A few years ago, I interviewed João de Deus for my book about Brasília, Fantasy Island – The Brave New Heart of Brazil. I had to stay in his town for several days to get it, because I had to wait for the answers of the spirits. When I got the interview, I had to wait back stage. There I met a 23 year old American girl waiting in line to satisfy him. I came in 30 minutes after her. João de Deus was still sweating on the forehead. Now six years later, 40 women have reported him for sexual abuse. Read the story here how it all started.
Although Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, the conservative Catholicism that controls the rest of Latin America has not got a grip on people in the same way here. The swarms of Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist immigrants have created a tolerance for different beliefs not granted to many countries. Brazil is an unusually liberal country when it comes to religious belief, since Afro-Brazilian religions are also officially accepted.
Of the millions of Brazilians who practice the Afro-Brazilian religions candomblé and umbanda, over half are white. They are often Catholics flirting with the African world of spirits. Social class does not matter. When I visited an umbanda temple in a favela in the rainforest Floresta da Tijuca outside Rio, one of the members came from the Sendas, a wealthy family who had formerly run the chain of food stores with the same name. The family’s adult daughter was escorted to the favela in two bulletproof cars with bodyguards. When the ritual began, she hung her Gucci handbag on a chair, poured her jewelry into it, and put on a white dress. After a while, the white billionaire’s daughter got really turned on the cermony led by a young black man with chicken feathers on his head who was calling on the African god Omulo with the help of thick smoke from a fat cigar.
“Omulo, Omulo, Omulo,” he prayed, and Miss Sendas stretched her hands up into the air with as much devotion as the black favela women.
In the end I decided to relax, and I too got carried away. The suggestive drumming sucked me in like the experience of a really good concert.
The most well-known spiritual medium in Brazil is Chico Xavier. In the seventies, he got spiritual Brazilians to travel thousands of kilometers along bumpy roads to reach his clinic in Uberaba, in the state of Minas Gerais. After he died, in 2002, many people have tried to fill the gap left by him. João de Deus is the most successful. He has taken contact with the spirits one step further. He carries out spiritual operations with a scalpel. There is blood.
The first time I heard about him was on the second floor of the Conjunto Nacional shopping mall in Brasilia’s city center. I had noticed a woman at the counter in the bake shop. She had on a pair of cool Adidas trainers. “Modern girl from São Paulo,” I thought. Few other Brazilians dare to walk around in Adidas since Nike bought up the Brazilian international soccer team in the nineties. After a while, I heard that her Portuguese sounded German. “She probably works at the German embassy,” I thought. Most of the foreigners in Brasilia belong to one of the many embassies in the capital. I helped her to order twelve different cream cakes and asked her why she was hoarding.
“Where I’m going there aren’t any bake shops.”
I asked curiously where she was headed.
“Have you heard about João de Deus, the healer? In the US he’s known as John of God. He cures people from everything from cancer to HIV” she said, twirling her long, black hair up into a ponytail.
Julia introduced herself as a healing consultant with her own clinic in Hohenzollernplatz in Munich. She spends one or two months a year in Brazil to visit João de Deus. His clinic is in Abadiânia, a small town eighty kilometers outside the federal district.
“You’ll notice the town when you drive past. Everybody walks around dressed in white,” said Julia, laughing.
Before she disappeared, I told her about my interest in all these fantasy islands that have popped up like mushrooms on the savanna around the Capital. I asked if she could help me to get an interview with miracle worker João de Deus.
“Sure, I can always try,” she said, vanishing into the bus terminal.
One week later, I e-mailed her. The reply came after a couple of days.
“Now, I’ve spoken to one of João de Deus’ assistants. To get an interview, you must come here yourself and ask the spirits for permission.”
João de Deus was born in a tiny hamlet on the savanna, not far from Anápolis, where Kubitschek confirmed his election promise on April 4, 1955 to build the Capital. João was thirteen at that time, and lived with his six brothers in a tumbledown shack where their father worked as a tailor. When João was sixteen, he had a strange experience. King Solomon appeared to him. He left the savanna and travelled around Brazil searching for people who believed in his contact with the spirits of the dead. In most towns, he was thrown out by the authorities, accused of being a quack doctor. It was then that João decided to pay a visit to Chico Xavier, the most famous spiritual medium in Brazil.
“I asked him what I should do, and he told me ‘go back to the savanna and start your own clinic.’”
