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Demonic Possession in Crown Heights, Brooklyn

A pair of blood shot, hazy eyes stared coldly at Apostle Pauline McKnight. Pacing back and forth, McKnight prayed.

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Confronting the demon. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

Confronting the demon. Photo: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

A pair of blood shot, hazy eyes stared coldly at Apostle Pauline McKnight. Pacing back and forth, McKnight prayed. The blue turban on her head swayed to the movement of her legs, matching the color of the satin cloth that wrapped as a full length skirt. Her white shirt heaved with each mouthful of prayer.

Then suddenly, she towered her intimidating figure inches away from the eyes, lifted up her hands with passion, and yelled out, “In the name of Jesus, I command you to leave this girl alone!”

The eyes belonged to Whitney, 23, and maybe there were more eyes behind the veiled  eyes. Whitney gazed at McKnight without a single flinch. One second passes, then two, then five and ten. Thirty seconds passed. Whitney didn't blink. Not a wink. McKnight sat down with a look of frustration and pity across her face.

Possessed. Photo by Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

Possessed. Photo by Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

During a Monday evening service at God of Mercy Tabernacle of Hope Church in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Whitney had aimlessly entered with two toddlers and seated herself in the back of the sanctuary, a spotless and well-lit room with hardwood floors that could  barely contain 100 people. McKnight was preaching up front by the altar.

Whitney didn't say a word to anyone. None of the members had seen her before. At the end of service, McKnight announced, “There's a demon in the church!” and then addressed Whitney directly.

McKnight came from her parent church in Kingston, Jamaica, also named God of Mercy Tabernacle of Hope, as a missionary to open a New York City church six years ago. She says that her work as a pastor among Brooklyn immigrants often brings her into contact with people who are under demonic stress, sort of the definition of being a New Yorker.

Two thirds (69%) of people in the United States believe that angels and demons are active in the world, according to the Pew Forum United States Religious Landscape Survey conducted in 2007. 83% of African Americans have this conviction. About 40% of “the Nones” (those with no particular religion, including atheists and agnostics) also agree with this conviction.

Some ethnic groups have a different but similar framework for dealing with the world. Asian Buddhists (67%) believe in ancestral spirits as do 34% of Asian Hindus, according to a recent Pew Survey of Asian Americans. Many believe in malign spirits, gods and forces. For example, Hindus believe humans who commit grave wrongs will roam as evil spirits when they reborn, a process called karma.

The Jewish Talmud, the authoritative commentary on the Jewish scriptures, often mentions demons as does the Kabbalah. Recently, Hollywood spiced up its horror genre with The Possession, a story based on a Jewish story about a dybbuk (an evil spirit). Islam recognizes the presence of devils, called jinn, in the 72nd chapter of the Qur’an.

Protestant Christians prefer the phrase “casting out demons,” which is found in the Bible, while Roman Catholics have a team that does “exorcisms.”

Christians believe that demons are fallen angels who tempt people to evil doing. They're immortal, but not omnipotent. Their powers are limited and allowed by God. In the Gospels, Jesus’s confrontations with demonically possessed people is paired with healing the sick.

Movies like The Exorcist sensationalize demon possession. Authors such as Stephen King and Anne Rice love to write about skin hoppers and spiritual warfare. But popular culture aside, demon possession is not taken lightly by those who believe in the power of the devil.

The congregation stayed all night with the possessed. Photo illustration: Melissa Kimiadi/A Journey through NYC religions

“She smelled foul, like a cesspool,” McKnight said when I asked how she knew Whitney was possessed.

It wasn't just the stench that was off-putting, but Whitney's appearance too. It looked like she hadn't bathe in days. Dandruff covered her hairline, her kinky hair uncombed and disarrayed. She wore old sweat pants, a white t-shirt, and socks with no shoes. Her clothes had holes and erosion on the edges. A reddish-yellow film coated her eyes, which showed neither emotion nor expression. They were hollow, vacant and eerie, like an abandoned motel. She wasn't mute, but she spoke in a deep and guttural voice that referred to herself in third third person. Whitney told McKnight that she had walked from church to church in the area before settling into this one.

