First Day of Fieldwork

By Matthew Shoemaker (Shoey)

After waking up at 6:00 and enjoying a well-stocked continental breakfast at our hotel, our group was on our way to the outskirts of Brasília to Dr. Valentim’s spiritual clinic. Dr. Valentim, himself an uneducated man and not a formal medical doctor, is said to “incorporate” the spirits of several deceased doctors to help those who come to him. Among the entities in his “phalange” – a term describing his toolbelt of spirits that occupy his body – are Dr. Aguiar Freitas, the main cancer doctor of the clinic, and Dr. Adalf, the director of the institution. During these incorporation sessions, Valentim is in a full trance. Upon finishing, he has no recollection of what happened, and changes from the jovial nature of his entities back to the humble, reserved man he normally is.

We were eventually able to watch Dr. Valentim as he worked, healing the locals that go to his compound three times a week. He works with his forceps; he snips near certain areas of the person’s body, not directly touching them save for the rare jabs and slaps he gives to a select few. By doing this, he directs spirits to the areas that his patrons need healing. Eventually, we were each healed by Valentim.

Shoey awaits surgery with Valentim

Shoey awaits surgery with Valentim

At least coming from the perspective of a pre-med student, the whole situation was extremely interesting but slightly bonkers. Here we saw a group of local Brazilians so turned off by the current healthcare system that they flock to an old, illiterate man who claims to channel the spirits around him to strategically snip his scissors around their bodies. Listening to Freddy, a talkative man who was healed by Valentim several years ago, the frustration with the current model of western medicine is clear – he said repeatedly that he felt like a “guinea pig”, and was constantly commanded to go from test to test and procedure to procedure. Valentim gave him hope, keeping his humanity in mind during treatment.

In a system that frequently overlooks personal development and feeling, patients become their diseases. In cases like Freddy’s, where his disease is so rare and life-threatening that doctors offer free medical care just to study him, medical professionals ignore the man and focus their entire efforts on the affliction. And that’s not necessarily their fault – most of these doctors are probably overworked and have developed this personal shield out of necessity. Still, it’s no wonder why people find themselves at Valentim’s clinic. In here, they’re family. Their treatment includes more than just their bodies, and they leave finding themselves immeasurably more at ease.

Long story short: the first day of our trip was amazing and we ended it with slices of banana, chocolate syrup, ice cream pizza which made it even more amazing.

Silly faces and banana, chocolate pie a la mode Brazilian pizza after a long day of fieldwork.

Silly faces and banana, chocolate pie a la mode Brazilian pizza after a long day of fieldwork.


The Tao of Anthropology

The Tao is the Way.  In Chinese Buddhism Tao refers to the path to enlightenment, to become one with the Tao through spiritual practice.  In anthropology we attempt to become one with the culture of study through participant observation, hanging out with the locals and following their ways.  The ideology is to suspend judgment and learn about the culture from the inside out.   During the last month I spent some time at two different retreat centers.  One was with my anthropology class in Abadiania, Brazil at the Spiritist center of John of God.  The other was at the Zen Buddhist monastery, Tassajara, in the hills above Carmel Valley, California.   I sat quietly praying and meditating at each center.  I attempted to follow the very specific rules about how to dress and how to behave.  The rules reflect the discipline of the center as well as efforts to build community and a way to organize the variety of visitors.  As one Zen teacher said, “We wake up [at 5:20 a.m. with the bells], we know what to put on, and where to go [to temple].”  The rigor of the rules “makes us look sane [she laughs].”

Tim Perille  (from USC) wearing a Casa triangle shown with a Portuguese visitor wearing the Spirits jewelry.  She creates the necklaces and shares the profit with John of God.  Both wear the required white clothes.

Tim Perille (from USC) wearing a Casa triangle shown with a Portuguese visitor wearing the Spirits jewelry. She creates the necklaces and shares the profit with John of God. Both wear the required white clothes. 

