In a world filled with school massacres, ethnic wars and rampant poverty, it seems God has chosen to fix a curious thing-teeth.
Right across the street from the Independent, congregants of the Clark Fork Christian Center, a nondenominational charismatic New Testament church, claim that for the past month, they have had their fillings turn to shining gold through divine intervention. Gold crowns and teeth have also appeared, they say, and sometimes a fine gold dust has covered the palms of parishioners' hands, staying in place anywhere from a few seconds to an hour.
"I keep asking my friends if I've gone off the deep end," says CFCC member Bruce Donnelly, who says he has witnessed the spontaneous golden appearances. "But you can't explain it away."
The Independent first learned about the phenomenon across the street, ironically enough, through an e-mail sent from a woman in Lexington, Kentucky. A member of a Christian news group, she had received a forwarded message from Steve Valentine, a pastor at CFCC who is considered an apostle by church members.
But this is not the first occurrence of otherworldly dentistry to come up in recent weeks. According to a statement by the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship in Canada, "On Wednesday, March 3, 1999, miracles began happening in people's teeth. By Thursday evening, over 50 people were on the platform testifying to having received what appeared to be gold or bright silver fillings or crowns, which they believed had supernaturally appeared in their mouths after receiving prayer during the Intercession Conference."
As it happens, a CFCC secretary was at that conference, and after she returned to Missoula and gave a five-minute testimony during a worship service on March 10, the mysterious appearances began.
"She had us put our hands on our mouths and she prayed God would bless his people and touch them like he was doing in Toronto," Valentine's e-mail message details. "We were coming to the close of the prayer meeting and Russ Smith came running up to me saying Traci, his wife, had a new gold tooth! He then fell on the floor making groaning noises. ... I looked and she had a gold crown that she said was silver before!"
Donnelly, who was also present that night, says, "I watched a guy's filling turn color. It sounds so flaky; it's hard to believe."
Nothing has happened to his own teeth, he says, but he did see gold dust on his palms. "It's glittering stuff, even finer than makeup. We call it gold dust, but we don't know what it's made of."
Donnelly adds that in the New Testament of the Bible, there are plenty of references to the signs and wonders created by God, and he considers the gold teeth to be just such a symbol.
"Gold is symbolic in scriptures as a sign of holiness, purity and the kingship of Jesus," he says. "But it's not the gold that's important, it's who's doing it."
Kerry Wickman, who helped found the CFCC in 1977 and has seen "a whole molar" turn to gold, says, "Jesus always did miracles to teach about heaven and draw people to him. Our church believes in no limits, and faith is the key issue in any miracle."
As skeptics point out, however, there have been instances when such faith has created misunderstandings. When asked to comment on the Missoula incidents, for instance, the American Dental Association in Chicago cited a similar case that turned out to be a mistake.
In Lethbridge, Alberta on March 22-three weeks after the Toronto conference-Dick Dewert, president of Canada's only Christian television station, told a fund-raising telethon audience that he received a gold tooth after praying to God. At least 20 other people watching the program reported the same phenomenon happening to them during the show.
After a trip to his dentist for verification, however, Dewert discovered his dentist had put in the gold filling ten years earlier.
Dewert told the Lethbridge Herald four days later, "I don't remember details. I remember [the filling] being silver, not gold. I jumped to the conclusion it was gold. At the moment, when miracles appear to be happening, it's easy to get excited, and, in my case, jump to conclusions."
For their part, Donnelly and Wickman say CFCC members who claim to have received gold teeth are in the process of getting verification from their dentists, to prove that the events that took place in their congregation were divinely inspired and not the work of human hands.
In the meantime, though, it's clear that the congregation remains full of energy and spirit. At a service last Sunday, despite the lack of any new miracles, some parishioners swayed with closed eyes and raised palms while an electric rock band played songs about Jesus. Between songs, the worshippers moaned devotional phrases.
"I feel you, Lord!" shouted a man with tears in his eyes.
This intense belief, Wickman says, is why CFCC members are receiving "gold from heaven."
"It's not about us, it's about God," she says. "That's why it's happening, because of our faith when we're together. You have to believe in it."