'Is this the healing hand of God?'

FOLLOWING reports of a boy coming back from the dead, News Letter reporter Sam McBride visted the church where, for five weeks, people have been flocking to be healed

Within minutes of arriving at the Elim Christian Centre in Tigers Bay, the young man beside me is moving his body in a series of bizarre, jerking movements.

On stage, a Canadian man wearing a rugby top is talking into a hand-held microphone before jabbing his finger at the foreheads of two teenage girls who fall over backwards before writhing on the ground.

All the while the congregation is baying for more, arms raised, shouting words of encouragement, their cries of support interspersed with seemingly random bursts of hysterical laughter.

The Canadian on stage is Bobby Sullivan, a close associate of American tele-evangelist Todd Bentley – the man behind the "Florida Outpouring" healing phenomenon.

About 150 people are gathered in the north Belfast church when I arrive, an hour after the scheduled start time of 7.30pm.

But when I leave two hours later the meeting is still in full swing, despite about half of the congregation having drifted off by that point.

But it's what's being said and done at the front which grabs the attention.

In an unconventional tirade which would probably shock many churchgoers, Sullivan says: "If you've never met the devil, you're probably travelling in the same direction that he is."

Then it's back to touching people and watching them fall over.

For some reason there is laughter from the congregation when some people collapse onto their backs.

But no one seems to notice that several times when Sullivan makes his aggressive gestures to someone while praying at them they don't fall.

On one occasion he screams "Fire all over you" as he gestures at a woman but she remains unmoved.

Indeed, in several cases he resorts to overtly pushing them over.

The congregation's amazement is undiminished.

As the service progresses, he appears to attribute the divine to his very breath.

As he blows on someone's forehead, he says: "You're like, why is he blowing on them? It's the breath of God."

To another he says: "Look in my eyes, you'll see the fire of God. I want you to take it.”

It’s not the solemn scene found in most churches, but he insists “I’m not here to water down anything.”

His talk is interspersed with numerous obscure metaphors.

Added to that is the spectacle of people speaking in ‘tongues’, which to the uninitiated is baffling.

And, despite the seeming chaos at points, there appears to be a certain choreography, with no one falling over when he is reading from the Bible or speaking.

And, even with his frequent protestations that the service is not about him, Sullivan frequently uses phrases such as “what God told me”, “what I dreamt” and “I’ve got a funny feeling”.

The sense that Sullivan is the reason many people have travelled here – from as far away as Dublin – is reinforced during prayers, when, wide-eyed, people are craning their necks to see him on stage.

He expands on the miracle claims, prior to the healing session: “More miracles have happened in our ministry in the last 70 days than in the last 26 years.”

And, just before launching into the healings, there is the disconcertingly cold claim about people going to hell: “If anyone’s name’s not found in the book of life; too bad, too sad, you’re dead.”

Incredibly, this draws laughter from the congregation.

When the healing session is announced, half the congregation stand up, many obviously desperate to be rid of their ailments.

As it progresses, some claim they have been healed of fused discs, sore shoulders, drug dependency and depression.

But amidst the incredible claims there is a woman standing for about 15 minutes after he has prayed for her, still unhealed.

Eventually, she says she has been “60 percent healed” of her asthma and returns to her seat.

One of the last things Sullivan says before I decide it’s bed time and leave is: “I don’t want this to become a circus.”

Despite his stated aim, to an outsider many aspects of the service seem closer to the seemingly remarkable work of a circus magician than they do to a church.