Growing up in the Pentecostal church meant being shrouded in marvel, writes Rhodé Marshall.
Aunty Maggie joined our church when I was almost 10 years old. Because of her bad health, she was in a wheelchair. She was a quiet woman. I don't even remember ever hearing her speak. But you could see that she was gentle; she had so much grace, with just a hint of sadness in her bright blue eyes.
Her husband Uncle Eddie was one of the best guitar players I ever knew. He, too, was in a wheelchair after a car accident. But Uncle Eddie wasn't graceful like his wife. He was a very angry man. I never spoke to him or even wanted to. He was the mean uncle in our church.
When we joined Shammah Community Church in Belhar, Cape Town, I was four years old. The congregation was about 120 people and back then church was held in a red-and-white tent – a bit like a big top circus tent. But we were only there temporarily while we raised funds to finish building the church.
But then, one day, the yellow-and-white building with the green roof under which I spent so much of my childhood was finally complete.
I remember quite clearly one hot Sunday morning standing in the pews. The praise and worship team were onstage singing, and the congregation joined in with their hands raised, enthusiastically worshipping God while one sister prayed loudly in tongues. I couldn't ignore the strong presence of God that day. Everyone was united in one spirit thanking him and crying out to him.
Aunty Maggie, as she was every Sunday, was seated in the front row with my dad and our pastor. Her daughter sat next to her.
We sang and we prayed. Some people's eyes were closed. But then I looked up and saw Aunty Maggie suddenly stand up out of her chair, all by herself. She had never done that. But that day she took two small steps towards the pulpit and then looked back. Her daughter took the chair to her and she sat down again. All very quietly. As one would expect her to.
The congregation was amazed. Some cried and others sang songs of thanks. Aunty Maggie never stood up again. Soon she left the church with her family. I never saw her again. But I will never forget that day. I knew I had witnessed a miracle.
It wasn't the first miracle – and it wouldn't be the last, not by far. I grew up in a Pentecostal church where miracles were the order of the day. We saw them at morning prayer meetings, choir practices or even at a casual gathering at someone's home, where the biggest church naysayer and gangster would commit their life to Christ.
Life in the church
For as long as I can remember the church has been our life as a family. My dad is an elder in the church, and my entire childhood was dedicated to being of service to Christ. This was how my week would go:
Monday: Choir practice;
Tuesday: Prayer meeting;
Wednesday: Bible study group;
Thursday: Dance practice at church;
Friday: Youth gathering;
Saturday: Praise and worship team practice; and
Sunday: Sunday school, prayer gathering and then Sunday morning service.
When I had a headache I would ask mom or dad to pray for me. “Healing in Jesus's name!" they would command. And then I would run off and play. If I had a bad dream, instead of running to my parents' room, I would say a prayer and plead for the blood of Jesus to protect me.
I believed and wasn't scared. Believing wasn't difficult: I had evidence of miracles all around me.
There was a time when my aunt had an extremely bad skin condition. She had been to doctor after doctor. Nothing had worked. Despondence and shame accompanied the rash that simply wouldn't go away.
My aunt was an occasional believer who would go to church with us on special occasions and when she needed prayer. Like this one particular Sunday morning. She came with us and sang along with the congregation. A while later a visiting pastor's wife and my mom stood with her and prayed. We all gathered for cake and tea after the service and, as time passed, my aunt's skin became clearer. The rash was slowly disappearing; another miracle that cemented my faith.
It was only the unexpected exorcisms that terrified me.
They would happen unexpectedly, during a normal service. Wailing, blaspheming, and a bizarre chill would envelop the room. They came out of nowhere. I was always told that these spirits manifested at those moments because of the powerful presence of God.
It was spiritual warfare.
The whole congregation would exclaim: “The blood of Jesus!" And we were told that if we were scared, or didn't pray, the demonic spirit could enter us. So it didn't matter how badly I needed the toilet, I wouldn't leave the room or stop praying. Not for a second. The pastor, elders and deacons would gather around the person wailing and lay hands upon them and pray.
I didn't quite understand it but I knew that I needed to ask God to protect me from this bad spirit. If you had asked me what would happen once the demonic spirit entered me, I actually didn't know. I just knew, whatever it was, I didn't want it to happen to me.
Something did happen to me, though. At some point, the little girl who joyfully sang songs by gospel artists Sandi Patty and Cece Winans started to fade. I started doubting.
I used to be a little girl who believed in miracles. Sometimes I wish I still could.
Rhodé Marshall is the Mail & Guardian's project manager. Follow her on Twitter @rhodemarshall.