João de Deus chose the little town of Abadiânia, midway between Brasilia and Anápolis. He sat down on a wire chair at the side of the road and offered help to passers-by. The mayor liked his initiative and donated twelve thousand square meters of land, where João de Deus built a white temple with blue corners. The temple was named Casa Dom Inácio de Loyola, after the founder of the Jesuit order.
When Shirley MacLaine got stomach cancer at the beginning of the nineties, she travelled to Brazil for an operation by João de Deus. The American actress, one of the major public figures of the New Age movement, walked into the meditation room and allowed him to work freely with his scalpel. When she came out of the room, she explained that the spiritual surgery had worked.
“I’m cured. I’m not in pain any more. Now I can dance again.”
Since Shirley MacLaine’s operation, João de Deus has become a global phenomenon. Few Brazilians believe in him anymore. Instead, Americans are now the ones who make pilgrimages to Abadiânia to be cured. After the documentary Is John of God a Healer or a Charlatan?was broadcast a couple of years ago by ABC, one of the United States’ largest national TV channels, Abadiânia receives more foreign tourists than Brasilia.
“I hardly ever meet any Brazilians here anymore. Eighty percent are gringos. Most of them come from the United States, Australia, Ireland, Canada, or Great Britain. Countries where the documentary has been shown,” says Julia as we sit in the garden of her rented house in Abadiânia.
The sun is blazing down and she has lifted out the kitchen table to the only place in the garden where there is some shade and a breeze. Julia has made a salad with fresh tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. We drink chilled mineral water.
“To get cured, you have to eat right too,” she says, forgetting for the moment that her fridge is full of cream cakes.
Julia’s story starts in a Bavarian village not far from Munich. Her family was strict and conservative. She was the only daughter, and she was expected to behave well. Her brother had an easier time. When Julia reached her teens, her father wanted to embrace her, in secret. First Julia did not understand what he wanted. Then she realized. Some years later, when she had left home, she told her mother what had happened. Her mom did not believe her. Nor did her brother, who had always been the one she could rely on. Julia started hanging out with punk gangs in Munich. She tried drugs and drank too much. Then she moved to Milan, worked as a graphic designer, and fell in love with an Italian. After eight years, when the relationship with him was over, her past caught up with her. She moved back to Munich and went to a psychotherapist. Julia started traveling, first to southern India to meditate, then to Brazil.
“People are more open to spirituality here. It’s easier to make contact,” says Julia, who has attended healing courses all over the world the past ten years.
Now she is thirty-eight years old.
“I always come here before the season starts at home. When Munich gets dark in the fall, I am fully booked until April. There are so many people who are in a bad way in our society. If I am well-prepared, then I can help some of them.”
João de Deus’ clinic looks like a Catholic bishop’s farm in a rural area. The grounds are surrounded by a white wall, and there are various white-washed buildings with blue corners on the farm. In the center is a well-cared-for cloister garden that has an enchanting view out over the savanna. In front of the main building, two lines of people are snaking, about three hundred people altogether. One of the lines is moving faster. It consists of visitors here for their second time. We who are here for the first time are in the slow line. The man in front of me is from a busload of pensioners from the state of Espírito Santo, north of Rio. They have traveled twelve hundred kilometers to be cured of their aches and pains.
“My right shoulder is painful. I’ve tried everything, but it ain’t getting any better. Now John of God is gonna look at it,” says Landerson Gomes.
Behind him, one of his fellow passengers is sitting in a wheelchair. She is hoping for a miracle. In front of me in the line is a family from Brasilia, hugging each other. The father has cancer. He is bald. The chemo has done its bit. Now only a miracle can stop his brain tumor from growing. His wife and their twenty-year-old daughter are holding him. The family’s son is standing in front of a red wooden triangle nailed up on the temple wall. You lean your forehead there and make your wishes. The fast line consists of Austrians, Americans, Germans, and Irish. Most of them are older women dressed in white. Many are wearing leather neckbands with crystals. Some even have matching earrings. After standing in the line for an hour, I arrive at the door. The temple guard looks at my clothes. Once again, I am wrongly dressed. I am wearing blue jeans and a faded green T-shirt. The temple guard is wearing white trousers, a white belt, a white shirt, white socks, and white shoes. Around his neck he has a bunch of keys hanging on a chrome chain. While he looks me up and down, I tell him I am a reporter and that I am standing in the line to ask the spirits for permission to carry out an interview with João de Deus.
“Okay, but first you must sit in the current and be cleansed.”
