Coming Soon To A Theatre Near You...
As I continue to ponder the oddities of our system of worship within the Worldwide Church of God, I recently began to contemplate the effect of something seemingly insignificant...the places we, as a church, rented for the purpose of holding our weekly church services. I vaguely remember the reasoning behind that decision, something about the church was the actual people that made up the body of Christ, not the building in which we assembled weekly. There was also a sense of impermanence about it, reminding us that at any moment we would be whisked away in those special 747's to the place of safety.
But as I continue to heal from the experience and struggle to find my place in this world, both secular and religious, I find myself wishing for the permanence of a church building as a part of the overall experience of worship. I am not about to debate whether or not there is a God or whether or not it is necessary to attend a church...any church. My thoughts run more toward traditions of society and what meaning and impact they have in our lives. In the recent blitz of media attention surrounding JFK, Jr.'s plane crash and the resulting deaths, I became somewhat disinterested as the days went by and every time I turned on the TV I heard yet another minute detail of the accident, the search efforts, how the family was circling the wagons at the "compound", ad nauseum. However, one particular sound byte pierced through my complacency and stayed with me, like a tiny, invisible, irritating splinter in my finger. It involved the funeral arrangements for the sister-in-law, which were to be held in her hometown of Greenwich, CT. It was reported that the service would be held at a certain church, not because she had attended there as a child and not because it was the church in which her family worshipped because they, like a large segment of our country's population, did not attend any church. They simply chose this particular church because it was big enough.
I was overcome with an overwhelming sadness as I heard this and for days I could not understand why. The more I thought about it, I realized that I identified strongly with the situation her family was in, because I also, do not have a "church"...neither a building, nor a metaphoric group of like-minded fellow human beings to which I "belong". I tried desperately to understand the cause of my sadness and longing. I have come to the conclusion that it is due, in a large part, to my history within Worldwide Church of God and less because of my current state of "churchlessness".
If I had to isolate one of my earliest memories of attending church, it would be playing behind the bar in the "forbidden" corner of the building the Buffalo, NY Worldwide Church of God congregation rented for our weekly church service. It was an Elks Lodge or local union hall of some sort, of which similar low-ceilinged, single-story buildings with linoleum floors and countless battered metal folding chairs hosted weekly "church" services across the country. There was a faint odor of lingering cigarette smoke in the air and the ever present mini-bar permanently set up in the corner of the large room. It was a popular place to play hide and seek, even though the deacons tried valiantly to keep us away from it...either to prevent our association with the demon liquor or to keep us young hooligans from breaking something and jeopardizing our congregation's future rental negotiations with the Elks. We weren't allowed to play outside in the gravel parking lot, either, as this posed a significant security risk. Those Elks lodges weren't always located in the best part of town.
Over the years I dutifully traipsed into services with my family...into other lodges and union halls, into school cafeterias and gymnasiums and auditoriums. I especially enjoyed the movie theatre...it was dark and the chairs were soft and it was fun to rock in them. As we entered the theatre on Saturday morning, a large sign proclaimed "THE EXORCIST" would be shown later that evening. Unfortunately the irony was completely lost on me. In later years, as a cynical teenager, I quite enjoyed the irony of meeting in the basement of a mental health facility located next to the maximum security federal prison in Rochester, Minnesota where Jim Baker(of the PTL ministries) was serving his time. My husband recalls fond memories of their congregation in south Louisiana which met for a while in the local community health center. The standing joke was to avoid sitting in the last few rows of wooden chairs because they were borrowed from the V.D. clinic which was also located in the building. And in Austin, Texas we played a game almost weekly, trying to guess what the initials on the sign in front of the dance hall that we were meeting in actually represented. The sign read "S.P.J.S.T. Hall". My personal favorite was "Stupid People Just Sit There". This was the same dance hall that my husband refused to hold our wedding in, even though it was the tradition of the local congregation. He flatly refused to be married in a dark, dank, smelly dance hall with condom dispensers in the men's bathroom.
It is occasions such as weddings (and funerals) that I look back upon with the most regret and sadness in the context of our experiences within Worldwide Church of God. How many of us attended weddings in the Elks lodges and dance halls or cinder block basements where weekly church services were held and then feasted (I used that word loosely) on the pot luck meal afterward before wishing the happy couple farewell. As individuals with free will, why did so many choose to hold their nuptials in such depressing surroundings? The factor of cost cannot be discounted, and for many it was simply the cheapest and easiest option to use the "church hall". Our wedding was held in the banquet room of the local Radisson Hotel. Far superior to the S.P.J.S.T. hall, but still lacking what is befitting for that most important day. Likewise, funeral services were conducted within the funeral home or at the graveside because there simply was not a church in which to meet to have such a gathering.
So why do I feel cheated now? It's just a building, after all. It doesn't mean anything. Or does it? In devaluing the importance of a "church", i.e. bricks and pews and an altar, are we just continuing to be affected by the brainwashing of the cult? I know it's hard for many ex-Worldwide Church of God members to consider entering the doors of any religious institution. I also have preferred the freedom I've experienced since leaving Worldwide Church of God behind forever. But as Janis Joplin said, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." As former members of the controlling cult we were in, we are now truly free according to that definition. We have nothing left to lose. We certainly don't have the money, the "friends" are long gone, the traditions were weird and unbalanced, and the shared experiences are mostly too painful to recall. Unless we are able to look fondly upon the local Elks lodge or school cafeteria which are probably still standing in our local communities, we have nothing at all.
Anyone who has experienced the interior of a great church or cathedral can hardly dispute the impressive nature of these structures. Is it just the sheer size of the building, the beautiful stained glass windows, the way even a whisper seems to echo through the open space that we find impressive? Or do we perceive God's presence or feel in awe of a higher power in such a place? For centuries, people all over the world have built churches to be a place for God to reside..."God's house". Churches have served as places of worship and families gathered to celebrate births, marriages and deaths. Churches have also served as places of refuge, both physical and spiritual.
Many people claim to feel more connected to God or whatever higher power they believe in through nature and I have to admit, living in Colorado and witnessing the natural cathedrals formed by these beautiful mountains it is hard not to feel in awe of some higher power. But still I feel the need for a PLACE...a building. I know I am not alone. Men struggled for hundreds of years in the middle ages to build the great cathedrals that still stand today. While their dedication to such a cause was probably misplaced, they accomplished great architectural feats because of their religious devotion.
I think that it is painful to reflect on my years within the Worldwide Church of God because so many of the endeavors which I poured my heart into are now so meaningless and there are no physical reminders of any accomplishment. I'll never forget standing among the ruins of Whitby Abby on England's northern coast. The abby was hundreds of years old when it was bombed during World War II, but several of the massive stone walls survived and these monoliths towered overhead as I walked along beautiful, lush, green grass which covered what was once the interior floor of the great cathedral. I felt a connection to the past and sensed a shared humanity with the people that had worshipped within the now non-existent walls.
Is it religion I am yearning for or simply tradition? Worldwide Church of God certainly robbed us of social traditions by commanding that we not participate in them and labeling them "evil" or "ungodly". All I know is, I will never be able to take my daughter to the church in which her father and I were married. I have no connection to my own history as I now drift through life. I don't think I will be able to drift indefinitely. As I heal from my experience within Worldwide Church of God I feel an increasing need for moorings, for something solid in my life which will lend a sense of history and tradition within my family as I grow older. I'm tired of having nothing left to lose.
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