Toronto -- Ten years ago this month, worshippers at a small church a stone's throw from this city's airport began laughing uncontrollably. They also made animal noises -- braying, barking, howling and roaring. They collapsed to the floor, staggered about as if drunk, shook and jerked; wept, wailed and yelped. Faces contorted with tics. Groans and guffaws hung in the air. Bodies lay prone on the carpet.
To the uninitiated, this was eerie stuff, resembling mass hysteria more than religious worship. But to regulars at the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church (now the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, or TACF), this was the work of the Holy Spirit, and the genesis of a worldwide revival in the charismatic and Pentecostal movements.
The phenomenon was first noticed on Jan. 20, 1994 and dubbed the Toronto Blessing by a glowing British press that acclaimed the strange signs and wonders at the church near the airport of Canada's largest city.
"British Airways Flight 092 took off from Toronto Airport on Thursday evening just as the Holy Spirit was landing on a small building 100 yards from the end of the runway," enthused one widely circulated report.
Regardless of what one may think of the claim that the Holy Spirit regularly disembarks at a church near Pearson International Airport, there's no doubt the Toronto Blessing represents one of the most intriguing -- and contentious -- stories in recent years.
"Holy laughter" has since been exported around the world, but the Toronto church remains ground zero for the phenomenon.
Like a magnet, the church has drawn some 4 million Christians from five dozen nations over the past decade, all eager to experience the blessing and the wild bodily manifestations that accompany it. Airlines and major hotels around the airport offer discounts to pilgrims journeying to Toronto to be -- in the movement's parlance -- slain in the spirit.
Now in a cavernous former convention center near the airport that can house up to 3,500 worshippers, the fellowship intended 10 years ago simply to start a series of four revival meetings led by Randy Clark, a visiting pastor from St. Louis. Clark's main influence had been Rodney Howard-Browne, a fiery charismatic preacher from South Africa known as the laughing evangelist.
But something happened that wintry Thursday night. The four meetings turned into regular services and the TACF now hosts them every night of the week except Monday. The ministry is aided by a trained, 45-member team. Sunday nights feature a healing program that draws up to 1,500 people.
At a recent healing service attended by several seekers from Texas, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, Steve Long, senior associate pastor at the TACF, politely chided a reporter who remarked that he noticed a wide variety of psychological reactions among worshippers, including the shaking of limbs, the appearance of fainting, groaning and laughter.
"Well, I wouldn't call it psychological," corrected Long, a gentle, affable man. "The Holy Spirit has entered their bodies. But it's not the outer signs that are important. It's what's going on inside them."
Personal encounters -- real or perceived -- with the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are at the heart of the Toronto Blessing and its offshoots.
In her recent book on the subject, "Main Street Mystics," University of Akron (Ohio) sociologist Margaret M. Poloma said 90 percent of pilgrims to Toronto who responded to surveys in 1995 and 1997 report the blessing left them with a sense of being "more in love with Jesus than ever before" and "knowing (God's) love in a new way." The feelings ranged from inner peace and joy to sadness and embarrassment, but overall, left worshippers refreshed and revitalized.
As TACF senior pastor John Arnott sees it, the blessing "results in emotional healing, physical healing, a whole realignment of values, and faith in God.
"A lot of times folks will go to church . . . only to hear someone say the Bible isn't true and the Virgin Birth never happened. It's a mystery why people would keep on going, if that's what happening," Arnott said in a 1999 interview.
"Contrast that with a pastor who's alive and vibrant and says, 'I'm telling you, this is real and God has just met with me, and miracles still happen today.' People are excited about that."
But some conservative Christians have charged the Toronto Blessing exhibits false teaching and bizarre behavior incompatible with the Holy Spirit. They say it's the work of the devil.
In his 1996 book "Counterfeit Revival," Hank Hanegraaff, head of the evangelical Christian Research Institute in California, denounced Arnott and the Toronto Blessing as a heathen fraud. That same year, the TACF was kicked out of the charismatic Vineyard movement for being too extreme.
Others shrug off the controversy, saying the phenomenon is but one in a long line of revivals that periodically sweep over Christianity.
Declared Arnott: "Down through history, God has poured out his spirit in different seasons of depression. When the church was at its darkest, along comes (Martin) Luther, (John) Calvin and the Reformers, the Quakers, the Church of England, the Methodists.
"We're way overdue to have another one, and this is a dandy."
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