|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
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The Cosmology of Conversion
Pentecostal knowledge is experiential. It is based on a sensory theology, a theology of emotional and tactile encounter — some call it possession — that is all-encompassing. The encounter heightens awareness of the motives of others, and of one's own interior state. Street ministers describe the encounter as intimate contact with the Holy Spirit, marked by the sensation of being filled or embraced. They use the encounter to retrain desire, by giving personal testimony, by reinterpreting sensory experiences as signals from an occult spiritual realm, and by reframing setbacks as spiritual tests. The ultimate goal of the encounter is to achieve a complete break with pre-conversion ways of seeing the world, and to re-people the world with enchanted experiences, beings, and passions. Christian knowledge, then, only is gained through radical rupture with everyday perception.
This concept of knowledge presented me, a non-Pentecostal, with a dilemma of understanding. As Pentecostals are fond of saying, to know it, you have to live it. I could have dismissed their point as a ploy to convert me, but I sensed that it was also correct. The core of what sustained them and shaped their view of the world was not available through books, charts, or scientific instruments; not in the way that I'd acquired biomedical knowledge. To appreciate Pentecostal knowledge, I had to travel new ground.
* * *
The road to Restoration House is lined by wild grasses and mango trees, crossed by chickens and thin, balding dogs. The route passes old Spanish colonials of the town plaza — their boarded windows covered with graffiti, rows of tin shacks with peeling paint — over bridges, through fallow fields, and past shirtless men sipping beers in the heat on the porch. After a half mile on a dirt road up a mountain, I came upon a tall white gate attached to a twelve-foot iron fence. A young man sat in the guard's booth. He greeted me with "Te bendiga" ("God bless you"). I explained that I was there to see the director, and the gates slowly drew open.
Inside the gate, trimmed hedges, planted flowers, and rocks painted with biblical quotations contrasted with the wild grasses outside. The asphalt driveway from the gate implored those exiting the program in white and blue paint: "Detente, Piensa: Cristo te Ama" ("Stop, Think: Christ Loves You") (fig. 5). The muraled stucco buildings encircling the grounds read "Cafetería," (Cafeteria), "Capilla" (Chapel), "Barbería la Fe" (Faith Barbershop) (fig. 6), "Biblioteca" (Library), "Dispensario" (Dispensary). The quiet of midday siesta penetrated the banana grove and the basketball court (fig. 7), as well as the dormitories, each named for a book of the Bible, including "Corintios" (Corinthians) and "Romanos" (Romans). I noted how much the Christian programs resembled each other physically: on a mountain, with carefully groomed grounds and open space for games and gardens. The grit of condemned buildings and abandoned cars in the urban neighborhoods from which converts came was washed away in this bucolic rendition of a home for addicts. No more than five miles from the town center, the small compound nonetheless evoked the pilgrimage of prophets into the wilderness, its elevation conjured Moses on the mountain. The gates might have referenced New Jerusalem had the twelve-foot iron fence that enclosed it not been topped with barbed wire, as much to keep residents in as unwanted visitors out.
The guard led me through a glass door to Director Menocal's desk. Stocky and gray-haired, Menocal was flanked by plaques from the city recognizing his service to the community, and from a seminary in San Juan for his scholarly achievements. His curriculum, he explained, involved three basic steps: Detoxification in the dormitories for six months, recuperation while living on program grounds for up to twelve months, and spiritual growth in the community after that. As residents reached the recuperation stage they got weekend passes to leave the compound. They attended culto, or religious services, Bible classes, and were assigned tasks such as cleaning or cooking. They also learned potential occupations such as frame making, lamination, and barbering.
In the last phase, that of spiritual growth, some took university courses or got married to the women with whom they'd been living before treatment. Menocal pointed to wedding photos of program graduates on his desk. Success, he told me, is that the residents work, attend school, have a family and children, and that they are a Christian presence in their community.
Twenty-eight years prior, Menocal himself was a heroin user, living on the streets of San Juan. He went to prison and was rehabilitated in Silo, one of the original evangelical addiction treatment programs in Puerto Rico. He found the Lord there, and his calling in life; he graduated from seminary in Bayamón, then came to the South side of the island to found Restoration House with the help of local Pentecostal and Baptist churches, as well as a grant from the mayor. He was now a professional administrator, and some on his staff had state certification in counseling, social work, and nursing. For him, though, it was significant that he had been addicted.
There are so many churches in the South of Puerto Rico, but few rehabilitation programs. It's hard work. You have to have had the experience (of addiction) and feel it in your heart.
