LIFE

Going to the mat for God

Tales of ecstasy draw hundreds to a Toronto church

RAE CORELLI March 13 1995
LIFE

Going to the mat for God

Tales of ecstasy draw hundreds to a Toronto church

RAE CORELLI March 13 1995

Going to the mat for God

LIFE

Tales of ecstasy draw hundreds to a Toronto church

RAE CORELLI

The river of God

fills our mouths with laughter,

and we rejoice

for the river is here.

The master of ceremonies shouts to make himself heard over the rock band on stage behind him and the cheering crowd out front, swaying and clapping in time to the music. "You’re here to meet with God, with Jesus Christ!” he cries, perspiring visibly and brandishing his mike. “Our ministry team members are wearing bright pink name tags so please feel free to receive prayer from them as we know their hearts and character and they have taken our ministry courses!” The audience responds: “Hallelujah!” “Amen!” “God bless you!” The M.C. urges caution. “Don’t judge the mood of God by manifestations,” he says. “Don’t look for manifestations.”

Actually, it is hard to miss them. At the Airport Vineyard Church, a former trade centre on the characterless northwest outskirts of Toronto, penitents often keel over while deep in prayer during services that can last as long as seven hours. The vast carpeted floor becomes littered with bodies, giggling, crying, writhing, quivering or seemingly asleep. Others dance or sing. To the skeptics, a lot of that is evidence of autohypnosis, mass hysteria or even psychological imbalance. But to the faithful, it is a sign of God’s presence, of divine love. Their well-publicized accounts of spiritual ecstasy have been drawing people from

places as distant as New Zealand and South Africa to take part in what has become known as the ‘Toronto blessing.”

Altogether, there are between 800 and 900 Vineyard Christian Fellowship churches around the world, roughly haft of them in North America, and all ostensibly financed solely out of the collection plate.

They are among the more recent examples of the so-called charismatic movement, which began nearly a century ago with the Pentecostal ministries. For thousands of mainstream Protestants, the movement has since come to embody such things as belief in divine revelation through dreams and visions, spiritual healing and spontaneous worship. The Yineyard Fellowship, bom in California in 1978, belongs to the growing number of independent charismatic churches that have added modem music and encourage self-expression like dancing and clapping.

What catapulted the Toronto Yineyard into world prominence began in May, 1992. It was then that Marc Dupont, a Yineyard pastor in San Diego, claims to have beheld a prophecy that an immense wall of water like Niagara Falls would wash over Toronto in late 1993 or early 1994, launching a global spiritual revival. On Jan. 20, 1994—18 months after Dupont moved to Toronto—Yineyard church leaders say the congregation was suddenly overtaken by the spirit of God and most fell to the floor. As the word spread, the ranks of believers grew from about 350 to more than 700—and the church moved into bigger quarters. “People ask,

Why Toronto?’ ” said Dupont, 38, now one of the Airport Vineyard’s seven pastors. “God has a sense of humor and never picks the obvious places. They once said of Jesus, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ ”

For countless troubled Christians, location is evidently of little consequence. Thousands of them, together with curious Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Baptists, have converged on the Airport Vineyard by plane, train and automobile in the past year. Among them was Anglican clergyman Michael Knowles, assistant professor of New Testament studies at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College. “I found their preaching was fairly thin and sometimes it was abysmal,” says the 38-year-old Knowles. But he liked part of what happened, including the moment when “somebody prayed for me. I felt a sense of profound peace and decided I didn’t want to stand any more and I fell over.” He has gone back several times and concluded that “by and large, what happens there is genuine, which is not to say that some of the people couldn’t use a little psychological help.” Both Knowles and a fellow Wycliffe College professor, David Reed,

say that the broad appeal of the Vineyard Fellowship and other charismatic churches reflects the failure of Protestantism, handcuffed by tradition and old-fashioned language, to inspire religious devotion. ‘We have lost the ability,” says Reed, “to communicate our faith, our beliefs, to the under-40 generation.” At the same time, he contends, the Vineyard churches must provide more teaching and guidance to followers “because they’re not going to spend the rest of their lives shaking and falling down.”

