Are you ready there in the wheelchairs?

(Observer Magazine, 31 May 1992)

Morris Cerullo sees himself as God’s spiritual general. Others are less convinced. Now the controversial American evangelist is making a bid for British souls. Richard Askwith watched him in action.

Dr Morris Cerullo, evangelist, is a little man with big plans. Like Napoleon; except that Morris Cerullo’s plans are much bigger.

You may have heard of him. In America he is mentioned in the same breath as Billy Graham and Oral Roberts (though woe betide the journalist who mentions him in the same breath as Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker). His San Diego-based organisation, Morris Cerullo World Evangelism, has an annual budget of $12 million. He has his own television station (the Inspirational Network, bought from Jimmy Swaggart), his own television studios, offices in 30 countries, more than 500,000 specially trained ‘partners’ preaching on his behalf in more than 100 countries, and followers – millions of them – all over the world. In three weeks’ time his ‘Mission to London’ begins at Earl’s Court. Nearly 100,000 people are expected to see him there. About six weeks after that, his new satellite television channel, European Family Network, is due to begin broadcasting 39 hours a week of religious programming – including his own flagship programme, Victory With Morris Cerullo – to more than two million British homes (and about 30 million elsewhere in Europe), making him Britain’s first televangelist; By 1993, if all goes well, EFN may be broadcasting 24 hours a day. And that, as Cerullo sees it, is only the beginning.

You may have seen his advertising. A typical poster shows a photograph of an abandoned wheelchair and announces that, at Earl’s Court from 21 to 28 June, ‘some will be moved by the power of God for the first time’. In other words, Morris Cerullo will perform miracles.

lf this rings a bell, it may be because it reminds you of his altercation last year with the Independent Television Commission. The lTC complained to Super Channel, the European satellite station then showing the programme to a handful of British homes, about scenes of purported miraculous healing in Victory With Morris Cerullo. Super Channel, wary of infringing the terms of its British licence, suspended the programme. Following negotiations, however, it was restored, and you can still watch it on Super Channel today, preceded by a disclaimer which recommends ‘all persons experiencing illness to seek medical attention’ and admits that ‘Morris Cerullo World Evangelism cannot substantiate the claims made by those participants featured in this programme’. The scenes of healing – of which more later – remain.

Who does Morris Cerullo think he is? In his own words, he thinks he is God’s ‘spiritual general’, ‘commissioned’ by God to recruit a worldwide ‘army’ of one billion proper, born-again Christian souls by the year 2000. According to his authorised biography, God’s Chosen Warrior, he was first visited by God 53 years ago, as an eight-year-old orphan. When he was 14, angels led him from his orthodox Jewish orphanage into the bosom of New York Pentecostalism. Shortly afterwards, he had a supernatural experience in which he was taken to heaven, met God and was given a glimpse of thousands of lost souls burning in hell. Give or take the odd interruption for studies at Bible college, he has been preaching the word ever since, travelling all over the world and relying on donations for his income.

His services (in common with those of many charismatic preachers) are almost invariably marked by ‘miraculous’ scenes of people speaking in tongues and being ‘slain by the Spirit’. For the past 40 years they have also been marked by miracles of physical healing. God still speaks to him regularly and occasionally dictates books to him. I have met and spoken to him (Cerullo, that is), and I am convinced that he believes all this. So, presumably, do his wife and three children, all of whom work closely with him (although one son spent 20 years as a rebellious drug addict before ‘God, through His divine mercy, had mercy on him, healed him, set him free’).

Many respectable people take him be seriously. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, is said to be an admirer. More than 150 London churches will at be co-operating with the Mission to London. And the ITC, whose rules make it all but impossible for ‘a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a religious nature’ to hold a broadcasting licence, has recently seen fit to grant a licence to the European Family Network. Why?

In search of an answer, earlier this month I spent two evenings in a row in a i downtown conference centre in Newark. New Jersey, watching Cerullo in action. It left me more baffled than ever.

All 5,000 seats were taken well before kick-off. Outside, rumours were flying about riots in nearby New York; Los Angeles was burning, and there was ten- sion in the streets. Inside, the atmosphere was one of riotous harmony: between black and white, rich and poor, old and young. Some excellent gospel singers were warming things up, loudly. Most people stood, swaying, arms aloft. Some danced, some sang; many clapped with the music. Most of the faces were smiling. Those that weren’t were twisted in trance-like ecstasy. Tears ran down many cheeks. People hugged each other in greeting. Others shouted ‘Oh yeah’, or ‘Jesus’ or ‘Hallelujah’. It was difficult to resist the urge to join in.

