[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Touched by God

Dick Bernal
Christopher Gardner

Be On Neon: Pastor Dick Bernal on the set at Jubilee Christian Center in north San Jose.

Not so long ago, in a church far, far to the religious right, there was a service involving barking like dogs, hysterical laughter and gibberish. And the minister said, "Let There Be Cash." And it was good.

By Will Harper

FAITH HEALER Tim Storey struts up and down the aisles of San Jose's Jubilee Christian Center, waving his arms and snapping his fingers.

Behind him looms Jubilee's David Letterman-like stage, complete with a faux skyline of downtown San Jose featuring a replica of the Fairmont Hotel. On the side shines a neon "Jubilee" sign. Television cameras project Storey's image onto an oversized video screen.

With a little help from God, Storey has got his juju tonight. A handsome, athletic-looking black man who bears a resemblance to ex-49ers running back Roger Craig, Storey tells the hopeful 500-plus crowd that he spoke with God earlier in the evening--sort of a pre-game pep talk. And God told him to let it rip.

That's good news because it's a revival week at Jubilee, and these people came out on a Tuesday night to see miracles, or, better yet, to experience one. Their sense of hope and excitement is palpable. Tears roll beneath the eyeglasses of the woman sitting next to me, who keeps raising her hand, hoping that Storey will pick her out of the crowd.

Other people, meanwhile, shake and crumple to the floor at Storey's touch. They've just been "slain in the spirit," overcome by the power of God. An usher who dutifully follows Storey around catches them on their way down, easing them to the carpeted floor. Another Jubilee staffer stands ready with a blanket for the seriously slain, who may be down awhile. Tonight, Storey is healing all kinds of ailments of the flesh--carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis and even migraines.

At one point, he instructs Jubilee's band to stand in a straight line on the stage. With a wave of his arm, the musicians fall to the floor like a row of dominoes. Storey is pleased enough with his exploits tonight that he busts out with a James Brown-like "HEEEEEEEYYYY!"

"I've got this pain in my lower back," a heavyset 50-ish woman informs Storey as if she were talking to her doctor during her regular checkup. He extends his palm onto her forehead, in classic televangelist style, and she collapses into the usher's arms. When she gets back up, she reports that the back pain is gone. The audience lets out a collective gasp, followed by applause which Storey shushes. When another woman rises to her feet, Storey suddenly approaches her and, to her apparent surprise, grabs her nose. "Didn't know you needed your sinuses cleared, too?"

Brave New Jesus

STOREY WORKS HIS MAGIC to the sound of his own monologue, which goes something like this: These days people want something tangible in their religion, don't they? They want to experience the Holy Spirit, not just read fanciful stories about Him. People want a Lord, he shouts, "who slaps the devil upside the head!" After the service, a teenager sitting on the front steps wears a T-shirt with a wooden cross drawn on the back. It reads, "'Cuz Jesus beat the devil with a stick."

The Jesus of the late second millennium is a changing man. Depending on who you talk to, Jesus is a holy soldier, a doctor who makes house calls and heals the sick, or a shrewd executive who wants His subjects to be not only healthy but rich, too.

Why wait until you're dead for all the cool stuff?

The so-called mainline churches--Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian--are losing ground to alternative evangelical movements that promise either a one-on-one with the Holy Spirit or material prosperity for the faithful. Last month Christianity Today reported that while membership in the Episcopal Church has dropped 27 percent over the last 30 years, membership in evangelical denominations such as the Assemblies of God has gone up as much as 300 percent.

But not all Christians are buying into the latest religious trends, some of which lean toward the extreme and the bizarre. Some fundamentalists say they hardly recognize the new Jesus or what's being claimed in His name. They contend that the supernatural revivalists and prosperity pushers are false prophets who distort the Bible's teachings for money and power.

Christian author Hank Hanegraaff, a.k.a. the Bible Answer Man of radio fame, sums it up this way: "When Christian standards have more in common with those of the National Enquirer than the New Testament, it is time for us to examine ourselves. If selling and sensationalism become more tantalizing than truth, the very foundation of our faith is compromised."

Christopher Gardner

Good Heavens: Revival services at can be emotional affairs, with instantaneous healings, people speaking in tongues and members brought to tears.

Endtime Revival

STACEY GIBSON IS a church-going woman. But she never saw anything in her regular Catholic parish like what she saw one Sunday two years ago at San Jose's Bethel Church, a local church affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Gibson, a buyer for a local high-tech firm, decided to check out the Pentecostal Christian church at the invitation of her neighbor.

