Carolina Miracle Shack

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h=”200″ height=”561″ class=”alignright size-full wp-image-111″ />One of Pat Robertson’s best late-night TV tricks happens when he holds hands with two prayer partners and squinches his eyes shut so tight that his massive forehead invades the already small area given for his facial features, and his pointy ears perk up out of his thin gray hair. He may look like an encephalitic elf, but there’s no denying that this man is praying. He’s praying hard! When you see the blood vessels wiggle like worms in his temples and his lips start twitching and his tongue flicking his even-edged little teeth like it wants to get out, you just want to say, “Easy now, Pat.” A man of the cloth ought to know that you can’t rush a miracle.

But he will try. Lord, he’ll try. When he prays like that it’s not just for the hell of it, it’s for a miracle. If you have any doubt that miracles can happen, he’ll show you right on television. The Lord gives him the gift of sight to look into our hearts and under our skin: “Lord there’s a woman out there with a broken right hip that’s hurting her” — (Pat sees it.) — “and we need you to heal that for her. Now there’s a, a, someone’s gotta terrible rash on her thighs” — (Pat sees it.) — “it’s causing her a lot of pain and Lord we know you can make that rash disappear. Nothing’s too hard for you, Oh Lord, nothing is impossible, you can heal that man that’s out there that has some kind of growth on, what’s that, looks like a growth on his prostate” — (Pat sees it.) — “Lord heal that, will you?”

Pat has a lot of backwards notions and ugly ideas, but he’s right about a few things. There is a woman out there with her hip broke, there’s no doubt a woman with a rash, and it’s likely that someone, somewhere, has a tumor on his prostate. But heck, I could have told you that, and I’m not even praying. Thing is, when Pat experiences visions of other people’s rashes, it’s supposed to look like a miracle. And to a lot of people it does. Maybe that’s because not too many folks know what a real miracle looks like. I don’t myself, but it’s not for lack of looking.

There was a man waiting for us in the parking lot of the only store off of exit 229, I-85, just north of Henderson, North Carolina. How he knew we were coming I can’t guess; he must have had some kind of tripwire strung to the hand-painted sign out on the highway that read, “MiRAcle this Exit,” because he was standing there when we rolled into the lot and when I opened the car door he said, “You here to see it?”

“I am,” I said, and he pointed. His hand was a curled claw of fingers melted together and twisted, scabby stumps where other fingers had once been. I followed his direction and saw a little white shack with a messy script scrawled all over it in red paint: “Its here its here Its here.”

Or, at least it was. The miracle itself had long since been carried away on a breeze. Ten years ago, Clawhands said, a hitchhiker was walking down the road wondering where to go when he noticed some clouds “shaped unusual. He stares at ’em and he sees they’s letters. ‘Now there’s an E,’ the fella says, ‘an S, a U and another S.'”

“Well,” said Clawhands, fixing a gaze on me through amber-tinted eyeglasses, “this fella thinks, ‘That ain’t much. ESUS don’t even spell a real word.’ But then right out of the blue what do you think floats along?” The old man smiled through his beard. He hooked his left arm up in the air so that his middle and index fingers — scarred into one red, hard, fleshy hook — hung down into the shape of a J. “That’s right,” he said. “JESUS.”

He held his arm in the air as if to cradle the Lord in the crook of his deformed hand.

“And that shack there marks the spot?” I said.

“Nosir,” said Clawhands. “He seen this up the road. He just rented that little place from me this past November so’s he could sell pictures of the miracle and other things.”

I wanted to know why he’d waited ten years to share the miracle.

“Can’t say why,” said Clawhands. “He settled in Henderson and last year his wife died and he figured he’d do something with the money he got. Something for everyone so they can all see the miracle. He’s got pictures in there.” Clawhands smiled again. “Course ain’t nobody ever gonna buy ’em. He ain’t never there to sell ’em and when he is he wants three hundred dollar for what ain’t nothing but a picture of a miracle.”

Everybody knows you don’t pay for miracles, you pray for them.

“You can’t force no miracle,” the Reverend James E. Pettaway told us when we stopped for gas a few miles down the road. “The Holy Spirit move when He want to, and He got right of way.”

Reverend Pettaway was pastor of the Jacob’s Well Outreach Ministries, a tiny church raised up in the shell of an old gas station. “You can still fill up,” Reverend Pettaway said, “but it ain’t gas we got to sell.”

As a matter of fact he wasn’t there to sell anything, nor to save anybody; he was just in on a Tuesday afternoon doing a little neatening up around the place. Jacob’s Well was the first church Pettaway could call his own and even if wasn’t anything but an old gas station he loved it for the power he knew it held. Miracles had happened right there, he said, the spirit had moved through him. People had been healed, cancers cast out and the lust for liquor banished. Even H.I.V. had melted into nothing under the warmth of God’s love as conducted through the Reverend Pettaway’s humble hands.

They were well-shaped, squared hands, light brown with black freckles. He held them belly-level while he spoke. He wasn’t one of those holiness preachers always waving their hands in the air like they’re at a football game; he was a modest man with a quiet voice. He seemed to catch his words as he spoke them and mold them into their intended meanings. Between his mouth and his fingertips was a system of checks and balances: the tongue, the fingertips, and of course, the Holy Ghost.

“Holy Ghost goes where He wants to, does what He need to,” Reverend Pettaway said. “We can’t bring Him on, but we can be ready when He get here.

“It’s like a woman,” he explained, shaping his hands as if holding his lady’s hips for a slow dance. “The way she gotta spread for the man.” His hands married at the heel and fanned out into a V. “She gotta open up and receive him. If the time’s right, conception gonna take place. But if it ain’t, it ain’t.” He clapped his hands together then leveled them out like he was smoothing a bed. “‘Barren’ — what’s the word mean? It means ‘without.’ Without faith, you can stroke all you want but nothing gonna come.”

He dropped one hand and held the other out toward us. “Like that, see, is a miracle. If it’s not the right time, you won’t heal. If the Holy Ghost is not flowing, you just pressing flesh. It’s all about timing. Everything is about timing, just like Ecclesiastes says.”

If you don’t have timing, he went on, making rules about how to say Jesus or how many times to say it or how hard to pray it won’t make a bit of difference. “You can pray, but without timing you just beating the air. These folks who make a big show of it, trying to make the Spirit into a spectacle. That ain’t the Holy Ghost.” He held out a palm in caution. “That’s just some Sunday thang.”

We thanked Reverend Pettaway and said goodbye. We hadn’t filled up at his gas station, but we weren’t driving on fumes, either. Although we’d witnessed no miracles, we now knew what the secret to seeing one was: Timing. With Reverend Pettaway’s message in mind and thinking that since it was after lunch the hitchhiker might have returned to sell some pictures, we drove back up to the miracle shack, hoping we’d get a peek at that white fluffy scripture.

But when we got there even Clawhands was gone, and the shack was still closed. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).