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Charlie Wayland, a past covener of the Order of St. Luke’s Rufus J. Womble Chapter, prays along with his wife, Sandra, during a healing service. Jay Paul photos
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A weekly healing service is held at All Saints Episcopal Church.
As candles flicker behind her, the Rev. April Greenwood recounts the biblical story of Jesus healing a man with leprosy. Even though the man was told to say nothing to anyone, he went out and told everybody he was healed.
Being healed is not just the removal of symptoms, Greenwood says. A person who is healed is whole, and that empty place within is fulfilled. The fact that the leper was so excited about being cured that he couldn't stop telling people demonstrates healing, she says. Greenwood, an Episcopal priest, is giving the homily at a healing service at All Saints Episcopal Church in western Henrico County. She is the interim chaplain for the Rufus J. Womble Chapter of the Order of St. Luke, which holds a weekly ecumenical service in the church's chapel. The service includes the laying on of hands as described in the New Testament.
Seemingly miraculous cures have been occurring for thousands of years. The Bible contains many stories of healings, including a number performed by Jesus. Even today, doctors see patients become well when there is no medical explanation for recovery. And short of a cure, clergy members say they've seen prayer reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis and cancer, change how individuals feel about themselves and mend relationships.
To Charles E. Brown, a professor of pastoral theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in North Richmond, healing means acceptance of the unacceptable. "The power of the love of God makes it possible for us to accept what seems unacceptable," he says. "One of the things Christianity provides for people is a support system, brothers and sisters bound together by this love. The community of faith helps us by absorbing the pain with us."
And when someone doesn't recover from an illness, that doesn't mean the person is being punished by God, Brown adds. "I don't think God punishes people with illness. We are embodied spirits. We are finite, fragile human beings. The promise of God isn't always healing, but the promise is that God is suffering along with us."
A Growing Awareness
In recent years, there has been increased interest in healing services and in the role of prayer, spirituality and religion in medicine and health. Many churches now have parish nurses on staff. Some hospitals also offer programs to train lay people in health ministry.
The Rev. Charles Hunt says he has seen more awareness of religion during the 25 years that he has been a chaplain at Johnston-Willis Hospital. "You are not just dealing with a gallbladder, but the body, mind and spirit," he says.
The Bon Secours Richmond Health System offers a Faith Community Health Ministry, which trains nurses, ministers and other church leaders in health and wellness concepts so that they can form relationships, express care for one another and pray with each another, says Kathleen Fogerty, a registered nurse who coordinates the program.
Some Richmond area houses of worship have faith community nurses, formerly called parish nurses. They do blood-pressure checks, provide health information and education aimed at preventing illness, and sometimes visit hospitalized and homebound members of their congregations. Lay people called "Stephen ministers" are also trained through the Bon Secours program. They offer support to congregants in times of crisis by listening and by just being present with them.
As part of its health ministry, First Baptist Church at Monument Avenue and the Boulevard offers talks by physicians about various health issues, says Dr. Richard Szucs, a radiologist and church member. He also is the incoming president of the Richmond Academy of Medicine.
‘Hand of God'
Scientific studies about the effectiveness of faith and prayer in healing are contradictory. Some have suggested that patients who have people praying for them recover faster. Others have not found evidence that faith and prayer affect recovery. One study, from research by Brandeis University published in ScienceDaily in 2009, even said that studies about intercessory prayer tell more about the scientists conducting them than about whether prayer actually works.
"In my opinion, there is absolutely no doubt that faith and belief help in the healing process," says Dr. Thomas Stennett, a family physician in Chester. "Do I pray with my patients? Absolutely. I think you can talk to any health care professional and they will tell you about situations that are hard to explain away. They are coincidence to an atheist, ‘hand of God' to a Christian." Stennett recalls instances of what he calls "only by the grace of God" events, which happen all the time in his practice. For example, he ordered an ultrasound looking for gallstones in a patient and found asymptomatic renal cell cancer that was cured because it was caught early. Another patient came in for her routine female exam and, while in Stennett's office, had a heart attack. He also has treated patients with metastatic cancers who are still alive many years later, despite dire diagnoses.
