Enjoying a Pentecostal exorcism with NYT's Jill Abramson

It had to be an odd experience, especially for a conservative journalist of the Episcopal persuasion, watching his boss and humanity’s “True Parent”, ex-convict the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, marry 20-30 couples in New York City. Richard Miniter, the former editorial page editor of the Washington Times, says the event was downright creepy.

But it’s not the oddest religion ceremony that a big-time journalist has witnessed in recent years. That honor belongs to New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson — and it’s kind of my fault.

In 2004, I won a Knight Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan. My self-selected task — to learn as much as possible about Pentecostals and Spanish. So when the journalism fellows — and Jill Abramson — were invited to Argentina in December of that year, I spent as much time as possible in Buenos Aires’ iglesias pentecostales.

Jill, as I understand it, is not a Pentecostal. But she’s a great and adventurous journalist and when she found out there was a Pentecostal church a couple of blocks from the hotel, she decided to drop by.

Together, the two of us attended an early morning midweek service at La Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios — the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Sometime, when I’m not on deadline, I’ll give you all the details, but here’s the highlights. Walking through the door of this old, restored movie theater, she and I were asked if we’d like to be “anointed with oil.”

“Why not,” we said. We were instructed, oddly enough, to step into one of the foyer restrooms. In the men’s room, a church worker took out a small bottle of (as far as I could tell) cooking oil and dabbed some on my forehead, saying a prayer in Spanish as he did so. “That’s it. You’re finished,” the worker said, less than 30 seconds after the ceremony had begun. Jill’s “anointing with oil” was similarly brief and bland.

From there, we entered the auditorium, with its movie theater seats and a small stage. There were only a handful of people there, for a service that included no piano, no organ, no scripture reading and no altar call. There was, however, an offering. “I was ready for this,” Jill said, reaching into her pocket to retrieve a low-denomination piece of Argentinian currency. In return for Jill’s gift, church workers gave her a piece of Spanish-language church literature, which she kindly passed onto me.

Because I grew up in Pentecostal churches and because I’m familiar with Spanish-language church lingo, Jill would sometimes ask me, “What’s going on now?” as the service progressed — and I would try to tell her. But, other than the snake-handling church I’d visited in Kentucky, I’d never attended a service quite as unusual as this one, so I struggled to explain it all.

At one point, the Reverend caught Jill whispering me a question and he blew up: “Callense la boca,” he bellowed.

“What did he say?” Jill asked.

“Callense la boca,” the preacher said again, his voice growing louder.

“He’s telling us we’d better stop talking,” I explained, moving my lips as little as possible as I attempted to channel my inner ventriloquist.

But it didn’t work. The preacher saw my lips move and my whispered words poured gasoline on his holy anger. I would be taken to task for my insolence before the service ended. But first, the preacher needed to exorcise a demon from a plain-looking woman in the audience.

“He’s going to exorcise a demon now,” I whispered to the managing editor of the New York Times, adding, “This is somewhat unusual.”

She didn’t say a word. Together, we watched as the preacher screamed “Fuera” — Out! Out! — he yelled. But the devil refused to budge. So the preacher yelled some more and manhandled the poor woman.

It was an ugly bit of domestic battery — closer to a Jerry Springer melee than a World Wrestling Federation brawl — but horrible to watch. The show was all the more evil because the woman’s pre-teen boy was on hand to witness it all. [Afterwards, when I questioned the appropriateness of manhandling a young woman in front of her child, I received a cryptic reply: Don't worry. He's seen it all before.]

My mind wandered as the farce continued. “There are good Pentecostal churches in this city with good music and good people with good hearts”, I said to myself. “But this is the face of Pentecostalism that you’ve revealed to the managing editor of the New York Times.”

At least, it hasn’t been boring.

My train of thought was dislodged, though, by a commotion. The demon-possessed woman, who had been spinning in circles, had stopped spinning. And now, her eyes wild, she was pointing her finger. And she was pointing her finger at someone near me.

Actually, not someone near me. She was pointing her finger at me.

“You,” the minister growled. “Why is this demon-possessed woman pointing at you? What you have you done? What secret sins are you hiding?”

He paused and all eyes focused on me. Finally, he spoke again. “You aren’t a diezmero, are you?

A diezmero? A diezmero? “Diezmero” isn’t a word that had popped up on my vocabulary list during Spanish 101 or 201. I hoped the Reverend would give me a few more clues or let me buy a vowel.

