On an inconspicuous spring evening in Carpinteria, night hadn't quite settled in. As the sky grew darker and the air assumed an edge of chill, the town's sleepy streets lay empty, hushed. On the steps of the Veterans' Memorial building, large arrow signs pointed toward the doors, asking the question: Do you need prayer?
Light poured from the hall's entrance. Inside, I could see the building's high, wood-beamed ceilings and clean tile floors. Sound equipment covered the far left wall with wires snaking across the floor to two large speakers. At the front of the center aisle stood a wooden pulpit.
Seated in rows of folding chairs, the working-class audience was composed of mostly women dressed in faded house dresses, jeans, and T-shirts, their hair pulled back with scrunchies. The few men?—?who wore weathered, plaid, button-up shirts and polyester slacks?— fidgeted and shuffled their feet. Most had their well-worn bibles already open on their laps, with split bindings and finger-smudged pages.
In the front row sat a more finely dressed group in jewel-toned, sequined gowns and black, pressed suits. A short, vigorously cheerful woman in a twinkling red dress walked about, greeting each person. As the clock struck 6 p.m., the shuffling died down and the crowd focused on the silver-haired man sitting quietly in the front row: the Christian prophet and miracle healer Phillip Gladden.
For as long as I can remember, I've called myself a Christian. But it's a word with which I have a bit of a love/hate relationship. I'm like that guy terrified to tell his girlfriend he loves her, even if he truly does. I hold back. An instinctual urge to flinch sweeps over me every time the word comes out of my mouth.
But perhaps most frightening to me is the all-too-common Christian syndrome of simply slipping into a life that is comfortable. Like the mother who sends her children to Christian schools so they can be surrounded by "people like them," will I one day wake up to realize I've turned my back on the underprivileged, undereducated, and unloved people of the world? And aren't those the very people whom I, as a Christian, should be turning toward?
My spiritual quest, though less sophisticated than it is now, began when I was very young. I was raised in a traditional Catholic home until the age of 10, when my spiritually restless mother decided it was time to do something about her Christian wanderlust and ventured into the uncharted territory of nondenominational, evangelical churches. I remember hearing the protests from my father and her parents?—?"You're abandoning your faith!" they'd shout. Nevertheless, she spent the next four years of our lives searching for an authentic religious experience.
Despite my frequent embarrassment, I was her spiritual sidekick. Sundays would find us on Watt Avenue in the downtown part of Sacramento that was neither well cared for nor much cared about. Some weeks we'd sit cross-legged on the dingy living-room floor of a young pastor with a congregation of 10. Others, we'd crowd into a dimly lit Holiday Inn conference room, where limp bodies would be carried to the front of the room to be prayed over the way adrenaline-pumped teenagers would crowd surf at a punk concert. Throughout it all, I kept quiet and stayed as close to the exit as possible.
And yet, as I got older and my family life went from bad to worse, I, too, found myself longing for security, something more certain than my parents' marriage. I already believed in God, but for the first time in my life, I needed to know God believed in me. Like my mother, I went looking for God. And like my mother, I found Him.
But with my discovery came some gut-wrenching questions. What did I have in common with those glassy-eyed church leaders professing to have all the answers? Like that preacher, I suppose I was looking for answers of my own. And yet the very religion with which I aligned myself pronounced faith, not proof, supreme. Would I be able to embrace Christ's radical love in a world with more blind alleys than lit pathways, more questions than solutions?
These were the quandaries for which, after four years of study at Westmont College, I still didn't have the answers. It's no wonder that when Gladden's press release crossed my desk at The Independent, in which he claimed to hear God's voice, speak God's words, and heal the sick, my curiosity was piqued. Here was my chance to face my fears head on. So I called him up and, as it turned out, set about on a year-long journey into the world of Phillip Gladden.
The first thing I wanted to know from Phillip Gladden was how God's voice sounded, as he had long been claiming God spoke to him as His chosen prophet. And in the many conversations I had with Gladden, who spoke to me by phone from his home in Ione, California, he frequently started sentences with "God told me this morning when I was at the gym …" or "God said to me …" I was interested to know just how Gladden heard God's voice. "I'm not saying God thunders with a big megaphone and says, 'I'm God. Can you hear me?'" he explained. "See, there's a difference between an audible voice and the voice of the spirit in your spirit just knowing."
