Photo: Francis Miller/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Jul 01, 1962
I was searching for a way to write about the early deeds of this fascinating, enigmatic character. The impression he left on the consciousness of a wide swath of people across the South and the lower Midwest remains fresh, as the very nature of his original energy and faith.
He was born in Oklahoma, rising out of poverty with a young man’s resolve to make things right. God spoke to him. He believed, and in the course of his ministries, people found the strength to heal themselves as they glowed in his charismatic presence, knowing this man had a direct line to the Big Guy.
As I was growing up, Oral Roberts was the closest link to God that desperate folks had. He convinced us all, of the supreme miracle of faith, and there was no doubt in the spectacle of his revivals, that he believed…deeply. When the people approached him, he removed his jacket and I remember the whiteness of his shirt. He was an impressive man to a small kid, a man who could have easily qualified to be Superman’s pal, or at least part of the sacred league of partners, who’s goal was to rid the Earth of Evil, and to restore health to the infirm.
I found a powerful image in the Life archives that shows him raising himself up from a crouching position. He holds the wrist of a young woman, who appears to be very ill. There are three older women, who are either the mother of the sick figure, with two aunts, or older sisters of the sick woman. They show differing degrees of emotion, from weeping, to anxious anticipation, to sudden elation. The image astonishes me. It is an image that records the brief time line of transformation, from desperation, to cautious hope…making right the faulty occasion of the young woman’s suffering.
In his humble beginnings, there was a righteous goodness at work. The broadcasts were intricately detailed, passing the good word that there were forces on earth that could be skillfully channeled to all believers. Crowds of desperate folks, whose numbers could have easily populated all of the small towns that dotted the Middle West made pilgrimages to Oral Robert’s Tent Revivals.
Were those unfortunate people healed? There were so many, and I still do not know the answer. There is the weak explanation of denial, psychological and physiological expectations raised in the presence of a charismatic figure. I do know from experience that natural adrenaline in the body can subdue pain and suppress symptoms of some infirmities, and I know of the alleged power of faith… but these are all practical considerations, which I must pay close attention to in retrospect. At the time Oral Roberts was laying his hands on the sick, I was a child, a believer…a fan of his extraordinary goodness.
Back then, in the 50’s and 60’s, I would watch the live revival broadcasts with my mother. In some ways we were living the effects of suffering from the waiting crowd. They numbered in the hundreds with each event. There were people who could not walk, men with respiratory ailments, women wheeling their children who were gripped by palsy, passive children with defects who were denied the experience of discovering joy in growing up, men and women with a parent who was supposedly possessed by demons…the people stretched in an endless line of misery, the length of which the Faith Healer had no awareness, but rather succumbed to a powerful faith in his ability to bring them, all of them, back to the edge of wholeness.
We went about our fortunate lives, with Mom reminding us of how we were spared the terrible sufferings of some families. I could not imagine being a kid and not having the ability to walk…to run and jump.
In those days my big brother developed severe near-sightedness. Mom and Dad were worried his limited sight might have been the result of disease, or injury.
The discovery of this common affliction was a relief to my parents, and devastating to my brother.
In our part of the Midwest, peers and various bullies in school ridiculed a young boy who wore glasses. Its strange how this stigma had carried over from earlier times, along with the belief that boys who wore glasses were weak, solitary, asexual, and cared only about books above all the things young boys were expected to crave.
We had been to the optometrist; Greg had been fitted for his first pair of glasses. He stood still, tears streaming down his face as the doctor adjusted the frames to his head. I was not understanding how he could not be ecstatic in having the novelty of these glasses placed on his nose, a sure way have better vision, but more importantly, a promise of attention from everyone.
At home, my brother was more demonstrative with his feelings:
“OK shit-ball. You have no idea the trouble I’m in over these crappy glasses! Nerds have glasses, but no friends. Goodie-goodies have glasses, but no girlfriends, and they get teased and cut out of party invitations, movie dates………no swimming!”
I was incredulous. “No swimming?”
“No butt-face, the lifeguards make all the guys who have glasses go in the kiddie pool!”