Shortly after she settled into her seat, everyone around her suddenly started laughing--for seemingly no reason. At first Gibson thought she had missed a good joke. She looked at her neighbor for an explanation; none was forthcoming. After two or three minutes, the spontaneous chuckling died down. A speaker then approached the podium, and Gibson anxiously awaited explanation of the inside joke. Instead, the woman began speaking in a long, nonsensical pattern of vowels and consonants, otherwise known as speaking in tongues.

The first part of what Gibson had witnessed is known as "holy laughter," a phenomenon that gained worldwide notoriety in January 1994 when the Holy Spirit moved a group of 120 faithful Christians in Toronto, Ontario, in a big way. In evangelical circles, the historic event is simply referred to as "The Toronto Blessing." The story goes that people on that memorable day literally got drunk on the Lord. Everywhere believers fell to the ground, overcome with some kind of hysterics. They shook and jerked. They rolled side to side. Some barked like dogs. Others laughed uncontrollably. The church receptionist reportedly couldn't speak for three days afterward. Even then she could only speak in tongues. Here's a published transcription of one televangelist speaking in tongues: "Ha ta bo ho si ko lo. Bo ho la ta. Ha sham da ka ba la mesa la. U ku lu shu hu she kin. Santa lo ho mas si a."

To a growing number of Christians, Toronto is the birthplace of the latest worldwide religious renewal or revival. With the millennium fast approaching, it's even called an endtime revival. But this goes far beyond the kind of revival Billy Graham has made famous with his modern crusades. While Graham uses high tech to preach simple salvation, the new revivalists promise the supernatural. Scott Lenning, a local organizer for the Graham Crusade, says he's not very familiar with the Toronto Blessing, but allows that "the Lord can do what He wants."

Historically, of course, Christianity has more than toyed with the supernatural. The resurrection of Christ from the dead is the cornerstone of Christianity. During biblical times, Jesus gave his disciples the ability to heal and predict the future. Christian fundamentalists argue that these supernatural gifts ended with the New Testament. But Pentecostals, also called charismatics, say that they're still attainable for people with enough faith, even in the 1990s.

While Christians have fought over the validity of supernatural gifts for years, the latest charismatic revival born in Toronto has deepened the theological rift.

Hanegraaff, the Bible Answer Man, is leading a sort of debunking crusade. In his new book, Counterfeit Revival: Looking for God in All the Wrong Places, Hanegraaff warns that Christianity "is undergoing a paradigm shift of major proportions--a shift from faith to feelings, from fact to fantasy and from reason to esoteric revelation." Hanegraaff argues that this supernatural stuff is so weird that it spills over into being cultic, unbiblical and even "satanic." Even Anaheim-based Vineyard Church leader John Wimber, once the poster boy for Christian signs and wonder, tried to distance his church from the Toronto Blessing recently, after people made fun of the barking.

Fundamental Difference

THE ORIGINAL Pentecostals of the turn of the century were mostly poor and uneducated, says Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Santa Barbara's Westmont College who studies fringe movements in the church. But many of today's Charismatics, he observes, are professionals with college degrees. One South Bay charismatic woman, who asked not to be named, fondly describes the day she was "slain in the spirit" a year ago during a mass in Santa Clara. A career woman in the social services field, she was skeptical. But soon after the guest preacher touched her, she found herself on the floor. "It's so powerful, you just fall," she recalls. "You just relinquish yourself to the Holy Spirit."

Toni Pierce, a born-again from Morgan Hill, says she believes in the miracles stated in the Bible, such as Christ's resurrection. But Pierce is highly skeptical of the supernatural phenomena she sees in some churches today, especially those fond of the Toronto Blessing. "Nowhere in the Bible does anyone bark like a dog or roll around on the ground. Maybe that chapter is missing from my Bible," says Pierce, who says she accepted Christ as her Lord and savior in 1975.

Pierce also doubts the magical abilities of self-proclaimed faith healers in the church, especially since not everyone gets healed. But the faith healers have an answer for that: The person didn't get healed because they lacked faith, or they "lost" their healing when doubt set in later. "Most followers believe it's their own fault when they're not healed, because they've sinned or lack faith," says Pierce, who has made it a hobby to monitor Christian churches with leaders who claim supernatural powers. "They think that [because] these men have healed so many others in the past, it can't be their [the men's] fault."

