For nearly 30 years, millions have visited the tiny village of Abadiania in remote, central Brazil to see a man some call the most powerful spiritual healer since Jesus and others call a charlatan.
"Primetime" followed the journeys of five people who sought out the man known as "João de Deus" -- "John of God" -- and took a closer look at the amazing claims that surround him.
The first traveler was Matthew Ireland, of Guilford, Vt. who was told he had a quick-growing inoperable brain tumor. He had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments. But almost two years after he was diagnosed, and after three visits with João, his tumor has shrunk.
Annabel Sclippa of Boulder, Colo., has not been able to walk since her spinal cord was nearly severed in a car crash in 1988. But after six visits with João, she says she can now feel sensation in her legs and can nearly balance herself standing between handrails -- something her physiotherapist said was unusual with her type of injury.
Mary Hendrickson of Seattle was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and powerfully debilitating allergies. She now feels much more energetic. "There is no way I would feel this way if something hadn't changed inside me," she told "Primetime Live." "Something's made a difference."
David Ames, of San Francisco, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in April 2003. His nervous system was slowly disintegrating, and faced almost certain death -- only 10 percent of patients survive for 10 years or more. He has had no physical improvement, but he still says his spirit has gained from his visit.
And Lisa Melman of Johannesburg, South Africa, discovered a year ago that she had breast cancer. After visiting João, her doctor told her it had grown, although less aggressively than he expected it to and that she should still have surgery.
Incorporating the Wise
João is not a licensed doctor. Born in 1942, he is said to have been so rebellious he was thrown out of school after the second grade and could not keep a job.
Then, at 16, the story goes, the "entity" of King Solomon entered his body, and performed a miraculous healing. For years, João wandered Brazil offering healings. Twenty-seven years ago, he took residence in his casa in the plateaus and became known as "John of God."
Today, more than 30 doctors and notables can enter his body, João says. They're the ones that do the healing.
Among those luminaries are Dom Inacio de Loyola, a 15th century Spanish nobleman; Dr. Oswaldo Cruz, who helped to eradicate yellow fever; and the late Dr. Augusto de Almeida, a meticulous and demanding surgeon.
The "incorporating" happens in an instant, without warning. As João prepares to operate, his body suddenly jerks. He is said to take on the personality and even the eye color of the entity who inhabits him.
Visible and Invisible Surgeries
John of God's patients typically stay at Abadiania for two weeks, but they can stay for as long as they want. They can stay for an afternoon or morning and leave if they want to. Some people even arrive via bus on day trips.
Everyone is told not to stop taking their medications or treatments such as chemotherapy. After seeing John of God, there are some strict rules: for 40 days, no sex, alcohol, pork or pepper, which are all said to weaken the body's aura, or energy field.
John of God cautions that cures are not always instantaneous, but can take months or years and the entities cannot heal everyone. Some may be just too sick; others may not be ready spiritually.
When patients come before him, he makes a diagnosis with just a glance -- scribbles a prescription for herbs or even schedules an operation.
Some surgeries are "invisible." The entities are said to have such supernatural powers, they can heal without breaking the skin. Others are "visible" -- and only certain patients are considered eligible. They must volunteer, be 18 to 52 years old, and cannot be in wheelchairs, or have recently had radiation or chemotherapy.
The "visible" surgeries can be graphic. "Primetime" witnessed one in which João took four-inch gauze-tipped steel forceps, dipped them in a solution he calls "holy water," and shoved the forceps all the way up a patient's nostril and twisted them violently.
It took 45 seconds, and the patient left bleeding. But João's assistants videotape such surgeries regularly and sell them at the gift shop.
Challenging 'The Power of God'
It's against the law to practice medicine without a license in Brazil. "John of God" has been charged, fined and even jailed briefly. He keeps on performing surgeries, saying it's the entities, not him, at work.
About the surgeries, he said: "I don't do that. God and the spirits do that." He says even looking at the videotapes of the surgeries makes him queasy.
He says he doesn't even remember the experience. "I am unconscious," he told "Primetime Live's" John Quiñones. He likened his state to being asleep.
Challenged over the propriety of these operations, João answered, "Bring your scientists here, bring the doctors, bring them here. There is no magic going on. Just the power of God."
The Darker Side
Some people say the healings are just a front -- a way to make John of God rich.
Even though he charges no fee for treatment, João appears to be a wealthy man. He owns a cattle ranch just down the road from where he sees patients -- more than 1,000 acres.
When Quiñones pointed out to João that his town has become a tourist beacon with thousands coming to spend money for herbs and other items, he looked hurt. His eyes turned red and watered.
He said he has money but he spends it to pay for food and education for the poor. "I have cattle, but that's not enough to keep the casa," he said.
Yet, there are also rumors that John of God has a much darker side. Juliana Almeida Franca, a district attorney who has investigated John of God, says he sent her death threats -- delivered by a relative. João denies this.
João has also been accused of taking advantage of a woman who came to be healed. "There is a lot of jealousy. People talk. What dictates is the conscience toward God," he answered.
He insisted his healings are legitimate. "You can fool the people for one to two years. But you cannot fool people for 45 years," he said.
Open to Possibility
For a second opinion, "Primetime" consulted Dr. Mehmet Oz, one of the most respected surgeons in the United States.
Asked about Ireland's remarkable improvement from a brain tumor, he agreed, "something stopped a process that normally is very aggressive." He also wondered if the atmosphere of John of God's clinic contributed.
"I want to have the kind of music that gets him to meditate, the kind of biofeedback training and meditative training that will allow him to do what he needs to do to turn on his own body's healing mechanism," he said. "That may be the greatest lesson of all here."
About Sclippa's progress from her spinal cord injury, he says it's conceivable that she could have made the same progress with intensive physical therapy. But he added her experiences with John of God may have been valuable too.
While the doctor said he wouldn't send his patients to John of God, he still expressed curiosity about the clinic.
"I don't care what it is, if you really feel better with this kind of tragic injury, we need to research that," he said. "Crawfish regrow their nerves, right? Maybe there are things that we could harvest in our psyche that allows us to do it as well."
And questioned about the graphic visible surgery, Oz said it could be "an old magician's trick, but it's a pretty powerful one from a physician's perspective."
John of God could also be on to something, he said. If you go to the roof of the nose, you find the pituitary gland, he said. "I'm wondering if touching the pituitary gland may influence all those chemicals that go between the body and the brain.
"Either he's a healer who has found some talents that he has innately within him and can help people -- or he's crazy," Oz said.
This story originally aired on Feb. 10, 2005
David Ames has remained in Abandiana, except for a brief trip home. The former surfer swims every day and has started a support group for disabled visitors called "Heaven's Helpers."
Doctors warned he would not survive long, but he's happy he's already exceeded their expectations.
Annabel Sclippa recently made her fourth visit to John of God, but she's still not walking. However, when she first visited, she could barely stand. Oz acknowledged that she seemed to have more control now.
But he also noted that for both Ames and Sclippa, optimism could make all the difference.
More than two years after doctors diagnosed him with a brain tumor, Matthew Ireland is preparing to marry a woman he met in Abandiania this month.
But Lisa Melman's breast cancer has gotten worse. She says the tumor has grown so much she can feel it, and it's often painful. She said she's not ruling out surgery, but still has some alternative therapies to try.
To learn more about John of God and the people in this story, you may wish to visit the following Web sites: