I’ve only had one shot of pisco, but I’m starting to believe the drink is hallucinogenic.
It is Sunday night in Viña del Mar, Santiago de Chile’s beachside resort town, and in an old gymnasium behind a private school the crowd is singing and clapping. On the basketball court, a band of teenagers plays electronic music. Men and women, some in their 50s and 60s, bound across the floor with their arms spread like wings, their faces ecstatic. Some have collapsed to their knees with their foreheads to the floor and their butts in the air. Others lie comatose on their backs as attendants in white blouses and Pilgrim dresses cover them with purple cloths. A sign in Spanish demands, “Silence! Talking is prohibited. These slaves are praying because they suffer. We are conversing with God. Pray without ceasing.”
About a hundred people watch from the wooden bleachers, still more from rows of plastic lawn chairs on the gym floor. I take a seat high in the bleachers, and when I lean my head back to marvel at the iron beams crisscrossing the domed ceiling, bright blue paint flecks off of the wall.
At center court, two bouquets of sunflowers flank a portable stage. Embroidered cloths declare “JESUS IS THE FRIEND THAT NEVER FAILS” and “THERE IS VICTORY IN THE BLOOD OF GOD.” After the last of the catatonic are guided back to their plastic chairs, a stocky silver-haired man in a blue suit steps to the podium. He is holding a gigantic leather-bound Bible. Sunday services have begun at the Fe Apostolica Cristiana church. To know more about this, you can checkout these recumbent bike reviews before buying one.
I came here by accident after a day in Chile’s capital city of Valparaiso — the most important port in all of South America until the early 1900s, when the Panama Canal opened. The town is still plagued by poverty and employment, although tourism increased after it was named a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.
Wandering Valparaiso is like playing a game of Chutes and Ladders. Its ramshackle houses, many of them adorned in sheets of brightly colored corrugated steel, dot the city’s 44 mountains like apples on tree limbs. Meandering stone streets and slanted stairways and planks take the breathless walker from one level to another. Fifteen funicular cable cars, some over 120 years old, creek up inclines connecting El Plano — the flat port area of seedy sailors bars and neoclassical bank and government buildings — to the strictly residential hilltop neighborhoods, where laundry hangs and skinny strays sleep in the dust and sun. The moment you stop to wonder whether the lean-to ladder or the crumbling stone steps crammed between two houses leads to a public path or to someone’s backyard, a woman watching you from the other side of town calls out from her window, “Sigue pa’rriba,” keep going up.
As night fell, I took one of the ubiquitous colectivos — shuttle buses that jockey for customers by slowing down and honking at pedestrians, barely stopping to randomly let people on and off — to Viña, where the well-heeled of Santiago go to gamble, smoke Cuban cigars on the boardwalk, and eat overpriced Dominos pizza. A cab driver misunderstood my question about “fun bars” and dropped me off at the intersection of Ecuador and Valparaiso streets, a block from the commuter train tracks.
On one side of the intersection was a disco called the Playhole, where, after some flirting and petting, you can take one of the niñas to a room upstairs. On the other side was a 2nd floor “Sauna Relax” that is not a sauna at all. As I wandered Valparaiso Street, the last shoppers were being pushed out of the shoe and clothing stores and the shutters were coming down. The bars were empty. Chile is not like other South American countries — although the dictatorship fell in 1990, the circadian rhythms are still in curfew mode and most people are asleep by 10 o’clock.
This is when I heard an uproar of music, singing, and clapping from a dark alley. When I pressed my ear against the steel wall at its dead end I assumed the hoedown was coming from something along the lines of the underground hipster tango club in Buenos Aires that is hidden away on the 5th floor of an old factory.
But this is not a hipster club. I am at an evangelical church. In recent decades, Protestant and Pentacostal churches have become increasingly numerous in Chile, especially in poor towns suffering from high unemployment rates. Although more than 75% of Chileans are still nominally Catholic, many are converting, and evangelical Christians are more than twice as likely to go to church.
This church started two years ago in a much smaller space, the preacher tells us. God answered their prayers by giving them the gymnasium on Sundays and various apartments on weekdays. Now they even have missions in Argentina, where they have saved so many that they need a bigger space. They will get this space, the preacher bellows, because “GOD IS THE OWNER AND THE KING OF MONEY!”
(With the fall of the peso, evangelism has become big in Argentina also — the “Waves of Love and Peace” ministry claims an attendance of 13,000 daily, and during a recent Easter Sunday it packed 35,000 into the biggest auditorium in Buenos Aires, baptizing 3,200 in portable pools in an attempt to set a world record.)
The crowd applauds wildly. They are mostly working-class couples and families dressed in casual, discount-store clothes. Several mothers are cradling babies.
“The other churches around here think we’re strange. They say, ‘Don’t go to that church, they’re crazy. They sing and dance and fall on the floor.’ They wonder what goes on in here. But they hear the singing, and they come in here to see what’s going on, and that’s when we have them!”