Pastor Dick Bernal of Jubilee confirms that some people must come back again and again because they keep losing their healing--a sort of chiropractic adjustment for the doubtful spirit. (Bernal says Jubilee advises those magically healed to see their doctor so as not to create false hope.) And Pastor David Cannistraci of Evangel Christian Fellowship, a charismatic church in Willow Glen headed by his uncle, Emanuele, recently told a story of a boy with Coke-bottle glasses who had his sight restored, but lost his healing days later because a teacher at his school planted a seed of doubt in his mind. "If it's really the work of God, the sick should be 100 percent healed," Pierce counters. "In the Bible, the blind man Jesus healed didn't turn around and start bumping into walls."

Bernal, Jubilee's founder, waves off critics like Hanegraaff and Pierce as stodgy. A self-described sinner-turned-pastor who says he hated church before God saved his wife's life after childbirth 17 years ago, Bernal is anything but stuffy. Framed photos of him standing next to famous religious football players he's befriended, like all-stars Reggie White and Merton Hanks, are the centerpiece of the eastern wall in his office. Inside the chapel, Jubilee more resembles a TV studio than a house of worship. "The people that criticize us the most are those who have the mindset that church must be a certain way," Bernal says.

Soul Survivor: Following a revival service at San Jose's Jubilee Christian Church, a member rests after being "slain by the Lord."

Passing the Bucket

THE BAND LEADER, who looks a little bit like Garth Brooks, has been intermittently shouting "Yes, Lord!" while punching the air for half an hour. On Bernal's cue, he retreats backstage, and Bernal requests a moment of silence, in preparation for that special time in the church program when Jubilee's parishioners are asked to look deep in their hearts and wallets and give. Before he sends the buckets around, Pastor Bernal pauses, instructing everyone to remain silent and listen to what the Lord says they should give. A half-minute or so passes, and Bernal interjects, "I'll bet you He didn't tell you to give less. If he did, whose voice do you think that was?"

The ushers advance on the rows of chairs, wearing jackets and ear pieces that make them resemble Secret Service agents. They go from row to row passing a white bucket. Some people quickly scribble checks and fill out the preprinted envelopes that leave space for their names and addresses. Others quietly pass the bucket without throwing in so much as a dollar--having perhaps heard that other voice Bernal had mentioned.

Like other independent charismatic churches, Jubilee stresses the importance of members' "tithing," or donating 10 percent of their paycheck to the church. The donations add up. One former Evangel member estimates that he gave the church between $60,000 and $70,000 over eight years, and thinks in retrospect that it was too much. Jubilee has a $6 million-plus annual budget, according to Bernal, thanks to the generosity of its growing membership. The church just broke ground on a new $10.5 million facility across from its current chapel.

While income is needed to support any church, charismatic church leaders sometimes sell "tithing" as a way to secure blessings from God--not just spiritual blessings but material ones, too--in a kind of theological version of "what goes around comes around." It's a fundraising method longtime televangelist Oral Roberts popularized with his "seed-faith" principle, whereby followers who give money to Roberts can expect miracles or at least a profitable return on their investment.

Evangel Pastor David Cannistraci encourages people to pray to God to help pay their own rent, or the mortgage on their homes or even make the down payment on a new house. In order to get those things, however, people first must give something to God--like money, the pastor suggests. Cannistraci uses the story of the blind man healed by Jesus to illustrate his point. When the blind man approached Jesus, he tossed aside his outer garment in which, according to Cannistraci, he collected all his money from begging. In return, Jesus gave him something much better--his sight. By extension, those who give money to Evangel will get something bigger and better from God in return. In one case, Cannistraci says, a person doubled his income after becoming a tither.

The "double your income" ethos of some churches, however, can make them a fertile hunting ground for get-rich-quick schemes. Athena Dean is a devout Christian from Washington who made $100,000 a year as a pyramid-scheme specialist. The church was her best recruiting spot, recalls Dean, author of Consumed by Success. As a Christian, she remembers actually feeling obligated to share the path to success with fellow members of the flock. But as time went on, she exhausted every friendship for profit and came to believe that her stairway to heaven was built on crumbling relationships with her friends and church companions. She had a revelation and quit the business. "I realized I was worshipping money," Dean now says. "God doesn't want your money; He wants your heart."

But pick up a copy of Texas ministers David and Suzie Wellses' book, Flowing Wealth, and you'll meet a very cash-conscious Jesus. "Your aim to gain by trading, which is the way Jesus said to gain for the kingdom, is to sell the apple you have at a better market price than what you bought it for," the Wellses declare. "Your aim for God is to be wise in buying and wise in selling."

