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Pat Robertson, faith healing, and other tidbits from Tidewater

Sunday provided quite a change from the technology talk of the past week. We’re now in the Tidewater area of Virginia, home to the Christian Broadcasting Network started by Pat Robertson three decades ago. It is also where Robertson founded, and funded, Regent University, with a vast and virtually uninhabited campus. David has been working with Stan Burgess, a scholar who recently came to Regent to start a Ph.D. program. Stan and his wife Ruth, who studies and teaches education, were gracious hosts. We’ve planned to visit them for some time because after finishing the Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity with Routledge (part of our Religion & Society series, which we’re about to move to the Berkshire list), Stan suggested an Encyclopedia of Religion and Social Justice. A great topic, and one that he and Ruth are both deeply committed to; it will be the first work to draw together experts from across religious traditions, and the coverage will be historical as well as cross-cultural.

We were worried that there would be nowhere to eat but chain restaurants, but Stan and Ruth took us on Saturday to a friendly local place with soft-shell crabs on the menu. Sunday morning they took us to a church service at a new African-American church meeting in an elementary school gym. What energy and commitment and warmth! We were hugged and kissed, streamers were waved during the singing, and it was an altogether engaging experience. The female co-pastor came over during one song and leaned close to ask if she could pray for me. She put her hands on both sides of my foot—propped on a chair with an icepack—and prayed. They were hoping, someone said later, that I would be up and running by the time the service was over, but sadly no. I imagine that was due to my lack of faith. Too bad, a miracle would have been welcome.

It was a tiny congregation, but well-organized, with a nicely printed program. And everyone we met was delightful. They were impeccably groomed and dressed, which seemed to me to show great respect for the occasion, quite a contrast with the scruffiness of the liberal white churchgoers I know in Massachusetts. David, who is writing a history of the AME Zion Church in Great Barrington (another African-American church), said that this experience made him aware of how much the African-American community has to offer this country and how much we lose as a nation because African Americans still do not have the opportunity and access they should have.

At the end of the service we were asked if we “knew Jesus.” We shook our heads, and Ruth and Stan ushered us out pretty quickly. David was eager to know what would have happened if he’d said he wanted to, but I’ve explained that you can’t pretend about these things. After lunch at the restaurant at Regent University (sadly, no sighting of the man himself, though we did see his usual table), we went to visit a cousin of mine whom I’d seen only once in over 30 years. She has six children whom she homeschools and we may be the only non-Christians she has ever had in her house. David and I agreed that pleasant as they were, we would probably have felt more comfortable visiting people living in a yurt by Tian Shan in western China. But it was good food for thought, as we develop our own book project about faith in America.

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