This piece was published in The Big Issue in October 2013.
There are signs and wonders in the world. The jaded souls of the godless might find it hard to swallow but signs and wonders still abound. You just need to know where to look. I am reliably informed – by a fellow fence-sitting agnostic – that the Holy Spirit might just have turned up in the small Welsh town of Cwmbran.
Mock ye not. Something extraordinary has been happening here this summer. Here, five miles off the M4, in a dusty industrial estate behind a B&Q warehouse, believers and semi-believers from the British Isles and beyond have flocked in search of salvation.
The Victory Church, launched three years ago by a group of former drug addicts and ex-offenders, is hosting a full-blown Pentecostal revival, packing hundreds into a large grey shed every night. There are reports of faith healing and walking sticks thrown away. They call it “the Welsh Outpouring”.
Has God laid his hand upon south Wales? The business of miracles belongs to the Bible, surely, back when bearded prophets roamed the Middle East in search of milk and honey. A different time. Plenty of recovering Anglicans will testify to the lifeless air of the 21st century Sunday service. God left the building long ago. But could there yet be a few minor miracles knocking about, right here in tired old secular Britain?
When I arrive on a warm Wednesday night, the queue is already building: around 200 eager bodies. People from surrounding towns are pouring out of church minivans. One woman lifts her hands to the sky: “Oh thank you Jesus, thank you for bringing us to Cwmbran.” There are a few folk on crutches, one in a wheelchair.
Inside, gentle swaying has already begun. The band is impressive: loud, intense, melodic, if slightly mawkish (God does have a few good tunes); each member moved to close their eyes as they play. There are a lot of closed eyes, in fact. A smattering of hallelujahs. So far, so good. Nothing I haven’t seen or heard before.
But as the songs gather force, something does begin to happen, some extra swell in the air. Before long the crowd is swaying in the spirit, crying in the spirit, laughing in the spirit. Some take to the floor, slain for the Lord. There is the strange shabba-labba-kaz-ala of the tongue talkers. All this before the sermon has even begun.
I don’t know what to make of it. When I meet Pastor Andrew Parsons the next day (he also acts as the CEO of the Victory Outreach charity which cares for addicts in rehab accommodation), he seems a little puzzled himself. He says the team has been “astounded” by the success of the revival. Some nights, drenched in the spirit, they’ve kept at it until midnight.
“We do get a lot of people coming with no faith,” he says. “One chap like that, the power of the spirit visibly touched him, he fell to the floor. He said it felt like electricity. It was only later on he came to us and said, ‘How do I get to know this Jesus?’ Another big guy said to me afterwards, ‘What the eff was that? Really, what was that?’”
A revival doesn’t happen entirely by accident. This one started on April 10, 2013, when a wheelchair-bound man from Cwmbran called Paul Haynes got up from his wheelchair and walked again. In fact, he ran. Ran right round the 50 or so people gathered for a regular Wednesday church prayer meeting.
“I watched him pick the wheelchair up like the Incredible Hulk,” says Parsons. “People were speechless at first – they didn’t know what to do. Then people were going… off the charts.
“The presence of God was tangible. It was like the heavens had been pulled back. People could feel it. We discussed it, and asked each other, ‘Well, what do we do now?’ We put on another meeting the very next night. Some people even came the next morning to be prayed for. And later that night 500 people came. That’s how it started.
“We’ve had people say they don’t need their glasses anymore. People saying they’re free of blood disorders, arthritis, bone diseases. We don’t say stop your medication. We’re the first to say, ‘See your GP, your doctor will verify if there’s a difference in your condition’. Now, a doctor can’t verify a miracle but he can tell you if you’re healthy or not.”
Frustratingly, the once wheelchair-bound Paul is not around to talk about his condition. I’m told only that he suffered from “spinal injuries” before his healing.
It’s impossible for a rational non-believer, however open-minded, to accept such a transformation unverified. Parsons tells me that Paul’s unavailability is a matter of “pastoral care”, since he wants to carry on his new beginning in peace.
There is a video of the big evening in April, however. And there he is. A little guy in a grey suit who gets up and jogs slowly round the room. Curious.
