Evangelical exorcists do battle with devils

Denver's Bob Larson among the 'well-paid' exorcists

Boulder (CO) Daily Camera/April 9, 2005
By Ben Whitford

Ted, a commercial pilot from Seattle, was plagued by depression for decades. It wrecked his marriage and drove the 53-year-old, who asked to be identified only by his first name, to the brink of suicide. A string of psychiatrists failed to help him. Finally, five years ago, a Christian friend told Ted what was wrong.

By experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs in the 1970s, Ted had opened the door to diabolical entities. Now, his friend said, he was possessed by demons.

Ted was skeptical, but agreed to meet Frank and Shirley Solberg, a husband-and-wife evangelical team specializing in exorcism, the practice of casting out demons through the power of prayer. The Solbergs sat Ted on a couch in their home and, after a few minutes of polite conversation, began the ritual.

"Pastor Frank started praying and things started happening," Ted said. "It was like a twitching - you can feel something moving in your leg or stomach. You know something's in there. You can feel it moving up through your body and out through your mouth, your ears, your eyes."

Almost instantly, Ted's depression disappeared. He's had relapses since, but he remains a devout believer in the power of exorcism.

"It's very real," he said. "I finally have been completely delivered and set free. I'm better than ever, and I thank God for that."

The Solbergs run what is known as a "deliverance ministry" - a church founded in the belief that demonic possession causes most problems and that exorcism holds the key to physical and spiritual well-being. More than 500 such ministries have opened across America in recent years, performing thousands of exorcisms each week to treat everything from anger to aneurysms.

With the exception of a few well-paid televangelists - most famously Denver's Bob Larson - most deliverance ministers are amateurs running small-scale operations and accepting money only to cover expenses. "The Bible says, 'Freely have you received, freely give,'" said Cathi Nowlen, who runs Free In The Lord Ministries, a Jenkinville, S.C., deliverance ministry that works mostly with convicts.

The process itself is quick and painless, Nowlen said, and has more in common with a counseling session than with Hollywood's head-spinning, projectile-vomiting portrayals of exorcism. "It's not a big deal to get demons out. We don't shout at demons - they're not deaf," she said.

All that is required is faith and a genuine desire to be free, Nowlen said.

"We just get the people to meet the conditions, then we very quietly, no louder than I'm talking to you, command the demon to leave the person in the name and the authority of Jesus Christ."

More stubborn cases do crop up, however. Some people respond to exorcism by shaking, hissing or screaming, and in severe cases may need to be restrained to prevent them from hurting themselves or others. "In some cases you might have to keep commanding the demon for 20 minutes, in some cases for an hour or more," said the Rev. Donald Lee, of the Healing Stream Church in New York City.

The rise of deliverance ministries has coincided with a shortage of exorcists in the Catholic Church, the more traditional bastion of exorcism. "They advertise much more publicly than us," said Father James LeBar of the Archdiocese of New York, one of only 17 Catholic exorcists working in America. "A lot of the time Catholics don't know they can go to their bishop and get help, and in some cases there's just not an exorcist available, so they get discouraged."

LeBar believes deliverance ministries do good work - but warned that many ministers had little training. "If someone who doesn't really know what they're doing tries to do an exorcism or a deliverance, they might be very surprised," he said. "They might find out more than they wanted to find out."

While many health care workers view deliverance ministries with suspicion, some doctors believe exorcism could help cure certain mental illnesses.

Patients who suffer delusions or split personalities may honestly believe they are possessed - and the symbolic power of exorcisms can help them to eject their imagined demons, said Dr. Ralph Allison, a psychiatrist from Paso Robles, Calif., who was shunned by the medical community after performing sham-exorcisms on his patients.

"We fail to give credit to the massive power of our imagination," Allison said. "There are all kinds of energy forces that are going on, but they're all generated by that person's mind."

But that same symbolic power can make exorcisms dangerous, said Dr. George Fraser, an Ottawa psychiatrist.

One middle-aged woman that Fraser said he treated for mental illness was so traumatized by an exorcism that she went to live in a graveyard for several months. She later shot herself in the chest - nonfatally, it turned out - in a bid to expunge the demons she believed were still lodged within her.

"Prayer has a very powerful effect," Fraser said. "Anybody who's going to get an exorcism done should have a full psychiatric check-up at the very least."

Even some deliverance ministers are having second thoughts about exorcisms. Bob DeWaay, senior pastor at the Twin City Fellowship in Minneapolis, used exorcism regularly for years - but now suspects it didn't do his congregation much good.

"There were people apparently going about a normal life, but if they came into the deliverance room to get this ministry they would get these demonic manifestations," DeWaay said. "They weren't really changing, they were just getting convinced that whatever happened in life and whatever personal shortcomings they might have had a demonic cause."

DeWaay is no longer sure whether deliverance involves demons or just the power of suggestion. Since dropping exorcism from his services, he has seen virtually no cases of possession among his congregation. "They've come to know the Gospel and the Lord has changed their life, and they've never had any demonic interventions," he said.

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