“You’re not giving one-tenth of your earnings to the Lord are you?” the preacher said, as if he’d uncovered a cesspool of sin. You’re not a diezmero — a “tither.”

At that point, I decided to switch subjects. “I’m sorry, but I’m a foreigner. I’m from the United States. I don’t speak Spanish very well. And this is my first time visiting your church,” I said in Spanish.

The Reverend’s eyes widened. He smiled and his tone of voice changed completely. “Esta bien. Esta bien.”

“That’s okay. That’s okay,” he said. And my time on the hot seat ended.

Since that day, I’ve never stepped foot in another Universal Church of the Kingdom of God congregation. But one question continues to bother me: How in the world did that preacher know that I wasn’t putting 10 percent of my income in the offering plate?

Updated: November 18, 2009 — 9:13 am

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  1. “How in the world did that preacher know that I wasn’t putting 10 percent of my income in the offering plate?”

    Answers on a post card, etc.?

    People who give ten percent of their income to any charity are rare. This recent study claims churchgoers as an aggregate give 2.56%

    http://www.sj-r.com/beliefs/x1914253234/Study-shows-Americans-tithe-just-2-56-percent

    And if I understand the other articles I’ve read, roughly 12% of churchgoers who claim they tithe actually do.

    So I can’t say how he “knew,” but if he was guessing the odds were in his favor.

  2. Actually, it does not have to go the the offering plate as long as it goes to valid charities such as soup kitchens rather than the Sierra Club. Maimonides actually explains the limits. Someone who only gives five percent of his income is considered “wicked”. Someone who gives ten per cent of his income is “middle of the road” or “normal”. Someone who gives twenty per cent is “pious”. Someone who gives more than fifty per cent is being foolish and hurting his family. A very rich person is allowed to give what is appropriate to hi level because he has so much more than anyone can normally spend on himself or must maintain his status in the community.

  3. There are a number of good techniques for giving properly. One is to have a separate bank account into which the ten percent goes off the top. That way, one actually has it available and does not find it spent on other matters. Note that if someone actually needs it (such as for food, clothing, rent or mortgage, or tuition) “charity begins at home”. However, most people who do this find that their income has actually increased sufficiently so that they have less financial trouble than they did before they started this. Others (like myself) maintain a ledger because it is too difficult to only write checks from the “charity account”. This also allows me to let the charity account “go negative” if something comes up that I want to donate to but I have given sufficiently so that the total would be above the ten per cent. Again, I have found that it is actually easier to do this as somehow there is enough money for groceries, etc. after the ten percent has been deducted even if there was difficulty before starting this.

    I find it easier to make sure that I write sufficient “charity checks” each month so that I do not fall behind rather than wait and give larger amounts less frequently. THis also helps train oneself in proper behavior.

  4. Many years ago, as a reporter for The Victoria Advocate in south Texas, I wrote a few stories about organ donation.

    The first centered on the widow of a poor Hispanic man who agreed to donate her husband’s organs after he was killed Christmas night in a bar fight. The second story dealt with one of the men who had received an organ from that donor, in this case a fisherman from a nearby city.

    After those stories ran, the people with the donor network called to let me know that the two families were in contact with each other, and they invited me to a barbecue at which the recipient’s family was to meet the donor’s family for the first time.

    The donor’s widow arrived with about a dozen friends from church (she cleared the large group with the recipient’s family well in advance) and her pastor.

    Up until this point, I had assumed the donor’s family was Catholic. Her religion hadn’t played a role in my stories, so I’d never talked to her about her faith. Despite having grown up in Texas, I was unaware of the large Hispanic Pentecostal movement.

    Still, the families were getting along well. Lots of tears were shed over the combined tragedy of the widow’s loss and the salvation of the donated organs.

    Then, meal time came. The recipient’s family asked the widow’s pastor to bless the food, something he was happy to do.

    The pastor stepped in front of this large crowd of red neck fishermen (a description the family provided, not my editorial comment) and started yelling out praise, very much in the charismatic tradition.

    The second he started speaking, the dozen or so members of his flock all started chanting and speaking in tongues. All of the common ground that had been celebrated for the preceding hours disappeared as the members of the recipient’s family stared, slack-jawed at what they were witnessing.

    Less than a minute later, the prayer was over, the chanting stopped and everyone got up and ate as if nothing happened.

    I’ve seen a lot of cultural collisions as a reporter. But that one incident still stands out.