This did not make sense to me. “Why do they make guys with glasses go in the kiddie pool?”
My brother was holding his face in his hands.
“I don’t know shit-wad…Maybe they don’t want to dive to the bottom to get guy’s glasses when they fall in the pool, or maybe they want to show us a cruddy time because they think we’re nerds.”
This was a serious dilemma…to a kid. I felt terrible for him, and I wanted to help him, even though he was my avowed tormentor. I still wanted him to be happy, and it always hurt terribly to see him upset.
“Can the doctors fix your eyes?”
“No. I have to wear these thick lenses like forever…only a miracle can fix my eyes.”
I found a solution. “Let’s go to Oral Roberts and have him fix your eyes!”
The idea seemed sound to me. Rev. Roberts had healed thousands of people…on Television! Mom always said she wanted to go to a revival, and most of them were in Oklahoma, where she was born.
I saw my brother’s eyes brighten a little. To a smaller brother, affecting hope on the face of a big brother could hold back all uncertainty and sorrow. It could make rivalry dissipate and affection grow…in kid time, or through an exquisite poise, in longer minutes that seemed to melt into ages. Part of me lived to see my brother smile. It was a joy that I could not recognize back then, and I could only feel it to the magnificent limits of my juvenile understanding.
The heat of the full summer was almost too much for people to take interest in anything outside of their own comfort. We were at a revival meeting hosted by the Reverend Oral Roberts. There was a tent the size of a football field, into which several thousand people poured to hear the Healer. We found places at the back to stand, leaning against tent-posts, me, Mom and Greg. We fanned ourselves with hand-fans decorated with illustrations of Jesus and the Apostles. With the multitude, and the difficulties of managing a crowd of this size safely, Reverend Robert’s people did a very good job. We were constantly asked if we needed anything. Mom commented on the gentle way in which the staff treated the bed-ridden folks, who had needs that far exceeded ours.
The sight of so many suffering people awed my brother. A part of the tent was sectioned off for the people who could not walk. There were some sick people who seemed to be at the point of unconsciousness. Some were emaciated to a degree that made me think of living skeletons. They would be reclining in yard loungers, surrounded by loved ones. There was weeping, and skyward pleading by the suffering relatives. People held their arms over their heads facing upward, towards the cloudless sky, where we all assumed God resided.
I kept peering around the tent flaps, looking up into the hot, cerulean sky. I didn’t know if God was looking down at these desperate folks, but I was certain the Healer would be coming around, reading the information cards for each afflicted person, putting them at ease through a mysterious, divine allure that grabbed God’s attention. The Healer could pull God’s grace down as he pulled the faithful up…
“Mom. Let’s leave. These people have worse stuff wrong than I do.”
My brother reluctantly stood in the healing group with Mom and me. It seemed to span a quarter mile square, with one half of the people unable to stand. At a point within the group we could see the Healer taking time with one after another of the afflicted. The loudspeaker bellowed his shouts…invoking the spirit, to work through him, and take away pain.
The shrieks of the newly healed were frightening, but the fear was softened by the swelling visions of wholeness, as people threw down their crutches, moved limbs for the first time, or looked back as their amazed relatives followed them in the majestic first footsteps of their corporeal revelation.
“Mom! Let’s go. I have a small thing wrong, not like some of these people.”
My brother made a distinction, rare for someone his age, between his inconvenience, and the genuinely profound afflictions of people he had not met. It was as if he understood the Healer’s powers were a limited resource.
Mom smiled. She turned us, and gently laying her arms around our shoulders, led us to the car. We rode back to Kansas. As we left the red hills behind us, crossing the arid plain towards home, I marveled at the contented look on my brother’s face as he sat reading, dignified, the glasses perched on his nose, making him look so serene, so wise.
Greg Justis 1962
Photos of Oral Roberts: Francis Miller/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Jul 01, 1962
Note: My family's experience did not take place at the revival depicted by Francis Miller's photographic series. The series does however quite strikingly resemble the singular dramatic events of my family's experience.