Phillip Gladden's congregants line up to receive his healing touch, while Gladden's crew films the service. During the altar call, it's common for participants to fall over at Gladden's command in a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit
And it turns out God's voice has been speaking some pretty powerful messages to Gladden lately. He said God has chosen Santa Barbara as the place to reveal his great plan, and the time is drawing near. "I believe the days ahead are great," he said. "I believe the reason He's chosen this place on the Central Coast in Santa Barbara is because it's the Mecca of the world." Gladden also believes 2007 will be the year of the greatest natural disaster in the history of humankind and, for this reason, he has been called to spiritually prepare the city for what is to come.
Though Gladden claims to have had a special relationship with God for many years, it wasn't until 2005 that he felt a strong call from God to begin his healing revivals. Shortly after, he caught the attention of Full Gospel, an international Christian organization.
In August, a branch of the organization hosted a meeting at the Sizzler in Goleta and invited a number of nondenominational, evangelical Christians to attend. Gladden was the evening's speaker, and in attendance was David Hupp, treasurer for Full Gospel. Hupp was so impressed with Gladden that he put him in touch with Ken and Laurella Meyer of Carpinteria's Community Chapel World Outreach, and the foursome soon began hosting monthly miracle services in Santa Barbara County. The first took place in October at Santa Barbara's Veterans' Memorial Building on Cabrillo Boulevard. Eventually, Gladden began to draw a regular group from World Outreach, some of whom began assuming administrative roles as part of what was now being called Phillip Gladden Ministries.
The main event at his revivals is the altar call, during which Gladden lays hands on participants and prays for their healing. Among the ailments he has prayed for are emphysema, Parkinson's disease, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and palsy. And as far as Gladden knows, in each case the individual has been healed. "I've never had anyone in my ministry come to me and say [a false prophecy] happened," he once told me over coffee at a Carpinteria IHOP. After a moment of thought, however, Gladden remembered one time when a prophecy didn't come true.
Gladden speaks with the speed of an auctioneer during his sermons, repeating sentences and stringing together the same words in different orders: "He was a blind beggar and he was born blind, a beggar who was blind. And he was tired-a of being blind-a."
It was during one revival meeting when Gladden heard God's voice speak the word palsy. "So I said, 'Ma'am, whoever you are that has palsy … I want you to stand and come here,'" he recalled. "The Lord wants to touch you." A woman did step forward and Gladden prayed over her. Afterward, he instructed her to see her doctor to verify the healing. The next month she returned, complaining she hadn't been healed. At first he thought he made a mistake, but when she admitted she hadn't returned to her doctor as he instructed her, Gladden realized it was the woman who'd erred. "And the Lord filled my mouth and I said, 'God will speak through a vessel the prophecy, but the prophet doesn't fulfill the prophecy, God does,'" said Gladden.
That a preacher could easily blame a follower when claims of a God-ordained miracle fail to happen is exactly what alarms more structured, traditional religious groups. According to Dr. Ron Enroth, sociology professor at Westmont College and internationally respected authority on cults and aberrant Christian movements, the refusal to admit a mistake is common in these types of unstructured, charismatic Christian environments. "These guys always come out a winner," said Enroth. "People in these churches might have a gripe, they go to their pastor, and he's the one who ends up smelling like a rose, telling them, 'The problems are with you, not with me. If you don't get healed, it's because of your lack of faith.'"
And there is rarely anyone to question a pastor's judgment. "These types of ecclesiastical loners usually do not develop deep relationships with people," said Enroth. "The loner is not accountable to anyone. Even if they have a board of directors, they are yes-men." But Enroth does believe in the possibility of miracle healings. "I'm willing to say God can use individuals to bring about healing," he said. "But I'm concerned about the abuse. Do the things these guys say contradict scripture? Are they willing to subject their healings to rigorous scientific overview?"
Though Gladden hasn't yet had any healings verified by spiritual or scientific authorities, he's more than willing to do so. And with the number of people claiming to have been healed by him, there are plenty of cases he could have reviewed.
