e n c o u n t e r
Demons, Dobermans, and Naked Pentecostals
by Meg Barnhouse
ONE SUMMER I saw an ad in the paper for a tent revival. It was going to be a deliverance service. For those unfamiliar with the lingo, that's a service where the preacher tries to cast demons out of people. The little community where the service was to be held had the reputation of being a rough place.
I was working as a college chaplain at the time, and when I told my friends at the faculty lunch table that I was planning to go to the deliverance service, they begged me not to go alone. Dr. Mann, a friend who taught Old Testament courses, agreed to come with me. I promised him there would be plenty of people and no one would notice us at all.
On the night of the revival, we found the tent in a pasture by the railroad tracks. Parked in the pasture was an old school bus, faded red, with the words "Preacher Bob, Statesville, NC" painted on the side in powder blue letters. Preacher Bob, his wife, and their two daughters were there, each of whom weighed at least 300 pounds. They had a huge black Doberman, who bounded up to our car and sniffed at us intimately as we walked to the tent. I assured my friend that plenty more people would be coming soon. We took our seats, trying to look inconspicuous.
I was worried that the preacher would come yell at us-something about "those who came to scoff and stayed to pray," but he didn't. We hadn't really come to scoff, but I wasn't sure how he would feel about our coming because my hobby is collecting odd religious experiences.
Seven more people came. It was a challenge to get lost in that crowd. As the service started, Dr. Mann, chewing nervously on his unlit pipe, leaned over to me and said, "Meg, if I have to get a demon cast out of me Iamgoingtokillyou." We tried to blend in, but we weren't sure how to look Pentecostal. I said "Amen" a couple of times, and we sang loudly when it was time to sing. The two daughters stood up and sang "Suppertime in Heaven." It made me hungry.
The casting out of demons went fine, as far as I could tell. Women shrieked and fell down unconscious and there was some writhing and jerking. Everyone seemed to feel better when it was done. The people were gracious and they didn't make Dr. Mann or me feel like geeks or sinners for not coming up to have demons cast out, even though every other person there did, except the preacher's family. And the Doberman.
The experience was satisfyingly odd. I am growing less and less clear these days on what is an odd form of religion and what is not. I know lots of people who view my own brand of Unitarian Universalist Pagan-ish Christian-ish spirituality as odd. I think I feel a kinship with people on religion's wild side.
I crave passion in my own spiritual life, and I am drawn to the passion of folks on the fringe. I admire their willingness to look foolish. Take the 20 naked Pentecostals packed into one Trans Am I heard about on the news. They were picked up by police for weaving down a Louisiana highway. They heard God tell them he was going to destroy the wicked rural Texas town where they were living. He wanted them to sell everything and put their trust only in him. They started out clothed and in several cars, but somehow their call to radical trust led to them being all in one car and naked in Louisiana. I know the story is crazy, but it is wonderful as well. Those people were throwing themselves into their religion-like the people writhing and falling down in the tent in that pasture by the railroad tracks; like me, when I have drumming and a bonfire. I wish more of that for all of us.
The Rev. Meg Barnhouse is a pastoral counselor and a contributor to North Carolina Public Radio's popular Radio Free Bubba program. This essay is excerpted from her Skinner House Books meditation manual, The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal, available from the UUA Bookstore, 1-800-215-9076.