A lady in white garments leads me in. She is from the United States, and is one of hundreds of volunteers who spend half the year in Abadiânia. She leads the exercises in the meditation room. About forty people are breathing deeply. Some of them have eyeshades that they have been given on the night flight to Brazil. Between their legs, they have bottles of water. One is holding a picture of a relative. Another is clasping a crystal staff. From the loudspeakers, soft music is playing. I almost fall asleep. After forty minutes I am considered cleansed and can continue to wait in the line to enter the hall of the temple.
On one of the wooden benches in the hall I see Julia with her eyes shut, concentrating deeply. Behind her, in the aisle, lies a gravely handicapped boy on a mattress with a vinyl cover. His father also has his eyes shut. At the very front, by the altar, sits João de Deus in an armchair with a cushion. There are about thirty visitors in front of me. I start getting nervous. Before I came up to Abadiânia I saw a couple of films on YouTube where he operates on people with his famous scalpel. Imagine if he got the idea to operate on me, I think, looking around to locate the emergency exits.
The most common operation, regardless of whether the patient has cancer or HIV, is to scrape the cornea with his scalpel. João de Deus believes that a person’s disease is concentrated to the eye. Scrape away the diseased bit, and you will be cured. Another operation is in the nose. João de Deus falls into a trance and eases a pair of operation scissors into one nostril. The bleeding is believed to cleanse the body. I breathe in deeply and think about what Julia said: “Nobody gets an operation the first time.”
Now there are only three people in front of me.
João de Deus looks kind of sleazy. His hair is greasy and his glasses are fogged up. The three bottom buttons on his white shirt are unfastened because of his protruding belly. Sweat is running down his face. I practice once more what I am going to say. I know that I must talk in third person. You put your questions to the spirit in his body. When I get to the front, João de Deus takes my hands and squints up at me. The phrase that I have rehearsed spills out of me.
“Hello, my name is Henrique. I am a Swedish journalist, and I want to interview João de Deus. Is that possible?”
At first I do not hear what the spirit mumbles. Then he repeats it.
“Meditate some more and come back tomorrow.”
Julia’s house is close to the bungalow hotel Pousada Catarinense, the favorite haunt of spiritual tourists in Abadiânia. Guests usually have full board and stay for two weeks. Most of the tourists are on package trips from the United States, England, or Canada. Travel agencies sell trips here, to what they call “the foremost spiritualistic center in the world with a medical focus.” Their marketing is clear: “For people searching for healing, personal spiritual experiences or a calm and contemplative place to be in.” Included in the package trip is the flight from North America or Europe, transfer from Brasilia to Abadiânia, a single room with full board, an English-speaking guide, one treatment with crystal light, and free treatment by John of God at Casa Dom Inácio de Loyola. The trip ends with a guided city tour in Brasilia.
The person who started these package trips to Abadiãnia calls himself Vishnu Hutton and comes from California. He used to arrange meditation trips to southern India. Now he conducts hundreds of American men and women to Abadiânia every year.
“I’m fully booked a year in advance,” says Hutton.
He is almost two meters tall, has a greying ponytail, and wanders through the village with an extra-authoritative air. John of God has taken him under his wing. The fifty-year-old tourist leader has his own house and is one of the inner circle of men running “the Casa,” as foreigners call the clinic. Women tourists swarm around him when he holds court at one of the town’s vegetarian restaurants. Julia does not like him and prefers to hang out at the green-painted Pousada Catarinense. In the evenings, the tables are filled with a mixture of nationalities. The flirtatious atmosphere is like popular backpacker venues all round the world. The difference is that most people here are in their middle years. This evening, everyone is in high spirits. John of God has given the green light for most of the guests to have their operations before the weekend.
“We’ve been here for a week now. So that feels good. Friday is our last chance,” says Anthony V. Dub.
He is fifty-five years old and lives on Lower East Side in Manhattan. He was formerly a director at the investment bank Credit Suisse on Wall Street.
“My job was my life. Money, money, money. One day I blacked out. My whole immune system was knocked out,” says Anthony.
He resigned, and now he meditates every day.
“I still suffer from crazy high blood pressure. I hope that John of God will help get it down,” he says.
Matthew Wick, from San Francisco, is sitting right opposite him. He got HIV at the end of the eighties and has been taking retrovirals since then.
“I know it sounds weird. But since I started coming here, I haven’t needed to take tablets any longer. I come here twice a year, meditate and live a healthier life. It cleanses me and I can live a good life.”