One of these cases involved Ed Drotleff, whom Gladden cited as a perfect example of his work. The miracle happened at a men's Christian retreat in summer 2006. Drotleff, a member of Gladden's religious community, told me he was healed of a hearing loss he developed after many years as a construction worker. "Not a total loss," Drotleff said, "but enough so that it was annoying." A hearing aid salesman had diagnosed him with the problem five years ago and he had been wearing an aid ever since. But before the healing at Gladden's retreat, Drotleff had removed it. It wasn't long into the service, however, when Gladden called him forward and prayed for his healing. "I was pretty sure I was healed then," said Drotleff. Later that evening, a friend came up behind him and called his name. Drotleff heard him clearly. He never wore his hearing aid again.
Another example of miracle work, Gladden claimed, was with Edith Bennett. She, too, was healed by him. The Santa Barbara resident, diagnosed with cancer, had a hysterectomy and was urged to undergo a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments by her doctor. She refused. "Well, you know, I was so unconcerned about it because I knew God was going to heal me," Bennett explained. When she was bedridden after the hysterectomy, Bennett's pastor began visiting her home. On one such visit, the pastor mentioned prophet Phillip Gladden and the next Sunday, Bennett attended Gladden's service.
"I didn't know Phillip and he didn't know me," she said. But halfway through the sermon, Gladden got a word from the Lord and called Bennett forward. "'I have to be obedient to what God is telling me. He's healing you and he's healing you now,'" Bennett said, quoting Gladden. As of February 2007, Bennett has been declared cancer-free by Ventura's Dr. Michael Hogan. But when I asked if it was possible the surgery, not Gladden, had cured her, Bennett dismissed the idea. "No, honey, it wasn't the surgery that cured me," she said.
The day before the Carpinteria revival, Gladden sat across from me at the back of the IHOP on Casitas Pass Road in Carpinteria, the very picture of an older, charismatic-style preacher. He was dressed in a crisp, blue, collarless button-up shirt and neatly pressed slacks. His salt-and-pepper hair?—?more salt than pepper?—?was neatly combed back and Gladden's large glasses did nothing to deflect his piercing blue-eyed gaze. A cup of steaming black coffee sat untouched in front of him as he began to tell me of his past.
His face heavy with grief, he recalled a childhood fraught with abuse. According to Gladden, his older brother was the favorite of their father. So when the Vietnam conflict began to escalate, he saw the perfect opportunity to earn the praise of his father, who was a former military man. "I wanted to prove my love to my father, and figured, well, I'm not that significant," he said. "If I'm going to die, I might as well die and have a flag draped over my casket." So in 1967 at the age of 19, Gladden joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam.
With a weary voice, Gladden recalled his tour of duty that lasted 14 months and two days. During at least some of that time, he was stationed at the Khe Sanh Combat Base, which would become one of the major battles of the Vietnam conflict. "We built 11 pontoon bridges and got surrounded by 40,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and were taking more than 1,000-1,200 artillery rounds from that position for 75 days," Gladden said. "I went over with 585 men and only 72 returned home."
I researched the battle after our conversation and most of what Gladden remembered is true. The Battle of Khe Sanh lasted exactly 77 days and took place during the year Gladden said he was enlisted. Though his casualty figures may have been exaggerated (official reports count 205 men killed and more than 1,600 wounded), the effects of his time overseas are unquestionable.
By the time he returned to American soil, national feelings about the war had shifted and Gladden wasn't received as the war hero he'd hoped. "When I came home, I became very enraged," he explained. "I'd never used drugs up to that point in my life. I was an athlete, I worked out. But when I came home, I experimented." He told me he developed a social marijuana habit that turned more serious, eventually leading to a $700 per day cocaine addiction. After the thrill of cocaine wore off, Gladden discovered methamphetamines. "I'd go on binges. I'd go to a hotel or motel and use drugs for two or three days. I didn't like what it was doing to me, but I had no control over it."
During this part of our interview, I had trouble separating the truth from what I suspected was Gladden's knack for exaggeration. After going into great detail about his love affair with addictive substances, he suddenly drew a blank when asked about anything else. He admitted he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, originating from both his abusive childhood and his bloody months in Vietnam. But beyond the chronic drug use and mental health issues, he talked around each question I posed, instead telling more war and drug stories. For all I could tell, Gladden's days of drug binges and fuzzy memory went on for the next 21 years.
But on August 2, 1991, it all stopped.
"It was a drug situation," he said of that day, "and the child ended up in my care for all the wrong reasons." High on meth at some druggie friend's house, Gladden was left alone with his friend's nine-year-old daughter. According to court documents, he drove the girl to the Experience Motel and rented a room. "I gave the child drugs and right when the enemy"?—?and clearly he meant the devil?—?"moved in to do things that weren't godly, just as I began to lay my hands on her physically, I began to weep and cry. It was like, 'no, no, no.' I said, 'Honey, just stay right here.'"
