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Exorcism: Psychiatry meets faith

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Guest preacher Edward Shotwell, left, and Senior Pastor Eldon Venable of Operation Fresh Start.

Alone in her bedroom, the black-dressed woman thumbed through her binder of spells and contemplated her next victim. The baritone voice of Satan rumbled in her mind, enticing her deeper into the dark side.

"Satan told me in a deep, demonic voice, 'You belong to me,'" said Samantha Wheeler, who believes she's been possessed since age 12.

But recently, Wheeler met a charismatic pastor from Kenya who promised her deliverance.

"When I first talked with her, I could see the manifestation of demons," said Paul Mbugua, a preacher and exorcist at Operation Fresh Start Apostolic Church in Oildale.

"Every Sunday, we were casting devils out of her," he said of the 18-year-old Bakersfield woman. "She was very possessed."

Belief in demonic possession has been part of the Christian walk since Jesus' exorcisms in the Gospels 2,000 years ago.

Once regarded as frightening procedures marked by form and ritual, as described by the Vatican and seen in Hollywood movies like "The Exorcist," many evangelical churches have sanitized and streamlined exorcisms for 21st-century parishes.

These days, Lucifer is being cast out somewhat easily during altar calls in the worship center, in group sessions at retreats and during private office visits -- with nary a sign of growling demonic voices, supernatural feats of strength or people freaking out at holy images.

Yet modern advances in psychology and medicine continue to scrape against the ancient practice.

Ethical issues have been raised about pastors' "divine gift of discernment," in which God reveals truth to the minister. Pastors like Mbugua use discernment to decide if a person requires psychiatric treatment or deliverance.

Lewis Ashmore, a Tehachapi pastor who performed hundreds of exorcisms at revivals in the 1950s and 1960s, said discernment can be tainted by a minister's biases.

Moreover, putting someone with major psychiatric issues through an exorcism, or deliverance as some pastors call it, can sometimes do more harm than good, he said.

"You tell a person they got a demon," Ashmore said, "how are they going to handle it?"

Casting out devils

At Operation Fresh Start, Carol Dill attends healing services that include exorcisms. The 47-year-old Oildale resident said during one of the services, the demons of cigarette and alcohol addictions left her.

"I was doing Satan's will by doing things that were damaging to me," Dill said. "I guess I was bound by the spirit of Satan."

Betty Colbert of Bakersfield attended a two-hour deliverance held by Pastor Max Van Dyke in his office at Christ Cathedral on White Lane.

She decided to go through the process because of "heaviness" within her she couldn't describe. "Something was amiss," she said.

When Van Dyke cast demons out of her, she felt rumbling in her solar plexus followed by repeated coughing.

This is typical of the way devils are ejected, Van Dyke said. "They seem to leave on a person's breath, through a sigh, a belch, a yawn, a cough," he said.

Three years later, thanks to vigilance, prayer and the Holy Spirit, Colbert remains free of the psychic oppression she lived with for most of her 60 years, she said.

Benign exorcisms?

Lack of drama during a deliverance is common, Van Dyke said. If the demons try to manifest themselves, Van Dyke tells them, "In the name of Jesus Christ, stop," and they do, he said.

Indeed, the trend toward benign exorcisms has blurred what is and what isn't a deliverance ministry.

An example is Cleansing Stream, an international program created by the evangelical Church on the Way in Van Nuys. Several Bakersfield churches offer the ministry, including New Life Center, Grace Assembly of God, Bakersfield Community Church and Valley Bible Fellowship.

Organizers don't want Cleansing Stream lumped in with deliverance ministries. New Life Center declined to comment about its program for this article.

Stella Webby of Valley Bible was the most forthcoming of Cleansing Stream coordinators interviewed. The months-long program, which features group sessions that culminate at a retreat, is "preparation for deliverance," she said.

Demonic spirits are real, Webby said. "We need supernatural help."

More than a feeling?

Many modern-day deliverers include psychology in their ministries. What's more, if they detect mental illness, they'll recommend psychiatric treatment over deliverance.

