Some rely on faith and prayer to cure illness, relieve pain
In a little brown church beside the Parkway East, the Rev. Todd Levin is on one knee, laying hands on a parishioner's bare foot.
“I command all pain to go!” he shouts. “I command all swelling and bruising to leave, in Jesus' name.”
Behind the woman stands Levin's father, Yale. A preacher himself, his eyes are closed as he reaches his arm out toward her.
“Your Word is enough,” Todd Levin says.
“Your Word is enough,” the woman responds.
“And I receive it now,” Levin says.
“And I receive it now,” she echoes.
He tells her to apply weight to her foot. She does and says there's “just a little pain.”
“Just a little bit left?” he asks. “OK, hold on. Now I'm not going pray for you twice. We're going take a praise break.”
“Thank you, lord, for supernatural, speedy recovery,” Levin says, and again the woman repeats his words. Then, at his prompting, she tests her foot a second time.
“If the pain was at a 10 when you came, where is it now?” Levin presses.
“A 3,” the woman responds.
Monroeville is ripe with doctors, but they aren't the only ones in town who claim to heal the sick. Just down the road from two major hospitals, Christians regularly seek pastoral guidance in an effort to pray their pain away.
Levin claims all ailments are curable in the name of Jesus. At his February faith-healing service, people sought healing for early onset dementia, a troubled marriage and in preparation for a looming doctor's visit.
Depending on who the reverend is, the words “faith healer” can be dangerous, said Pastor Paul Kirschbaum of the Monroeville Assembly of God.
But despite the misdeeds of a corrupt few over the years, Kirschbaum said he believes in the healing power of God.
“I have seen miracles,” Kirschbaum said. “People miraculously healed. It's really exciting when it does happen.”
Jason Yusao, 35, of Plum said that the painful symptoms of his fractured spine, which kept him from working, disappeared during a special Saturday service at the Monroeville Assembly of God last year.
“I couldn't even tie my shoes,” Yusao said. “I couldn't walk right, I couldn't go up and down steps. It was frustrating.”
Then, he said, God called him to the pulpit, where he was anointed with oils and hands were laid upon him.
After about 15 minutes, “I bent over to touch my toes and the pain was gone,” Yusao said. “It was completely gone.”
He said that his doctors were skeptical, but regardless of the spiritual or scientific catalyst that freed him from the pain, it was gone and he was back to work within two weeks.
The power of the mind is real — whether it is a gift from a Christian God or simply a force of nature, said Jill Fischer, a partner with Integrity Psychological Services in Monroeville.
“The brain will, literally, change parts of your physical makeup,” Fischer said, citing a recent study that showed people with multiple personalities who developed multiple vision prescriptions.
“I don't particularly believe or disbelieve anything. Ultimately, none of us know what the truth is, so you might as well go with what your gut tells you the truth is.”
Patients at Forbes Regional Hospital often turn to a higher power when doctors deliver a fatal diagnosis, said Dr. Randy Hebert, director of Palliative Care for West Penn Allegheny Health System.
“People who are angry at God don't cope as well,” said Hebert, who helps ease the transition for terminal patients and their families from the hospice unit at Forbes to their home.
Hebert said Christian rituals, such as the anointing of oils, are commonplace in the hospice unit. Although it usually improves the emotional state of patients, he said, their physical ailment remains.
But Hebert said he has seen one event that modern science could not explain.
A woman already had proclaimed she had a strong relationship with God when she was transferred to the inpatient unit for terminal care. The patient suffered from congestive heart failure, and doctors said she could die at any time.
But with no medical explanation, her condition improved and she lived a normal life with friends and family for another two years, Hebert said.
“The thought was this person was going to die in a few days, and I don't know what happened, but this person left the unit and lived several good, functional years,” Hebert said.
But most of his patient's visits with faith healers are followed by a letdown during which the symptoms return, Hebert said.
Part of his job is helping patients cope with that disappointment.
“I've seen people who expect a cure or expect a miracle because they've been to a faith healer or are praying or are very religious,” Hebert said.
“One of the things we discuss is, the acknowledgement of the fact that they didn't get cured and that we're sorry we didn't get it. But what they had gotten is a sense of peace, or to spend more time with family or learned what really mattered.”
Levin collects donations before and after his services in the former St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Monroeville and sells DVDs and books after the monthly services. At the last service, his mother, Marlene, encouraged parishioners to sign up on his website to have a monthly donation automatically withdrawn from their checking accounts.
“What that does is say, ‘I'm committed to send (Todd) out, this ministry out,'” she said.
Levin lives with his wife and three children in a Belle Vernon home that is valued at nearly $300,000, according to www.Trulia.com, a real estate search engine for prospective home buyers.
In 2011, Levin Ministries International generated nearly $90,000, according to the 990 form that all nonprofit organizations must fill out for the IRS.
It's enough to “put gas in the car and food on my table and keep me going,” Levin said.
He said he survived on much less when he was healing people as a missionary in the Czech Republic, where people he had converted to Christianity accepted God's healing powers, he said.
“When you go into that type of setting, and you can witness to people what you saw Jesus do and what you heard him say in the Bible, and you begin to pray with them. They have no reason not to believe your testimony, because, you know, they have nothing to compare it to you,” he said.
Unlike the U.S. where many Christians are incapable of receiving such miracles because their faith has been watered down by cynicism, he said. He often tells parishioners that the miracle is reliant on the strength of their faith in God.
Some skeptics caution that faith healing can be dangerous.
“Those who profess faith healing are either just not aware of the scientific literature or they're actually deceiving you,” said Stephen Hirtle, a member of the Pittsburgh Skeptics and a professor of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.
The group meets regularly to discuss science and religion.
Hirtle said that if someone is seeing a faith healer for the entertainment value then it is harmless. But it becomes dangerous when sick people refuse to see a doctor. “If you have cancer, which needs treatment, it will kill you,” he said.
Levin said he doesn't discourage people from going to the doctor, but is adamant that God's healing powers are effective.
After the service last month, Veronica Agona of Jeanette said she regularly donates to the Levin ministry, attends his services and purchases his books. She said it brings her closer to God and make life's struggles a little easier to cope with.
“Lord said, he'll renew you, and I believe it,” she said. “So you know, you've got to do your part like take care of yourself, drink water, exercise, and think good things. But the enemy will still give you bad thoughts, and you can come against that with His word.”
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org.