*Featured Artwork: “Ultima Thule” by Christopher Volpe
Soft light fills the living room as the sun outside begins to set, and I think the angels themselves must be here.
“I thought everything would go back to normal once we left the Philippines.” Sandra tugs at the grey sleeves of her sweatshirt then stares at the floor. “I went to a Maori healer in Whangarei. He was a priest. You elders believe in priests, right? Anyway, he and his helper woman, I can’t remember her name, they said I’ve got at least 70 spirits inside me, maybe more.”
She stops for a moment and parts the dark hair in front of her eyes to gaze at Hyla’s recreation of “The Divine Mercy” hanging on the wall above an entryway table covered with polished wooden crosses. Christ stares down on us with his twin rays of red and blue light, and each time I see it, I can’t help but imagine he’s striking a pose at some disco.
Sandra turns her attention from the painting back to us two Elders sitting on her couch. Soft brown eyes well up in her round face. “He said he got half of them out and that I need to keep going back so he can take care of the rest. What do you elders think, though? I mean, does that sound right?”
I swallow and turn to face my companion on the couch beside me. Elder Chung’s eyes seem huge. I guess he must have been staring at me for a while, waiting for a cue from his trainer. Elder Chung arrived in New Zealand two weeks ago from the Missionary Training Center in Hong Kong. During that time, I sensed our sojourn in the Lord’s vineyard, full of studying, tracting, facing rejection, repeat, has failed to meet his expectations of what a Mormon mission ought to be. Until now. Weeks of fruitless door knocking and hounding people on the streets has led to this: a golden investigator. Someone with a real spiritual sickness.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I say, cracking my blue leather-bound scriptures open to Luke 4: 33-36, the story of Jesus casting out a devil in the synagogue. When I finish reading, I glance at Elder Chung and see he’s no longer looking at me but at Sandra with an aggressively paternal smile on his face, and I know I’ve won his confidence. He must have guessed by now where this little biblical “the proof is in the pudding” advertisement is going — the demonstration sale.
“You see, Sandra, we represent the restored church of Jesus Christ complete with all the power and authority to act in his name.”
She nods along as I talk, eyes locked with mine. That bit about authority doesn’t work for everyone — how much power and authority can two nineteen-year-olds carry? None. But like an actor in a lab coat, for some people, a simple declaration of faith is all you need.
“Therefore, it wouldn’t make any sense for someone acting under Christ’s name to need more than one try to get your spirits out. Did Jesus say to the man with palsy ‘well, I got about half the buggers, come back tomorrow after a good night’s sleep, and we’ll see what can be done about the rest?'”
Sandra laughs, and so does Elder Chung. Casual divinity, like putting the pope in a swimsuit, is almost always funny. I close my scriptures, letting the pages fall one over the other.
“Sandra, I can testify to you, with all the sincerity of my soul, that if you make the commitment to be baptized, the Lord will manifest his power through us to the removal of those wicked spirits. I testify that with the restored priesthood, Elder Chung and I have the same power to remove unclean spirits.” Elder Chung looks back at me again, his eyes are as wide as before, but he still has that kind papa smile on his face.
Sandra agrees to be baptized in three weeks.
Considering most Latter-Day Saint missionaries build their faith on a manifestation of God and Jesus to a 14-year old boy in upstate New York, many young Mormon men enter their missions, hoping for at least one encounter with the supernatural. I think most of us expected it. We wanted some manifestation to confirm that our decision to forego two years of video games, rock music, and Sunday night football was the right one. Excitement over these sorts of heavenly visitations generates no shortage of stories. Such stories are shared in testimony meetings and in Church magazines and typically involve some kind of dream encounter with Jesus. But an encounter with Christ wasn’t the only way to confirm your faith. As widely shared among Elders were those infamous (and less likely to be published in church magazines) encounters with ultimate evil. I considered butting horns with the devil and his minions as much a confirmation of God’s existence as seeing a host of angels with bugles in the sky. Thus I felt disappointed when the ward council expressed hesitation after hearing about Sandra’s condition.
“You really think she’s keen to get baptized?” Bishop Bradfield asked. A fair question. Hearing myself telling the ward council about Sandra’s repeated visits to other churches for spiritual healing, I could understand how they might perceive a behavior pattern. But she had made the commitment. We invited, she accepted. It was now the council’s job to support the soon-to-be newest member of their ward and us.
“She’s keen as!” Elder Chung says. He’s more alive for this ward council meeting than any we have attended so far. “We already set her for baptism on the 25th. I think once we get the spirits out…” He makes a motion with his hands, imitating a person falling backward off his palm into water.
“If you really think she needs it, we’ll give her a blessing.” Bishop Bradford sinks lower in his chair, belly rising into a healthy paunch between him and the desk. “But I think at least myself and Brother Temaari should go with you. Ask Brother Mera if he’ll tag along, too. He’s got his mission coming up, eh?”
Brother Temaari nods. “He and Joey Lamb are working on their papers now,” he says. “If only all our prospective Elders could have such a chance to use their priesthoods likewise.”
Back in our apartment, before meeting with the other ward members at Sandra’s house, Elder Chung and I prepared for the blessing with a little DIY spiritualism. Elder Chung poured olive oil into a small pill keychain I held between my fingers and recited the prayer, holding his hands together over the open vile, palms down. Most ceremonies in the Mormon church maintain the strict minimalism of traditional American Protestantism. I can recall feeling jealous of Catholics whose penchant for theatrics and the use of totems like holy water, wafers, and the ever-iconic cross made their priests seem more warrior than monk.
Driving to Sandra’s house, we listened to songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Even Elder Chung sang along, which surprised me since I hadn’t realized church members in Hong Kong would sing songs I had always subconsciously identified as American. He rolled down his window and pumped his fist in the air to the marching rhythm of our music.
