Kansas City Pitch, Peter Rugg, 17 April 2008
James Vivian puts on scrubs as if he’s preparing for surgery. He wraps a silver cross on a chain around his wrist. Next to the leather recliner, he sets a plastic bucket lined with a fresh trash bag, in case his visitor vomits.
The sun is setting on a mid-March day, and the man Vivian is expecting is almost 20 minutes late. Vivian wonders whether he’s coming at all.
“A lot of people don’t want to know what they have inside them,” Vivian says.
But the man does come. We’ll call him Max because he doesn’t know that the witness on the living room sofa is a reporter. Max appears to be in his late 30s, and he’s tall and well-built, dressed in a polo shirt and slacks. He’s been depressed lately, prone to panic attacks, and he’s been having trouble sleeping. He told some friends about his troubles, and they gave him Vivian’s phone number.
Vivian welcomes Max and directs him to the recliner. Vivian puts a folding chair before him and sits down.
“Now, the first thing we have to do is have you fill out this history,” he says, handing Max a few stapled papers. “This is just to let me know what I might be dealing with.”
Normally, Vivian, who is 6 feet tall and weighs more than 300 pounds, has a second man to help him in case anything goes wrong. But tonight’s job was on short notice.
The first sheet of questions might come from a job application, except for a few odd questions — What was your relationship with your parents? Do you have any special training I should be aware of? The second sheet has more than 50 boxes to check — a list of possible sins a subject may have committed. There’s a box for cocaine and a box for homosexuality, one for yoga and one for incest and one for depression. The subject can specify whether this behavior was in the past or is ongoing.
The answers will presumably show Vivian where the doorway is — the unconscious invitation that allows a demon to enter.
Vivian excuses himself to prepare. “Just be honest about everything so I don’t have any surprises,” he tells Max. “It’s completely confidential. No one’s ever going to see it but me. And don’t worry about being judged, because everybody’s got something in their life.”
Max flips through the sheets. He looks up at a painting of Jesus on the cross, mounted on a small shelf between a copy of the Torah and a bottle of frankincense oil. “My friends told me some great things about him,” Max says of Vivian. “I know there’s a lot of people that have come to him. I guess everybody’s looking for answers.”
Max is still going over the questions when Vivian returns. Vivian goes to the front window and looks outside. He lives in a three-bedroom home on Olive Street across from a playground. Sometimes he thinks the playground is used for drug deals, and he doesn’t trust the neighborhood. Bars cover his ground-level windows. The streets are empty, but he closes the blinds anyway.
Vivian claims to have performed more than 500 exorcisms.
People find him through referrals, as Max did, or through “Bob Larson’s Spiritual Freedom Church“, which is based in Denver.
Larson claims to have done more than 6,000 exorcisms — so many that on March 19, the U.K. channel Virgin1 started broadcasting a reality show about him. On The Real Exorcist, Larson stalks demons across Great Britain. Shortly before his show first aired, he was quoted in European papers suggesting an exorcism could help singer Amy Winehouse conquer her drug addiction.
Larson’s North American syndicated radio show was broadcast on roughly 175 Christian stations before it ended in 2006; until December 2007, he also broadcast 30-minute shows on the Sky Angel Network on Dish and DirecTV. He seems to be hoping for a revival of his U.S. media presence; his Web site asks followers to pray for the British reality show to make a stateside debut.
Larson wants getting an exorcism to be as easy as scheduling a dental appointment. The biography section of his Web site notes that in the late ’90s, Larson started training teams to “Do What Jesus Did.” Recruiting at seminars around the country, Larson says he has trained more than 100 teams. (Larson did not respond to interview requests for this story.) According to his biography, “His goal was to plant enough teams so that anyone in need of ministry would be no more than a day’s drive from healing and exorcism.”
Vivian is Larson’s man in the Midwest.
“If someone calls us, we try to refer them to the team closest to them,” says Pam Bracken, a staffer with the ministry. Bracken says there are no qualified ministers in Illinois, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska or Arkansas; there are, however, ministers in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas. Vivian is the only one in Missouri.
That was how Jerry Summers found Vivian when a 38-year-old woman couldn’t stop swearing during his church services.
Summers is the pastor of Revival Time Tabernacle Church, nine miles south of Poplar Bluff, Missouri. The son of a Pentecostal minister, Summers preached his first revival service at the age of 16 in St. Louis. Now 58, he’s a clean-cut man with sandy hair and bit of middle-age spread, and he speaks with a country twang, pronouncing his home state’s name with a grunt at the end. Like a lot of other Pentecostal ministers, Summers has performed some exorcisms. But in this case, he needed help.
