Glossolalia going viral

It is said that there are 6,909 living languages in the world. I can attest to nine of them, because precisely that number was represented among our gathering of Christians at the evangelical Ichthus Church in Lewisham, southeast London. I myself spoke two of the languages and was just beginning on a third, English.

One night I joined several hundred people in a crowded basement on Greenwich South Street to experience the Toronto Blessing, some kind of spirit that was moving transcontinentally, like a flu that affected only born-again Christians. Everyone seemed to agree that it was important that I see it for myself. Perhaps I would catch it, too.

The upstairs hall where the church often held meetings wasn’t big enough for the occasion, and they removed the seats in the basement to allow more people in. It was hard to tell what was going on, the room was so dark. The visiting preacher was on a little stage with a powerful microphone. From the back of the room where I stood, all I could see was his bluey silhouette moving up and down.

He began calmly by encouraging us to open our hearts to this amazing blessing. He then led us in a hymn without any instruments. As soon as the song finished he exploded into a torrent of words, like an auctioneer who had lost control of the faculty of speech. The congregation responded with clapping and shouting.

Then the preacher spoke calmly again in English, only to begin his thundering crescendo of words again. He went on like that, alternating between loud and quiet, English and whatever it was. And the congregation responded. “Respond” does not really do justice to it. People were rolling on the floor and barking like dogs. Some wept, while others laughed. One woman near me was shaking her hands uncontrollably like she had just burned herself; this went on for an hour. People I liked and respected seemed beside themselves. One tall shy man seemed to be dancing to the words. Many seemed to be speaking back to the preacher in that same strange language, and at nearly the same volume.

The person next to me told me they were speaking in tongues. Tongues, I asked? She looked at me meaningfully. “It is a spiritual language that only God understands.”

The most confusing thing about tongues was that I understood it. Some of it. Amid the rising, falling tide of gobbledygook the preacher would suddenly start to shout in Somali, KEE RABA SEEYA (give it to him who wants it) and KUUR RABA (which one does he want).

At some point the preacher began blowing heavily into the microphone, which produced a vast, shocking echo. He neighed like a holy horse: “Hrr! Hrrrrr!” Suddenly I realized he was looking at me. He spoke then in a deep, awestruck, holy voice. “If there is anyone in this hall who cannot understand what is going on,” he said. “If there is anyone in this hall who is criticizing in their hearts… and who because they cannot understand are criticizing in their hearts…” He shook his head and neighed again, “HRRRR!” He paused and then continued speaking in capital letters, “WE ASK YOU TO OPEN YOUR HEART! OR LOVINGLY LEAVE. NOW!”

I was insulted, actually — how did he know I was not even then being blessed in some silent way? And if I was being spoken to in Somali, why was I am being addressed as a boy? I made a point of sticking around for another hour before leaving, around eleven at night, some three hours after I’d arrived, the basement still convulsing with ecstatic Christians.

In the Bible there is the story of the disciples speaking to a roomful of disparate foreigners who each hear the words in their own language. Somehow that notion had evolved into a language that can be understood by no one but God. Tongues is said to be the holy spirit spilling out of a person, the physical manifestation of being born again. I wondered whether tiny bits of all the world’s languages might have made their way in there.

This was around 1995. The Toronto Blessing was a worldwide phenomenon. It was even reported on the BBC.

I spoke to my adoptive father Toni in Pakistan, who had told me repeatedly how badly he wanted me to hear the Toronto Blessing for myself. “What did you think of it?” he asked excitedly, hoping that the spirit might have spilled onto me. He was disappointed by my answer. I told him that it was mass hysteria and nothing to do with God, so far as I could see. I’d felt like I was watching people possessed, like a voodoo cult in a movie. Or back in the asylum where my sister and I used to volunteer on Thursday afternoons after school, though at least in the asylum the inmates were supposed to be crazy.

“Let’s say it is from God,” I finally said. “Why? Why would God want us to behave in this way?” Toni got quite angry with me at that. He told me I was arrogant for wanting to understand everything. I suppose he was right.