At the crusade, I met Jordie Gibson, 21, who had flown from Calgary, Canada, to Anaheim because he believed that God, through Hinn, could get his kidneys to work again.
He was thrilled to tell me that he had stopped getting dialysis because Hinn had said people are cured only when they "step out in faith." The decision enraged his doctors, but made perfect sense to Gibson. Despite risking his life as a show of faith, he wasn't cured in Anaheim. He returned to Canada and went back on dialysis. The crowd was filled with desperate believers like Gibson.
I tried unsuccessfully to get several prominent mainstream pastors who appeared on TBN to comment on the prosperity gospel, Hinn's "faith healing" or the Crouches' lifestyle.
Like the Catholic bishops, I assumed, they didn't want to risk what they had.
AS the stories piled up, I began to pray with renewed vigor, but it felt like I wasn't connecting to God. I started to feel silly even trying.
I read accounts of St. John of the Cross and his "dark night of the soul," a time he believed God was testing him by seemingly withdrawing from his life. Maybe this was my test.
I met with my former Presbyterian pastor, John Huffman, and told him what I was feeling. I asked him if I could e-mail him some tough questions about Christianity and faith and get his answers. He agreed without hesitation.
The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?
In one e-mail, I asked John, who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?
He sent back a long reply that concluded:
"My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don't know. And frankly, if I'm totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, 'You, God, are infinite; I'm human and finite.' "
John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn't reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.
And I considered another possibility: Maybe God didn't exist.
TOWARD the end of my tenure as a religion reporter, I traveled to Nome, Alaska. Sitting in a tiny visitor's room, I studied the sad, round face of the Eskimo in front of me and tried to imagine how much he hated being confined to jail.
Peter "Packy" Kobuk was from a remote village on St. Michael Island in western Alaska. There natives lived, in many ways, just as their ancestors did 10,000 years ago. Smells of the outdoor life hung heavy in his village: the salt air, the strips of salmon drying on racks, the seaweed washed up on the beach.
But for now, Packy could smell only the disinfectants used to scrub the concrete floors at the Anvil Mountain Correction Center. Unfortunately, alcohol and a violent temper had put Packy there many times in his 46 years. For his latest assault, he was serving three months.
The short, powerfully built man folded his calloused hands on the table. I was surprised to see a homemade rosary hanging from his neck, the blue beads held together by string from a fishing net.
I had come from Southern California to report on a generation of Eskimo boys who had been molested by a Catholic missionary. All of the now-grown Eskimos I had interviewed over the past week had lost their faith. In fact, several of them confessed that they fantasized daily about burning down the village church, where the unspeakable acts took place.
But there was Packy with his rosary.
"Why do you still believe?" I asked.
"It's not God's work what happened to me," he said softly, running his fingers along the beads. "They were breaking God's commandments -- even the people who didn't help. They weren't loving their neighbors as themselves."
He said he regularly got down on his knees in his jail cell to pray.
"A lot of people make fun of me, asking if the Virgin Mary is going to rescue me," Packy said. "Well, I've gotten helped more times from the Virgin Mary through intercession than from anyone else. I won't stop. My children need my prayers."
Tears spilled from his eyes. Packy's faith, though severely tested, had survived.
I looked at him with envy. Where he found comfort, I was finding emptiness.