A A man in sweats leans on a cane and wobbles onto the already crowded stage of Thomas Jefferson High and speaks into a microphone held up to his face by someone else's hands. He wants what most in the auditorium seem to want: a miracle from Billy Burke, the senior pastor of the Miracle Center World Outreach Inc.
Actually, the man wants "another big miracle." The last time Billy laid hands on him, the man says, Burke cured him of quadriplegia. That was across the street at the Doubletree a couple of years ago. Burke now performs his miracles at Thomas Jefferson High. The man tells Burke and the audience that he now wants to be able to stand up on his own. Not necessarily to stand without using his metal cane — Burke relieves him of it anyway and tosses it to one of several assistants on stage — but to get up off the floor without assistance.
You don't have to be a prophet to see where this is going. In order to get up from the floor, one must first get down on the floor. Burke can help with this too. He lays a hand on the man's fleshy face, pushes him backward into the waiting arms of his helpers — sort of like the bouncers on the Jerry Springer Show, only in suits.
The guy stays down several minutes. Perhaps he is trying to get psyched up to get up.
In his own due time, he attempts to stand. This does not happen finger-snap fast, the way one might expect miracles to happen. And as kooked out as this may sound, there seems to be a collective straining of people mentally trying to help him stand. First on all fours, then stuck genuflecting, one hand on the stage floor, he struggles to rise.
Burke conducts Miracle Healing Services at Thomas Jefferson High — a Hillsborough County public school — right beneath the banner of the school mascot: a dragon, a symbol of evil, akin to serpents.
There's another irony to this event. It was Mr. Thomas Jefferson who in 1802 wrote a famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, which said that "the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
Interestingly enough, the church-state partition is not mentioned in the Constitution or Bill of Rights beyond the First Amendment, which simply says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The wall of which Jefferson spoke has been coming down in dribs and slabs over the years. Occasionally, it will get a little mortar patch, like last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe that student-led prayer at school football games is a no-no.
As a result, says Hillsborough County Schools spokesman Mark Hart, "the litmus test is the extent to which religious observation is voluntary in nature."
Hart faxed the Planet a document called "Statement on Religion and the Schools," which spells out Hillsborough County's tight-rope policies on religion in the institution: "Pre-football invocations violate the Establishment clause of the constitution," it says. And educators "must exercise extreme caution not to endorse the religious dogma of ... holidays." They get into tricky legal territory when it comes to using school premises for religious instruction after school hours. Doing so, "except on a temporary basis, violates the principle of separation of church and state."
Hart says the County sets no time limit on how long a group or church can use school grounds, though agreements do have to be cut on an annual basis. He also added that the most typical scenario is for a church to stay in a school for four to six months while building a facility of its own.
The impression Burke gives onstage, however, is that the stay will be if not permanent, lengthy.
"For those of you that go to the Miracle Center ... and church that I pastor, the good news I have for you tonight, starting in February, this will be our new meeting place every week. Every week." Doesn't sound temporary at all.
It takes long enough for the healing to begin. First there's a full half-hour of Christian music and singing provided by three female singers and a headset-wearing keyboardist backed up by a drummer on a Premier kit. The crowd is sparse and spread out, but during the next half-hour more folks shuffle in. Some use canes; some have humps in the back; others look simply tired or poor, with their families in tow, grandparents and sleepy children. A pair of young moms rolls in late, their babies asleep in strollers. One guy looks sort of like Jesus in denim jacket and jeans.