  5. “However, most people who do this find that their income has actually increased sufficiently so that they have less financial trouble than they did before they started this.”

    Tell me, Sabba Hillel, if all things remain constant, same job, same pay rate, same monthly expenses plus 10% for the tithe, where does this extra money come from?

  6. Sabba, why doesn’t the Sierra Club count? It does a lot more good than most religious organizations that people tithe to. It’s funny that while Christians make such a big deal about tithing and giving to charity, no one has ever laid it out quite so explicitly as the Jewish scholar Maimonides.

    And, Cheese, you’re adding a condition to Sabba’s claim: She didn’t say that all else would be equal. I’ve heard many Christian ministers make the claim that either God will bless you more, presumably with a higher income, or will make the 90% after tithing go further than the 100% otherwise would have. There is certainly some logic to suggest that someone who was serious about giving 10% of their income to charity might well try harder to make the rest go further — and actually come out ahead by spending smarter.

    Although most religious mumbo jumbo leaves me pretty cold, I do believe that when one makes a true effort to be charitable, it will come back to help. Whether that’s good karma, or just what goes around comes around, who knows.

  7. As for wondering how the pastor knew you don’t tithe, it could have worked like this. The woman who gave Jill Abramson the literature in exchange for her low-denomination offering may have told the pastor that the two Americans gave a pittance. You obviously did not tithe that day, from what he assumed.

  8. I think there’s a great big difference between giving 10 percent of your income to charity and giving 10 percent of your income to a 501(c)(3) ‘charitable’ organization.

  9. All I have to say is that you were NOT in a Pentecostal church. If you really want to see what a Pentecostal church service is like, find you one that teaches One God, Jesus Name Baptism and the people worship God in song and praise. You should be able to locate one in the phone directory under United Pentecostal Church or Apostolic Church. Call them and ask if they believe in the Holy Ghost and speaking in tongues. If they do, go there. Then come home and write about it. I’d love to read it. God Bless You!

  10. It works. I have gotten up to 20% and tithing results in increase in income,opportunity and protection. Ask Rick Warren who gives 90%…gets a best seller, a very successful church, etc etc…heaven works with the giver

  11. Caleb:

    Thanks for answering Cheese. Sorry it took so long to get back, but I was not following this thread that closely. You are correct. Somehow, people find that even when they think that everything is equal, somehow things will work out. An analogy is to the Sabbatical year in the bible.

    Leviticus 25:20-22 And if ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase: Then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat yet of old fruit until the ninth year; until her fruits come in ye shall eat of the old store.

    Actually, the talmud says that if you don’t ask, the miracle will be that the normal crop will suffice for the three years (without rationing). The whole point is that when giving the ten per cent, it is not counted as part of the earning that had been decreed for you the preceding Rosh Hashana (New Years).

    There is a story in the Talmud that a Rabbi dreamed that his relatives were to be taxed 300 gold pieces during the year (when tax me were basically thieves). He approached his relatives during the year and they gave an extra 290 gold pieces to charity (he did not tell them about the dream). When the tax men cam, the extra bill came to 10 gold pieces. He then told them about the dream and they asked, why did he no tell them it had to be 300?. He answered that the giving, to be affective must be without the situation of avoiding taxes.

    That is why there are people who do not count the tax deduction part as part of their tithe. Of course, part of the calculation of how much is 10% of income can be after taxes, as taxes are (by many) considered an expense and therefore would be subtracted from income. It is like a business calculating the profits for the year. THe profits would be the income to calculate the 10%, not the gross receipts before expenses.

    As far as the Sierra Club, it would not IMHO be a valid part as it is a political organization and not a charitable one such as meals on wheels, soup kitchens, school scholarships, etc. Organizations that benefit people directly. There are cases that are charitable but not deductible, deductible but not charitable, and some that are both.

    In any case, many people have found that when they open a separate “charity” account and put the 10% in it, somehow they have enough money in the “regular” accounts to continue living normally. Why it happens? The answer to that is “above my pay grade” (:-).

  12. Sabba, sorry to have referred to you as female; don’t know why I thought Sabba was a woman’s name. I agree that when you make an honest effort to be charitable, you’ll receive a blessing for it — whether by karma or the hand of God, who knows.

    I agree that there are organizations that help people more than the Sierra Club does, but I’d rather see somebody give money to the Sierra Club than, say, some right-wing religious organization that actually works against the public good. But that’s just the knee-jerk liberal in me, I suppose.

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