Menocal pulled over a staff member, Juan, a round man with a round face and a closely cut greying afro. "This one is a university student," Menocal said with a grin. "You have a lot in common." Juan led me across the compound to a room with plastic flowers framing the doorway and a metal desk in the center. The moist air weighed down on us.
He launched into testimonio (testimony) with no further prompting: this was his third time at Restoration House. The first time he came from jail. His mother was Catholic, and the Catholics let you smoke and drink, they don't teach that God is against that. Then he heard who Jesus was. Holding up a cup, Juan explained "I was like an empty glass. If you want to change, you have to do it inside," pointing inside the cup. "When I came, I cried for three days, I didn't know why. I heard 'Who wants Jesus? He'll change your life.' I said 'Me!' " Juan saw the events of his conversion as auspicious.
Why three days the first time? Because Jesus rose in three days! ... I was in the program three days, closed my eyes, woke up on the floor. I wanted [Jesus] from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to talk with God. I read the Bible two times in three years. I learn so much.
Juan explained that what he and the other men who come to the program need is love. When he converted, he asked for God's love, but did not know he had it until he physically felt God's presence: "One day I asked Him to raise me. [He] took me by hand and (lifted) me, like a drug, then I said God is real."
God began to use Juan, to grant him powers to see and talk with spirits. When he first came to the program, someone was selling drugs inside the program. He prayed in a chain with a group of men through the night, each man taking a one-hour shift to lead prayer. With his eyes closed, he saw demons inside the program's walls. Channeling the Holy Spirit, he called them out and exorcised them.
Since then, Juan had been working with new recruits who were en frio (quitting "cold turkey"), and suffering through withdrawal with chills, aching bone pain, and insomnia. He saw how God was using him with them; when he laid his hand on their foreheads their withdrawal symptoms disappeared.
The first time he graduated from the program, Juan initially did well. "I went home, went to church every day. [I said] 'God, I want to study.'" God answered this prayer, and Juan enrolled in the Inter-American University. "I had [high grades] in the University, I had money. Why? Because I was praying every day. If not I'd lose everything."
Juan continued to guide others as he had in Restoration House: "I worked as a tutor for the handicapped. I liked it so much. I had to explain the sky and constellations to a ciega (blind person) using a pen."
He pointed to ridges on a pen, to indicate spatial relationships: "Here is to here as there is to there." Those times still inspired Juan. "I want to be a missionary, go to Africa, help the people. I can do that through the Pentecostal church."
Despite the possibilities he saw for himself in the church, however, after graduating from the first time Juan still struggled with temptation and disillusionment.
"When I had a relapse it was like God had one hand and [the Devil] the other. 'He's mine — no he's mine.' I felt like that."
Back to using cocaine after accepting Christ, Juan's faith was tested like never before.
"Jesus says 'It's much better not to know me than to know me and leave me.' In my church, they tell me pray, pray. They knew I was relapsing."
After a few months of crack use, Juan came back to Restoration House and begged for re-admission. "God is never late."
Juan found Restoration House to be a quiet place where the voice of God could be heard.
I like to pray at 4 a.m. You'll have a wonderful day if you pray at 4 a.m. God says, "they'll find me when they wake up early in the morning." When you feel the bed shaking, it's God. He's waking you to pray.
Surviving the spiritual war that tested Juan required him to sharpen new senses.
God gave you spiritual eyes and ears ... [you] have to know Satan [was once] an angel. To know the difference, who is lying. If you want to do this work you have to know when a person wants to change.
I left Restoration House that day knowing that Juan would be an important guide. He was connected to a spiritual dimension not visible to outsiders leading secular, everyday lives. For fleeting moments, he was possessed by the Holy Spirit, and the memory of those moments kept him seeking more, moving him from a singular focus on drugs to a singular focus on the Spirit. Juan had offered me an astronomy lesson; I was to be his ciega ("blind person"), to whom he would describe the constellations using ridges on a pen.
SPIRITUAL EYES AND EARS
One night, after two months of attending evening culto, the worship service, at Restoration House, I found myself listening to testimony after a round of "You Are Sacred," a salsa-inspired hymn — complete with conga drums and timbales. The chapel pulsated with men's voices and percussion on drums, cowbells, and hands slapping the backs of metal folding chairs. Bright light spilled out into heavy night air, blanketed by nothing but the calls of tree frogs and crickets for miles. The music ended, and the men leafed restlessly through their Bibles. They looked over their shoulders for signs of the usual Wednesday night preacher, a graduate of Restoration House who was now a pastor in Guayama several miles away.
