Bringing his kids up to ask ‘What would Jesus do?’, one Cyprus-based born again Christian and philanthropist tells THEO PANAYIDES he is often the vessel through which miracles happen
This is not the place to discuss whether miracles are real. Many, many people think they’re not, of course – not just rational scientific folk but even certain Christians and Christian ministers (they’re called ‘cessationists’) who believe that miracles stopped happening at the time of the Apostles. Dr James Sideras thinks they still happen, on the other hand – in fact, he’s sure of it, having witnessed proof of divine intervention, again and again, at the evangelical services he holds all over the world. They’re not his doing, he makes clear, he’s just the vessel: “I’m not a healer, Jesus is the healer… If you’ve come to me expecting a miracle, you’ll get nothing. I can’t even heal myself from the common cold!”. Still, there they are, confirming the truth of the Gospel. “I mean, there’s no scientific explanation. They’re divine miracles”.
The subject looms between us, an elephant in the room – the room being an air-conditioned office supplied by a friend, James having come up to Nicosia from his base in Limassol – as we talk about everything from his early years in the UK to his upcoming relocation (he’ll be moving to America next month, along with his wife and five kids). They’re a tricky subject, these miracles. On the one hand, if I assume they’re fake then it follows that James must be deluded, or worse – yet he seems so likeable, a laid-back, voluble man who says eminently sensible things like “I’m a firm believer in the redistribution of wealth” when he’s not talking miracles. On the other, how can I assume they’re real, especially without actual proof? The internet is usually one’s friend in these situations – but James’ YouTube channel is disappointing, his videos of the “healings” (sporting titles like ‘Boy with visual impairment instantly healed’) tending to focus on after-the-fact testimony rather than the miracles themselves. Unsurprisingly, his videos don’t get many views; his Facebook page, on the other hand (‘Dr. James says’) has 103,000 followers.
Looking down the list of people who’ve ‘liked’ his posts on Facebook, many of the names seem to be Asian – which, again, is no surprise, since he’s ministered widely in Pakistan, India and points east, having gone international since moving to Cyprus in 2006 (then again, he also held “miracle services” in Limassol last weekend). His most recent trip to Karachi elicited a stream of believers with tales of mystical healing. “The most notable was a young boy called Sahil. His mum was there, she confirmed it was a miracle – I’ve got him on video after the miracle happened, testifying that he was born deaf, totally deaf in both ears, and that night, after the prayer, his ears opened. For the first time, he started to hear. I mean, that’s almost unheard-of.”
Some will just say it’s a scam, I point out.
“Well, I think we’ve got to take what people say at face value,” he replies, looking a little startled. “You’ve got the boy, you’ve got the mum, you’ve got people that know him – I mean, how many of them are going to be lying?… There’s no gain for them. I’m not paying them, I can tell you. I’m not paying them to say these things, I’m not coercing them. There’s nothing contrived or fictitious, I can vouch for that.”
“On my first visit to Pakistan in 2016, three women who were blind in one eye began to see,” he recalls later. “They came up, they testified. Never met them before in my life!… Also, another miraculous healing was when I prayed for a woman in a wheelchair, she had multiple sclerosis for 20 years. It’s like you read in the Book of Acts, Chapter 4, when Peter said to the man who was crippled: ‘Silver and gold have I none but what I do have I give to you, in the name of Jesus Christ get up and walk’. I saw it: I prayed for her, she fell on the floor, she convulsed as I rebuked the spirit of paralysis – then she got up, and she ran. She ran!”
What can you say? Some will already have stopped reading, dismissing the whole thing as nonsense – but the better (or fairer) response is perhaps to reserve judgment on the miracles, looking instead at the man behind them. Miracles may or may not be real – but the Sideras International School is definitely real, sitting on the outskirts of Indore in the state of Madhya Pradesh and accommodating around 1,000 students “of disadvantaged backgrounds” who might not otherwise have had an education. James and his brothers funded that school, along with other philanthropic projects: another school in Uganda, a “huge project for orphans” in Parandwadi, India. Then there’s World Healing Outreach, a registered charity in the UK, chaired and founded by James: “If you go on the website you’ll see that we are helping brick-kiln workers in Pakistan who are like modern-day slaves,” he tells me. “There are child prostitutes that we’re rescuing in India.” The charity’s website (www.whoutreach.org/) speaks of “supporting single-parent families” and “providing aid in natural disaster zones”. These too, in their own way, are miracles.
What’s the story here? Who is this man who apparently communes with God in between giving succour to Indian orphans? The stages of James Sideras’ life seem to go as follows: first he was an English Cypriot boy growing up in London, then a 23-year-old Electronics student, then a businessman, then an itinerant evangelist in the UK (actually, those two go together), then a philanthropist and well-connected international preacher. The 23-year-old student started it all, deciding quite suddenly – though actually after some months of “asking the big questions” – to give his life to Jesus. “There was a moment on the 9th of January 1989, at one in the morning. I remember that time as I remember the date of my birth – because it was my second birth, it was the day I was born again”. He knelt down, cried out to Jesus to save him, “and something from another world came into that bedroom, the presence of God filled that room… I cried like a baby. I woke up in the morning and I was totally brand-new. I looked in the mirror – I had the same blue eyes, same colour hair, same facial features, but I was looking at a new man.”
The 23-year-old dropped out of college – though he later went back for a course in health-care management, followed by a Master’s and Doctorate. By that time, he and his two older brothers (both of whom also “came to Christ” after he did) had started a health-care business, providing services for people with learning disabilities. The services included nursing homes, where James also met a Mauritian nurse named Pascale who became his wife – and the business did well, so well in fact that 10 per cent of the proceeds (an equivalent of the Biblical ‘tithe’) was enough to fund the schools and other projects which they launched in the late 00s. The company was sold in 2013, and his brothers took early retirement. And James himself? How does he make a living nowadays? “I’ve made investments over the years to produce an income for what I do, so I’m – self-funded,” he explains carefully. No working hours, then? No, he replies: “I’m a full-time evangelist”.
