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?