While they waited for the preacher, a program leader introduced the young man who was to give testimony to relapse as part of recuperation. The young man began with a shy smile, joking about Menocal's discipline. After three months at Restoration House, because he used drugs again, he was held for eighteen days alone in a room. He praised the Lord for waking him up during those eighteen days of isolation.
Juan plopped down next to me. His face was grey and drawn; he had been up around the clock with a new recruit who was "rompiendo en frio" ("going cold turkey"). As the pastor's car pulled up to the chapel, Juan explained that the young man giving testimony was sent by the drug court, and that if he had one more relapse he would spend twenty years in prison.
The pastor from Guayama entered, flanked by guests from his church. A trim, middle-aged man professionally dressed in wire-frame glasses, a pressed white shirt, and a bright yellow tie setting off his dark skin, he called on guests from his church to speak. A man in his thirties in shirt and tie gave his personal testimony. He had grown up in the church, but when he married he wanted to know the world and he forgot the church. It was the Devil saying the world is better. He began to drink a little, and then more, eventually he lost his job and his wife moved to the United States with their three children. He was watching a Christian program on TV one day and felt tear tracks on his face.
I knew the message was for me. God was saying "I still love you." I went to the U.S. to find my wife and kids. ¡Gloria a Dios! ["Glory to God!"] I returned with them to Puerto Rico and my old job took me back. [But then] I found a blank check at work, I signed it and cashed it. ... I went to prison, and my father signed away his house to bail me out. On the street corner, someone said "There is an answer for your problem." [Making motion of man handing him a pamphlet]. I reconciled with El Señor (the Lord), and he cleaned my legal record of all my cases!
Fidgeting in his seat, Juan whispered an offer to show me the grounds. We exited onto a grove of banana trees. "Have you ever seen this?" Juan asked. He moved the petals of a fist-sized purple blossom to uncover miniature green bananas inside.
We continued on a dirt path behind the chapel, passing a hardwood tree. The tree was missing most of its leaves, and shadow covered its cracked bark. Suddenly, a chill took me over. I stood on the path, speechless; I had a visceral urge to avoid the tree. Juan broke the silence in a harsh tone.
See this tree? So dry. This is an ugly tree. The other tree next to it, it gets the same water, when it rains both of them get rain, and it looks beautiful. Why this one look like that? I'm gonna tell you a story. When I first got here I was passing this tree late at night with two people and all of a sudden I felt like God was hugging me and pulling me down. I fell on the floor. The guy ahead of me called for help. As he was helping me up we both saw demons in the tree. He started to pray, to pray. He said "God casts you out of here!" I used to be scared of things like that, but now I'm not. I know God protects me ... when you look at this tree, what do you see?
I looked up and hesitated. "I feel cold," I said. "And I don't know if I should mention this, but when we first walked up that vine looked like a noose."
"What's a noose?" Juan asked.
"A rope to hang someone." I answered. Juan shook his head and told me there was a lot I could not see because I was at a different spiritual level.
We walked past the laundry building and the basketball court where Juan said he often slept in order to see the stars. I looked up and caught sight of Orion and the Big Dipper.
I love it! I pray, I hear God. I think about the people on the streets that night, nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep. I say, please God, help the people, give them something to eat. I know he hears me.
We looked to the detoxification room adjacent to the court, where four men lay motionless on cots. Christian rock music piped in at high volume. Juan told me he had to bolt the speakers to the wall. "They don't know what they're doing when they're in detox," he said. "They just tear out the speakers."
As we walked back to the chapel, culto was letting out, and two men ran up to us: "Juan, Juan, they're calling you!" Juan entered the chapel and talked with the pastor and two assistants while I stayed outside. Though I couldn't see into the chapel, I heard the ebb and flow of loud group prayer for several minutes.
Suddenly Juan ran out of the chapel door with tear stains on his cheeks, his eyes round and bright. "I don't know how to explain to you what just happened. I had something in my heart that God didn't like, and he just took it out! I feel light as a — what you call what you see on birds?" He made a hand motion imitating a feather floating to the ground. Juan then explained further.
That man that came with the pastor, that preached, I never seen him before. Last night he had a dream about me, he knew my name. In the dream I came to his house, I asked him for clothes, for shelter, to feed me. He gave me these things but I ran away. He said that meant I had something in my heart God didn't like. When they prayed for me [just now in the chapel] I felt this heat all through my body, it went up to my head, I felt like it would explode! But when I woke up I felt great. I had had a headache all night long and it was gone. ¡Gloria a Dios!
I told him how glad I was that God helped him, because I'd noticed that he was not as happy as usual. He interrupted me, pointing to the sky behind me, "See that? There, again!" He was seeing flashes of light from his guardian angel.
Excerpted from "Addicted to Christ"
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