While Knowles and Reed may have mixed feelings about the Airport Vineyard, the hundreds who gathered there on a recent Thursday evening displayed neither doubt nor inhibition. One after the other, they walked to the front of the hangar-sized hall to tell of spiritual revelationin Düsseldorf, Germany; Port Huron, Mich., Pittsburgh, Pa.—their words often lost amid cheers and applause. ‘Tonight when we were worshipping,” declared a woman from Manchester, England, “I saw a whole line of angels.” “Praise the Lord,” shouted the M.C., drowned out by the

approving roar from the people sitting on the padded grey chairs. The band played and the lyrics appeared on an eight-by-10-foot screen off to

one side: “... Oh, God, let this be the hour____”

Some people were there for the first time, but most, like Douglas Mryglod, a 45-year-old carpenter from Rochester, N.Y., have been coming for months. “It’s something inside us,” he said. “Remember that movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when those people had to get to that mountain? It’s the same thing.” In one of the last rows, a woman’s anguished crying competed with the amplified guitars on stage. In the vast open space beyond the chairs, an Asian girl gracefully performed what looked like t’ai chi. “You can feel the presence of God in love,” said Mryglod. “I have felt the presence of God. I have felt God."

He was apparently not alone. “It makes you feel so much more happiness, so much more love for other people,” said Gerard Hebard, 49, a salesman from Mississauga, Ont. “How it works is the Holy Spirit. You have to believe in the Holy Spirit. But a lot of people don’t believe in the Holy Spirit because they don’t know what it is because you can’t see it, right?” Those sentiments were widespread but not unanimous; some people were not totally sold and had come merely out of curiosity. A man from nearby Brampton, who declined to give his name, said he came once, thought it was nice and had returned. Did he feel something? “Sort of,” he replied. Bob Burnett, a 49-yearold Toronto placement consultant, said: “I’m not a religious person, but I see a lot of very unpretentious people happy to be here. Maybe if we had more of this and less denominational stuff, we’d all be better off.”

Lay pastor Mary Audrey Raycroft, a 61-year-old onetime nurse who left the United Church of Canada because it had become “spiritually unfulfilling,” preached the sermon. It was hard to hear her, but nobody, including Raycroft, seemed to mind. Later, in an interview, the same question: what brings people here? “Something is happening in their hearts—a reality, a faith they’ve longed for but never had,” she replied. “Most of us here in the core of whatever’s happening hardly have an inkling of the impact that it’s having out there.”

After the sermon, the pink-tagged two-member prayer teams moved into the crowd. One member placed a hand on a worshipper’s forehead, the other—called a “catcher”— stood behind to catch him if he fell. Scores did. Some buckled at the knees; others, apparently rigid, fell backward. All were lowered gently to the floor where a few remained for hours. Among them was Rev. Ron Grainger, 48, a pastor at the Praise Fellowship Church in Chatham, Ont. “When I went down, it was just kind of a release. I got a real freedom and joy. I used to be with the bike clubs and selling dope and all that stuff. Now, there’s no comparison. Praise God.” The blend of evangelism and personal stories has transported the so-called Toronto Blessing halfway round the world. In communities across South Africa, there are Vineyard-style weekend church services, which one local cleric described as “anti-intellectual, dogma-free manifestations of divine ecstasy.” During one service, a 10-year-old girl thrashed on the floor and a middle-aged woman insisted she had been “massaged by Jesus.” Yet there are critics. “One does not question the integrity of these people, but their judgment,” says Bishop Frank Retief of St. James Anglican Church in Cape Town.

In England, Eleanor Mumford, the wife of the pastor of a Vineyard church near London, told her colleagues last May of her visit to the Airport Vineyard. She was invited to lead the closing prayer at a west-central London Anglican church the following Sunday, and church spokesman Mark Elsdon-Dew reported the congregation’s experience was “on a power and scale we had never seen before”—although he insisted that the blessing was locally bestowed, not imported. The church, however, has since had to add a second evening service to accommodate the faithful—up to about 2,000 from 900. Even so, says Elsdon-Dew, “we are skeptics. We don’t take everything that comes along and say, ‘Oh, that comes from God.’ ” He paused. “But if it is God, we don’t want to miss it.”

BRUCE WALLACE

CHRIS ERASMUS