So, what about all that stuff like Jesus instructing His apostles not to take money? Biblical misinterpretation, the Wellses say. Jesus really meant that the apostles shouldn't carry their cash with them when they ministered, but they could still keep a money stash at home. In fact, the couple argues, the whole notion that it's spiritual to be poor is a satanic myth designed to prevent spread of the word of God.

Some of the world's more familiar televangelists--Kenneth Hagin, Oral Roberts, Kenneth Copeland--preach variations on the "prosperity" theme. Hagin says, "God wants His children to ... wear the best clothing. He wants them to drive the best cars, and He wants them to have the best of everything. ... Just claim what you need."

Gary Lease, a professor of religious history at UC-Santa Cruz, says that although the "health and wealth" gospel has gained popularity over the past two decades, it's not a new belief. Out of the reformation, Lease says, came the idea that "material achievement was a sign or confirmation that you've been touched by God." The prosperity movement, Lease says, is essentially more of the same.

Historical or not, the prosperity pushers in the church drive Dean Van Druff nuts. Van Druff, a San Jose Christian who describes himself as "a charismatic, not a charismaniac," objects to what he views as self-serving interpretations of the Bible by "health and wealth" proponents. "I suppose what bugs me most is that it is a lie," opines Van Druff, who designed his own Bible study Web page with his wife, Laura. "As Hank Hanegraaff says, all you need to do to see if prosperity teaching is true is visit any prosperity church and drive through the parking lot," Van Druff says. "The cars will generally be below the standard of the community, excepting those, of course, in the pastors' parking places."

In San Jose, Jubilee is the largest church in the area affiliated with Hagin's Tulsa-based RHEMA Church, a leading proponent of the health and wealth doctrine. Jubilee Pastor Dick Bernal, who drives a black Lexus GS 300 and lives in an $800,000 home near the exclusive Silver Creek Country Club, doesn't come across as one of the more fanatical prosperity preachers, however. Asked if he believes in health and wealth, Bernal quips, "What's my alternative? Sickness and poverty?"

Divine Connections

'NOW, WE DON'T ALLOW fornication in this church," the wide-jowled minister Emanuele Cannistraci warns his flock. "You will not fornicate and be a member of this church! Do you hear the apostle talking? You will not fornicate in this church! If we catch you, you're out of here." In another sermon, Cannistraci makes it explicit that he won't be allowing single people who go to his church to fornicate.

Emanuele Cannistraci is the senior, or founding, pastor of the 1,000-member Evangel Christian Fellowship in Willow Glen. He calls himself an apostle. According to Evangel's literature, Cannistraci "accepted God's call for Apostleship" during a 1995 conference of religious leaders.

Cannistraci's nephew, Pastor David Cannistraci, says that the title "apostle" makes some people nervous because they get hung up on the idea that Jesus only intended there to be the 12 original apostles. The younger Cannistraci points out that the Bible contemplates five holy offices or "gifts," including the more common ones of pastor, evangelist and teacher, but also prophet and apostle. According to Cannistraci, the biblical gifts of apostle and healing were lost in the Dark Ages and are only now seeing a restoration. "The reason my uncle took [the title of apostle] is to break the mindset that you can be called pastor or evangelist, but not apostle," Cannistraci says, adding that the charge of the modern-day apostle is to expand the church.

But like the original apostles Jesus tapped, Apostle Cannistraci claims "anointed" supernatural gifts such as healing and prophecy. And like Santa Claus, the apostle wants to know when members have been naughty or nice.

Cannistraci is able to keep a close eye on his underlings. Lay pastors, on the bottom rung of the church hierarchy, oversee smaller home-worship meetings and, according to a church training guide, submit weekly written reports on the activities of their home group through a chain of command that ultimately leads back to the apostle.

Lay pastors also serve as Evangel's foot soldiers, recruiting new families to join the church, who in turn form new home groups. Though home groups are common in churches everywhere, Evangel's system resembles a more radical "cell" ministry, whereby home groups are expected to increase and multiply.

Cannistraci tells his followers that being a member of Evangel or a local church provides them with a protective "covering." Those who leave, the apostle warns, lose their protection and suffer the consequences, such as having their marriage fall apart.

During one taped sermon he recounts the story of Passover, where the Israelites were warned by God, through Moses, that if they didn't kill a lamb and spread its blood on their doorways, the death angel would take their first born.