He’s also a full-time dad, doing school runs and other mundane tasks in between working miracles. James is easy to talk to – mostly free of that strident, proselytising edge which tends to mark activists, both religious and secular – but we do hit a snag when it comes to hobbies. He looks surprisingly hip for a 51-year-old minister, with his silvery goatee and spiky hair, short at the sides; add some more jewellery to the large gold cross (worn over a red polo shirt with a flowered pattern) and he could almost pass for a music promoter, or an Ayia Napa bar owner (the trendy kind, serving sophisticated cocktails). Yet he has no vices to speak of: he doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink beyond “a tiny bit of wine with my wife over a meal”, hasn’t taken drugs since some teenage, pre-salvation ‘experimenting’. His main hobby seems to be keeping fit – he goes to the gym regularly – but above all, he says, “I love my children. I’m with my children every day, when I’m not on a mission”.
That’s quite interesting too – because James practises what he (literally) preaches when it comes to parenting, inculcating his brood in “traditional family values”. James and Pascale have no maid, which is deliberate; the five kids (aged between 10 and 18) are expected to clean up after themselves, and must finish their chores before they can go out to play. Boundaries and “good old-fashioned manners” are important. They all pray together as a family, every morning before school. The kids aren’t allowed to stay up late watching TV, and are often reminded to live by the maxim ‘What would Jesus do?’. It’s the kind of upbringing one expects to find in a fundamentalist home somewhere in Texas, not among the fleshpots of Limassol in 2017.
That’s the point, however: Christian values are converging and evangelism, like Dr James Sideras himself, has gone international. “Ordinary guy, happily-married man with five kids; I love Greek culture, I consider myself a Greek Cypriot,” he enthuses when I ask for a thumbnail portrait – yet in fact he’s not so ordinary, nor is he merely Greek Cypriot. The move to the US makes sense, both because he already has some high-level contacts (he was part of the “international host” at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC last February, with Trump himself in attendance) and because he already sounds quite American, railing against “liberalism” and singling out issues like transgenderism. All that said, much of what he says about today’s world applies to Cyprus as much as the US: “Sin is made to be the norm,” he laments. “I do believe that there is such a thing as sin. It’s sinful to lie. It’s sinful to steal. It’s sinful to murder. It’s sinful to commit adultery.”
You won’t find many people calling that last one a sin, I point out.
“No, they wouldn’t,” he agrees. “They don’t call it adultery, they call it ‘an affair’. They don’t call it narcissism, they call it ‘exploring yourself’. We have made ourselves to be sort of like a god. We decide now – relativism! – we decide what’s right and wrong. God’s moral law has been abandoned. There is an objective truth, there is an objective moral law – but now there’s no such thing as objective truth, it’s ‘my truth’ and ‘your truth’.”
Is that right? Is there really an objective moral law (aka the Bible)? This is where divisions may appear, as they do with his talk of miracles; even many of those who’d applaud his good works nonetheless chafe at the thought of religious ‘truth’. After all, even James’ philanthropy comes with a certain agenda: the child prostitutes his charity (in co-operation with YWAM, ‘Youth With a Mission’) rescues in India, for instance, hail from the Banchara tribe, dirt-poor ‘untouchables’ who sell out their daughters as a source of family income – and the vulnerable girls, once rescued from their families, are placed in centres where they’re fed and looked after but also “taught the teachings of Christ”, and become Christians. Some may also wonder, given the atrocities committed in the name of religion in recent years, how James can remain a believer – but in fact he’s ready for that one, not just distinguishing between Islamic terror and religion in general but also offering this potentially shocking admission: “I’m not religious. I don’t believe in organised religion. I believe in a relationship with one person, Jesus Christ”.
What if the relationship starts to fray, though? After all, haven’t many evangelists faltered over the years, proving themselves hypocritical (or just human), giving in to what James calls “the classic temptations [of] the girls, the gold and the glory”? He himself is always on guard, he confirms: “There are some rules I follow: I will never be alone with a woman in a room, that’s for sure” (as much to prevent false accusations as actual temptation). Evangelists look out for each other, he relates, once again showing that he’s part of a powerful international community going way beyond Cyprus: “I just got off the phone with another evangelist friend of mine called Giles Stevens who’s in Brazil, they’re seeing an incredible revival there. Miracles. People walking out of wheelchairs. He’s part of a church that’s 300,000 people!… And he said to me ‘Jim, hold me accountable. When you’re on the phone with me, I want you to ask me: “How are you treating your wife? Are you managing your reactions when you’re feeling angry?”. Hold me accountable’ – and I say the same thing to him: Hold me accountable, brother!… We all need a check-up from the neck up.”
Quite a life for a former London health-care professional: preaching to multitudes, roaming the globe – and of course experiencing God, not just ‘from the neck up’ but also in his soul, wherever that’s located. I don’t want to sentimentalise James Sideras; rational scientific folk (aka non-believers) will say he’s deluded, and potentially dangerous. Yet he’s very amiable in person – and he does sound genuine, for what it’s worth. “I’m what you would call an incurable believer!” he laughs, when I ask if he’s ever prey to doubts. “With the amount of miracles I’ve seen, with the experiences I’ve had in Christ, I don’t think there’s anything that could shake my faith”. Even now, after 28 years of being saved, he marvels at our resurrected Saviour. “He said, ‘Come to Me. All you who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’. No other person spoke like this! And all I do is bring people to Jesus”. Miracles may happen, or not really.