I was in the parking lot one April several years ago when I encountered a colleague who had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. I greeted him with that weak question for which there seems to be no substitute: “How you doing, Russ?”
He smiled and said, “The doctors told me I’ll probably die in September, but Jesus is going to heal me.” His certainty was radiant and blissful.
Jesus didn’t. Russ died in September.
Claims of faith healing are often shouted down by disbelief and even ridicule. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Or, at least, who can say for certain?
It’s nothing new. It was made an article of faith by Jesus, and Christians through the centuries have kept that faith. A belief that’s hung around for 2,000 years can’t be dismissed with a joke.
The great imponderable about faith healing is who gets healed and who doesn’t: Why him and not me? Why me and not her?
On Thursday evenings, there is a place in Clairemont where the lame, the infected and the troubled can go to seek the help they believe medical science has failed to give them. It’s the neighborhood meeting of the “healing room,” which takes place at Clairemont Christian Fellowship on Mount Herbert Avenue.
It’s a local outgrowth of the healing room movement that includes several locations in San Diego County. Healing rooms have spread widely under the aegis of the International Association of Healing Rooms. They are commonly in like-minded churches.
I enter the church annex to see a tall, gray-haired man standing with both hands on the chest of a middle-aged man in work clothes. He is praying intently and quietly. A woman standing next to him also has one hand on the man, with the other upraised. She also is praying.
After a minute, the tall man steps back and shakes the hand of the prayer recipient, then turns to me. He’s Mel Estey, the director of this healing room. Estey is a 71-year-old retired Navy captain and a clinical psychologist with a doctorate. That in itself is interesting.
Common sense asks some tough questions of faith healing. For example, why do we never hear of a broken bone being healed by faith? Can a heroin addict be healed by prayer?
Connie Lewis is a 47-year-old wife and mother of five sons living in San Diego. Part of her mission is to continue serving people by taking care of non-adoptable foster children. They are kids, she says, who would otherwise be institutionalized.
Doing that job should put anyone on the first rung to sainthood.
The other part of her mission is to remain alive to continue doing it, and on that she relies on faith healing. “The Lord is not going to keep sending me jobs that I can’t finish.”
Connie’s is a story of being blindsided by one of the biggest clubs life can hit you with: Stage 4 cancer. That’s your body giving you a death sentence.
On a driving trip to the east last summer, Connie started bleeding and was admitted to a Washington, D.C., hospital where she received blood transfusions and was told she had cervical cancer that had metastasized.
The family drove to the Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion. Doctors there scheduled her for a radical hysterectomy on Aug. 10, but when she checked into the hospital, she was given some ominous news.
“I went in that morning, and (the doctor) informed me it was too late for the hysterectomy, that the cancer had spread through the lymph nodes and was from the hips to the kidneys. They removed three cancerous lymph nodes, and I waited 15 days to heal so I could be driven the rest of the way home.”
When Connie returned to San Diego, she had difficulty finding a doctor to take her as a patient because of how far the disease had advanced. But after going to church and praying that the physician she wanted would take her case, he called back and accepted her as a patient.
It doesn’t seem like doctors would turn you down like that.
“Well, they all did, because for cervical cancer to get that far is very rare.
“(The doctors) did their testing, and on Sept. 20 it was diagnosed Stage 4, and they said I needed both radiation and chemotherapy. I started both. Within two weeks, the chemotherapy wiped out my white and red blood cells and also my platelets. For 21 days, I had blood work every morning and transfusions every evening.
“In November, they stopped the radiation until they did an MRI. In the meantime, I had started attending the healing room regularly, and the Lord told me I was going to be healed. When the tests came back, they showed the cancer was significantly reduced.”
Connie, a skeptic might say: Well, it was the radiation that reduced the cancer. That’s why they do it.
“My radiologist told me he was a Christian, and that his family had been praying for me. He also prayed with me. I had been given a death sentence. There was no cure. I had been told I wouldn’t live a year.
“In January, I was cancer-clear, and this last week I got a three-month checkup result.”
So, you are still cancer-clear?
What did the cancer specialist, the oncologist, say?