Anyone who has witnessed a Pentecostal service will have some idea of the frenzy – and the fun. (Others may imagine the atmosphere by calling up memories of really good pop concerts, football matches or parties.) What made this different was the garish ‘stage’ at the front — bright red carpets, huge slogan-bearing screens, a giant Morris Cerullo World Evangelism logo –  and, near it, the large ‘disabled section‘ of the audience. About 15 wheelchairs were parked at the front, with occupants in varying degrees of ill health (most, to my untrained eye, seemed capable of movement in all four limbs). Behind them sat people with crutches, people in plaster, and any number of people who appeared to be suffering from one form or another of physical or mental handicap. Even here, the atmosphere was full of high spirits. But you could also sense the other emotion that underlay the proceedings: despair.

A local preacher worked us up to a higher pitch of excitement by urging us to give generously to the cause. ‘Let no man come before me empty-handed,’ he quoted repeatedly from the Bible, before assuring us that those who gave generously would experience miraculous ‘personal revival’ in our financial lives. Once again, when the collectors; round it was hard to resist the urge to join in.

Then Cerullo appeared, to deafening applause. Immaculately dressed and  groomed, he oozed artificiality, rubbing his hands, a big sugar-white smile on his face. Self-conscious but self-assured. he reminded me Terry Wogan, or perhaps of Bob Monkhouse. ‘How many of you know,’ he began, beaming, in a cloying. Reaganesque whisper, ‘that we didn’t come here to see Morris tonight?’ Silence. ‘How many of you know that we came here to see Jesus?’ Huge cheer. ‘How many of you know’ (shouted this time) ‘that we came here to see Jesus?’ Hysterical cheering.

‘How many of you,’ he continued (this ‘how many’ is a favourite rhetorical device), ‘were thrilled at what God did at the service yesterday?’ Cheers and hallelujahs – and already we were on the subject of miracles. An aide handed him testimonials from people who been healed the previous night. He read some out, still smiling, to deafening applause. Several of the beneficiaries were called up on stage and gave halting accounts of their recoveries from afflictions ranging from drug addiction to arthritis. ‘Who healed you?’ asked Morris. ‘Jesus!’ cried the beneficiary. At which point Morris did his party trick. ‘About a year and a half ago,’ he explained later, ‘the liquid fire of God began to flow through my hands’. This gave him the power to induce at will the state known to charismatics as being ‘slain by the Spirit’. In practice this means that he holds a hand in front of someone’s ir face and they collapse in a faint or trance. As a way of rounding off an episode of his act it is unbeatable. Cured person describes healing to microphone; ‘Who cured you?’; ‘Jesus’; a wave of the hand (with a simultaneous dramatic flourish of organ music); collapse of cured person; loud applause; and on with the show.

A large team of ushers, ‘elders’, ‘partners’ and other committed members of Morris Cerullo World Evangelism provided back-up, locating cured people in the crowd, catching them when they collapsed and generally keeping things moving. But Morris himself was the master showman. directing proceedings with the slick charm and authority of a professional gameshow host.

Usually the testimonials are followed by preaching: impassioned but repetitive exposition upon some New Testament text, if Victory With Morris Cerullo is anything to go by, punctuated by ranting, outbreaks of gratuitous weeping, bursts of conversation with God and bursts of speaking in tongues, all of which provoke hysterical audience excitement. On the two nights I was there, the atmosphere was already so hysterical after half a dozen testimonials that he skipped the preaching and went straight into the healing.

‘Something’s already happening,’ he told us, in his soft, hypnotic, sing-song tones. ‘There’s a wave of God’s healing power that’s sweeping through this building. Father, I give you praise, I give you praise, I give you praise. There’s an anointing for healing here, church. Let it in. Welcome the spirit of God. We worship you, Lord, I praise you, oh, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do. Oh glory to God, glory to God, glory to God. I have no control over what’s happening, folks’ (said with a huge grin). ‘Here it is, like liquid fire, like liquid fire. The power of the Holy Spirit is finally upon you.’

The crowd loved it, shouting ‘Jesus’ and ‘Praise the Lord’, clapping, screaming, weeping. Cerullo continued: ‘There’s a wave of God’s healing power that’s at sweeping through this building. Are you ready there in the wheelchairs? Are you ready to get healed? We give you praise, we give you praise, we give you praise.

‘We worship you, we worship you, we is worship you,’ he chanted, stepping down from the stage and walking towards the wheelchairs, the crowd cheering louder and louder. ‘In Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name. Oh yes,’ he cried, approaching one man in particular, ‘I see the glory of God all over you. Take him by the hand,’ he told an usher. ‘In Jesus’ ’ name, in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name, ‘In Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name, in Jesus’ name, stand right up, go on, go on, put your hands up’ — which the man, now half-standing, did — ‘come on, give him praise, come on church’ — this to all of us, who redoubled our cheering — ‘come on, God, we give you praise, ha ha, oh yes, oh yes, in Jesus’ name…’ By which point all 5,000 people were shouting and clapping wildly, the man was walking unsteadily towards Cerullo, and the gospel singers launched into a deafening chorus of ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand’.

