The devil inside
The people who attend this church swear they see miracles. Who's to argue?
Published: May 2, 2012
"And that's when I found myself just crying and saying, 'God, am I using the Scriptures wrong? Should I use one Scripture for another? What should I do?"
One day, he visited a pastor in Ann Arbor who saw something in him, called him up from the back of the church, laid his hands upon him and said, "I'm gonna cause miracles to come through your hands," the man told him. "You're gonna set people free."
And somehow, he says, after that day, he was granted spiritual gifts.
He came home and told his wife he was quitting his job at Chrysler to devote himself to ministry full time. It didn't go over well. "She thought I lost my black mind," he says, laughing.
He got by during those early lean times by getting food from soup kitchens and raiding Dumpsters for things like surplus toilet paper and soap. It was tough. "Some of the overtime they paid us at Chrysler, on Sundays and holidays, I was being paid $75 an hour. I gave it all up so I could meet drug addicts, pedophiles, rapers, wife beaters, all kinds of folks. But somehow, someway, I managed to survive all that until God began to turn some things in my behalf."
Davis got permission from a west side church to use its activity center rooms and began his unusual ministry there in 2007. Within a year, his services were overflowing with street people, and the church's minister suggested he move on. He found a once-vacant storefront on McNichols near the Southfield Freeway, where he's been ever since, drawing the desperate one by one with admittedly bold promises.
"I make a wild statement, I stand behind it: Anybody hooked on heroin, crack, marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, lust or pornography — I'll get you off the addiction in five to 10 minutes, permanently."
One of Triumph's quarter-page ads in a local Christian monthly newspaper announces that deliverance can free a sufferer from at least 111 aliments and conditions ranging from the serious (cancer, anxiety attacks and nightmares) to the sexual (masturbation, adultery and pedophilia) to the occult (voodoo, witchcraft and spells) to the mundane (gossip, fantasy and "being nosey").
The church has evolved its own flair, like the swords the congregants wield, a common biblical motif, and the crimson or purple flags, a symbol of royalty. Most of his services consist of "praise and worship," when the congregants walk in a circle as they whisper their prayers or talk in tongues, building up the energy for the climactic release at the end of the night, when the demons of the suffering are called upon to manifest themselves before being banished to the pit of hell forever.
Triumph's presence in the neighborhood is not subtle. Sometimes the parishoners head outside in the middle of the night, into the neighborhoods flanking West McNichols, and march in the streets with their swords and flags, wearing prayer scarves with Hebrew lettering on them.
"We have been a spectacle, 'cause many cars will stop and slow down and start lining up, just watching us, white and black, walking around. But I wanted to be out here in the streets to inflict damage to the powers of darkness that are stealing our young people, causing them to shoot each other and blow each other up and look each other down at traffic lights and want to pull out guns and to hurt each other."
Yet despite the fantastic proceedings here, and the church's spreading notoriety around the world through the Internet, Triumph remains a quiet presence in the city.
"This isn't a glamorous church," says Allan Hill, 66, a member for the past couple of years. "People want to go to a church on a 5,000-acre campus. Here, people are puking in buckets and the pastor drives a beat-up Ford. Who's gonna go to that?"
Most Thursday nights draw a couple dozen people. But this time the church is crowded. A celebrity is visiting.
Apostle James Vivian had flown in from Kansas City, Mo., where he's famous for performing exorcisms at his church, Jesus Christ Teaching Ministry. A few years ago, a local television station's segment on him went viral and propelled him to national notoriety among believers in deliverance. Now he often travels to churches around the country to pray, teach, explain deliverance and expel demons.
He's a large man, tall and weighing more than 300 pounds, and he's seated on the altar on a small chair partly swallowed by his heft. Like Davis, he doesn't charge for deliverance.
This world is tormented by a hierarchy of evil, he explains, of devils and demons and the imps below them, of kingdoms and principalities and districts. "There are so many demons out here, there's no way that everybody knows every name. And each demon has their own personality."