It was October 2006, and Summers was still in the early part of his service at Revival Time Tabernacle.
The way Summers remembers it, he was just starting to preach when he heard screams coming from halfway through the rows of wooden pews. The black-haired woman he would come to know as Katrina was shaking her head and rocking back and forth — “goddamn it! Damn! Goddamn!”
Every head in the congregation turned to watch the woman in the black dress.
“I knew right away what it was because I was 13 when I had a problem, and my daddy had to help me,” Summers tells The Pitch. He has a practical view of the problem. “I don’t go around looking for devils, but when they show up, well, I’m not going to run from them. That’s just how I am with the devil.”
Katrina had a history of uncontrollable swearing and striking herself hard enough to leave black eyes.
A year before she met Summers, Katrina says, she told a co-worker that she was hearing voices ordering her not to read the Bible and to ignore Jesus. Katrina says the co-worker called the Missouri Department of Social Services to report her, and her 8-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, was sent to a foster home while she was placed under psychiatric care. The doctors diagnosed her with bipolar disorder and put her on medication, but nothing changed. Her aunt had taken her to five churches before Summers’ church, but none had helped.
Summers walked toward Katrina, Bible in hand. “I want you all to pray,” he told his frightened congregation. They stayed in their seats and filled the church with whispered prayers. Katrina started screaming louder.
“This is my wife!” Katrina yelled.
“You don’t have a wife,” Summers said. Then he tried to expel the demon.
This went on for close to an hour, with Katrina writhing and yelling and slapping herself in the pew and Summers praying over her. Eventually, she quieted down. When they were finished, Summers asked her if she’d let him come to her home, where he and his wife, Nancy, could continue the deliverance.
For six months, they put holy water on her, prayed over her and tried to rid her of the demon. Nothing worked.
“We told her it wouldn’t hurt her to visit with a Ph.D. or a man like that, too, and she did,” Summers says. “The doctors didn’t find any problems.”
Then one night, Nancy saw Larson preaching on cable television. She and Summers called the ministry the next day and were directed to James Vivian. Vivian arrived in Poplar Bluff in June 2007.
Though they’d asked for his help, Nancy was apprehensive — especially when it was decided that Vivian would preach in their church. “I thought he’d get all these bad spirits jumping up in our church, and then he’d be gone and we’d have to deal with it,” she says. “Then it wasn’t like that. He didn’t point anyone in our church out or cause any disturbances. I’m thankful for that.”
The first few minutes that Vivian met with Katrina, things were calm. He asked her to fill out a personal history, and he started to work with the Summerses behind him.
Then, Summers recalls, “All hell broke loose. She was convulsing and screaming. She started declaring herself a fallen angel. I can’t remember everything she said, but it was bad stuff. Then she vomited, and whatever that was smelled horrible.”
It took three continuous days for Vivian to finish. The final diagnosis wasn’t demonic. Based on Katrina’s answers to Vivian’s survey and the things she’d said when she was having a fit, he determined that her boss was a warlock.
Once diagnosed, this made sense to Katrina. “I used to see people driving past my house and throwing up hands at me,” she tells The Pitch. “Now I know what that was about. It was trying to put curses on me.”
The way Summers and Vivian see it, witches and warlocks are just as responsible for creating misery as Lucifer is, and the hills of Missouri are filled with people who work regular jobs, then go home, shut the door and start murmuring curses with images of their victims in mind. They are impossible to tell from Christians on sight. Some of them are even priests.
“Warlocks are more devious, and that’s your problem, more or less,” Summers says. “I give Vivian credit. Seeing her [Katrina] now is like the difference between night and day.”
Before Vivian became one of the Midwest’s leading exorcists, he was the son of a night watchman and a nurse living at the corner of 25th Street and Myrtle. They were a Baptist family who attended the prescribed Sunday services and no more.
When he was 16, he and a friend visited a Pentecostal church out of curiosity. The congregation was dancing and screaming, and the two tried to slip out, but the preacher caught them before they could make it. He sat them down at a pew up in front and made them pray, screaming at them to seek forgiveness for their sins.
“I said I’d never set foot in one of those again,” Vivian says. “I thought they were crazy.”
He left Kansas City in 1967 and enlisted with the U.S. Army. He did two tours in Vietnam, working as an air-traffic controller, before returning to the States.
