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Robert Vujasinovic was a wide-eyed 20-year-old when he traveled from Reno to Redding to attend his first service at Bethel in 2002. The two girls writhing on the floor speaking in tongues during the ceremony did not dissuade the young skate punk from enrolling in the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry.
Vujasinovic would remain at the school for the next three years, studying – among other signs and wonders – the tactics and techniques of faith healing. He had a flare for it. Bethel leadership, from head apostle Bill Johnson and anointed prophet Kris Vallotton on down, encouraged the young would-be prophet. He was “on fire” with the holy spirit.
Now, years after walking away from the church, Vujasinovic questions if any of the healings he performed and witnessed at Bethel were real.
The 37-year-old former BSSM student has returned to Reno from a spiritual quest that took him from Bethel to the east coast and back to the Biggest Little City. He’s still a Christian—barely—and now he’s sharing his experience at the BSSM on the private Facebook page “Investigating Bethel,” in a weekly Sunday installment, “Confessions From A Former Bethelite.”
(Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Facebook group, “Investigating Bethel.” The membership shares a concern about the growing economic and political power of the multi-million-dollar megachurch in our midst and encourages like-minded individuals to join the group.)
In his first installment of “Confessions,” Vujasinovic recounts how as a young adult with a love for skateboarding but no real prospects, he was presented with a choice: He could continue skating with his hard-partying buddies, or he could skate with the clean-living Christian kids.
He chose the latter and soon learned about this crazy church, Bethel, in Redding.
A refugee from the Yugoslavian civil war who immigrated to the United States at age 5, Vujasinovic had no previous religious background, Christian or otherwise, before signing up for the BSSM at the then-cost of $2250 per semester.
As far as the two girls squirming on the floor speaking in tongues, he told himself, “Whatever this is, it must be better for me than doing drugs with my old friends. That’s how I set myself up for indoctrination.”
Last week via telephone from Reno, Vujasinovic explained to me how the BSSM leadership immediately pegged him as a rebel because of his skate-punk attire and attitude.
“God likes you, you’re wild and outside of the box,” the leadership told him.
In retrospect, he now knows that’s not quite the truth. Rebelliousness and outside-the-box thinking aren’t necessarily welcome at Bethel. The church’s quasi-therapeutic arm, Sozos, is specifically designed to root out the source of your problem, usually located in some childhood incident you’ve blocked out.
“The first year, you’re getting healed,” he said. “They make it quite clear that who you are now isn’t going to cut it. They’re open about it. ‘We’re going to dismantle everything you are and build you back up.’”
Toward that end, Vujasinovic attended seven Sozos sessions during his first year at the BSSM. He said these sessions used legitimate therapeutic techniques to get at underlying psychological problems, but were usually conducted by “someone who’d had a class, not a professional therapist with a degree.”
Vujasinovic admits he went along willingly with the program. At the time, he desperately wanted to change his life and the BSSM seemed to be just the ticket. It was still early days at the school, which opened in 1998, with class sizes just a fraction of the 2500 students who attend today. They were a small, close-knit group, bound by a covenant with God as perceived by Bethel.
“There were just 100 people in the class and nobody had any money,” he said. “So you ended up doing yard work for the Johnsons and the Vallottons.”
As a risk-taking skateboarder, Vujasinovic was well-suited for one core concept of BSSM’s curriculum: “Faith is spelled R-I-S-K.” In his case, the risk often entailed going out into the streets of Redding in groups of two or three and approaching total strangers with offers to heal and pray for them.
Vujasinovic enjoyed the work and soon developed a reputation as a “prophetic healer” among his classmates. Although the group was close, competition was intense as students raced to have the next great spiritual revelation that caught the eye of the leadership—a miracle that could perhaps lead to a position on the staff of the rapidly expanding church.
In the first installment of his “Confessions,” he likens the struggle to swimming toward a long-distant goal you’ll never reach unless you focus all of your attention on it, ignoring any warning signs that pop-up in your peripheral vision, because you’ll drown if you don’t. In other words, the same as any other post-secondary institution, albeit with profoundly unusual subject material.