Matthew is not the only one to say he has been helped. In the ABC documentary, the TV crew follows five patients afflicted by different illnesses. Annabel from Colorado could not get out of her wheelchair before she came to Abadiânia. After six trips, she can stand on her own legs with the help of crutches. Mary from Seattle suffered from chronic asthma and was always tired. Now she feels fitter. David from San Francisco had an aggressive illness attacking his nervous system. He is no better, but nor is he any worse. Matthew Ireland from Vermont was diagnosed with a brain tumor two years go. After three trips, the tumor has miraculously gotten smaller. The only one not to feel any improvement is Lisa from Johannesburg. Her breast cancer did not give up. The tumor has grown so much that she can squeeze it.
“Many people are critical of the film and do not consider it scientific. But I believe it. Conventional health care is always too quick to make judgments,” says Julia, getting support from the other travelers around the table.
Spiritual tourism has divided Abadiânia into two camps. The line of division is the BR-60 national highway running through the town. South of the highway live the permanent inhabitants. The municipality, the healthcare center, the town square, the church, and a number of Pentecostal congregations are located here, as are the police station, large food stores, and soccer fields. North of the national highway are the stores selling crystals, white clothes, joss sticks, colorful candles, and books giving spiritual advice. Along the main street, leading down to the Casa, are hotels, restaurants and Internet cafés. That is why the permanent residents call this part of town Gringolândia, Gringoland.
“Sometimes they come over to our side and do a bit of shopping. But that seldom happens. They don’t drink alcohol,” says a man who is dusting off a table in a neighborhood bar.
I continue down the paved main street in the permanently residential part of Abadiânia and walk past the municipality. The mayor here has nothing to complain about. Five years ago, before John of God made his international breakthrough, Abadiânia had 7 500 inhabitants. Today the number of inhabitants has risen to 12 500.
“We only had two cabs before. We didn’t need no more. Now we got 38,” says a cab driver waiting outside the municipality.
At the healthcare center right opposite, they are not as happy.
“Last night we had to fetch a German woman who was dying of cancer. I don’t understand why they don’t want to die at home, surrounded by their family and dear ones. Her, the German that we took to the central hospital last night, ain’t gonna survive. Her cancer’s too far advanced. She was in respiratory arrest when we arrived. She’s gonna fly home either in an ambulance plane or a coffin. Too bad there ain’t no miracles,” says the clinic’s ambulance driver.
His colleague is also critical of the personal cult that John of God has built up around himself.
“He tells them to buy his holy water. It’s gonna cure them. And so they drink it and believe they’re getting cured. What they don’t understand that it’s ordinary water. They’re gonna die.”
Close to the healthcare center is the police station.
“So long as he keeps within the framework of the law, ain’t nothing we can do. But if he takes out his scalpel and cuts into somebody, then we’ll intervene. A judge has prohibited him from surgical operations,” says one of the policemen, pushing his sunglasses up onto his brow.
“Folk go fucking crazy hanging out round him. One time we had to turn out when a nutcase Swiss woman was running around naked at night on the main street, with a crystal staff in her hand. She said she was following the spirits.”
Not even the many storekeepers are happy about the spiritual tourism.
“If you wanna open a store on the other side of the road, you gotta pay John of God ten percent. That sure is nasty. I never go over to the other side,” says a man who runs a clothing store.
He claims that João de Deus also demands commission from the hotels, restaurants, and Internet cafés.
“He owns the whole town.”
The next day I take my place in the line again. Now I am a second time visitor and can stand in the fast line. I do not need to participate in any more breathing exercises in the meditation room either. After only half an hour in line, I have arrived. Sixty-six-year-old John of God is cozying up on his cushion and reaching out his hands. Reluctantly I lay my hands in his and look him in the eye.
”I wonder if I can do the interview now.”
He nods slowly.
I ask where and when. He looks at me calmingly.
“Ask him,” he says, nodding at a man with a mustache.
The man tells me that I must first appear before the temple’s lawyer to sign a contract.
When I leave the spiritual reception I catch sight of the father with the gravely handicapped boy I had seen earlier, lying in the aisle of the temple. His son is resting in the shade in the cloister garden, like a bundle on his vinyl-covered mattress. His arms and legs sprawl out in all directions. I ask the father where they are from.
“We’re from the Netherlands.”
That rings a bell. This is the father who was in another documentary on John of God that I saw before I came here. I feel pain.
“How long have you been here?”
“Almost three years. My wife traveled home last year. She couldn’t cope any longer. But I can’t give up. He’s better off here. We’re waiting for a miracle,” he says, moved.