He's got three decades' worth of lively stories. He tells of demon-possessed children levitating beds, of a chair being thrown at him by a witch and stopping in midair before falling harmlessly to the floor, of a demon he battled who summoned two tornadoes to his house, of poltergeists, of controlling the weather, how tattoos draw demons to people, how piercings reveal promiscuity. "I can tell how many guys you've been with by how many piercings are in your ears," he says. Every incredible statement is met with gasps from people in the crowd, who've been given free legal pads for note-taking.
For several hours, the 63-year-old minister fields questions from the audience, many of whom drove hours to see him, some of whom consider themselves experienced deliverance ministers. They have a lot of technical questions about arcane principles of the practice.
One woman with a frowningly serious demeanor seated in the front row has an endless supply of them. "I've heard it said both ways, where you bind the demons together and command them all to come out and go to the pit of hell, but then I've heard where you command them to unlink and come out. So what is the most excellent way?" The former, he informs her.
What is the most demonic drug, a man asks him. "Crack cocaine," Vivian replies. "It's one of those witchcraft drugs that will talk to you. It will tell you, 'You need me more than you need your family. You need me more than the kids need toys.' It's a witchcraft drug."
"Is there a demonic spirit that giggles?" a woman asks him. She says that sometimes when she tries to cast demons out of someone that person breaks into hysterical laughter in her face. Must be a demon doing this. And Vivian agrees. His name is "Mockery," he tells her. Read Psalm 18 to get rid of him.
Suddenly the loudspeakers shriek with feedback from his microphone, causing the audience to wince. "Bling Bling," he announces. Everyone looks puzzled. "Y'all don't know what I'm talking about, do you? There's a demon called 'Bling Bling,' and he gets into your equipment."
"Wow," says a woman in the front row. It's hard to tell how she means it.
But even Vivian has to draw the line after the audience's list of demon-rooted problems grows improbably long.
"Everything is not a demon, everybody heard me?" he says. "Everything is not a demon. Some things are just things that happen to you. Like my hair, it fell out. My uncle had hair until he was 70-something years old. I don't know what happened to mine. It's just, things happen."
The people who attend this church swear they've witnessed miracles here.
"Let me express what I've seen with my own two eyes," Bishop Joyce says. "I've seen people's third-degree burns take baby skin. I've seen cataracts melt off of people eyes where they could see. I've seen the blind's eyes open. I've seen deaf ears, people who don't have eardrums, all of a sudden they can hear. I've seen people who've had broken legs be healed. That I've seen. I can tell you I have seen that for myself."
Joyce, 49, heads his own deliverance church in Farmington Hills, the Totally Committed Ministries. He's had it for a year, been a preacher for 17 years. Tonight he's a guest here. Davis often lets pastors or apostles or ministers from other deliverance churches come and take part in these services.
Joyce grew up in deliverance churches, so this is second nature for him. And this church has a reputation for signs and wonders. He echoes Davis' bold guarantee. "I seen people that was addicted to cigarettes, crack cocaine or heroin, and they were high, and after they got delivered they were sober. Bam — just like that. So I've seen that, to where in five minutes' time going through deliverance they were set free. I've seen demons come out, I've seen people standing here and all of a sudden they change and their voice changes. Now I've seen that, you know? I'm like, 'Wow.' So that's why I come."
Dan Dutton takes a break from walking the circle and stands at the side of the room and watches. The 55-year-old church member first met Davis in his cab, but says, "I had no interest in it." Later he ran into a guy he knew who had a bad leg and always needed a cane to walk. One day, he saw him without it, and two weeks later he saw the guy riding a bike. "It just blew my mind," Dutton says. The man said he got cured at Triumph. When Dutton went there for services, he watched Davis, in prophecy mode, tell a woman he'd never met that her husband was molesting their daughter. "Exactly what he said, the lady knew," Dutton whispers.
