One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests
Christopher Fogle, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, loved to fish. It was a break from his fast-paced, 25-year career with the Perkins Restaurant chain.
But when Fogle got severe cancer, his relaxing fishing trips, which he sometimes took with his children, ended. It was a devastating blow for the active 45-year-old. But for Todd Bentley, television preacher and self-proclaimed healer, the cancer represented an opportunity to "proclaim the glory of God."
Indeed, last year Bentley began his "Lakeland Outpouring," a months-long series of "healing services" that Bentley and his Fresh Fire ministry started April 2 and ended under a cloud of controversy Aug. 11 ("Same old scam?," June 28, 2008). In between, the meetings attracted hundreds of thousands of people to a huge tent in Lakeland, Fla.
At the height of what many called a revival, WORLD asked Bentley to talk about the healings, like Fogle's, and asked for a list of people who had been healed at the services. His associates told me Bentley was out of the country and a list could not be produced. But six weeks and more than a dozen requests later, the ministry eventually sent a list of 13 names. Fogle was No. 12 on the list, along with this note: "Healed through the Outpouring and is back to fishing."
That was on Aug. 8, 2008. There was just one problem. Two weeks earlier, on July 22, Christopher A. Fogle-according to his obituary in the Keokuk (Iowa) Daily Gate City, "left this life . . . after a courageous battle with cancer."
A review of the list nearly one year later reveals that Fogle is not the only person "healed" who is now dead. When I called Phyllis Mills, of Trinity, N.C., on April 22, to hear the testimony of her healing, a polite family member said, "Phyllis passed away a few days ago. In fact, we're on our way to her funeral now."
Mills, 66 at the time of her death, had lung cancer and was undergoing aggressive treatments when she was, according to the list, "healed at the revival." Mills "was taking radiation, but was sent home," according to notes on Bentley's list, with "no trace of cancer in her body."
Another problem with Bentley's list is that some of the healings, even if legitimate, didn't happen at Bentley's services. Gaila Smith, 53, of Yerington, Nev., was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, at age 43, and had what she called a "total mastectomy" at that time. But the cancer had spread to her liver. Over the next decade she endured more rounds of chemotherapy, the latest one ending in December. She eventually attended a women's conference, where "God touched me," she said. She says she was healed at the women's conference, but when she attended Bentley's meetings in Lakeland, they asked, "If you had experienced a miraculous healing, come forward."
Smith went forward and told her story, and she ended up on Bentley's list, with this note: "Healed of breast cancer that had spread to liver. Totally healed in Florida, all scans are now clear."
Not only did any healing take place elsewhere, Smith now admits that the scans are not now clear. "The doctors tell me that my numbers are going up," said Smith, who told me that she, too, had a healing ministry. "But we don't buy into that. That's a fact, but it's not the truth. The truth is that I've been healed."
Not all of the healings claimed by Bentley were from life-threatening illnesses. Leigh Ann Ansley, 43, is a married mother of two from Birmingham, Ala. The list says she was "healed of severe knee damage from an accident. Has had four knee surgeries in the past, but still had pain. Healed in the worship service and even her knee scar is disappearing. Also healed of migraines."
When contacted, Ansley confirmed that she had attended the Lakeland Outpouring for about a week, and she confirmed that she did ask for prayer for an old skiing accident. She said that after the prayers the knee "was not as stiff" as it had been. As for the migraines: "I still have migraines," she said.
Keith Tuplin was one of only two men on Bentley's list. Tuplin pastors a "home church" in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and said he was steadfast in his belief that God had used Bentley to heal him of flat feet. "I had pain in my feet for many years," he said. In fact, Bentley's list said the 57-year-old had suffered through "40 years of flat-footedness." Tuplin said the "pain instantly disappeared" after a "word of wisdom" at one of the Lakeland Outpouring services. Was there a physical change in his feet, or could his doctors see any change in them? "No," Tuplin answered. "I can't see any change in shape. I just feel much better. And I'm not the kind of guy who goes to a doctor much."
The Outpouring eventually ended in scandal, with Bentley admitting to an inappropriate relationship with an employee and to alcohol abuse.
Regarding Bentley's fall from ministry, Tuplin said, "God uses who He chooses to use. God used Todd to heal me." Nonetheless, Tuplin admits that he is concerned to see Bentley back in ministry now. "What he did is very hard to justify, restoration or not."
Tuplin and Gaila Smith are not the only two who claim to be healers themselves. Gina Weatherby, a 48-year-old personal trainer from San Angelo, Texas, says she was healed from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine-this time at a women's conference where Bentley "was ministering" in February 2008. She said that her pain has "gone away" and that she now is involved in healing ministry. How does Weatherby feel about Bentley's fall? "As a minister myself, it makes me very humble. It's a reminder that anyone can get caught up. Especially when God is using you, it's hard not to get caught up in it and believe you're special."
So do the stories prove that Todd Bentley is either a healer or a fake? Does it mean anything that less than a year after the conclusion of the Outpouring two people on a list of 13 "healings"-a list provided by the ministry itself-are dead, and most of the rest don't stand up to questions?
Michael Brown says it does matter. Brown is the author of Israel's Divine Healer (Zondervan, 1995), considered one of the definitive examinations of how healing takes place in Scripture. He personally believes in supernatural healing, but he also says a healthy skepticism about most healing stories is a sign of wisdom and discernment.
Brown said the fact that this list was presumably the best Bentley's ministry had to offer an appropriately skeptical public is a cause for concern. "If you're going to make claims of healing on a very public, even international, stage, you'd better have your documentation in place," Brown said.
"God is sovereign," Brown said. "He can and does heal. But our experiences should not shape our theology. Instead, our theology should be the lens through which we evaluate our experiences. And our theology should be based on Scripture."
Bentley's stage was and continues to be huge. Supporters claim hundreds of thousands of people attended the Lakeland meetings, and Bentley healed hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
Many still stand behind Bentley. Lynn Breidenbach, who served as a spokesperson for Bentley during much of the Outpouring, refused to talk with WORLD for this story, but she now has a spokesperson of her own, Permelia LaLonde. LaLonde said, "We don't regret our time there at all. We saw many miracle signs and wonders. The Lord knew what was going to happen, but he chose Todd anyway. And there are still fires burning all over the world. How can you argue with that?"
After Bentley stopped leading the Lakeland meetings, he announced that he and his wife Shonnah had separated. At that time, the board of Fresh Fire announced that he had entered an "inappropriate relationship" with a "female member of his staff" and that he would "refrain from all public ministry" until he had received counseling.
In November, the Fresh Fire board said that Bentley was "not submitting" to the counseling and restoration process and that he was guilty of adultery. Bentley relocated to Ft. Mill, S.C., where according to statements he is undergoing a "restoration process" under the direction of controversial charismatic ministry leader Rick Joyner. On March 9, 2009, Rick Joyner announced that Todd had remarried-to the same "former employee" with whom he had had the inappropriate relationship.
Bentley has refused media inquiries, and Joyner did not return phone calls for this story. But in a statement Joyner admitted that Bentley's remarriage was "wrong and premature," but he said that Bentley's restoration process would continue.