Wall Street Journal, 30 Oct 1990
The Devil, You Say? San Francisco Faces Halloween Exorcism
Two ministers Hope to Rid City of Demons, but Many Want Rid of Ministers
by Chip Johnson
Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal
SAN FRANCISCO -- It is an epic struggle of Good vs. Evil. On one side: Two evangelical ministers who vow to exorcise the whole city of San Francisco on Halloween night. On the other: The city's rather offbeat population, which routinely holds unusual events around Halloween, such as the Erotic Exotic Ball, featuring Buck Naked and his band.
Which side is Good and which is Evil, however, is in the eye of the beholder.
The two ministers, Richard Bernal and Larry Leas, plan to lead 10,000 "Prayer Warriors" into battle to dive a host of demons out of this city, which they consider a kid of Sodom and Gomorrah by the Bay. "We're not talking about street-level demons here," says Mr. Bernal, pastor of the Jubilee Christian Center in nearby San Jose. "These are high-ranking evil spirits."
But many residents of the city are fighting back. Some have even formed a group called GHOST -- Grand Homosexual Outrage at Sickening Televangelists. Bernard Ward, who is a host on a Sunday morning radio show called Godtalk, has called for a "Jihad Jubilee" of citizens to confront the would-be exorcists. "They'd better hope they're not right about their own theology," he says, "because if they are, they they'd better get themselves some asbestos underwear."
Halloween night traditionally caps a wild celebration lasting several days as the gay community, cross-dressers, prostitutes and other groups hold parades and parties such as the Hookers' Ball and the Erotic Exotic Ball, where some people on Saturday night dressed in full costumes and others, men and women, in next to nothing.
Contrary to his billing, Mr. Naked wears a cowboy hat and boots, a bandanna tied around his neck and a toilet plunger held by a G-string. On Halloween, police close Castro Street, the center of the gay community, for a street party that invariably features the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: three men dressed as nuns with fishnet stockings, bouffant hairdos and lots of makeup. Some men wear beautiful sequined evening gowns; others don bottom-less Western leather chaps.
A Spiritual Sweat
Mr. Bernal claims that orgies are held all over the city on Halloween night and that the day in general is given over to the devil's work. But he says he is an expert at exorcising the devil's representatives, averaging about one exorcism a week. He believes that with a little divine help, he can pull off a mass exorcism on Halloween.
Under the guidance of Mr. Lea, a Texas evangelist, the Prayer Warriors plan to hold a mass prayer for three consecutive nights, beginning on Halloween at the city's civic auditorium, two miles from the Castro Street festivities. At exactly 7:14 pm, a time chosen from a Biblical chapter and verse that promises divine redemption from wickedness, the Prayer Warriors will loosen up with a few hymns and spar with a couple of minor demons. "I've rarely held a meeting where there wasn't someone who needed deliverance from small-time demons," Mr. Bernal says.
After the warriors work up a spiritual sweat, Mr. Lea will deliver a 45-minute hellfire and brimstone sermon. "Then we will name them, come against them, execute written judgment against them and command them to obey us," says Mr. Bernal of the demons. It's a technique he calls "binding the strongman." The "Prayer Breakthroughs" will last about four hours each night, Mr. Bernal says.
He has attracted thousands to similar meetings in several cities, but San Francisco is a special case. "I think it's terrible to live in a city where it's easier to get a condom than it is to get a Bible," says Mr. Lea. He says he has heard cries from spiritual help in his heart and sensed urgency. "I felt a cry coming from the Bay Area calling out to us: 'God help us.'"
This city does have a somewhat unsavory past. Its Barbary Coast section, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake, was a world-class den of iniquity. Devil worship has had more cachet here than in the average city, this being the home, for instance, of Anton LaVey's Satanic Church. Most practitioners seem friendly and helpful. Need the makings to case a good evil spell? "No problem," says Rebecca Camard, a sales clerk at Curios and Candles, a San Francisco occult shop. "We don't have eye of wolf, but we have eye of dove -- it's ground -- and we have some really good newt."
"San Francisco is a place where you can come and do things you've always wanted to try," says homicide inspector Earle Sanders, who once investigated a human sacrifice by a waiter, who worked at a fancy hotel. "It's a real tolerant place. Consequently, we get all kinds of people here."
'Green Berets of God'
Considering their opponents, Messrs. Lea and Bernal aren't taking any chances. Larry Lea Ministries issues the Prayer Warriors dog tags, and the group wears what it calls, quoting the Bible, "the whole armor of God what ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil."
They may need armor. Many residents believe Mr. Lea and his "Green Berets of God," as they have been labeled by critics, aren't so much anti-devil as anti-gay, or don't know the difference. Mark Pritchard, a member of a gay activist organization called Queer Nation, says the group will hold a demonstration outside the civic center on Halloween night to celebrate their own life style. Mr. Pritchard says witches, pro-choice groups, pagans and followers of New Age religions will participate.
Eric Pryor, high priest of a pagan church here called the New Earth Temple, plans to try to exorcise Mr. Lea by leading a "public cursing" of the minister. He has invited other area pagans, whom he estimates at 50,000, to attend.
Mayor Art Agnos has already secured divine intervention. He spent the first two days of his vacation at a Greek monastery, praying and fasting, Upon his departure, the 150 monks told him they would remember San Francisco in their prayers. "We'll put our 150 monks up against any demons any day of the week," says Scott Schaefer, an aide to the mayor.
Mr. Lea says that while he devotion to Biblical doctrine prevents him from endorsing the life style of homosexual men and women, he still loves them. And he adds: "I think that for me to be maligned for spreading the Gospel is pretty weird."
Religion and Dough
But Mr. Ward, the talk show host, contends that it's Messrs. Lea and Bernal who need help. "If you look at how Jesus lived his life, he didn't run around pushing people's emotional buttons like Lea and Bernal do," he says.
Mr. Ward is a churchman himself. He runs the tongue-in-cheek Church of the Holy Donut. Its members' philosophy is based on the premise that all religions are based on dough.
Father Gugliemo Lauriola, a Catholic priest at Immaculate Conception Church, has performed exorcisms of his own in the past, but can't recall a mass exorcism. He knows firsthand that even a one-on-one exorcism can be grueling, having done six or seven himself since coming to San Francisco in 1969. "Their eyes are blood red and they foam at the mouth," he says of those possessed. "It's very frightening, and it takes me three or four days to recover."
Father Lauriola doubts that Mr. Bernal is really interested in confronting the devil, suggesting it all may be a veiled attack on the city's gay community. "Maybe they don't have the courage to admit that," he says. In any event, he adds, anyone looking to exorcise a city should start with Los Angeles.