Lockets with images of the spirits who who work through the medium John of God.

Lockets with images of the spirits who work through the medium John of God.  

At the Casa de Dom Inacio in Abadiania, Brazil visitors are instructed to wear white.  We are not only a community but it is said that the Spirits can read your auras better.  White is a color of spiritual purity and sanitation as well as the Western biomedical uniform (the white coat).  To match the white dress there is a growing trend to accompany this with spiritual jewelry.  The Casa gift shop sells beads, crystals, and triangles on necklaces to match the prayer triangles in and around the Casa that say faith, love and charity.  There are also necklaces with images of some of the spirits that incarnate through the medium, John of God.  Lastly, for this short blog, there are very specific rules of behavior.  In the crowded meditation halls, the staff walk the aisles and remind visitors not to cross their arms or legs.  Even a bag across the shoulders or a sweater tied around the neck may block the energy of the individual and the room.  John of God is said to feel pain if during meditation arms are crossed or eyes peek open.  We sit in chairs or wooden benches listening to the Ave Maria played through a sound system or recite the “Our Father” after the silence.

Zen Buddhist Monk at Tassajara wearing the preferred dark colors of the tradition.

Zen Buddhist Monk at Tassajara wearing the preferred dark colors of the tradition. 

The contrast was startling for me when I wandered into Tassajara two weeks after returning from Brazil.  This was to be my five-day vacation, chanting with the monks and working in the famous Tassajara kitchen. (They publish vegetarian cookbooks).  In Tassajara visitors are encouraged to wear dark colors while in the Zendo meditation hall.  Black is the preferred color.  I asked if this affected the spirits or the Buddha.  “No,” Sherry at the front desk told me, “we don’t believe anything like that, but it is less distracting.”  There are also specific instructions against wearing jewelry.  Sherry explained that people even ask if it is acceptable to wear a wedding band inside the temple.  “Yes,” she explained, “that is not jewelry, it is a vow.”   Again the idea is to not distract.  The rules in the Zendo are quite specific: enter the room with the foot closest to the door hinge, bow, find your assigned seat, bow to the seat, bow to the room, and then take your seat cross-legged on the meditation pillow.  Palms cross, resting on each other suspended below the navel, thumbs lightly touch.  Incense, gongs, and ritual chants in Japanese fill the air.  Eyes should remain open, cast down.

Stone Buddha statue at Tassajara illustrating the cross-legged meditation posture.

Stone Buddha statue at Tassajara illustrating the cross-legged meditation posture.  

As an anthropologist I am fascinated with rituals, the intricate details and their origins.  How could these two retreat centers offer such contrasting recommendations?  What does it all mean?  As the Zen teacher hinted: structure is comforting to the human species, the spirits probably don’t care.

Article and all photos by Dr. Erin Moore,  Associate Professor (Teaching),  USC Anthropology.

Looking Through My Unique Cultural Lens

by Kausar Ali, a senior double majoring in Neuroscience, B.A. and Religion, B.A.

When I first met the other seven students in the Problems without Passports class to Brazil, I immediately realized that we were an eclectic group. We were an amalgam of different faiths and cultures, identifying with Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Episcopalian Christianity, Catholic Christianity, non-denominational Christianity, and Atheism.  In addition, we were Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Euro-American.  We were all studying distinct fields: anthropology, fine arts, international relations, religion, occupational therapy and neuroscience. Thus, I thought it would be interesting to note how my own cultural, religious, and academic background – a Pakistani Muslim pre-med student majoring in neuroscience and religion – allowed me to interpret the phenomena at the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola different from my peers.

Brazil PWP group 2013, with Dr. Rick and Diego.  we were a very diverse group.

Brazil PWP group 2013, with Dr. Rick , Diego and our Professor Dr. Erin Moore.  We were a very diverse group.  The author is seated in the front row,  right.