Back home, he had a hard time sticking to a job or a relationship. He worked as an orderly in a psych ward, as a truck driver, as a clerk for the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Postal Service, never staying at one job too long. He married and divorced five times, had five biological children and five stepchildren.
He heard his calling on March 17, 1982, shortly after midnight. It was the night of his 33rd birthday, a few hours after the last guest had left his party. He was renting a room in a house at Ninth Street and Park, working for decent money at the post office. He’d just ended his third marriage, to a woman named Lillian with whom he’d had two children. She’d caught him stepping out on her.
He was lying in his bed watching television, feeling a little boozy but in good spirits. The televangelist Jim Bakker came on, and Vivian was too tired to change the channel.
Man, I really don’t want to watch this, he thought.
Vivian doesn’t remember what Bakker said, but he does remember getting on his knees, crying and praying to God for forgiveness.
“That’s when God spoke to me,” Vivian says. “He said, ‘You promised to serve me, and you haven’t.’ That was the end of that. I said, ‘Lord, you don’t have to come down and hurt me. I heard what happens to people who don’t answer the call. I’ll preach.'”
In the morning, Vivian walked to the Church of the Holy Temple Pentecostal across the street from his house. This time, the Pentecostals didn’t seem so crazy. He spent the next three days reading the Bible.
For years, Vivian kept going from church to church, meeting preachers and trying to figure out how to answer his call. One Sunday, he ended up at the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ at 800 East Meyer Boulevard.
Vivian was late to the service. When he arrived, a woman was trapped between the pews and the altar. Three men stood around her, keeping her in place. Bishop Daniel Jordan was waving a Bible at her.
“I told you I don’t need anything,” she said. “Let me go or I’m calling the police.”
If they aren’t letting her go, I’m calling the police, too, Vivian thought.
Jordan advanced on her with his Bible raised. Vivian would have run to the nearest pay phone if it hadn’t been for the way she screamed.
“It was a scream like a man’s voice, and when I heard that, I knew there was something different going on,” he says.
After an hour, the woman seemed drained but happy. That was when Vivian knew the type of preacher he was supposed to be.
He spent the next 10 years pastoring at Pentecostal churches and expelling demons. He didn’t meet Larson until 2000, when Larson did a revival service in Des Moines.
Vivian saw several people exorcised that day on the stage. When he got the chance, he paid $149 per course for five Bob Larson Ministries seminars on exorcism in Phoenix. By 2001, he’d learned enough that Larson trusted him to perform his own exorcisms. He still takes two refresher courses a year, just to stay in shape and swap stories with fellow practitioners.
Vivian knows that most churches wouldn’t accept the idea of holding down a woman to save her soul. He knows that most don’t want to discuss exorcism at all.
“Kansas City is a preacher’s graveyard,” he says. “The ones that tell the truth have a real hard time of making it anywhere. A lot of pastors don’t want what I do in the pulpit because they’re afraid if people get saved, they’ll think they don’t need to come to church anymore. And when they stop coming, they stop donating money.”
The Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has one priest trained to do exorcisms, but a spokesman refuses to identify him.
“I have been explicitly told not to give out this man’s identity and information because of the large number of people who think they’re demonically possessed,” Monsignor Bradley Offutt tells The Pitch. “He’s a good man who wants to help, but if he gets 500 calls a week, he can’t begin to live and do his job.”
The Catholic Church is experiencing a renewed interest in exorcism. In February, The Washington Post reported that the Vatican and European clergy were supporting an attempt to build a center in Poland dedicated to exorcisms. This followed reports that an informal campaign to train more exorcists began under Pope John Paul II, when the Vatican formally updated the rite and publicly backed its legitimacy in 1999, and has continued under Pope Benedict XVI.
“In the vast, vast majority of cases, these people are suffering mental illness,” Offutt says of the troubled souls who seek a Catholic exorcism in Kansas City. “I can’t say over the phone, ‘Have you taken your medicine today?’ but I will ask if they’re under the care of a physician because we need to go that route first.”
Even if a caller is able to get a consultation with the exorcist, the church may demand further psychological and medical tests. If doctors find the exorcism candidate to be in good health, the church has additional benchmarks for possession, such as speaking in a dead language, demonstrating superhuman strength or performing impossible contortions.
“These things do happen, but it is extraordinarily rare to see a case of legitimate demonic possession,” Offutt says. “I’ve been a priest for 22 years. I can say it does happen, but I’ve never personally seen one.”
