My experience at the River of Life Ministries was indeed disorienting. I have faith that Jay Bartlett’s prophecy will hold true for me: “…these university students were able to witness some powerful exorcisms that, no doubt, will be impressed on their minds for a very long time” – though, I think, for very different reasons than Jay might expect.
The most challenging part of the experience commenced shortly after a group prayer and taking of communion. A woman named Sandra from Montreal had trouble with the prayers and began shaking, seemingly not of her own accord. She was soon singled out by Jay Bartlett for a deliverance. What followed was an uncomfortable hour long deliverance complete with aggressive and gratuitous deployment of holy water through a squirt bottle, voices speaking in tongues throughout the room, and a crescendo of four large men huddled around this woman on stage, bibles ablaze in hand. The demon identified in this woman by Jay was the demon of Jezebel – a demon associated with a biblical figure of the same name notorious for dominating her husband. What followed from this identification was a series of drawn out call-and-response style ‘prayers’ initiated by Jay to be recited by the possessed. The ritual enacted by Bartlett was heavily reliant on this vocal tête–à–tête, which became the basis of the struggle between Jay, Sandra and Jezebel. Jay tried countless times to get Sandra to recite the words “I submit to my husband”. After numerous unsuccessful attempts Jay would divert and demand a different recitation: “I submit to Jesus”. This prayer Sandra would repeat without hesitation. After the little victory, Jay would steer the direction of the deliverance back towards husband submission, again resuming the hair-raising tension of Sandra’s refusal. Eventually the submission was uttered and the Deliverance continued on its way.
Being on the outside looking in, what made me so uncomfortable was the power structures at play in this tableaux – not just Jay Bartlett as some sort of divine messenger, but the coupling of that saviour complex with the historic dominance of men over women enacted through the church and in the name of the Lord. But through our discussions in class, what made a significant impact on me was Ryan’s question “Are we asking Sandra to submit to us?” This was probably the most unnerving moment in the semester for me. Do we really know better than Sandra? In what ways are we projecting our worlds onto her body, and in what ways are we dismissing her agency as a human being by assigning her a subjugated role? The strangeness of this conclusion leaves me in a limbo of knowing and unknowing. I must be diligent in my empathy, especially towards the things I consider cut-and-dry, but I must also exercise criticality.
What I found unsettling still was the notions of universality and exclusiveness being espoused by the figureheads of the evening. God loves us all, we were told many times, and yet there was a subtle caveat – If anyone were to dismiss the ministry’s offers to accept Jesus, somehow these persons would be located somewhere outside of God’s periphery. And yet, as Jay Bartlett explained in his newsletter, we were all blessed just by attending the service. Funny how things work out.