Since he's been here, Davis has helped heal his son's scoliosis, Dutton says. And a family friend's bronchitis. Biggest of all, he broke an evil curse his daughter had picked up overseas.
Still, he says, wasn't sure about all this. "Doubt come in real strong, even though what happened with her. But I knew it was something that was real. The way he does it is different, you know, how he uses the buckets and coughing into the buckets, but it gets results. It gets results."
Josephine Beeks, 51, dances near the stage during the services, wearing a flowing white dress and waving two long white banners. Nobody asked her to. She just felt the desire to dance one day, got up there, and has since become a fixture in the services.
Before being delivered, her life, she says, "was a whole lot of mess, a whole lot of worries, a whole lot of struggles." Her life story is punctuated with foster homes and prostitution and drug addiction.
"It was like, I can't describe it," she says of the night she was delivered. "Everything just fell off, like I wasn't carrying a heavy load no more, like I just feel free, like a whole new person."
Everyone here has a similar story, of feeling it happen to them or seeing it happen to others. They could be scammers, but they're not asking for money. They could be simply deluding themselves, but if the end result makes them happier, does it matter?
"It doesn't matter," says R. Khari Brown, a sociology professor at Wayne State University who specializes in inner-city black churches. "That's their release. It allows people to get to next week. Maybe the proclamations about delivering people from drug addictions and things might be a bit odd to someone who's not been to a traditional black church, but in many cases a lot of African-Americans view churches as their therapy. I don't think it's kooky at all.
"African-Americans in particular are much more likely to go to the clergy for personal problems than they are to go to a therapist, and even though the clergy are not trained as clinical psychologists, they're dealing with the exact same issues. Research does suggest that there are benefits to that, as opposed to sitting at home alone and trying to deal with it yourself."
Believers here say the results speak for themselves.
"You just see a glow come over their face," Hawkins says of those who go through deliverance. "They don't even look the same. And sometimes when people get up, just stand up, some people say they feel lighter. There's like a flow to the spirit. They feel like they're floating. Because unclean spirits are heavy, and when they're released you feel lighter, 'cause they're gone."
Midnight draws near, and the whirl of the congregants suddenly grinds to a halt.
Three chairs are placed at the feet of the altar. A circle of chairs is put around each, and a little bucket is placed in each circle. The music is turned down. It's finally time.
In the chair to the left sits a gray-haired man in a camouflage T-shirt, head bowed, quiet. The men of the church, in collared shirts, sweaters and dress pants, sit themselves around him. One of them clutches a big red Bible.
In the middle chair there's a young woman, about 30. She wears a baggy white T-shirt, her hair is matted back and she has a tattoo on her neck of a winged creature. Four women, church regulars, encircle her. They too have Bibles.
To the right sits a tall, burly young man with an Afro. It's his first night here. He'd walked in earlier, looking sleepy and disheveled, with half-shut bloodshot eyes swimming in something like intoxication or illness or madness. For two hours, church members laid hands on him, prayed over him, tried to get the Holy Ghost to come through him. For two hours, it hadn't worked. Now they will try this, and they surround him.
Davis watches from the side, letting the other deliverance ministers do their thing. The congregants sit in silence, watching the proceedings unblinkingly.
The ministers pull out small green bottles holding holy oil, dab it on their fingers and trace a little cross on the head of each of those to be delivered before offering a solemn, close-eyed prayer. Then, one by one, the minister leading each session begins to address the demons that may be within the subjects before them, by naming the ailments caused by their presence.
To the left, the men whisper to the man in the middle, and their sessions remains between them and the demons they call upon.
But in the middle, Hawkins is loudly coaxing the demons to make themselves known and to get out of the woman entrusted to her care tonight.