Gladden claimed he then left, called his wife Kathleen from a payphone, and told her everything. "Kathleen took the child straight down to law enforcement to make sure that immediately the child was taken care of," he said. Shortly after, he turned himself in.
But despite Gladden's claims that God intervened "just as [he] began to lay [his] hands on her," the charging documents?—?filed on August 13, 1991, by Deputy District Attorney Vita Mandalla of Yolo County?— tell a very different story. Gladden was charged with 11 felony counts, including false imprisonment, oral copulation with a minor under the age of 14, five counts of a lewd or lascivious act upon a child under 14, anal or genital penetration by a foreign object, administering a controlled substance to aid a felony, furnishing a controlled substance, and kidnapping. The charges were based on a confession Gladden made to law enforcement and accounts from the little girl.
After making a plea bargain with Mandalla, he pleaded guilty to lesser charges: three counts of lewd or lascivious acts with a minor under the age of 14 and one count of administering a controlled substance to aid a felony. "These were the ones he pleaded to. These basically took care of the main conduct that occurred," said Mandalla in a recent interview. Gladden was sentenced to 15 years, eight months in a California state prison. He was released in his eighth year due to good behavior.
But the charges don't begin to speak of the horrors of that day. According to the court documents Mandalla read to me by phone from Sacramento, Gladden tied up the girl, injected her with methamphetamines, forced her to watch pornographic material, and threatened to drown her in the toilet bowl. When I asked about these atrocities, Gladden replied: "Right, right, but the thing about it, I don't remember exactly. Any of it was too much."
The night he was arrested, Gladden ended up in a holding cell in Monroe Detention Center in Woodland, California, and it was here where he said he first truly heard the voice of the Lord. "I was crawling on the floor of my cell and crying out, 'God, if you're real, I need you now.' When I said that, the amazing power of the Holy Spirit came to the ceiling in fire. It grabbed me … and I was baptized in the Holy Spirit."
Shortly after, Gladden was transferred to San Quentin, then again to Pelican Bay. Though he had long suspected he possessed spiritual powers?—?20 years before he'd seen a vision of himself speaking fire from his mouth at the end of time?—?it was during Gladden's time in prison that he began refining his spiritual gifts. He quickly earned the nickname The Trashcan Preacher. "Before I knew it, I had 14 men down on their knees in their boxer shorts, baptizing them with a mop bucket," he said.
It was also in prison where Gladden again heard God's voice. "Before I came home, the Lord spoke to me," he explained. "He said, 'I'm gonna put you on the radio.'" Released on December 20, 1999, Gladden returned to his faithful wife, Kathleen. The two settled in Ione, an old gold miners' town just south of Sacramento that looks like it could have been plucked from somewhere in the Midwest and dropped in the California Central Valley. Not long after, he began planning his career as a preacher. A home recording of a sermon landed him a spot on a local Christian radio station and for the next few years, Gladden worked for a contracting company and spent his spare time at the radio station, practicing his sermons.
By late 2005, three years after his probation term ended, Gladden's relationship with the Meyers of World Outreach began to flourish and he was ready for his first revival in Santa Barbara. Flyers with pictures of him performing healings?—?including one where he's praying over a young girl?—?were distributed. The meetings became increasingly successful and Gladden began holding them every month.
During his first year of leading revivals, it's unclear exactly who in Gladden's administration was aware of his criminal record. Gladden claims to have informed everyone who held positions of authority in his ministry, but confusion on just who was in authority is to be expected in an unstructured organization with a leader who lives hundreds of miles away.
At least two members of Gladden's congregation?—?both of whom Gladden had suggested join his board of directors?—?were certainly not informed as soon as they would have liked. One of these was Gladden's former ministry coordinator. She remembered that Gladden had mentioned serving time in prison, but said he claimed to have been in "for almost killing a man." After a bit of poking around on her computer, she came across his profile on meganslaw.com, California's database of registered sex offenders. The discovery was devastating, but she was most upset about the fact that Gladden had never told her. Though she believes deeply in forgiveness for past transgressions, she felt Gladden owed it to his followers to be forthright about it, considering the magnitude of his sins. "Disclosure would be the appropriate way for somebody like him to confront the past," she said. "I'm so angry."
