The rain is driving in from the west in icy needles as I walk up the hill towards the centre of Coleraine. The few shoppers who pass me scurry by quickly, keen to get somewhere warmer. In the square in front of the town hall are six wooden chairs set out in a neat row.
Getting closer, I see that one is occupied. A middle-aged woman in a pink knitted hat is perched on the edge of the seat, her head bowed. Two people are kneeling on the wet ground on either side of her, one of them resting his hand on the woman’s shoulder. I cannot hear what they are saying; it is as if they form their own private huddle, cut off from the world, but it is clear they are praying for the woman.
A short distance away, a tall man in a black jacket stands watching. This is Mark Marx, founder of the Healing on the Streets ministry, which began here more than 10 years ago and has now spread all over the world.
Healing on the Streets is not an outreach programme of the traditional Christian variety, tentative and semi-hopeful of results. It is evangelical but not in the old sin and hellfire way. There is no one guldering through megaphones or pressing punitive religious tracts on passers-by.
This initiative of the Causeway Coast Vineyard Church is a different kind of Christianity: literal, unapologetic and brimming with confidence, unashamedly seeking and celebrating the supernatural. Marx and his team have turned up in Coleraine’s main square every Saturday since Easter 2005. They do not ask for money but believe they are channelling God’s miraculous power to heal. They claim some extraordinary victories: terminal cancer vanquished, lifelong disabilities erased.
“I’ve seen many miracles. I’ve seen blind eyes see. I’ve seen paralysed people get off stretchers and walk. I’ve seen bones stretched out, a foot grown to full size,” Marx says.
He says they also have a track record of couples conceiving after receiving prayer. “I’m contemplating putting brass plaques on the backs of these chairs saying: ‘Danger of becoming pregnant’,” he says.
Later, in a nearby cafe, Marx recounts numerous instances of healing he claims to have witnessed on the streets of Coleraine and in other towns and cities.
“One really amazing story was this couple from Cavan. They were on holiday in Portstewart and came to Coleraine to do some shopping. The wife was in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down. The team knelt around her feet. They invited God’s presence, asked him to take command. Not that we are healers: as followers, we are releasing the authority that Jesus has given us. All we can do is pray our best prayer,” he says.
“Anyway, we prayed for this lady, and we asked her, ‘Can you move your legs?’ She tried her best but there was no change. We prayed a little longer, and she thanked us. Then the couple began to make their way home. They were halfway there when suddenly the wife said, ‘Stop the car, there’s something happening’. Then she got out of the car and started running around in the pouring rain. Incredible.”
I look into Marx’s eyes. His gaze is bright, direct, compelling; I see no trace of doubt. The ministry of Marx and the Healing on the Streets team came to wider attention recently when the mother of a Co Down teenager suffering from cancer claimed her son got out of his wheelchair and danced after attending a healing session.
“Ah yes, that’s Josh Martin,” says Marx. “I received a message from his mother Kim, who shared that her son had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He’d been six months in the hospital and he was very weak. He’d had several operations and courses of chemotherapy. They sent him home. There was nothing more they could do.
“When we prayed for him, I saw this darkness over him spiritually, the spirit of death. When he stretched his legs out, I saw that one was shorter. I said, ‘Just watch what God is going to do right now, as an outward sign of healing you.’ ”
Marx claims that the shorter leg physically grew longer right before everyone’s eyes. “Josh said that the pain had gone. He got up and danced in the square and then he pushed his own wheelchair back to the car and lifted it into the boot. When the doctors examined him, they found no sign of cancer.”
It is difficult to know how to respond to such logic-defying claims, such unshakeable belief. Once the supernatural is invoked, the rules of rational discourse cease to apply. But there have been serious challenges to Marx’s ministry. In 2012 a Healing on the Streets team in Bath, England, got in to trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority after an atheist complained that their claims that God could heal gave terminally ill people false hope.
The ASA upheld her complaint, stating that the group’s testimonials were “insufficient as evidence for claims of healing”.
Although the flyers given out by the Coleraine Healing on the Streets team carry warn people against stopping medical treatment, Marx seems impervious to scepticism. “Look, we’re brought up with rational thinking, logic and science, but Jesus said ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. That means anything is possible. Yes, you get people who are sceptical, but only because they’ve never encountered the reality of knowing God.”
What about all these unverifiable supernatural claims? “You believe in the wind, don’t you? You can’t see it, but you feel its effect. God is a holy spirit: you can’t see him but he made himself known through Jesus, in the flesh,” he says.
A Co Derry town seems an odd place for someone like Marx to end up. In his autobiography, the appropriately named Stepping into the Impossible, he describes how he was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1957 to a Chinese father and a Jewish mother. His father, an alcoholic, emigrated to the UK with Marx when he was three years old, but his mother remained in South Africa and he never saw her again.
It was while preaching in London that Marx says he got the call from God to come to Northern Ireland.
“It was like a download I had over a three-day period. God was telling me this new thing. It was about gentle ministry: don’t chase after people; don’t preach; be open to all, even if they just want to chat.”
Back on the street, the rain is over and the chairs are filling up. A man walks up to me and swings his right arm high over his head. “Look,” he says. “I couldn’t even lift this arm yesterday.” Mark Marx smiles. I might be surprised, but he isn’t.