According to Vujasinovic, the Bethel management is aware that the students roaming around Redding trying to lay their hands on everyone look a little strange. To break the ice, he was instructed to knock on doors and offer to do chores. Rake the lawn, sweep the floors, clean the kitchen. Offers to heal someone right off the bat often lead to immediate rejection.
“But offer to take the trash out, and they’ll let you in their homes,” he said. “I always wanted to do chores, acts of service were my thing.”
For him, the spiritual pay-off from acts of service was its own reward. Once his crew encountered a single mother with several kids and her significant other living in a decrepit apartment. The couple couldn’t search for work because they couldn’t afford childcare.
“We offered to babysit her kids for a week around our school hours,” he said. “They ended up getting jobs and moving to a better place.”
He also practiced the faith-healing techniques he learned at the BSSM on people who were willing to participate. At the time, he was convinced that supernatural healing was actually occurring in most cases.
“It was very hard to tell,” he said. “At the time I thought things were happening.”
He’s since come to learn that for three years, he was practicing many of the shopworn practices of the faith-healer’s handbook, starting with the leg-growing gag. All it takes is a little misdirection to convince the person their legs are now exactly even and healed.
“It’s an illusion; the legs growing,” he said. “It’s the easiest trick to perform.”
At the BSSM, it was one of the first tricks students learned in Vujasinovik’s time there. Students learned the tricks by mimicking older students or Bethel staff. But Vujasinovik was around long enough to see the results didn’t usually last, and it didn’t sit well with him that Bill Johnson and the rest of the leadership attributed failed healing to a lack of faith on behalf of the un-healed.
He’d run smack up against what many Christian theologians consider the gaping hole in Bethel lead pastor Bill Johnson’s faith-healing prosperity gospel: If everything God does is good, how do we account for suffering?
All the Sozos sessions Vujasinovic attended failed to tamp down such doubts Even as the goal he’d been swimming toward appeared to be within his grasp, he began noticing the objects in his peripheral vision.
There was a fellow student, a young paraplegic woman confined to a wheelchair. For months the students prayed for her to walk again, to the point where she was convinced her inoperable spinal chord injury would be miraculously repaired. Numerous times she took the risk that God had healed her paralysis and rose out of her chair, failing every time to take even a single step on her own power.
Vujasinovic found himself growing increasingly disturbed that Bethel’s leadership refused to intervene and end what he perceived as an obvious cruelty. Yet he felt helpless to respond due to the “culture of honor” cultivated at Bethel that prohibited students from criticizing the leadership and even fellow students who made fantastical claims of healing and other supernatural wonders.
Vujasinovic recalls just such an incident in his second installment of “Confessions,” published this past Sunday on the “Investigating Bethel” Facebook page.
One skill he learned at the BSSM was how to identify a mark, someone who might be susceptible to faith-healing, through observing their behavior, manner of dress and other visual and audible cues. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.
On this particular occasion, he and his crew were tasked with “owning” the Shasta View neighborhood, and while driving around, spotted an elderly man working on his lawn. Vujasinovik quickly surmised the elderly gentleman probably had an elderly wife, and due to their age, both of them probably had various physical ailments.
In what is know as a “word of God” prophesy, Vujasinovic declared he’d heard the word that an elderly woman was inside the house and in need of healing. Her husband didn’t buy it and shooed them off.
Nevertheless, one member of the crew later began claiming the elderly woman had been completely healed by the young evangelicals. Vujasinovic knew the story was false, and when questioned by the leadership about the event, told them so.
They ignored him and listed the phony healing testimony in the next Sunday’s service.
“Testimony was never researched,” he told me, noting that it is to BSSM students’ advantage to manufacture events. “Why would you tell a story where nothing happens?”
On another occasion, Vujasinovic said Bethel’s leadership approached him about healing a woman who was scheduled for a radical mastectomy the next morning. He asked if the woman would be tested again after he performed the healing, and if the surgery would be postponed if she was shown to be in remission. The leadership said no. He refused to do the healing.
“Praying for people who have cancer, they say they went into remission, but you have no way to prove it,” he said. “You’re constantly trusting people you don’t know with information that can’t be verified.”