With my Pakistani heritage, I found unique similarities with the Spiritist culture. Although a biomedical approach to treatment is predominant in Pakistan, herbal treatments and relaxation methods are still prevalent as alternative healing methods. These practices are similar to the herbal passiflora (passion flower) pills that the Entities (spirits) prescribe to Casa visitors and the hours-long meditation sessions in the current room, meditation deck, and other areas of the Casa. I found that just like in my Pakistani culture, these practices at the Casa are considered as a more natural course of treatment to supplement or enhance biomedicine rather than replace it. I found that just like in the Pakistani culture I grew up with, herbal medicine and relaxation were core elements of the Spiritist’s philosophy of living a healthy, balanced lifestyle.


Visitors in white meditate in one of the Casa "current rooms."  Meditation is seen as a central healing modality.  Photo: E. Moore

Visitors in white, meditate in one of the Casa “current rooms.” Meditation is seen as a central healing modality. Photo: E. Moore

As a Muslim, I struggled with trying to fully immerse myself in the Spiritist practices. Although all religious backgrounds are welcomed into the Casa, there is a strong Christian influence on the Spiritist prayers.  While most of my classmates rattled off the “Hail Mary” or the “Our Father” without even noticing their Christian connections, being a devout, practicing Muslim, I felt slightly uncomfortable during these rituals.  How could I fulfill the anthropological mandate to observe and participate if I did not know any of the words to the prayers and songs and I felt as though I would be betraying my own faith. I felt an internal debate on whether or not I should even try to recite the words – to have the full Casa experience everyone talks about – or to just mentally recite my Muslim prayers.

A painting in the main Casa meditation hall depicts Mary watching Jesus embrace John of God.  One of many Christian images linking John of God to Jesus at the Casa.

A painting in the main Casa meditation hall depicts Mary watching Jesus embrace John of God. One of many Christian images linking John of God to Jesus at the Casa. Photo: E. Moore

On my second day at the Casa, I heard Heather Cumming, one of the Casa officials, say, “All religious backgrounds are welcome. No matter what religion you are, you can surrender to the healing process and use the time to connect with God.” I then realized that I could balance my Muslim faith with Spiritist philosophy by praying to the God of my choosing, while also engaging in the Spiritist practices of meditation, sacred waterfall, and sacred soup. Even though I came from a distinct religion and cultural background, I could still have a beneficial healing experience at the Casa. Islam has a strong spiritual component of meditation and congregational prayer to God to relieve human suffering; so, I discovered that I could use the spirituality of Spiritism to reconnect with and even enhance the spirituality I had already known in Islam.

My neuroscience and religious studies background allowed me to explore the connection between the science of medicine and spirituality. There has been a growing trend over the years where people engage in alternative spiritual healing methods, such as those at the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola. I have heard accounts from people I met during my Casa visit that they had positive healing experiences in which their terminal cancers and illnesses were fully cured at the Casa. Thus, I grappled with understanding the cultural and scientific significance of spirituality and medicine. How can one scientifically prove that spirituality and relaxation promotes wellness and health? Can spiritual healing be proven with the scientific method? This profound question continues to challenge my mind, and I hope to explore it further in my future medical career.

Overall, I discovered that each person who comes to the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola has his/her own unique experience. Their stories depend on the cultural lenses they peer through as they carry on their Casa experiences. I came in as a Pakistani Muslim, born and raised in Texas, with strong interests in the field of neuroscience and religious theology. All these elements of my cultural and academic background molded what shaped my unique experience at the Casa.