Bishop Bradford stepped out of his Prius as we pulled into Sandra’s driveway. Brother Temaari stood on the lawn with Brother Mera, tapping his foot in the grass while Brother Mera held his hands in fists shoved deep in his pockets. “I want us to say a prayer first before we go in.” Brother Temaari says, rubbing his hands together like he’s preparing for a tug-of-war. He stares at Brother Mera, who doesn’t notice at first, and when he does, gasps like he’s just come out of sleep. He prays, but I can’t really hear him. With eyes closed, I can only think of the encounter waiting inside. Before leaving on my mission, I had attempted to watch the film The Exorcist but chickened out after poor Reagan gets creative with the crucifix. I didn’t expect something that Hollywood, so what was I expecting? Whatever it was, it just had to be big enough to convince me the devil was real. If the devil was real, so was God, and this whole crazy mission in New Zealand would have been worth it.
Brother Mera says, “Amen,” and I half expect all of us to suddenly clap hands and shout ‘Break!’ But Bishop Bradford just motions towards the door, and we all go in.
Sandra shakes each of our hands. She recognizes Bishop Bradford and Brother Temaari from the few church meetings she’s attended and laughs when Brother Temaari pulls on her hand to kiss her cheek, even though I don’t think she means it. Bishop Bradford explains the blessing, removing a similar keychain with oil from his belt loop to show. I finger the keychain still in my pocket full of the oil Elder Chung and I had blessed that morning. Sandra nods along as the bishop talks faster and faster. As he explains, her eyes swell up, and she starts gasping like she’s having difficulty breathing. It sounds like the kind of gasping mothers make as they give birth. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see an old woman watching us from a dimly lit hallway off the living room. She adjusts the glasses on her face and holds the door frame with stick-like fingers topped by long nails polished and white.
Bishop is ready to start and suggests we all move into the dining room to form a proper circle around Sandra. While she takes her seat, the old woman from the hallway enters the kitchen and watches us shuffle about from behind the counter. With Sandra in a chair, the rest of us gather around her while the Bishop unscrews the cap from his olive oil keychain, letting a few golden droplets plop onto a patch of her scalp. Each of us places a right hand on her head with the left on the other man’s shoulder, forming a circle around Sandra, and Bishop begins the blessing. As he speaks, Sandra starts shaking her head back and forth, so hard her hair flies and whips against my hand, still trying to remain on top of her head. I can feel the other men’s hands tense up, and I have an odd thought that I’m afraid Brother Temaari will start squeezing her head to keep her from shaking. The shaking goes on as Bishop Bradford continues the blessing, but again, I don’t really hear the words of his prayer; the only thought I have: ‘is she for real right now?‘
In general, religion is based a lot on feelings, especially ‘gut feelings.’ At that moment, I wanted so badly to have a gut feeling telling me this was all real — that some primordial evil had taken hold in this woman’s body; that a sickness beyond the reach of modern science and medicine, a disease only curable by one faithful and having proper authority could actually exist and have an explainable source.
As soon as Bishop finishes with his blessing, Sandra’s convulsions cease. The woman in the kitchen floats through the crowd of men in her kitchen, wrapping her arms around Sandra, whispering something to her in Tagalog. Sandra sits still, head in her chest. The older woman, who I believe was her mother, stands up tall, shakes our hands, and gestures towards the door.
“I knew there was no Maori Curse,” Brother Temaari says as we walk across the lawn back to our cars. We drive in silence for a while. “So,” Elder Chung asks as we move through the dark, “What do you think? Was she really possessed?”
Sandra never made it to church the next Sunday, which meant we had to push back her baptism date at least another week. Before that time came, I was transferred out of the area and sent to another neighborhood in Auckland. Elder Chung promised he would keep me updated on her progress, that he would keep working with her until she finally made it to the baptismal font “Maori curse or not.” When I asked him about her months later at a leadership meeting, he only said, “Flaky Sandra? We dropped her months ago.” But I can’t shake the thought that Sandra wasn’t the flaky one, not really, and I know why I stopped believing in the devil long before I stopped believing in God.
 “And in the synagogue there was a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice, Saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God. And Jesus rebuked him, saying, Hold thy peace, and come out of him. And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not. And they were all amazed, and spake among themselves, saying, What a word is this! for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out.” KJV
 One particularly gruesome story had Jesus walking along endless rows of filing cabinets filled with lists of all the Elder’s sins. Christ pulls out an especially scintillating file of perversions and proceeds to sign his name at the bottom of each list with what appears to be his own blood. The Elder weeps for him to stop, begging him not to, but Jesus just proceeds signing his name, file after file, into eternity.
 “The invitation to be baptized and confirmed should be specific and direct: ‘Will you follow the example of Jesus Christ by being baptized by someone holding the priesthood authority of God? We will be holding a baptismal service on (date). Will you prepare yourself to be baptized on that date?’” From the Church’s official manual for missionaries Preach My Gospel.
 While not official, the church’s standards of terminology prefer the word ‘blessing’ over ‘exorcism.’
 Elder Chung insisted we use extra virgin, although there is no official standard other than that the oil must come from an olive — virgin or otherwise
 To consecrate oil, a priesthood holder:
- Holds an open container of olive oil.
- Addresses Heavenly Father.
- States that he is acting by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
- Consecrates the oil (not the container) and sets it apart for anointing and blessing the sick and afflicted.
- Closes in the name of Jesus Christ.
Members should not take consecrated oil internally or apply it on afflicted parts of the body. (Clauses like these always seemed to take the fun out of the blessing. Like the odd sense of disgust you feel when Starbucks Coffee cup reminds you to be careful because the contents might be hot.)
 In the New Zealand Auckland Mission, prospective members had to attend church at least three consecutive times to be eligible for baptism.