tekst: Mila Apostolova
Faith is many things. It means to trust, to believe. It is a way of communicating with the world, and the expression of faith is part of culture. However, faith can also emerge from a total lack of prospects, from misery, from illness or abandonment. It can sometimes be the only light at the end of the tunnel. Faith can give someone a purpose; it can be the reason that keeps you going. But does faith also make us vulnerable, or even manipulable? How can we know if faith shows us the way or if it blindfolds us?
These questions are difficult to answer, but perhaps the case of João of God can provide a reflection on both the importance of faith, as well as how terrible things can go when its power is abused.
Spiritism in Brazil
During the 19th century in France, the author and educator Allan Kardec began a series of studies on the manifestation of spirits. Kardec observed the phenomenon of “turning tables”, in which participants sit around a table, and communicate with spirits through table movements. Among Kardec’s main works were The Spirits’ Book (1857) and The Mediums’ Book (1861), which founded a religious and philosophical doctrine called Spiritism. His work and interest were motivated by the fact that in the same century, reports about “healing mediums” began to spread throughout the USA and Europe. Although those mediums gave medical prescriptions to ill people, their function was quite different from the traditional doctors of that time. They weren’t connected to any specific religion either, instead they claimed to practice healing sessions in the presence of spirits that intervened in the material world.
Spiritism, according to Kardec’s work, has three fundamental principles: the evolution of the spirit through reincarnation, the existence of life in other worlds, and the mediumistic practice as a form of communication between the living and the dead. Unlike other religions, Spiritism presents faith as something you acquire with experience, with reflection, something based on the search for understanding and discernment, and calls it reasoned faith. The subject allows himself to feel the energies and all the emotional charge of his belief, but has the freedom to question it.
Nowadays, Brazil is the country with the largest Spiritism community in the world: […] more than 3.8 million Brazilians believe in spiritist principles, such as the manifestation of spirits in the material world.
In the following decade, the first copies of The Spirits’ Book appeared in Brazil, and rapidly, the first Brazilian Spiritist groups were formed. This new belief system faced great opposition at first, and Spiritism was even considered a form of mental insanity. However, the strong opposition was fought when, in 1884, the Brazilian Spiritist Federation was created and the practices and doctrines of this new religion were standardized. Nowadays, Brazil is the country with the largest Spiritism community in the world: according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, more than 3.8 million Brazilians believe in spiritist principles, such as the manifestation of spirits in the material world.
João of God
João Teixeira de Faria, better known as João de Deus (João of God) was born on June 24, 1942 and raised in a very catholic family. João states in his biography that the first mediumistic experience he remembers occurred when he was nine years old. He was visiting family members together with his mother when he predicted that a great storm was going to fall on the region they were in, and pointed to specific houses, saying that they would fall or be unroofed. According to his report, he took his mother by the arm so that they both left the place before the storm, and even though his mother did not understand what was happening, she decided to take shelter along with her son. The storm hit and destroyed the houses that were pointed out by João.
He says that the day after the storm, he was walking near the river when he saw a light and heard a voice calling him, saying that he should look for a Spiritist Center. When João found that center, the director of the house approached him and asked if he was “João Teixeira de Faria”, saying that he was waiting for him. João claims that at that moment, he fainted, waking up hours later with several people around him, he explained that he had incorporated a spiritual entity in his body, which he claimed was the biblical King Solomon. On that same day, according to the biographical report, he started his spiritual practice.
The medium’s house
João of God started to assist people by performing procedures he called “spiritual surgeries”, and he quickly became known as a healer. In 1976, he founded the center Dom Inácio de Loyola in a small town called Abadiânia, near the capital city.. There, he continued carrying out spiritual services, receiving people from all over the country in search of support for health problems of various types. The place became known worldwide after celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey went to the place in search of service. In addition, former Brazilian presidents, governors, politicians and Brazilian actors also frequented the house in search of a cure for illnesses.
João seemed to cure several of his patients, but behind his reputation as a man of miracles, many issues were not addressed.
The procedures he performed consisted in the incorporation of spirits of doctors or biblical figures into his body, guiding him during the surgeries. He would use objects such as knives or scissors to perform these surgeries, and they were usually made on patients with serious or even terminal illnesses. After each session, João would prescribe herbal remedies and spiritual cleanses. One of the many cases dealt by João of God was that of Angela Homercher, who at the age of 22 discovered that she had brain cancer. The doctors said it was terminal, and that she only had 40 days left to live. A few days later, her father-in-law told her about João, and said “you need to have faith”. She went to see João de Deus, hoping for a cure which medicine could not provide. Upon arrival, João stuck a pair of scissors deep into her nostril and turned 21 times. Afterwards, she vomited a dark, organ-looking thing. Returning to her hometown, doctors examined her, and to everyone’s great surprise, the tumor was gone. After being cured, Angela turned even more to faith, which she considered as her salvation, and became one of the many volunteers at the medium’s house.
However, where there was light there was also darkness. João seemed to cure several of his patients, but behind his reputation as a man of miracles, many issues were not addressed. Over the years he gained a lot of power, not only for the fame but also for the money that his «empire» provided him. It was difficult to argue with João, his faithful collaborators carried out his orders without much questioning, and he seemed to be untouchable. People couldn’t imagine he could do anything bad. But while João practiced his healing rituals, compared to miracles by many, he also took advantage of his patients and committed crimes disguised as healing touches.
His power and status were some of the reasons why many of his victims chose silence for years.
In late 2018, a television program reported that five women accused João of sexually abusing them, by taking advantage of their faith. Those five accusations were just the beginning. In that same year João of God tried to escape but under increasing pressure, Faria turned himself in to authorities. He was later sentenced to 64 years in prison after being denounced by more than 330 women and girls including one of his daughters, Dalva. João of God, the man they believed to be a kind of saint, became a criminal. The medium who performed miracles was taking advantage of these women’s faith. He led them to believe that what he did was an essential part of the treatment, and if they refused to submit to the will of the spiritual leader, the disease would not be cured.
João was arrested for the first time in December 2018, but was later granted house arrest, after alleged health problems and vulnerability due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He was locked in one of his properties, while everyone else was locked in their homes as well. He continues to be monitored by an electronic anklet to this day, and victims still wait for true justice.
A complex case
Still, even after João of God was condemned, the fascination remained. In fact, many people who were healed after João’s treatments still venerate him and are thankful for it. Many believe that he truly abused these women, but it seems that their belief in his spiritual healing capacities somehow overpowers this. Luís Roberto Barroso, one of João of God’s patients, had cancer and was cured through the medium’s treatments. He thinks that people who have been healed should be grateful to João, just as he thinks he should be punished for the crimes he committed.
Several of his collaborators had left their homes and their families to work in the service of João. Many of them remained at the house after his arrest, such as Angela, cured by the scissors put into her nose. These and other volunteers keep the office open to pilgrims today, and when interviewed they recognize that João may be guilty of misconduct. However, they are quick to add that despite all this, João healed and saved thousands of people, emphasizing the tragedy of his arrest, instead of the tragedy that the victims went through.
Faith was perhaps the tool used to manipulate not only João’s victims, but also his collaborators and supporters. Even with different backgrounds and stories, all of them were, and some continue to be to this day, in a position of vulnerability. Not because of faith itself, but because of the one who fed it to them and who transformed it in his favor.
About the author: Mila Apostolova, cognitive neuroscience, UiO