Monday, June 21, 2010

The Toronto Blessing

Catch The Fire/Toronto Airport Vineyard/
Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship

So there's this crappy-looking church housed in a former conference centre out by the airport. It's called "Catch The Fire". It's surrounded by a wasteland of highways and parking lots and ugly hotels, located pretty much directly under the flight path of the enormous jets that scream into Pearson International every few minutes. It is also, as unlikely as it may seem, home to a congregation which witnessed the birth of a religious movement that swept across the globe in the mid-'90s: the Toronto blessing.

It all started in January of 1994. Back then the church was called "The Toronto Airport Vineyard" (part of the Vineyard evangelical association) and was held in a smaller building by the end of one of Pearson's runways. That month, Randy Clark, a minister from St. Louis, was invited to preach to the congregation. And boy, did he ever: by the end of his first sermon, he had the 100 or so in attendance rolling around on the floor, shaking and weeping and laughing and moaning in ecstatic worship. They hailed it as a "divine visitation". The Holy Spirit, you see, had filled them to the point of bursting.

They called the phenomenon the Toronto blessing (or The Anointing, The Awakening, The River, or The Fire depending on your taste in cheesy names for bizarre religious practices) and it also included everything from speaking in tongues to roaring like a lion. And it was popular. Like really popular. In the next couple of years, hundreds of thousands of people would travel to the church from around the globe. It would be forced to move into a bigger building. Hotels would start running shuttle buses. Worshipers would line up for hours to get in six nights a week. And then those worshipers would take the Toronto blessing back to their own congregations, thousands of them around the world, in Europe, in Africa, in south-east Asia, in Australia and New Zealand and Iceland and the Middle East. In fact, the phenomenon got to be so big that it even made its own small dent in popular culture, appearing in Petter Mettler's Gambling, Gods and LSD documentary and turning up in an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

But not everyone was thrilled. In 1995, the leader of the Vineyard had the church expelled from his organization. And others suggested that maybe, just maybe, all those people weren't actually filled with the Holy Spirit at all—maybe they were just being psychologically manipulated. By the turn of the millenium, the Toronto blessing's popularity had begun to wane. The church faded from popular consciousnes.

Even now, though, years later, people still show up at that ugly-ass church just off Dixon Road every week to roll around on the floor and worship their god. If you'd like to experience the blessing yourself, they've got a handy how-to on their website, here. And yes, one of the steps to salvation does involve browsing through their online store.

Here are some folks in Boston doing the whole Toronto blessing thing. It's, um, worth watching. And there are a bunch more related videos on YouTube.

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