Soon the man was standing with Cerullo on stage, explaining that he had been suffering from emphysema (which made his unsteady walk seem slightly less miraculous) and proclaiming (not wholly convincingly) that he was now completely healed.

‘And who healed you?’ asked Cerullo.

‘Jesus,’ cried the man, flinging his arms heavenwards. ‘Take him,’ screamed Cerullo, flashing his hand up to the man’s forehead; and the man collapsed backwards into the arms of two ushers.

This procedure, dramatic the first time I saw it, was repeated about 50 times on the first evening alone. Three or four others left their wheelchairs; ushers spotted, and escorted on to the stage, people who claimed to have been cured of bone disorders; people came up claiming that swellings had gone down, that pain had stopped, that the ringing in their ears had gone, that their children’s sight had been restored. Soon there was a large crowd on stage, all queueing to testify, to loud cheers, that the Lord had healed them. Once again, it was tempting to join in; but my sore hip, a long-standing minor sports injury, continued to ache.

Cerullo continued to stir the emotional cauldron, chanting his catchphrases – ‘In Jesus’ name’, ‘We give you praise’, ‘I have no control over this’, ‘It’s awesome’, ‘Like liquid fire’ – over and over again. In front of me a woman in a wheelchair, cheeks wet with tears, whispered ‘Jesus, Jesus’ and tried to wave her hands; a little earlier she had tried, desperately but unsuccessfully, to leave her wheelchair.

Whether the ‘miracles’ were real or not is not for me to say. In two nights I saw nearly 100 people testify that Jesus had healed them through Cerullo; many subsequently did so in writing as well. It seemed inconceivable that they could all be ‘plants’. Most seemed ordinary, not very educated people whose lives had left them well acquainted with grief and who believed – wanted to believe – that they were healed. All seemed passionate in their faith in God, Christ and Cerullo – and to have had their faith redoubled by Cerullo’s hypnotic chanting and the infectious enthusiasm of the crowd. Most lapsed into ‘Hallelujahs’ and ‘Praise the Lords’ before they had fully explained their case fir histories. ‘Only my God knows how I’ve suffered,’ wept one woman, before Cerullo slew her with the Spirit.

On the second night, Cerullo seemed to overreach himself. First there was a the woman who was practically dragged out of her wheelchair by the ushers before he abandoned the idea that she was being healed; then there were a couple of people who didn’t fall over when they were supposed to when Cerullo slew if them with the Spirit and had, it seemed, to be pushed; then there was a car accident victim who fell over after Cerullo threw away his crutches and leg brace; and then there were the cancer victims. Seized with a conviction that ‘there’s an anointing here for the healing of growths’, Cerullo summoned everyone with a tumour to stand in a group in front of the stage. About 100 people hobbled up, some looking horribly ill. For 10 minutes they listened to his intoxicating, impassioned chants, holding hands. Then he walked among them, slaying them with the Spirit, and pronounced them healed: ‘Are you ready? Now feel for your tumours. Feel them. It’s gone! Come on, get up! It’s gone! In Jesus’ name. Where is it‘? It’s gone. Ha, ha, ha!’

The response was disappointing. About a dozen people eventually went up on stage, none of whom struck me as making a particularly good case for a miracle having occurred. In some cases the cancer that was supposed to have disappeared turned out to have been suspected rather than diagnosed; in others, while the pain might have gone (which was understandable in that atmosphere), it was difficult to see how the person could possibly know whether the tumour had vanished or not. Cerullo changed the subject to deafness.

Back in the audience, the unhealed cancer sufferers trudged sadly back to their seats. Two faces stick in my mind: a grey-faced man in a grey suit, his eyes staring blindly ahead of him in newly confirmed despair; and a teenage girl who leapt and twisted about, weeping, apparently trying to dislodge a growth in her abdomen that had refused to disappear, bravely muttering ‘Hallelujah’ to show that her faith was not wavering.

‘Surely you must believe after that?’ a member of the audience said to me afterwards. Which just goes to show that what you see is what you expect to see. I thought the second night was a flop, even if you assumed that the ‘miracles’ were real. Everyone else who was there – most of them born-again charismatic Christians – seemed to think that it had been an awesome display of God’s power.

