The stores on 14th Street are the usual. There’s a McDonald’s and a Taco Bell, a post office and a Salvadoran restaurant between U and T. There’s a shoe store, a dry cleaner and a thrift shop. And right in the middle is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a storefront Pentecostal church with a plastic marquee.
This is the place where 17 people are having their souls saved this night.
Soul-saving happens here for an hour every Thursday and Sunday.
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is part of a Brazilian-originated faith that has 10 million members in more than 90 countries. It was the subject of controversy in Brazil in 1995 when a pastor approached a statue of the country’s patron saint on national television and kicked it repeatedly. The “Kicking of the Saint,” as it came to be known, earned the church the condemnation of Roman Catholic officials.
At the church on 14th Street, there is no saint-kicking, just an open room with white linoleum floors and rows of red chairs facing a platform. On the platform is a large cross and, inexplicably, a menorah. The pastor, Sergio Medina, wears a blue shirt with a white collar. His four assistants are dressed like caterers, in black pants and white shirts. One assistant passes out programs, which list various demonic curses that may afflict parishioners: hereditary, word of mouth and witchcraft. The hereditary curse, passed from generation to generation, is said to last 200 years, more or less.
Tonight, Pastor Medina invites the 17 people being saved to the front of the room to pray. One of his assistants hits “play” on a tape recorder, and reedy oboe music fills the room.
Parishioners put their hands over their hearts, close their eyes and repeat a Bible verse from the Book of Matthew. Medina asks them to raise their hands in the air, then to place them on their heads.
People start speaking in tongues.
In movies when people speak in tongues, the sound is guttural, lots of “Lllll” and “Gggg” sounds. But this has sharp S’s and T’s, like Harry Potter Parseltongue. It’s also loud.
At one point, Medina, who holds a microphone and is singing with a tape-recorded hymn, asks the congregation to speak more softly so they can hear him better.
The church believes that health, relationship and monetary troubles are related to demonic possession, although it recognizes that “demons” can also refer to paralyzing feelings of guilt or inadequacy. A large part of the service is focused on exorcising demons through the laying of hands. Medina and his assistants are said to have the power to command out evil spirits in this way. Most people seem to be cleansed easily, with a few drops of oil.
But one woman appears to harbor a particularly troublesome demon. Medina clutches her head with his left hand while grasping the microphone with his right. “Come out, demon!” he shouts. “You will come out now!”
The demon apparently is too powerful, so Medina instructs parishioners to put aside their own exorcisms and lay hands on the afflicted woman.
Fifteen and a half pairs of arms reach out; one man’s right arm is in a sling so he reaches out only with his left. A mass of groping arms tangle together as they attempt to call out the devil.
In the back row, a small boy of 6 or 7 scribbles in a coloring book and plugs his ears when the noise of the demon removal gets too loud.
Once the woman has crumpled to the floor, Medina pronounces her cured. He asks if she’s all right. She primly says she’s fine.
Parishioners are encouraged to give money, $33, the number equaling Christ’s age when he died. Medina informs them that the more they give, the better their returns will be. If they give money, they can receive a blessing. After nearly everyone has dropped something into the collection bag, Medina adds that even if people weren’t able to give, they can still receive a blessing.
Everyone is given a rose symbolizing Christ and told to pray with it every day. Be sure to store it in water, they’re told, because, though it is holy, it still might wilt.
The boy in the back puts away his coloring book; the woman who was possessed straightens her skirt; the assistants collect loose pamphlets. The church empties.
Outside, a homeless man stops a parishioner and asks for a quarter.
“Sorry,” she says. “Laundry day. I used up all my coins.”
“A stick of gum? Don’t you have anything?”
“I do have something I could give you,” she says. She produces the rose from her bag. “This is a rose. It’s blessed. It’s from Jesus.”
“A blessed rose from Jesus?” he says. “Hell, why not?”
He takes the rose and, when the parishioner walks away, tries to sell it for a dollar to the next person on the street.