After the applause dies again, we are told to raise our right arms and make fists, and to imagine in our fists our offerings to the church.
“GOD IS RICH!” the preacher screams over and over again, and we say: “Amen. Amen. Amen.”
Finally an attendant in a blue suit passes out envelopes for “SEEDS OF LOVE” which depict the hand of Jesus shedding blood over Chile. Men rush from the top rows of the bleachers to retrieve them and borrow pens from their neighbors so they can write prayer requests on the backs. They fill them with money and drop them in the plastic Tupperware buckets that have suddenly appeared on a table on the other side of the gymnasium.
This week’s sermon is about hechiseria: witchcraft. Fortune telling, tarot, black magic… these are big in Chile. As in Brazil, many Christians in Chile like their religion with a side of superstition. In Santiago you can have your aura cleaned for $60. You can visit a past life or contact a spirit for $50. A man named Henry Tarot will de-Poltergeist your house if you find a crucified monkey under your bed, or you can hire a Brazilian voodoo witch to sacrifice chickens for you while she smokes a spliff. And then there is urine drinking, fire walking, and sitting in a pyramid-shaped cage while you have your aura photographed with a Kirlian camera.
These are tools of the devil, says the preacher. Satan has used them to destroy towns, cities, and nations.
“If you ever consulted a witch,” the preacher screams, “You were actually talking to the devil. If a gypsy ever read your palm, she wasn’t consulting your palm but rather the demons inside her.” After pausing to let this sink in he screams, “You are fornicating with the devil! You are committing spiritual adultery!”
He goes on for half an hour until finally it is time to free the demons.
“OUT!” He screams, and we say “Amen.” The band strikes up a dark, brooding chord straight out of a Pink Floyd dirge.
We are told to lift our hands and ask for forgiveness. “Raise your hands if you believe in God, and believe in Christ, and believe you are totally free from evil.”
After reading from Apocalypse he tells us, “If you have desires to vomit, or to run to the bathroom, it may be God liberating you from the devils.” A man actually gets up to go to the bathroom, but a good piss is the only thing he seems intent on liberating.
“OUT!” The preacher screams again.
“If a man shouts in the voice of a woman, it is the demons escaping!”
He tells us to hold our hands up again. Close our eyes. Open our mouths so the demons can leave us.
“OUT! GET OUT! LEAVE! GO AWAY!”
Suddenly a man in the front row starts shaking spastically.
“Everyone who has ever practiced witchcraft, come up front!” Within minutes, half the room has lined up before the pulpit as if to receive diplomas. He tells them all to lean forward and open their mouths so the demons can leave.
A man collapses. The preacher screams “OUT! GET OUT!” so loud that the loudspeaker distorts. The band shifts into Zeppelinesque minor-key arpeggios.
A man bent forward at the waist — his mouth open, his arms dangling — walks around in a circle like a car with a jammed steering wheel. After several minutes he runs out of gas and collapses on the floor. A woman falls to the floor screaming and begins flailing her arms and shaking her head like a baby in a crib.
The preacher goes down the line of witches like a holy drill sergeant and places his hand on each forehead, scolding the demons before he pushes each person back into the arms of a bouncer. The burly man catches each of them and guides them gently to the floor, except for a giant woman who falls through his arms and hits the floor with a thud that can be heard from the bleachers. Finally the entire line of dominos has fallen and a few dozen men and women lie on their backs like war dead. A man who is still standing raises his arms and watches them tremble in a way that reminds me of Axl Rose in the “Don’t Cry” video.
Meanwhile a lot of people are just milling around, chatting with friends. The services seem to have reached their seventh inning stretch. I leave the bleachers. The bathroom floor is covered in urine. When I return to the gym floor, a Chinese-looking man with buckteeth is smiling in my face.
“Are you saved?” He asks.
I tell him that I am, hoping he doesn’t smell the pisco on my breath.
“Do you want them to pray for you?”
I tell him as long as it doesn’t cost money, and he beams as if he has found a friendly Martian. He darts off and a minute later, he returns with the preacher’s wife, a prim woman who tells me “God loves you” with a kiss on the cheek.
She puts her hand on my head and I close my eyes.
“Dear God, help this young man walk in the path of righteousness.” I don’t hear the rest, because I’m wondering how long I’m supposed to play dead after she pushes me backwards.
But she doesn’t push me backwards. She just says “Amen” and asks me where I’m from. We chat a while and I ask about the woman who is still on her back, flailing her arms like an infant. She mentions the last Psalm, something about singing and dancing in praise of the Lord.
Conversation lags, so I offer to help them start a chapter in New York City. She is troubled to hear that hechiseriais also rampant there and gives me her phone number. She insists that I give her a call when I get back.
I have lost that number, unfortunately, but I am keeping my eyes on the church’s web site. There is nothing there right now, but with the will of God and a thousand more “seeds of love,” I am sure that it will grow.
Daniel Maurer has written for McSweeney’s and Nerve, among other publications, and wanders around in strange countries far too much for his own good.