Whitney, her children and McKnight stayed overnight in extra cots available on the second floor of the church's building. The next  morning in the sanctuary a determined McKnight with four other church members held a prayer crusade against the demons to bring Whitney back to normal life.

“The other pastors will run from you, but I won't. They might be able to identify you, but they're afraid. I'm not afraid of you, fallen angel,” McKnight said, while eyeball to eyeball with Whitney. Like before, the girl didn't respond.


A contract with the Devil

Next round in fight with the demon. Photo: Christopher Smith/A Journey through NYC religions

The torment started long before. In 2011, the demon began to agonize Whitney by pulling her hair and choking her on her living room floor. For months, Whitney fought back and resisted. Then, it came into her dreams, haunting her even more. She couldn't take the abuse any longer and signed a contract with the Devil. She was possessed from that moment forward.

The spiritual entity through Whitney’s voice professed to McKnight that Whitney signed documents with the Devil in the beginning of April of this year. “The demon inside her is a scriptural demon, they're more knowledgeable on the scriptures,” McKnight said.

Members of the church were on their way to Whitney's home to look for evidence that might bring them closer to what the actual contract contained. McKnight said that she needed to see the contract Whitney made in order to know what exact measures she should take. In the meantime McKnight prayed and sang.

“They can't say Jesus' name while they're possessed. Demons can't worship. They'll start to cry out more and more,” she said. “This one is a contract, it might take fasting to get it out.”

McKnight oscillated between conversing with the demon and interacting with the church members. Sometimes she would outright argue with the demon.

“You're not killing her two children, I guarantee that,” McKnight stated regarding Whitney's children. “Once Christ allows them to birth, you have no right to kill them!”

On another occasion, the demon recounted that it brought Whitney into the church. “You didn't bring her here, Christ did, ”McKnight responded.

McKnight told the members that though Whitney was baptized, the demons continued to possess her body, a warning of what occurs when one's faith isn't strong enough.


Casting out demons as a blessed event

The members looked on with more joy than fear. Some took photos and videos, wanting to capture the moment of victory over Satan. They provided spiritual support by clapping when McKnight spoke the words of Christ about His love. And they sang along when she initiated “The Blood Will Never Lose its Power.”

The church door. Photo: Christopher Smith/A Journey through NYC religions

The church door. Photo: Christopher Smith/A Journey through NYC religions

“It reaches to the high-est mountain and it flows to the low-est valley,” they crooned while swaying side to side in their seats. “The blood that gives me strength from day to day, it will never lose its power...”

Whitney seemed oblivious to what was happening. She sat without a response. Her head cocked sideways. Her mouth slightly open. Her hands resting on her lap.

The song served as a reminder that over all the evil the goodness of Jesus Christ triumphs. Christ's blood symbolizes that his death on the cross means that a hatred and evil are nailed to Jesus and dies with Him. Christ’s resurrection from the dead signals that a relationship to God and love among humans will prevail over evil for those who follow Him. In the face of demons, McKnight’s invocation of the blood of Christ rouses the power of good in the war against evil.

“We have blood that was shed two thousand years ago!” McKnight exclaimed. She lifted up from her seat and walked towards Whitney. “The blood is our protection, the blood is our strength, and fire is our weapon to burn you up!”

Scatters of “Yes, God!” filled the room. McKnight doesn't take a moment to let the impact of her words seep away, she continued,

“All that you say, it means nothing to me because I know the blood prevails over you,” she said. “I stand with you until you let her go.”

It proceeded like this for hours, with McKnight pacing up and down the wooden floorboard of the sanctuary while talking out Godly words, with the members watching and praising God with songs of jubilation while Whitney continued to stare off into space.