“At first he didn’t believe what the CT scan showed, so he did a Pap smear because he wanted physical proof. He got it. He’s not a Christian, and he can’t believe I’m healed. He says there is no way I should be alive. My other doctor still tells my kids, ‘Your mother shouldn’t be here.’ But I am cancer-clear. In six months, I went from Stage 4 to cancer-clear.”
Did they tell you it could come back?
“I have to get checked every three months.”
When you go in for those checkups, are you apprehensive?
If you were told the cancer was back, what would you think?
“I would think it was a joke.”
I asked Connie’s radiologist to describe her treatment. He is Dr. Ray Lin, medical director of the Scripps Proton Therapy Center.
Lin says her condition was Stage 4 cervical cancer when she came to the center last fall. Scripps physicians then established a treatment course of chemotherapy and “very aggressive” radiation, he says. The chemo was quickly abandoned due to side effects, but radiation continued for several weeks and also included high doses delivered through implants.
In January, at Connie’s checkup, Lin says doctors were “ greatly surprised” that no sign of cancer was found. He says the same result was found in her last checkup in June.
“We are all so delighted with the wonderful results that Connie has had to her treatments,” Lin says. “We will continue to care and support Connie in her healing.”
Connie opens her computer and pulls up what she believes is visual proof of God’s intervention. It’s a CT scan photograph generally showing indecipherable images of the body, meant only for a radiologist’s eye. However, Connie points out a small section that she is convinced was heaven-sent.
Her eyes brighten, and enthusiasm fills her voice. “When you look at this area, you can clearly see the picture of an angel with arms outspread, with a face and wings around the head.”
Interesting. Do others see what you see?
“Everyone that looks at it sees it. Actually, the church has it on video, and I copied it so that I could show everybody.”
Several fellow worshippers gather around and affirm what Connie sees, tracing with fingers the outlines of the image they are convinced was sent to Connie by God.
Estey, the healing room director, points to Connie as evidence of the power of prayer and what he believes is proof of God’s intervention in the health of believers. “I consider her healing the most remarkable I have ever seen.”
You’re an educated man, a man of science, Mel. You know there are all kinds of rationalizations possible.
And when you talk to skeptical people and tell them what you’re involved in, that’s the argument you get, right?
“A lot of it, yes. But then you meet someone of faith, they’ll say, ‘Thank heavens we have people who are doing this.’ ”
Did you see an angel in that CT scan?
“I don’t know that I wouldn’t say that I didn’t, but I don’t know that I would say that I did. Certainly, there was configuration there that could be seen as that.”
Estey explains that when newcomers visit the healing room, they first write down their name and circumstance and give it to the receptionist. The paper is folded and given to one of the prayer partners anonymously and without being read. That person retires to one of six prayer rooms and seeks divine revelation or insight to communicate to the visitor. Once that happens, the prayer partner and the visitor meet each other and pray together for healing.
Estey says on a typical Thursday, about 15 seekers join an equal number of workers and prayer partners.
He sees the healing room as following Christ’s admonition. “I regard faith healing as taking Christ at his word that he sent us out to spread the gospel, and through him heal the sick in both body and spirit. We pray in faith that this does occur.”
Maybe you can say of faith healers what is sometimes said of lawyers: You make jokes about them until you need one.
There have always been charlatans eager to dupe the gullible and desperate into forlorn hopes, usually for a price. Somewhere in the Bible there’s a warning about false prophets. But that should not be discouraging, any more than oily politicians should cause us to dismiss the possibility of a straight-talking one.
I have not asked the opinion of the psychology and therapy professions. They can talk about suggestibility, rationalization, psychosomatics and other polysyllabic wanderings. But on this subject, those learned folks share the murkiness.
A physician once said to me: Medicine is science, but it’s also the “healing arts,” which means there’s a lot that happens we don’t understand. A responsible doctor doesn’t claim to know what he doesn’t know.
What do I personally believe about faith healing? Who cares? The only important belief is yours.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is runner-up Print Journalist of the Year for Southern California, an honor from the Los Angeles Press Club. He invites comments and ideas; email him at [email protected]