The Catholic review process can go on for months. Meanwhile, there’s been a surge in Pentecostals willing to face the devil.
“I used to get a few calls a month, mostly from people who weren’t Catholic,” Offutt says. “In the last few months, I haven’t had any. I have a feeling it’s because of people like this [Vivian]. People are stepping into the void.”
Vivian can handle the problem much more quickly, but he needs help.
On a day in early March, Vivian has rented out a conference room at a mall in Wichita.
He’s expecting to meet a small group of people who want to be trained to expel dark spirits. Six people are here now. One is Etta, who had a warlock problem until she met Vivian. (Vivian suspects that his spells were responsible for Etta’s recent fertility after years of failed attempts at conception. “Her son looks just like the warlock,” he says.) Among the three other women are a local preacher and a woman in a leopard-print blouse with a piled-up hairdo, who doesn’t speak during the class. There’s also a couple Vivian has met before, with concerns about what might be living in them: Mario is a one-time boxer who could have protected himself better (his right eye is dead and milky white after too many punches caused a detached retina, and his flattened nose curves lazily into a center dent); his girlfriend Linda’s mother won’t stop playing with tarot cards.
Vivian never charges for an exorcism, and he’s not charging anyone here to learn how to perform one. He lives off Social Security.
They’re sitting at three tables arranged in a horseshoe, leaving space for Vivian to work in the center of the room.
On a large television screen in the front of the room, Vivian plays videos of Larson expelling demons.
In one video, a Satanist throws up a devil’s-horn sign before Larson forces her to say she loves Jesus, then she acts like she has no idea how she got there. In another, a woman is identified as being possessed by a snake demon after flicking out her tongue like a bratty child.
There are specific steps when doing this work, and after 500 exorcisms, Vivian still won’t do an exorcism without a worksheet in front of him to make sure he doesn’t get lost. First, he has to take the case history so he knows how the devil got inside the person. Even an innocent person might have a great-uncle who performed a blood sacrifice and cursed the family. Then Vivian has to get the subject to renounce curses and sins. He cuts off witchcraft ties by using his Bible as a sword. Finally, Vivian tells the demon to come out and confront him so that he can make it admit it has no legal claim to be there and get it to leave.
Wanting the students to practice on him, Vivian pretends to be possessed.
Linda tries and fumbles through her lines, losing her place on the worksheet when Vivian’s demonic character challenges her. He’s a patient teacher, though.
“Just don’t get drawn into a conversation with it,” he tells her. “That’s the biggest mistake you can make.”
After Linda finishes, she asks if he’ll examine her. Two weeks ago, she admits, she went to see a fortune-teller. She knew it was a mistake, but she got a reading anyway. There are things she did when she was young that could be considered invitations, too. She had a bad cocaine habit at one point and spent some time in prison after she was caught transporting drugs.
Vivian is seated across from her with his hands on her legs. He’s staring into her face with an angry look.
“I can see it swimming around in there,” he says. “We can’t deal with it all today, but we can do some things now.”
He has her renounce curses and pledge herself to Jesus.
Around them, the others are holding up their hands, palms to heaven, muttering prayers that become indistinguishable as words overlap.
“Who are you?” Vivian asks. “Come up and face me! Come up and face me!”
Linda is silent.
Vivian makes her stand with him and motions for Mario to get behind her. Vivian’s prayers are gibberish now — “Jesus Christ shi tah! Rah be no! In Jesus’ name!”
He puts his hand on her head and tells the demons to leave. She starts to slide to the floor, but Mario catches her and sets her down gently.
Mario starts to say something, but Vivian spins around and slaps him across the face.
The boxer falls onto his back and stays there, still and silent, eyes shut.
Vivian shambles away, still speaking in tongues.
Five minutes later, the prayers have stopped, and both Mario and Linda are back in their seats. Vivian thanks everyone for coming and tells them that he’ll be back tomorrow for another session. Anybody who wants an extended deliverance should fill out a personal history for him, and he’ll study them tonight. Otherwise, that’s enough for one day.
As the class files out, Vivian says he didn’t expect things to go as far as they did.
“You talk to someone and you never know how these things are going to manifest,” he says with a laugh. After the woman in leopard print leaves, he whispers, “Did you get a weird vibe from her? I did. I think she was here to check out the opposition. She wasn’t here because she wants to get rid of spirits. We’ll see what happens, but I bet she won’t be back tomorrow. She already saw what she wanted.”
