Photo: Nigel Cox
Down the dusty main street of Abadiânia, a scrap of a town in central Brazil, come hundreds of people dressed in white. They're wearing white button-down shirts and embroidered white skirts and rumpled white sweaters, flowing white dresses and tight white leotards. White caftans, white shawls, white golf shorts. Shiny white tracksuits. Kicky white capri pants. Crisp white jeans with bejeweled white sandals. Many white scarves. Some people sit in wheelchairs; some hobble on crutches or walking sticks or leg braces. They're young and they're old. They come from a block away and from the other side of the world and from every place in between. They are all here for one reason: to see João Teixeira de Faria, a 68-year-old man widely known as John of God.

Here at the end of the Avenida Francisca Teixeira Damas, just before the pavement turns to rich red dirt and the road dips down into a valley of mango and avocado trees, in an immaculate compound of open-air buildings called the Casa de Dom Inácio de Loyola—John of God has attended millions of people, including many who have heard their doctors say these chilling words: "There is nothing more we can do." And somehow, after visits to the Casa and audiences with this man, after following the spiritual prescriptions they received here, some of these people managed to do the unexpected: They lived. Fully healed.

For 52 years and counting, miracles of this sort have been happening around this unassuming Brazilian, who takes no credit for them. "I have never healed anybody. It is God who heals," he often says. Born poor in the state of Goiás, often hungry in his youth, João attended school only briefly and never learned to read or write, setting to work as a tailor at an early age. The first big glimpse of his gift occurred at age 9, when, as the story goes, he predicted that a sudden, savage storm would destroy houses in Nova Ponte, a nearby village. It was a lovely day at the time, and people dismissed his prophecy. When 50 houses were damaged by tornado-force winds, no one had a logical explanation. The extent of his ability became even more apparent at age 16 when João, tired, famished, and looking for a place to wash up, had an overwhelming vision of a beautiful woman down by a river. She gave him the address of a spiritual center and told him to go there. He went, and promptly fainted. When he awoke, several hours later, an astonished crowd had gathered. They told João he had performed healings all afternoon. He came to believe that the woman who'd guided him was Saint Rita of Cascia, and that while he was unconscious, the spirit of King Solomon had taken up residence in his body and done the healing work.

Brazil has deep roots in the traditions of shamanism and spiritism, both of which feature the notion that individuals can—and do—cross the boundaries between this worldly existence and the afterlife. In this lexicon, it's perfectly understandable that King Solomon and other powerful spirits (known as the Entities) would swing by to offer help, incorporating in João's body (the Medium). Even so, when that help involved a man who was not a doctor cutting into a person's thorax with an unsterilized kitchen knife, the legal, medical, and religious establishments balked. (In most cases the healings he performs are deemed "invisible surgeries" that don't even involve touch, but there are occasional procedures that include actual incisions.)

For John of God—or as he is known in Abadiânia, Medium João— the realization of his gift was accompanied by years of persecution and lawsuits for practicing medicine without a license. That didn't stop him from his mission—to aid anyone who requested it, free of charge—and as time passed and he managed to help such high-profile politicians as the president of Peru and the mayors of assorted Brazilian towns, he was accepted and even protected, treated as a national treasure.

The question of how a malignant tumor disappears from someone's body, how a blind person ends up seeing again, how the lame suddenly walk—how darkness turns to light, in other words—is not a small one. Our rational minds search for analytical handholds, evidence. In Abadiânia, the currency is more ephemeral: To show up here to see John of God is an act of faith.