But it's a slippery slope. Pastors rely on their gift of discernment to determine what a person needs. Van Dyke said most of his clients, no matter their diagnosed psychiatric condition, go through "whole personality deliverance."

By contrast, Mbugua said that of dozens of people he counsels showing signs of mental illness, only one might require an exorcism. Most recently that one was Wheeler, whom Mbugua has subjected to numerous exorcisms based on his subjective reactions to her.

"I can feel it, I can see it," Mbugua said.

Wheeler started casting spells in her youth, she said. Visions of winged devils breathing fire and conversations with Satan happened nearly every day.

About 91/2 months ago, she walked into Operation Fresh Start, a small church of 25 members devoid of crosses and religious images as a hedge against idolatry. The church embraced her, and Wheeler is now staying with a church member.

The teenager said she's been depressed in the past and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, one of its symptoms being hearing voices.

She also suffers from bipolar disorder and ADHD, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. In September, she took herself off psychotropic medication.

When told of Wheeler's schizophrenia, Steve Bacon, associate professor of psychology at Cal State Bakersfield, speculated that the voices she hears are probably not Satan's.

But Mbugua begs to differ. "When it's only psychological, that feeling" -- which he described as terrifying -- "isn't there."

Rebuking Satan

A Wednesday prayer service at Fresh Start was attended by a dozen church members. The service featured down-home gospel music, with Senior Pastor Eldon Venable singing and playing guitar.

Guest preacher Edward Shotwell gave a sweaty and impassioned sermon on the wily devil, followed by an altar call where he laid hands on weeping parishioners.

During testimonies, Wheeler stood up from a pew, renounced the dark forces and recommitted herself to Christ.

"I feel happy," she said afterward, "a little depressed, but I rebuke Satan."

No consensus on exorcism; experts disagree on causes

There is no consensus among clergy, psychologists and religious scholars regarding the veracity of exorcisms.

Monsignor Ronald Swett, of St. Philip the Apostle Church in southwest Bakersfield, is a skeptic. He said apparent devil manifestations during exorcisms can be explained by mental disorders such as schizophrenia or psychological theories such as the power of suggestion.

“I think people should be very, very cautious,” said Swett, a Catholic priest who has never witnessed an exorcism.

For decades Rev. Lewis Ashmore cast out devils during tent revivals in the Central Valley. People foamed at the mouth, talked back to him in a strange voice and writhed uncontrollably on the ground.

Today the 75-year-old reverend, who heads Tehachapi’s Life Awareness Center, dismisses all of it.

“Back in Christ’s day, these mental conditions weren’t yet diagnosed,” he said. “All exorcisms can be explained by psychology and science.”

Meanwhile Stafford Betty, a religious studies professor at Cal State Bakersfield, is sympathetic toward exorcists.

Last year he published a study of demonic possession in an academic journal. Based on evidence of successful exorcisms within various religious traditions, Betty concluded that “spirit oppression” is real.

In some cases, Betty wrote, “spirits” may cause psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, in which sufferers hear voices.

“It may well be that the voices belong to realities we cannot see,” Betty writes, “just as many schizophrenics claim.”

Catholic exorcisms rare, but rules for rites ready

In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples cast devils out of people. These exorcisms influenced the church to perform the practice and eventually create an official rite.

In various writings, the Vatican has outlined signs of possession and ways possession can occur, but these days, exorcisms in the Catholic Church are extremely rare.

Exorcisms rules

Created in the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Rite of Exorcism brims with rules, rituals and form.

• Only a bishop trained by the church can perform an exorcism.

• The exorcist must wear specific holy clothing, such as an alb and a purple stole, and say certain prayers and quote Scripture at specific times.

• A rosary, crucifix, holy water, Bible and relics of a saint should be present.

• The exorcist presents holy objects to and speaks directly with the devils in the possessed person.

Signs of possession

• Speaking or understanding languages the person never learned

• Knowing things “that are distant or hidden”

• Ability to predict the future

• Intense hatred of holy things

• Physical strength beyond human capability

Causes of possession

• A curse

• Addictions to sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.

• Dabbling in the occult, black magic or witchcraft

• Proximity to evil places or persons

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