His son was born with a serious bone and muscle disease.
“The doctors in Holland said that he wouldn’t live very long. And that it would get worse and worse. But since he got here he’s actually got a little better.”
In the evening, Julia treats us to a delicious spinach lasagne. I tell her that I’ve been over to the other side. She gets curious and wants to know what they said.
“They criticize him and say that he runs the whole town. The storekeepers have to pay him off, and he has a private room in the temple where he receives his lady admirers.”
“I know, he sure is a dirty old man. But he’s never tried it with me. He’d never dare.”
She did encounter John of God’s business sense, however, when she and a friend from New Zealand were planning a festival in Abadiânia. Performances, lectures, food, and drink were planned for a weekend. Everyone in the town was welcome.
“The week before, one of his men came and said that we first had to have João de Deus’s approval. And then they demanded ten percent of the profits. We lost interest. That was fucking ugly. But now I don’t give a shit. He does his thing and I do mine. I’m here to meet like-minded people and to feel the power of nature. There is something magical about this region. Did you know that we’re resting on a bed of crystals? At night when the stars light up the ground, enormous amounts of energy are generated. Sometimes I can’t get to sleep.”
The next day, I put on a white jersey, and I walk down to the Casa to wait for his lawyer. When he arrives he takes me with him to his office in one of the white-washed buildings. We walk past a storeroom. In it stand ten pallets of John of God’s holy water bottles. In another room there is the labeling machine to stick the temple’s logo onto the water bottles. In the room next to that, they make the medicine that sells for five dollars a jar. John of God usually prescribes four different jars to each of his patients. The attorney takes out a pastille. It smells of passion fruit.
“We mix some fruits into them to make them taste good,” he says.
When the lawyer asks to see my ID, he sees that I come from Sweden. He tells me they had a Swedish visitor not too long ago.
“Your ambassador in Brasilia was here a month or so ago. She asked to meet João de Deus in private.”
Really? Margareta Winberg, has been here?
“You don’t happen to know what her problem was?”
“No, I don’t get involved in the patients’ illnesses,” he says, handing over two sheets of paper stapled together.
The document that he wants me to sign has five paragraphs. The first states that the spirits are incarnate in John of God when he is being interviewed. That is to say, from his mouth come the spirits’ words, not his own. The subsequent paragraphs regulate media rights and prohibit me from selling my material to a third party. If I do, half of the profits must go to the Casa. I take the pen and sign. The lawyer stamps both pages.
“Okay. You can meet him today at five o’clock. The entrance is at the back of the temple.”
When I was thirteen, I hung around outside the backstage rooms after a Motörhead concert in Lund, Sweden. I wanted to get Lemmy’s autograph. When the tour manager came out in the corridor, he waved in the girls and left the rest of us standing. I get about the same feeling when John of God’s male secretary opens the back door to the temple and waves in a twenty-three-year-old girl from the United States who has been waiting with me.
“That’s real awesome. He wants to meet me privately,” she bursts out, fixing her hair.
I lean back against the handrail of the steps and start fiddling with my mobile. The clock ticks for half an hour. When the door opens again, the secretary lets me in with a smile. Miracle man is sitting pleased and satisfied in a modern leather armchair. I look around to see where the girl went. She is nowhere to be seen. Is there another room with a bed?
João de Deus tells the same story as the one I have read in books about him. King Solomon appeared to him. He traveled around the country preaching, was persecuted, and decided in the end to follow the legendary Chico Xavier’s encouragement to open his first clinic. I ask him how contact with the spirits is nowadays. He does not reply. I try again. One of the temple men helps out.
“He is incarnate. You can’t speak to him directly. You have to speak to the spirit.”
“Ok spirit. How are you doing?”
The spirit does not respond.
“How are you?”
I look John of God in the eye. It looks as though he is grinning.
“Why do you operate with a scalpel?”
“I don’t operate with a scalpel. The spirits do it. They do everything for me,” he says, settling himself more comfortably.
“Can you explain how an operation is done?”
“Can the spirit explain how an operation is done?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember anything afterwards. It just happens.”
“Witnesses say that there is hardly any blood. How do you do that?”
“I don’t do anything. It’s the spirits.”
“They are skillful surgeons,” I say, smiling.
“Yes, they are.”
HENRIK BRANDÃO JÖNSSON
Fantasy Island – The Brave New Heart of Brazil, chapter IV.
Translated by: Margaret Myers, 2014