By Lucy Davidson

     Preparations for our trip to Brazil included packing, reading, reflecting and lots and lots of explanations about what we were going to spend the next two weeks researching for our medical anthropology studies. The weekend before we flew to Brasilia, I went home for my grandmother’s birthday and encountered the same question from each of my relatives: “What are you doing in Brazil?” This question, I soon realized, could not be answered in just one sentence. We were planning to research, to experience, to participate, and to challenge our preexisting prejudices.  We would visit the Casa de Dom Ignacio, a spiritual hospital where John of God channels the spirits of dead German doctors (among others) to heal the sick.  It sounded a little different from a standard doctor’s visit, to say the least. The ideas of Spiritism, mind and body connections, and mediums were foreign to my family, and as I attempted to explain our medical anthropology class I saw the skepticism grow evident in their faces. Oddly, I found that my instinctual reaction to their doubt was to defend a belief system that I did not personally even ascribe to. This was to be my first experience with something that was discussed at length in Abadiania, both inside and outside of the Casa. What do you tell those at home about your experiences with John of God?  This question is particularly pertinent for those who are under biomedical care but also seek a spiritual cure for their physical bodies.

Author, fourth from left, learns about the Casa from Casa staff, Diego.   She is with her PWP buddies.

Author, fourth from left, learns about the Casa from Casa staff, Diego. She is with her PWP buddies.

The first time that this issue was addressed was when we first set foot on Casa grounds- the night we arrived and headed to a one-hour orientation before the Casa began its “workweek” on Wednesday. Diego, one of the Casa officials, reiterated that though we, or our families and friends might not know what we were doing there, something had been working for the millions of people who had come for treatment in the past thirty years.  Something must be real.  Later in the week, a biomedical doctor named Dr. Rick suggested that we “be discerning in who you share your experience with and how you share it.”  People back home might be skeptical and their negative energies could affect the healing process.  Many different Casa visitors suggested that not only was it a common practice, but it was encouraged to be vague about your experiences at the Casa. You don’t know who might be less than convinced of the miracles that purportedly occur.

Lucy, second from left, accompanied by Rocky, Jodie and Gracie sip fresh coconut water.

Lucy, second from left, accompanied by Rocky, Jodie and Gracie sip fresh coconut water.

I found this lack of candor fascinating.  It seemed directly at odds with John of God and others at the Casa who seemed to welcome publicity from Oprah, books written by NPR journalists, and videotapes of physical surgeries that aimed to prove that the energy at the Casa was the real deal.  They had nothing to hide. I felt a little bit of this dichotomy when I returned home after two weeks at the Casa. I found myself, without consciously realizing it, tailoring my version of my experiences to my audience. While going to the Casa is a personal experience, returning home is (almost always) inevitable.  This return will include conversations about where you spent the past week or month or year. I found the advice from Dr. Rick to be astute and applicable: “If someone asks you what you were doing, or if you’re healed, say I am in a process, it is personal, and I’ll tell you about it in a month. You can bet that in a month, they will have forgotten all about whatever it was they wanted to know.”  Though this advice was offered for the benefit of those speaking about their experience at the Casa, I found it to be applicable to my journey as a student and to anyone undergoing a process about which others might have well-meaning commentary. I know that I will run into many of these situations in the years ahead, so I was lucky to be able to gain this and other valuable tools on this amazing journey with Problems Without Passports.

Spirits, Orbs, and Miracles… Are They Real?


By Amita Risbud, Senior majoring in Health & Humanity (B.A.) and Biology (B.A.), with a minor in Religion

  John of God pictured with some of the PWP group in a garden at the Casa. PC: Amita Risbud.

John of God pictured with some of the PWP group in a garden at the Casa. PC: Amita Risbud.

As a pre-medical student with an extracurricular interest in religious studies, I have grappled with reconciling science and religion for some time, for the two fields are known to hold drastically different opinions on the nature of miracles. Scientists would be tempted to tell me that a supposed miracle is only due to pure chance, and that it could be ultimately proven by the scientific method. Those informed by religion and mysticism would insist that miraculous events are beyond any scientific laws or parameters, and that they ought just to be accepted with conviction and without question. What should we believe?