However, Gladden claimed to have told this woman his whole story and accused her of using it against him when he refused her sexual advances. "She saw another woman lock her arms around my feet [during prayer]. It made this lady jealous," he explained. "Since she didn't get the feather in her cap, I'm in trouble." Gladden was not ashamed of his take on the situation, nor the veiled threats he made in response. "When anyone comes against the word of God," he said, his voice rising to a shout, "I've seen havoc wreaked in their lives. I've seen houses destroyed. I've seen lives destroyed."
But even if Gladden did inform his staff of his past, he admitted he does not tell the regularly attending members of his church, nor does he have plans to. According to Gladden, he has been forgiven for those sins, and "God has buried them in the sea of forgetfulness." But, if confronted, he said he will not lie about it, either. "God is a God of honesty, a God of truth. I'm not hiding anything." As such, he does mention his prison time during services, but does not reveal the reason for his incarceration.
Gladden's reluctance to disclose his past seems to be a result of shame?—?"If everybody had to expose all the bad things in their life, they'd be completely embarrassed." It's an inconvenience. After all, God has revealed great plans to Gladden, who has every intention of seeing them through.
"[I'll] be walking around and it's almost kind of heartbreaking because people, you know, they need me, they're attracted to me, they love me, they respect me," he said. "Many times I feel like I am a type of Jesus because Jesus moves in me."
It is for this reason that Gladden believes he has been chosen by God and that in end times he will be speaking the fire of God to herald the end of days. In his visions of God's return, Gladden said: "I've seen arms growing out of shoulders. I've seen legs growing out of stumps. I've seen the richest people in the world pulling up in limousines with their babies in their hands saying, 'I don't care what happened in your life, can you do anything for my child?'" And for Gladden, those days are quickly approaching.
By the end of an altar call, there is often a crowd of people gathered around Gladden, crying, praying, and catching people who fall over.
On that spring evening when I last attended a Gladden revival, I watched as a mother arrived late with her baby daughter clutched at her hip. She quietly slipped into a seat in the middle of Gladden's sermon. Her little girl was clearly unhappy to be there and every few minutes, the toddler's squeals rose up above the speakers projecting Gladden's booming voice. The sermon was winding down amid shouts of amen from the crowd, but before the presentation was over, Gladden had a few words to deliver from God.
"Folks, we're right on the edge of the greatest move of God in history," he shouted. "This is the year of the worst catastrophe in the human race. You think the earthquakes were bad …" he said, not finishing his thought.
The baby's moans continued as the altar call began. One by one, Gladden beckoned forward audience members to be prayed over. As he moved from person to person, he caught the eye of the young mother sitting with her daughter. He called her forward, telling Pastor Laurella Meyer to take the child so he could pray for the mother. The girl's moans turned to piercing screams. "I need some people praying in the Holy Ghost right now," Gladden shouted over the child. "This baby is going into protective custody, but God will bring her back." The mother wept and nodded her head while Gladden finished the prayer. Laurella then handed back the tear-streaked, sobbing child.
Gladden moved on to another woman in the crowd and the baby's cries slowly subsided. As the evening continued, he prayed for people healing from back pain, grieving at the loss of loved ones, and hoping to fix a failing marriage. During that time, the mother moved to the back of the crowd and was surrounded by concerned women. Each gave her condolences, and stepped away until I was left standing beside her. Not wanting to pry, I gently asked her if she knew Gladden before this evening. "Oh yeah, we met Pastor Phillip last time we came to a service," she told me. "My boyfriend talked to him for a long time about our situation."
The woman, named Karen, confirmed that, indeed, her daughter would be going into protective custody due to her own problems with drug addiction, though she claimed to be clean and sober for quite some time. During our conversation, her 20-month-old girl ran freely about the hall, at times out of sight from Karen and me. I asked if she was present when Gladden mentioned his term in prison. "Oh yes, he told me about that before," she confirmed. "Any idea what he was in for?" I asked. "No," she replied. "That's not my business. We've all made our mistakes."
When I stepped out into the now dark, chilly evening, I turned back toward the hall. The arrow-shaped prayer signs were now overturned, lying face down on the concrete and the unintelligible mumblings of the little girl drifted out of the building and were carried up into the night sky.