Which of us was wrong? My scepticism is based on two beliefs. The first is that miracles are impossible by definition and that an inexplicable event no more implies supernatural intervention by God than does a mundane one. The second is that the version of the world proposed by Morris Cerullo and his followers is inherently improbable, and that a God who went to all the trouble and controversy of creating a world in which people were afflicted by incurable diseases through no fault of their own but then arranged to cure isolated instances of those diseases through the exclusive agency of a vulgar little American who looked like Bob Monkhouse would, as Nietzsche once said in a similar context, ‘be so absurd that, even if he existed, he would have to be abolished’.

Morris Cerullo sees things from a different perspective. First of all, he argues, there is nothing absurd about his brand of charismatic Christianity within the context of Christianity generally. If you accept the things that respectable organisations like the Church of England profess to believe, how can you dismiss what he does? ‘The word salvation, literally translated, doesn’t just mean to be saved from your sins,’ he says, ‘but to be made a perfectly whole person. Jesus came here to make us whole people, to heal our minds, to cleanse our lives, to make us the kind of people we ought to be. So healing comes naturally.’ Charismatic Christians take their authority from the New Testament, which reports that Jesus actually instructed his followers to perform miracles (for example in Mark 16 xv-xviii) and that the evangelism of the earliest Christians was accompanied by precisely the sort of goings on — speaking in tongues, slaying by the spirit, casting out of devils, miraculous healing – for which modern charismatics are now derided. If you accept, as many Christians do, that the New Testament reports the truth, how can such derision be justified? If you also believe, as Cerullo does, that ‘Jesus Christ is coming back soon, coming back in my lifetime’, then there is nothing remotely odd about a few miracles. ‘God said, “I will pour out of my spirit on all flesh in the last days”,’ says Cerullo. That, he believes, is what happens at his meetings.

A second argument in Cerullo’s favour is that society needs him. ‘This world is full,’ he says, with his tenderest smile, ‘of an incredible amount of people whose hearts are broken.’ You have only to look closely at the audience at one of his meetings, or to look at all the poor, lonely or sick people in any of the big cities from which most of his support is drawn, to know that what he says is true. You have only to talk to his followers to know that, for many of them, Cerullo’s ministry is a precisely what he says it is: ‘relevant at the point of human need’. It may not deliver what it promises: health, wealth and everlasting life. It does deliver hope.

It is easy to feel suspicion and distaste when he appears to exploit such broken-heartedness, selling his ‘mission’ with such lines as: ‘Broken-hearted people; people facing emotional crises, financial crises, family problems; physically ill people – these people have an incredible amount to gain from attending my meetings.’ But can one really condemn him if one has nothing better to offer such people oneself?

Probably not; yet I condemn him anyway. I accept that he is honest, sincere, disinterested and hard working. I accept that he cares about his flock and that he helps many of them to endure or enjoy life better than they would otherwise have done. I even accept that some people may have been healed at his meetings. Yet the gospel he preaches remains pernicious because it is based on false promises. Cerullo himself may believe that God really does talk to him and dictate jargon-ridden books to him; that those who believe in him really will be healed; that those who give him money really will increase their chances of ‘incredible, awesome financial breakthroughs’; that the lack of serious disturbances in New York following the riots in Los Angeles really was attributable to the prayers of his followers (‘An awesome manifestation of the miracle of God’s love came over us, and we released it over this city’); and that being born again under his instructions really will heal the lives of the broken-hearted. That doesn’t mean that any of those things are true, nor that it is right to teach people to believe them.

The best antidote to the temptation to take Cerullo seriously is not to see him in the flesh but to watch him on television and read his copious printed propaganda. His biography reads like a hagiography of Kim Il Sung (‘Morris preached with a mighty anointing’; ‘Morris stood… in a simple white jacket that could not hide his muscular build’). Victory with Morris Cerullo is littered with exhortations to buy Morris Cerullo World Evangelism products (the ITC forbids the direct solicitation of donations). His books, pamphlets and magazines, like his more committed followers, speak a curious, jargon-ridden language in which it is mandatory to say ‘anointed’ or ‘blessed’ whenever you mean ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, while you never pay for Morris Cerullo products, just send ‘love gifts’ of specified amounts of money.

His sense of infallibility is as awesome as it is misplaced. His attempts at humour are woefully heavy handed. His world leaves no place for spontaneity, irony or dissent — any more than his meetings have room for those who refuse to be born again.

If that is the flavour of salvation, he can keep it.

© The Observer 1992

FOOTNOTE

The ‘mission’ to London that immediately followed the publication of this article would be Cerullo’s last to the UK for more than two decades. He did, however, return in August 2014 – at which point The Independent published this interesting update on his story.; followed, a few days later, by this.

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