At the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola in Abadiânia, Brazil, I had the opportunity to witness incredible surgeries, and to hear several people’s testimonies to John of God’s work, as well as their opinions on the relationship between religion and science. João Teixeira de Faria, better known as John of God and an otherwise ordinary, uneducated Brazilian man, is thought to be a medium through which spirits of deceased doctors and Catholic saints work to heal and assist people with a variety of issues, including terminal diseases. The Casa also claims that hundreds to thousands of entities act on the hundreds of pilgrims who come through the place every day: people may be cleansed of conditions they never knew they had as they sit in the current room to meditate and seek the entities’ help.

Like most people who hear of John of God and the cult-like culture of Abadiânia for the first time, I had some difficulty grasping all of this and how plausible it could be. And yet, when I saw the physical operations with my own eyes, there was no denying that something incredible was going on. John of God would very clearly stick forceps up patients’ noses, and cut abdomens and pull out what appeared to be tumors with his bare hands. There was no magic trick here. Even an American physician present at the time of one of the eye scrapes remarked that no ordinary doctor could make cuts as meticulously as João made over the corneas of so many patients. How could João effortlessly perform surgeries without any anesthetics or antiseptics? How did his patients stand there without a scream in pain from the cutting? How could this illiterate Brazilian man cure people of debilitating diseases just as well as a Harvard graduate who trained for years just to do the same? Beats me.

But the physical surgeries were just a part of all the fascinating, miracle-based things reported to happen at the Casa. Visitors would go out after sundown with their cameras to capture pictures of entities floating around the premises. Anywhere from one to tens of orb-like spots could appear in the frame if the pictures were taken with flash, and these orbs were thought to be the entities. I got some myself (pictured below). From my experience with flash photography on many travels elsewhere, however, these orbs are a typical photo effect in dark settings, perhaps from the flash reflecting on dust particles; I wasn’t so keen to call them “entities”. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear a new explanation to the spots, and more than anything, it was rather nice to see so many older people getting a thrill from having evidence of supernatural beings on their camera screens.

Orbs captured in the evening just outside the Casa grounds. PC: Amita Risbud.

Orbs captured in the evening just outside the Casa grounds. PC: Amita Risbud.

A number of people had also told me they had been healed of cancers and mental illnesses after visiting the sacred waterfall belonging to the Casa. I would overhear groups exchanging stories over dinner of how people would yelp as if going through something cathartic. One woman claimed St. Ignatius came to her in the form of a butterfly. Another shared that the waterfall helped her come to terms with a traumatic miscarriage.

So, I ask again, what should we believe? Are spirits and miracles a load of hogwash, or is there something divine that just cannot be explained by pure science?

To be honest, I think I’m too young and have had too few life experiences to develop a definite answer to that by myself. But I have a theory: regardless of whether it is science or a divine force that takes credit for the marvels of Abadiânia, the Casa de Dom Inácio certainly provides people with a wonderful environment that promotes wellness, happiness, and repose. It was great to see a loving community where people would gather to merrily sing Beatles’ tunes; drink soup together or grab smoothies at the juice bar down the street; and exchange experiences with tough diseases in an effort to comfort each other. Countless studies have shown that a good support group, stress-free environment, and the right practice of meditation and exercise can impact our genetics and affect our health very positively. This might be the biggest reason why all these people keep coming back to Abadiânia.

I think that some degree of people’s strong faith and openness to the possibility of healing without allopathic medicine also contributes to the healing process. If Karl Marx’s theory that “religion is the opium of the people” is true, and if a belief in divine orbs is what helps the sick people heal, so be it. That part of the healing process has always fascinated me. There may be wonders that religious convictions can do that Western medicine cannot, and the best thing might just to leave it at that. With or without scientific proof of spirits and miracles in Abadiânia, the Casa is a great place for people’s introspection and relaxation, and a chance to heal from good living. If we just put both the religious and scientific questions aside for some time, there are great benefits to embrace at this place. I think it’s really about how we approach it that affects the experience and what we get from it!