Another item that popped up in his peripheral vision was politics. Vujasinovic considers himself a moderate liberal, a position that hasn’t changed much since he was a rebellious young adult. While it was clear to him that the majority of Bethel’s congregation was conservative Republican, politics weren’t explicitly on the menu—at first.
Then Lou Engle, the charismatic evangelical pastor well known nationally for his fierce anti-abortion stance, paid a visit to Bethel, instructing the flock to never vote for a pro-choice politician, no matter what. Later, Rick Joyner, the charismatic evangelical pastor best known for his hatred of the LGBTQ community, came through, advising the congregation that California was doomed thanks to the state’s “homosexual agenda.”
At the time, Vujasinovic said Bethel lead pastor Bill Johnson pushed back against Joyner. “He opposed God saying anything that was negative,” Vujasinovic said.
But the truth was, it was impossible to be openly gay at Bethel, then or now. During the three years he attended, when class sizes were 100 to 125 students, he estimates a half-dozen young adult gay students dropped out each year, after realizing they were not wanted at Bethel.
Bethel’s public stand in favor of conversion therapy earlier this year did not escape Vujasinovic’s notice. “Bill Johnson now says the same things about homosexuals he once chewed out Rick Joyner for.”
All of the above incidents represented lines crossed for Vujasinovic, pangs of the conscience, but they weren’t enough to cause him to give up the sense of faith and community he’d found at Bethel. He’d spent hours with his classmates getting “drunk in the spirit,” a practice where students get so hyped up on the holy ghost, they behave as if they were inebriated. He’d healed dozens of people. He still believed he was prophetically destined to serve God on Bethel’s terms.
In 2004, he met the woman who would become his wife. She was a member of another local church, one that was profoundly against the supernatural shenanigans going on at Bethel. Nevertheless, they attended Bethel’s pre-marriage class together and were eventually wed at Bethel.
But by the time he completed his third year at the BSSM in 2006, something had changed for Vujasinovic. After all the lines that had been crossed, the lying about prophetic healings, the silent prohibition against challenging the leadership and the overtly conservative politics, he’d reached the end of his rope.
“I began to question if any of my experiences were real,” he said. “I knew my time was over there because I felt like I was on the outside. I asked my wife, ‘What are we doing here?’”
So they moved to the eastern United States with the intention of planting their own church. They joined a congregation where the pastor crowd-surfed to Moby and other contemporary tunes instead of worship music.
But Vujasinovic couldn’t help but notice the church, like countless charismatic evangelical churches across the United States, was using the same formula to woo millennials into the fold as Bethel.
The clincher for him came in 2010, with British illusionist and skeptic Derren Brown’s TV special, “Miracles For Sale.” In the program, Brown demonstrates how evangelical faith healing, in individual and collective settings, is based entirely on secular principles faith healers and stage hypnotists have been using for decades. They can be replicated by anyone trained in the techniques.
No God necessary.
Vujasinovic said he burst into tears after the program.
The split from Bethel remains painful for him. He is racked with depression and anxiety and still feels like he’s betrayed his own destiny with the church. He’s not alone and remains in contact with fellow BSSM students who’ve had similar experiences.
It takes a certain kind of personality to be a successful faith healer. A dash of charisma. A lack of peripheral vision. In his first year at the BSSM in 2003, Vujasinovic attended classes with Joaquin Evans, who earlier this year planted a Bethel church in Austin, Texas.
“He was in my first-year class,” Vujasinovic said. “He was really into healings, experiencing the holy spirit. He was like a stoner who didn’t get stoned. He was one of those people who would park next to a handicapped spot. He was a very charismatic guy.”
In a certain sense, Evans is living the life Vujasinovic once felt destined for, a church pastor with his own flock. Perhaps the only reason Vujasinovic isn’t is that despite many attempts, Bethel couldn’t break his sense of right and wrong.
“I’m still a Christian, but the more I get removed from the religion, the more I can see that it is harmful,” he said. “I just said, I’m going to let all the doubt in. If God is real, surely he can survive a little doubt.”