They wanted to know if the miracles were real. They asked about the preacher's affairs. About the money he made. They asked if Donna Johnson, the woman who considered the preacher her stepdad, had forgiven him. But what they really wanted to know, they asked only after that polite number of other questions. Had Donna ever seen a miracle that she believed was real?
David Terrell was once one of the country's most famous tent revivalists. During the 1970s thousands of his followers sold their possessions and relocated to encampments across the South and Midwest because he'd told them that the world was about to end. Donna Johnson's mother was his pianist, the woman who left her two oldest children with various church members while she followed him about the country. She bore him three children while believing that someday he would divorce his wife and marry her. He never did.
Donna is the oldest of her mother's children. Her new memoir, "Holy Ghost Girl," has just come out in paperback. She and I have been friends since we were both young women more interested in escaping the dark parts of Christianity than in exploring its light. Donna has always been someone who asks the next question.
I once told her that I'd been in bed one night thinking about how I didn't believe in God anymore when it seemed as if a presence, a force, something unseen but absolutely real came out of the corner of the room, moved close to the bed, and demanded, "If there's no God, what am I?"
I thought the story was over. But Donna didn't. She said, "Well, who was it?"
"It was God, I guess. Jesus. Something like that," I answered, stammering defensively.
She said, "Christine Wicker," Donna likes to use my full name when she's exasperated with me. "You just said you didn't believe in God."
"I know that," I replied, peeved that she was pushing it. "But that doesn't mean he can't show up if he wants to."
"No," she said somberly. Then she laughed. "I guess it doesn't."
On a recent Saturday morning, Donna was talking to a book club in Dallas. When the talk turned to wonders and amazements, she was game. The first miracle she told the book club about was "the woman who was big."
Donna was about 4. She and the other children, who sat for hours every night as the songs and sermons droned on, always looked forward to the healing part of the service. Everyone "got happy in the Lord," and the children were free to go to the edge of the platform for a close-up view of the healings. When the preacher laid his hands on the woman who was big, her skirt fell down. People pulled it up, but it fell down again. Then the woman, who was dancing and praising the Lord, simply stepped out of her skirt as though having no skirt was of no importance.
The kids were scandalized and delighted. Later they heard that the woman had a tumor that had swollen her stomach to huge proportions. When the preacher healed her, the tumor disappeared, and her girth shrunk so drastically that her skirt couldn't stay up.
Then Donna told about a boy who was deaf. Donna was 16 then, married to a Nietzsche-quoting law student who came with her to the revival, mostly expecting to make fun of the believers. Donna had married to get away from the cult-like world of her childhood. She'd been drawn to the revival by a fit of homesickness. As she was waiting to go into the church, she met a woman who'd come hoping her deaf son would be healed.
That evening Terrell placed his big, hot hands over the boy's ears and called on the Lord. Then the preacher stood behind the boy and clapped his hands. The boy jumped. Then Terrell said, "Say mama." And the boy did.
Later that night, Donna saw the woman and her son at the bus station where she and her husband were waiting to board a bus back to their home. The boy was turning his head back and forth. His mother said, "He's listening to the buses. He's never heard them before."
"Were the miracles real?" the ladies of the book club asked. Donna said, "I don't know." But she does have a story of her own miracle.
She was in her late teens and had become ill with a malady that the doctors couldn't diagnose. She was beset by reoccurring fevers and had lost 20 pounds of her 120-pound weight. She was divorced by then and attended a Terrell service with her boyfriend. When the preacher called Donna out of the crowd and began to pray for her, she wept and was healed.
Her good health continued for about 10 years. By then Terrell was being sought for tax evasion. Donna's mother was in jail for refusing to testify against him before the grand jury. Every night he called Donna to ask about her mother, which spoke well for him until Donna's mother told her that he was calling from Hawaii where he had gone with another woman. Terrell and his new paramour were ready to flee the country if Donna's mother broke and told what she knew.
"I hadn't thought much about him in years, but when my mother told me that, I felt like something slipped out of place, like there was something there that I hadn't even known was there. The next morning, I woke up and I was sick again." Her illness lasted five years and still sometimes reoccurs. Doctors suspect some kind of autoimmune disorder.
Donna's audiences always ask a follow up question. What happens to people's faith when they aren't healed?"
Not much. Usually. "People who have the gift of faith don't lose it." What happens on one occasion or another is not nearly as important as what happens in the believers' day-to-day lives, where God's grace is as expected and reliable as the rising of the sun.
"The real gift of faith is being able to notice when wonderful things happen," she says. "Without faith, we take things for granted. Noticing makes the world different."
I asked Donna whether she wishes she had that gift of faith. She does. And she doesn't.
"My lack of faith runs through my life. It's a lack of belief that good things can happen. It's a lack of faith that things are going to be all right," she told me.
And yet. "I want to be who I am. I've come to like myself enough to like who I am."
"For me as a child, there was nothing but God. Coming from that sort of background and feeling like you never can go back there, it feels like you are sort of exiled from home."
Christine Wicker is the author of five books including the award-winning, New York Times bestseller, "Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead." This essay was made possible through "New Directions in the Study of Prayer," a program of the Social Science Research Council with support of the John Templeton Foundation. Visit Reverberations for more information.