"In the name of Jesus, come on, come on — every unclean spirit, every sprit of defilement, up and out right now," she says, firmly, with her hand on the woman's shoulder. The others around her have hands gently touching her back, her head, her arms and legs. "Every spirit of perversion, up and out right now. Every spirit of unforgiveness, rebellion, witchcraft, come up and out right now. Spirit of Jezebel and Ahab, up and out right now. Every lying spirit, every conniving spirit, every cheating spirit, every spirit of deception and delusion, we bind you in the name of Jesus. Go and do not return."
And then the woman starts feeling something. He body sags, her eyes close, she looks like she might cry or throw up. And she does both. She holds her bucket, leans into it, and begins coughing, like she has a dry heave. And something — pleghm? spit? — is being coughed into the bucket.
"You can't die, you got to live, girl!" Hawkins tells her firmly as her coughing becomes more coarse and guttural as the list goes on. "God got some work for you to do even now. Every spirit of fatigue, up and out right now. Every spirit of defeat, up and out right now. Any insecurities, up and out right now, up and out right now, up and out right now." She pauses as the girl catches her breath.
"Every spirit of addiction up and out right now," she continues. And at this phrase the girl's coughing gets suddenly louder, as if Hawkins rustled up a demon. "Every opiate spirit, in the name of Jesus, I command you to come up and out right now. Every spirit of self-hatred, every spirit of anger, cursing, retaliation, road rage, fighting and idling, up and out right now." The list goes on, minute by minute, cough after cough, until the list is exhausted and all the demons have been given an eviction notice.
But it's getting harder to focus on this woman's deliverance because off to the right there's this blood-curdling coughing taking place. William Kitts, the burly guy with the white T-shirt and the bloodshot eyes, is hunched over, absolutely hacking into a bucket. His voice, which earlier was high and soft spoken, is now low and gravelly and ominous.
Minister Denise Neumann sits facing him knee to knee. He came in complaining of nightmares involving fire and disease, of physical maladies such as an enlarged heart, a bleeding ulcer, asthma and bronchitis, even though he's only 34. And now he sounds like he might spew the very life out of himself.
She speaks to him a soft, honeyed voice, in contrast to Hawkins' commanding bellows, though both perform from essentially the same script. She calls out the demons one by one, and his coughing is so shocking and wrenching that at one point she stops and says, "You OK?"
He nods furiously, yes.
"OK, let me know when you're ready to go on."
"I'm ready," he growls. And it begins again.
Depression. Grief. Sorrow. Heartache. Mental illness. Schizophrenia. Anxiety. Stress. Nervousness. Panic attacks. She names each, he repeats each, and now and then he bows into the bucket to let loose from the bottom of his gut.
Finally the long list is exhausted, the coughing subsides, and Apostle Davis visits all participants to prophesize where their lives are headed, as each person seated around them offers soothing words of encouragement.
"Nothing but sweet dreams tonight, William," Denise tells him. She has a calming presence and a motherly, sympathetic gaze. "You have been adopted into the family of God."
There's a sense of exhaustion in the room, like an ordeal has just ended. Kitts stands up and looks around, as if he just woke from sleep. A childlike smile breaks out on his face. Suddenly he's energetic and wide-eyed and hugging anyone within range. "I was nervous and scared, but I got over it once I felt the love. I feel like my aunt's over me," he says, pointing skyward.
Something obviously happened here tonight. But what? Was it a crude form of hypnosis that triggered changes in the thinking of willing participants? A type of faith healing? A spiritual placebo that creates real psychological effects? It might look crazy or silly to some observers, but followers of deliverance say what matters in the end are the many broken people who will tell you it's worked for them. Whether it lasts or not, whether real change took place in them, those who went through it leave here tonight believing that they're changed.
"It's not crazy," Hawkins says. "This whole thing is done by faith, OK? You have to experience it, and you have to want to be delivered, and it think at some point in everybody's life there's something that they need to be set free of. You actually have to experience it by faith and want to be free, and God will deliver you. But you've got to walk it by faith."
Detroitblogger John is John Carlisle. He scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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