We might explain away these oddities as the power of positive thinking, an almighty buzz inspiring small improvements in conditions less awful than they seemed. There are other ways, however, in which the subtle mystery of faith makes a more discernible impact.
I meet Trudy Makepeace, a former heroin addict and prostitute, who now manages the women’s project at Victory Outreach in Cwmbran. Until 2006, she had been turning tricks on the streets of Bristol, for ever searching for the next big high. She finally collapsed at the door of a city convent, where the nuns knew a place in Wales achieving great results in rehabilitation.
“I had tried over 30 times to get clean,” she recalls, now serenely calm and cheerful. “I had tried everything – subutex, lofexidine, methadone, dyhidricodeine, travelling abroad, locking myself away. Nothing worked. I was tired and had lost the fight and will to change.
It was coming to Christ that truly changed me. My desire to use had been taken away – that was the miracle for me. I felt free. From that day to this I have never desired to pick up a needle or a crack pipe.”
In her first month at Cwmbran, Trudy remained torn. It was only when she heard a voice in her head say “you’re mine” while she was out looking for drugs (“It was almost like the Holy Spirit had arrested me”) that she returned to her room and asked for forgiveness. “I got on my knees and prayed. I felt an enormous sense of belonging and peace… I surrendered.”
Lee Garland has a similar tale. The 35-year-old Brummie came to Cwmbran in 2009 after a decade of drug addition and prison stints. He shows me the long scar on his arm, a memento of the time he was “thieving” while high and got hooked upon a metal security fence.
“When I came here it was hard work to begin with, no doubt,” he recalls. “I looked at a picture of myself from that time. No teeth. Eight stone. I looked… grey. Some of the lads called me Gollum.”
Today Lee looks healthy, tanned and relaxed. He got married in March this year (to a schoolteacher who plays in the church band) and has his own building maintenance business. Lee discovered his practical skills while helping revamp the church building. Victory Outreach paid for driving lessons and college courses.
“This was a special place for me but I wasn’t easily convinced, at first, about faith. When I had my doubts they never judged. I think in talking it through, I began to come round. Some of the stuff I’d done in my life, I thought I’d be going straight to hell. But at church one Sunday evening, something snapped, something sunk in. I realised there were no categories to sin – we’re all sinners. I knew I could be forgiven.”
The Pentecostal experience in Wales is not so far removed from things happening elsewhere. Dwindling Church of England numbers make it difficult to argue the case for a true Christian revival, but there is a new kind of zeal stirring among believers.
African church traditions – largely Pentecostal and always lively – now play a big role in the religious life of London. And spurred on by the success of new, non-denominational, US-style outfits opening across the country, the evangelical wing of the Church of England is gaining ground over the dry Anglo-Catholic strain. The influential Holy Trinty Brompton – birthplace of the Alpha course – has “planted” its own charismatic pastoral teams in struggling London parishes.
It may be light on theology, this stuff, and heavy on praise worship (“better felt than telt”, as they say) but there is little point denying the dynamism of such ardent faith. Active Christians make active churches – churches often doing big things in their community. With IKEA and Premier League football to compete with on a Sunday, the meekly traditional one-day-a-week congregations would not seem to have a vibrant future.
Or perhaps Christianity staggers half-heartedly on, neither revived nor dying. There was an “awakening” more than 100 years ago, after all, during the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905 (when 100,000 converts were said to be won). Although the last outpouring influenced the worldwide Pentecostal movement, it did not stop the church being gradually pushed off to one side of national life.
When I return to Victory Church for a second night, there are fewer people, perhaps only 100 or so. The band is a little quieter, the preacher a little more subdued. Has the magic gone missing? A night off for the Spirit?
I look over to the side of the church where some of the new Victory Outreach addicts stand: tough-looking guys with tattoos and scars. Some of them have eyes shut tight and hands clenched together, trying to will themselves into the ecstasy of the born again around them.
I leave early, amazed most of all by the power of music. The right chord-changes and the desperate need to find a higher power can do strange and sometimes wonderful things.