Dr. Boyd Clary, an OB/GYN in Henrico, tears up when he talks about what he calls a "medical miracle," something that can't be explained by medicine or science. A pregnant patient at term came in with bleeding and pain. The placenta had separated from her uterus and there was no oxygen or blood going to the baby. An ultrasound showed no body movement and no heart beat. "There was no doubt at all that this baby was not alive. Two of the nurses started to cry. Suddenly, after about five minutes, the heart started beating. We did an emergency C-section. … That child is 6 years old now and doing great," Clary says. "There is a lot of faith in medicine," he adds. "We have to have faith to cut into somebody."
John Ogle, a Franciscan monk who assists with the healing service at All Saints, says there are miracles all around; people just need to open their eyes and behold them.
In Ogle's view, finding Robert Wood Jr., the 8-year-old Hanover boy with autism who had been missing for six days, alive was a miracle. In announcing that the child had been found, Hanover Sheriff David Hines said, "There is a God. He listens to prayers, and prayers were answered."
Focus on Prayer
The sick and injured also have stories about healing through faith and prayer. Marilyn Jean Perkinson, a Christian Science teacher who lives in western Henrico, says that she often hears people describing Christian Science as "those people who don't go to doctors." But rather than abstaining from conventional medicine, Christian Science is more about pursuing a spiritual means of healing, she says. Church members are free to seek whatever health care they want.
"The church does not say you should not, shall not or better not," she says. "Personally, I want to focus on prayer."
As a young child, Perkinson says she saw her mother healed from cancer. "I think I was about 5, so I don't remember a lot of the details. … She engaged the help of an experienced Christian Science practitioner [a professional who charges a fee for treatment]. The healing took place over about two years. I don't know if she ever went back to a doctor. She lived a long time — decades — with no return of symptoms."
Perkinson also describes being healed after receiving multiple injuries in an automobile crash when she was 17. She says she was unconscious when an emergency crew took her to a hospital. She had broken ribs, a triple skull fracture and brain contusion, and hand and leg injuries. In the hospital, she received no drugs or surgery. A Christian Science practitioner was called and within about two days, she says, X-rays showed the skull fractures were no longer detectable.
Despite such stories, refusing medical care for religious reasons can be dangerous, according to the Iowa-based Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty (CHILD), founded in 1983 "to protect children from harmful religious and cultural practices, especially religion-based medical neglect." CHILD joined with the University of California at San Diego in a study of 172 sick children in the United States who died while their parents relied on faith healing.
The study, published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998, indicated that 140 of the youngsters died with conditions for which survival rates exceed 90 percent with medical treatment. All but three of the others could have benefited from medical care, the study found. In one case, a child choked on a banana and showed signs of life for almost an hour while the parents called people to pray.
Signs of Healing
Still, for people like Goochland resident Mary Martin, convener of the Order of St. Luke, prayer is a powerful force.
Martin says that in 2010, her 36-year-old son, Jonathan Martin, was having a problem that impaired vision in his left eye. He was diagnosed with central serous retinopathy, which is common in young men who are under stress. There is no cure, and it has to clear up on its own.
"He was born with a problem with his right eye that left his vision 20/25, so when he began experiencing vision problems with his left eye, we were both paralyzed with fear," she says.
Martin asked members of the Order of St. Luke to pray for her son. She also prayed, and when she and her husband went to Canada on vacation, they visited St. Joseph's Oratory, known as a site for healing, in Montreal. They went there on a Wednesday and lit candles for Jonathan. Meanwhile, one of the friends who had been praying for him left her a voice message that she had a feeling on Wednesday that the eye problem was healed. Martin's son also left a message saying that on Wednesday, the cloud was lifted from his left eye.
Jonathan Martin, who lives in Beaufort, N.C., says he was not aware that people were praying for his recovery. But he does think prayer makes a difference. "There's a part of our brain that we exercise through faith," he says. "I think there's positive energy that comes from others when they pray for you."
In September 2010, Greenwood learned that one of her parishioners was critically injured in a motorcycle accident when he was thrown into the air and against the windshield of a car. He wasn't expected to live through the night.
"Many times I stood beside his [hospital] bed and prayed silently," she says. "Four days into this, he recognized me and began to speak."
The man underwent surgeries so that he could sit in a wheelchair. Last Easter, he told Greenwood that he wanted to participate in the church's Maundy Thursday service, which included the washing of feet. Although he could take only small, shuffling steps, he got down on his knees and washed everyone's feet. For Greenwood, it was another sign of healing.