"There was death in the palace, there was death in the government, there was death," Cannistraci pauses briefly, letting his words sink in. "Even some Jews who didn't believe prophet Moses, didn't believe their senior pastor/apostle, said, 'Why kill a lamb?' Anyways, everyone who killed the lamb and put the blood was spared." The implication is ominous for those who don't listen and follow the instructions of their "senior pastor/apostle."

David Cannistraci says his uncle only used Moses as an illustration to show the importance of following the direction of a spiritual leader. "It's not a curse or anything," Cannistraci says.

The Willow Glen apostle isn't the only church leader implying dire consequences for those who stray from the flock. Even Jubilee Pastor Dick Bernal, a seemingly easygoing guy who can talk football just as readily as he can talk God, has warned his congregation that those who criticize church leaders or leave the church without his blessing will be cursed, have their finances ruined, or have their hearts explode.

But a woman who went to Evangel for two years in the early '90s says she never felt scared to leave. Indeed, she simply returned to the Catholic Church when the time seemed right. The woman, who asked not to be named, says she was going through a tough divorce at the time, and her home group at Evangel provided her with great comfort and ministering. "I really benefited from my time there," she recalls.

Nevertheless, Toni Pierce, the Morgan Hill born-again, compares the "scare tactics" used by Cannistraci and Bernal to those employed by cult leader David Koresh. "I'm not saying that these guys are leading people to suicide," Pierce says, "but they make the very same claims that Koresh made: If you stay with me you'll be blessed; if you leave you'll be cursed." Even more eerie, Pierce contends, is that church leaders who bill themselves as an "apostle" imply they speak for God. Cannistraci told his congregation that he was shocked to hear that some followers were apparently questioning whether he was truly "hearing from God."

Strange Bedfellows

DESPITE THE CONCERNS some traditional Christians have about charismatic churches, the religious right has nonetheless welcomed their participation in politics, mobilizing their followers to denounce "satanic" manifestations such as homosexuality or abortion. Locally, in the mid-'80s, the Coalition for Christians in Government--formed by conservative pastors like Kenny Foreman of the Cathedral of Faith and Charles Crabtree of Bethel Church--asked San Jose's City Council candidates to state their beliefs on abortion, despite the fact that choice laws fall outside the scope of municipal legislators. The CCG arose from the ashes of the county's anti-gay rights movement.

In 1993, Evangel served as the staging ground for Operation Rescue's anti-abortion demonstrations at the San Jose Planned Parenthood clinic. At the end of the 10-day "Cities of Refuge" crusade, Apostle Cannistraci reportedly called pro-choice protestors "fruits," "dykes" and "lesbians." More recently, Jubilee Pastor Dick Bernal signed on to a two-page ad in the Mercury News protesting the county's proposed domestic partners registry. He and other evangelicals are expected to assist in the campaign to undo the registry on next year's ballot.

Instant Gratification

FOLLOWING A SUNDAY service, the Jubilee faithful exit with a spring in their step. The mostly middle-class crowd is a diverse bunch: teens in baggy jeans walk next to Social Security-collecting seniors. They've just spent the past 90 minutes or so listening to first-rate gospel celebrating Jesus and to Pastor Dick Bernal cracking jokes about his sinful days dropping LSD before he got saved.

"With most churches, people look at their watches wondering when it's gonna end," Bernal observes. "People don't come to church because they leave feeling worse than they came. The only way to get them back is to give them hope. ... People come to our church and say, 'Wow, it's like a concert.' "

Sociology professor Ronald Enroth says Pentecostal or charismatic churches like Jubilee appeal to modern society's desire to experience the unusual or the occult--as evidenced by things such as the success of the Psychic Hotline. Even in religion we seek amusement now, says Enroth, himself a Presbyterian. But today's charismatic churches do more for the soul than a far-out rock concert: They provide community, entertainment, celebration, purpose and something to believe in--something which they can actually experience. "Many see that traditional religion isn't meeting their needs," Enroth says. "Mainline churches don't seem vital or connected to their lives. But in these other churches, the religion is very palpable and very experiential. People want that now."

Maybe preachers like Dick Bernal haven't reached the superstardom of a Billy Graham, but Bernal is a rising star in a new generation of evangelists. Like Graham, who attracted 71,500 Christians to the San Jose Arena two weeks ago, Bernal has tapped into something with mass appeal. In 1980, the Jubilee congregation started with a dozen people. Now, with some 7,000 members, Jubilee is San Jose's largest church.

"To me, 90 minutes of church should be like seeing the best movie," Bernal says.

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the Oct. 9-15, 1997 issue of Metro.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.