Come and be healed

by Diana Burns / 29 October, 2005
Hundreds of New Zealanders are among those who travel to Brazil to visit medium and "miracle-worker" Joao de Deus. Diana Burns went to check him out.

A young woman sits, smiling at the audience, as her head is tilted back. A scalpel is scraped across her eyeball several times. She doesn't even wince. The eyes of the man holding the blade are glazed and he appears to be looking into the distance. Within seconds, the woman, still smiling, is led from the stage.

I've just witnessed a "visible" operation by Joao de Deus, or John of God, a Brazilian medium and healer. Supposedly, no anaesthetic was used, and the scalpel was not sterilised. It was not Joao who operated, I'm told, but one of the 35 or so "spirit entities" inhabiting his body.

There's a strong New Zealand connection to Joao Teixeira (his real name) and the healing centre that he founded 25 years ago, the Casa de Dom Ignacio. Over the past three years, several hundred Kiwis have visited the Casa, mostly through tours organised by Wellington naturopath Peter Waugh; New Zealanders are, in fact, the biggest single group of foreign visitors per capita.

Joao de Deus is an unprepossessing middle-aged man with almost no formal education. From a poor family, he apparently started being visited by spirit entities when he was 16. He became an unconscious healer - one whose body is supposedly occupied by spirits but who is unaware of what he does while he "channels" them.

The story goes that the "entities" told him to set up a healing centre in a small town called Abadiania - one of a few highly spiritual places in the world, according to Waugh - and that if he did their work they would look after him. Sure enough, the farm he bought turned out to be laden with emeralds (it's in the province of Goias, which abounds with precious and semi-precious stones) and he's now a wealthy man.

Some two hours' drive from the capital, Brasilia, Abadiania is a scrubby little town enjoying an economic boom. On the three days a week when Joao is at the Casa, there are throngs of white-clad people everywhere. The ambience falls somewhere between that of a health clinic and a slightly tacky gospel mission. Music blares from a bad sound system as hundreds wait for him to start work. People also ask for help by leaning against a large wooden triangle and tucking written wishes and photos of loved ones who need healing around the edges of it. Unconstrained by distance, the entities can, believers say, cure many people just from their photographs. Waugh takes with him, for a price, photos of clients who can't make the trip.

You never know who'll be occupying Joao's body, they say - the possibilities include King Solomon, St Francis Xavier and Oswaldo Cruz, a doctor who virtually eliminated yellow fever from Brazil in the early 20th century. Believers accept that once spirits leave this earthly plane they have access to healing powers infinitely greater than those of any doctor on earth.

"I don't see this as miraculous," says Waugh. "I think the entities are just using technology that is vastly ahead of ours. If, 300 years ago, you'd told people to just flick a switch and a light would come on, they'd have thought you were mad. But now we accept electricity, even if we don't fully understand it."

People wait patiently in long queues for their turn. My request for an interview declined, I join them, filing past dozens of people meditating. I've prepared a couple of questions but there's no time. Joao briefly takes my hand, making no eye contact, then mutters that I should go and sit "in the current".

Most people are prescribed "blessed" herbs and sent to meditate in one of three "current rooms" where spirits supposedly congregate to treat people. Those who need an "operation" go into the surgery room where, allegedly, various healing entities (invisible, of course) get to work. Some say they feel themselves being worked on; some even say that small scars appear on their bodies.

More shocking is the "visible surgery" that Joao performs on one or two young, fit people each session. He often does the eye scraping I saw, not necessarily to cure vision problems - he can apparently do all sorts of healing through the eyes. Other common operations involve cutting the flesh of the torso without any obvious bleeding, and shoving long forceps up a nostril. I didn't witness those two operations directly, but video footage was horrific enough.

If the invisible surgery works, though why bother with visible operations? To give proof to doubters like me, I'm told by people at the Casa. I talked to several who have had these operations and felt - so they say - no pain. "Spiritual anaesthetic" apparently protects them.

James Randi, the American debunker of the paranormal, believes it is trickery. The forceps up the nose is a common circus routine, he says, and an adrenaline rush (or unseen anaesthetics) may account for the absence of pain. Most people, he adds, find watching eye operations so uncomfortable that they don't look too closely. And Joao gives himself a fail-safe by saying that if people come to him too late they can't be healed.

Many of the seriously ill who go to him do die, but the Casa wisely positions itself as a source of spiritual help that doesn't preclude standard medical treatment. This has helped in the numerous cases brought against Joao for practising medicine without a licence. He has been charged, fined and even jailed briefly - but continues his work.

Five years ago, the Brazilian Association of Medicine published an investigation by three eminent doctors who observed him in action and examined tissues extracted from his patients. They concluded that the surgical procedures were real, but offered no further explanation.

It is the widespread stories of miracle cures that keep people coming to the Casa. Alessandro Nardes, for instance, wheelchair-bound with multiple sclero-sis. It took eight months of visits before he made his first steps, but 10 years later he is walking normally.

Viv Harris, a Wellington vet, has been three times. The first time, she was considering having a child but was worried about how it would fit into her busy life. During meditation she heard a voice say "children make a small life big" and was convinced. She had an invisible "operation" and, she says, clearly felt work being done on her ovaries.

"My scientific side finds it hard to understand what happens there," says Harris, "but it can't be analysed. The entities are far more advanced than us."

Two weeks after she got home, she was pregnant, at 41.

Joao de Deus needs to be seen in the context of Brazil, a country where talk of spirits and mysticism is commonplace. Indigenous belief systems like Candomble mix religion with the occult. Even highly educated Brazilians have no problem with the concept of entities.

Take Regina Ward, a Brazilian businesswoman. "I was one of those people who don't believe in witchcraft, but suspect it exists," she says. For years she suffered from a badly slipped disc: a spirit healer cured it instantly and she has had no pain since.

New Zealanders may yet be able to judge for themselves: Waugh is organising to bring Joao to New Zealand next May. In the meantime we have the word of Ward's down-to-earth Kiwi-born farmer husband, Chris, who witnessed her treatment.

"I was sceptical at first," he says, "but I've now seen enough to know it's real."

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