Linda and Mario thank him and hand him personal histories. They promise to return tomorrow.
“I love my mother, but she won’t stop messing with the fortune-telling, so I just can’t be around her anymore,” Linda says. “If I learn this, maybe I can do some good in my family.”
After they leave, Vivian confides that he isn’t sure what good it’ll do as long as Mario and Linda are living together out of wedlock.
“I can work on them, but they’re shacking up together, so they’ll still have problems,” he says. “I can do all you want me to, but you’ve got to get your life right first.”
The next day, a few more people come. (The woman in leopard print doesn’t return.) Vivian plans to make another trip to Wichita. He expects that after one more class, he’ll have a new team ready to work.
Before then, though, he has to deal with Max.
Vivian puts on a pair of reading glasses and starts to go through the answers on Max’s personal history.
“I almost forgot,” Max points to an unchecked box on the sheet. “How about that? I did it once, but it was a long time ago when I was young.”
“Oh, yeah. That counts.”
“Even one time?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry. We all have something.”
Vivian finishes reading. He sees some things he doesn’t like, but not too much. The yoga class Max attended might be trouble, and there’s a history of family discord that could have opened a door.
He’d planned to prepare Max with videos of Larson fighting demons, but his laptop DVD player doesn’t work. So he proceeds with the cross on his lap and a bottle of frankincense oil in hand.
Vivian follows the same script he did with Linda. First, there’s renouncing curses, then pledging Max’s life to God. He has Max read some Bible verses, then repeats the renunciations and pledges to God, along with forgiving everyone who’s ever done anything wrong to his family, including people he’s never met.
When the renunciations are finished and Vivian knows that whatever lives in Max has lost its legal right to a home, the real work can start.
He pulls his chair up to Max’s and leans into his face. He’s close now, staring into his eyes, looking for a sign of something inside.
“Come out! You come out and face the judgment now.”
Max shakes his head. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“You just need to get out of the way. You need to get out of its way for me to deal with it.”
Vivian orders the demon to come out.
Again, Max shakes his head. “I feel confused,” he says.
“Who am I talking to? Who’s in there?”
“Me,” Max says. “And I’m 4 years old.”
“What do you want to tell me?”
“I’m 4. I see my dad kissing a woman. She’s not my mother.”
“All right — right now I’m your father. You talk to me like I’m your father. Why were you spying on me?”
“I wasn’t. I just saw it and I felt bad.”
“You felt bad? Why, it was none of your business.”
“Because it hurt me and my mother.”
“I don’t care. I don’t love you.”
“I was wrong, and it hurt us.”
Vivian nods. “I’m proud of you, son. I shouldn’t have done that and I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
“Thank you. I love you, son.”
“I love you, too.”
“Can I hug you?”
Vivian holds him for less than a minute, but it seems longer. Max keeps his eyes closed all the way through it.
“That was good work, but there’s still something in there,” Vivian says when the two finally break. “I’m going to go over your history more, and I’ll call you. When you’re ready, we can work some more. Just know that this can take a long time, but if you keep working with me, we’ll get it out.”
“I’m just tired,” Max says. “I want to go to sleep.”
“That’s good. It means we’re getting something done. You’re going to have the best night’s rest tonight you’ve had in a long time.”
It’s been 90 minutes since Max parked in front of the house. Vivian walks him to the door. He tells Max that he’s meant to be a preacher someday.
Vivian watches Max walk to his car. Once he’s satisfied that Max is safe, he goes back to the living room and starts thinking about what to eat for dinner.
A few weeks later, Vivian hasn’t heard back from Max. His other former case, Katrina, is doing much better, though.
She has her daughter, Cheyenne, back from the foster family. The first week of April, they moved into an apartment for renters who qualify for low-income housing. Katrina works part time as a secretary, and so far she hasn’t had a recurrence of the problems that led her to Vivian. She says she can remember only bits and pieces of what it was like.
“I remember punching myself in the eye, I remember biting myself, but the rest isn’t very clear,” she says. “Nobody drives in front of my house anymore.”
Every morning she starts the day with a series of curse-breaking routines Vivian taught her. Then she takes her daughter to school and goes to her own job. They lead a quiet life.
“I do still take the bipolar meds,” she says. The Division of Social Services takes blood samples to make sure she stays on them. “I really don’t need them anymore. The problems I had, Brother Vivian solved. Who Jesus makes free is free indeed.”