I asked McKnight what would happen when the ordeal was over. The apostle predicted that when the demons leave the body, the person will “vomit and cough up slime.”

She encouraged us to document the event because “many young people are possessed. Unless people come forward and document, no one will know [this is happening].”

McKnight is currently “training her warriors” to help cast out demons.


The aftermath

That same evening, Whitney “screamed like an animal.” She vomited blood and foamed at the mouth, recalled McKnight over the phone when I called to follow up.

She believed that seven demons inhabited Whitney's body, each from seven continents of the world. The first one came out the evening we were there and the rest at various times of the week. The strongest one identified itself as Delilah.

But the troubles that overwhelmed Whitney seemed to be receding.

Pauline McKnight

Whitney could speak God's name, read the Bible, participate in devotional service, and take care of her children. It was an amazing recovery, but the apostle cautioned against a too hasty optimism.

McKnight said she was still watching Whitney. “I want to make sure she can receive the Holy Ghost, I want to make sure she's strong and can feel the holy word. If not, it can reenter her,” the apostle observed.

By “receiving the Holy Ghost,” McKnight means obtaining the spirit of God so that no other evils can live inside Whitney's body. Reception of the Holy Ghost means obtaining the power to change as a person here on earth and enter heaven in the after-life. The holy word is the Bible as it sinks into one’s thought processes and habits so that one’s mind and way of life remains clear and wholesome.

When Whitney snapped out of it and was no longer possessed, she was able to return to the comforts of her mother. McKnight followed up with Whitney's mother by phone. Whitney's mother revealed that her daughter underwent an ancestral curse that ran in the family back in Jamaica.

McKnight observed that beliefs in ancestral curses are rooted in voodoo and superstition rather than Christian teaching. However, McKnight and the mother agreed that once done that the maledictions of various sorts are passed down from generation to generation. For example, sin that was brought by mental illness or alcoholism transfers from parent to child. Demons can enter into the mix.

In her daughter’s case, the mother claimed that the demonic possession targeted past members in the family. McKnight and the mother agreed that perhaps the demon watched Whitney for years before the opportunity for possession occurred last spring.

I spoke to Whitney on the phone and asked how she was doing. “It was scary, I didn't know what was going on. I couldn't sleep, I felt something heavy and I couldn't move,” she said. Whitney and her mother now attend Victory Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church in Harlem, Manhattan.

During conversation, her voice trailed off and began to get slow and guttural again. She'd pause unexpectedly in mid-sentence. All of a sudden, I understood why McKnight still watched over her.


A mix of symptoms of demonic possession and mental illness

Christian psychologists and psychiatrists caution that it is possible that what seems to be demon possession might be a case of mental illness brought on by a trauma, lack of sleep or something else. Catatonia, a neurogenic disorder, might explain Whitney's condition of motor immobility and stupo


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In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, catatonia is often associated with schizophrenia, which would

account for Whitney's experience as paranoid delusions and hallucinations. Whitney's speech in third person might also be explained by multiple personality disorder.

McKnight is convinced otherwise and provided culturally-sensitive care to a woman in trouble. The love and rituals of the church produced an effective healing at least in the short term.

“Other pastors need to see this. Jesus has shown us that demons will come up. We are the shepherds; we have to know the tragedy. If they [pastors] are not strong enough, they have to seek help,” she said firmly.

She reflected that another demon came the night before. A woman walked into her church and she believed she was pregnant. She had the symptoms of pregnancy, like morning sickness and a bulging stomach, but the sonogram didn't show anything growing inside her.

“The doctors were confused. She was bleeding, yet no baby,” McKnight said. “The church has to deal with these things. I told her to come back Wednesday because I was tired, but I prayed for her.”

The Altar. Photo: Christopher Smith/A Journey through NYC religions

The Altar. Photo: Christopher Smith/A Journey through NYC religions

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