But, as he says, God had other plans.

Looking for meaning, comfort

Lake, a Canadian insurance executive, had lost many loved ones to illness and came to believe there was more to healing than medicine.

He became a Methodist minister and devotee of a well-known turn-of-the-century faith healer in Los Angeles. In 1914, he moved to Spokane and started his Institute of Divine Healing, where he held healing-service revivals in packed tents.

Sick and curious people came from around the country seeking cures or to witness what many believed were miracles.

But after Lake died in 1935, the ministry lost momentum.

Pierce came along in 1996, saying he felt called to Spokane, where he opened the healing rooms and wrote a book, “Preparing the Way.” Now his healing ministry is internationally known.

Cultural anthropologists say the resurgent interest in faith healing is likely an outgrowth of the conservative Christian movement that has spread into the mainstream as people look for meaning in their increasingly complex lives.

While past generations had familiar community and family structures, much of that traditional support is gone. There is a search for simple solutions to the increasing sense of isolation, researchers say, and many find comfort in the message of God working in the present.

Someone in Northern Ireland picked up Pierce’s book and invited him to conduct a training seminar there. His visit piqued the curiosity of Lawrence Hiller, who had just started a healing ministry in Belfast through a church where ex-Catholics and ex-Protestants sought common ground amid religious strife. Hiller traveled to Spokane for training and says his Belfast ministry is thriving.

International visitors are common at the Spokane headquarters, which draws people who want to be prayed for, to start a healing room or to be part of a prayer team. The halls fill with the sound of murmured prayers, along with the scent of almond oil used to anoint as Pierce preaches against sickness and evil.

Later in the day, trainees are turned over to prayer teams, who summon the sick from a waiting room.

One by one, the teams pray over them — a child in a wheelchair, frail women, an anxious young man.

Does prayer work?

Central to the healing-room ministry is what’s called “intercessory prayer” — prayer offered up on behalf of another.

As the practice of such prayer has spread, studies have attempted to test whether and how it works.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard is a longtime researcher into the effects of the mind and spirituality on health. Though his recent study concluded that intercessory prayer did not help heart patients recover, Benson nevertheless calls belief powerful.

“We are overwhelmed by the response that medicine is only drugs and surgery. What we need is thinking of health care as a three-legged stool, with drugs and surgery being one leg, procedures the other and self-care and belief the other,” he said.

The findings of his study, however, also showed that patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications than those who knew only that such prayers were a possibility. Benson sees the results of the study as raising more questions than they answer.

A similar study by the University of Washington and the University of Michigan showed that heart patients who prayed had better recovery rates.

Amy Ai, a UW associate professor of social work who was the lead investigator for the study, also found a connection between prayer and above-average levels of optimism about recovery. Ai believes social workers and medical professionals will be more effective if they incorporate a client’s spiritual beliefs into treatment, though she says, “there is no magic bullet.”

“Spirituality is of profound value, but each person needs to be addressed as an individual.”

The Northshore Healing Rooms are open two days a week and draw about 25 visitors a day, far more than when the rooms opened a year ago. Kepler, the director, said that for some, the biggest benefit derived from a healing room may be a greater ability to cope with difficult treatments or transitions — from the rigors of chemotherapy to preparing to die.

Honeywell, 46, a nurse from Kirkland, was diagnosed with leukemia in October. Several months later she visited the healing room, with its industrial carpeting, folding chairs and — save for a lone sign declaring “In His Presence” — bare walls.

Later, she noticed that the 10- to 15-minute prayer sessions brought her a peace of mind that helped her eat and sleep and feel up to outings with friends.

It’s “just a warm and safe place,” she said, “a place of great joy.”

Honeywell recently underwent a bone-marrow transplant. As she recovers at University of Washington Medical Center, she finds her healing team a source of hope and peace.


This is no surprise to those who staff healing rooms — especially to social worker Meti Duressa, who opened the one at Harborview a year ago.

In what is called the “spiritual conference room,” Duressa, a native of Ethiopia, prays for people at the request of family members during her lunch hour and after work.

She keeps her spiritual activity separate from her employment — a Harborview requirement meant to avoid any conflict of interest, either on Duressa’s part or on the part of the state-funded hospital.

Last August she was asked to go to the bedside of Luke Larson, a 20-year-old in critical condition with a head injury from a car crash. Duressa rested her thin hands on him on prayed. Larson’s family had also sent out a prayer request through a network of friends.

Despite the prognosis that he might not live, Larson regained consciousness within days. Seven months later, he is mostly recovered, an outcome he and his mother attribute to prayer.

“I believe it was the Lord. When I saw the car, it’s amazing I wasn’t paralyzed or dead,” he said. He’s looking forward to returning to George Fox University in Oregon.

Sometimes, claims of miracles are really a matter of spirits being lifted. Other times they concern more profound events like cancers that go into remission, say healing-room staff.

Elsie Sharpe, 77, a Montlake Terrace resident, was diagnosed with lung cancer last summer and came to the Northshore Healing Rooms in despair. The other day, she shared the news that her latest scan for cancer showed it was not advancing. She is continuing with chemotherapy.

John and Kim Myers took their daughter Hannah, 2, to her pediatrician, who prescribed a year of antibiotics for a condition known as urinary reflux disease and for a chronic urinary-tract infection. Hannah’s parents gave her the antibiotics for three months and also took her to the Northshore Healing Rooms.

They were about to refill the antibiotics again when they took her back to the doctor to be retested. The tests showed she no longer had urinary reflux or an infection. The Myers attribute Hannah’s healing to the power of prayer.

Dr. Joseph McElvoy, the child’s pediatrician, is less certain. He said it’s possible that Hannah’s infection created a false positive for urinary reflux in the first place, but that at any rate, “I’m glad Hannah’s well.”

While Honeywell remains in the hospital, her prayer team visits her frequently, calling on God as her doctors call on science. The team keeps petitions warm and conversational.

“We thank you, Father in heaven,” Thompson prays, resting a hand over Honeywell’s head. “Let her be filled with life — life — life — life.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Seattle Times, USA
Apr. 9, 2006
Nancy Bartley, Seattle Times Staff Reporter
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 11, 2006.
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