Exorcising Demons and Saving Souls in a 14th Street Storefront

By Monica Hesse
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 25, 2006

The stores on 14th Street are the usual. There's a McDonald's and a Taco Bell, a post office and a Salvadoran restaurant between U and T. There's a shoe store, a dry cleaner and a thrift shop. And right in the middle is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a storefront Pentecostal church with a plastic marquee.

This is the place where 17 people are having their souls saved this night.

Soul-saving happens here for an hour every Thursday and Sunday.

The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God is part of a Brazilian-originated faith that has 10 million members in more than 90 countries. It was the subject of controversy in Brazil in 1995 when a pastor approached a statue of the country's patron saint on national television and kicked it repeatedly. The "Kicking of the Saint," as it came to be known, earned the church the condemnation of Roman Catholic officials.

At the church on 14th Street, there is no saint-kicking, just an open room with white linoleum floors and rows of red chairs facing a platform. On the platform is a large cross and, inexplicably, a menorah. The pastor, Sergio Medina, wears a blue shirt with a white collar. His four assistants are dressed like caterers, in black pants and white shirts. One assistant passes out programs, which list various demonic curses that may afflict parishioners: hereditary, word of mouth and witchcraft. The hereditary curse, passed from generation to generation, is said to last 200 years, more or less.

Tonight, Pastor Medina invites the 17 people being saved to the front of the room to pray. One of his assistants hits "play" on a tape recorder, and reedy oboe music fills the room.

Parishioners put their hands over their hearts, close their eyes and repeat a Bible verse from the Book of Matthew. Medina asks them to raise their hands in the air, then to place them on their heads.

People start speaking in tongues.

In movies when people speak in tongues, the sound is guttural, lots of "Lllll" and "Gggg" sounds. But this has sharp S's and T's, like Harry Potter Parseltongue. It's also loud.

At one point, Medina, who holds a microphone and is singing with a tape-recorded hymn, asks the congregation to speak more softly so they can hear him better.

The church believes that health, relationship and monetary troubles are related to demonic possession, although it recognizes that "demons" can also refer to paralyzing feelings of guilt or inadequacy. A large part of the service is focused on exorcising demons through the laying of hands. Medina and his assistants are said to have the power to command out evil spirits in this way. Most people seem to be cleansed easily, with a few drops of oil.

But one woman appears to harbor a particularly troublesome demon. Medina clutches her head with his left hand while grasping the microphone with his right. "Come out, demon!" he shouts. "You will come out now!"

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