DO Or DIE
Understanding Youth Suicides
in the Bethlehem, PA
Worldwide Church of God Church Area
By Sharon L.
The experience of each young person growing up in the Bethlehem, PA congregation of the Worldwide Church of God (Worldwide Church of God) was unique. Conveying Bethlehem's flavor of Worldwide Church of God is difficult and can only result in a gross oversimplification of the true experience. Factors outside the church framework influenced the lives of teens and young adults, such as parents, relatives, and school friends. Some of us had strict parents; others had relatively permissive parents (at least outside of the ministers' view). Some of us had parents who earned a comfortable living; others had parents who collected welfare. Some of us had parents with stable marriages; others lived in single parent households or with parents of different faiths. Some of us grew up in educated homes; others grew up in abject ignorance. Some of our parents asked the ministry for advice on everything - from buying a new car to selecting the best toothpaste. Other parents defied or questioned the ministry and were disfellowshipped. Some young people received good parental guidance irrespective of what was taught in church. Others had parents who set their parenting responsibilities on "church autopilot" and let the ministry take over. Some of us believed every word we heard from the pulpit; others of us tuned out all that was said.
Yet, our common Bethlehem exposure left an indelible footprint on our identities, despite these differences in our personal lives. Values of the church set our moral compasses. We all encountered the same "characters" in the Bethlehem congregation every week at Sabbath services. We all heard the same sermons. We absorbed the same messages and signals from our peers and elders. We had the same set of role models. There was a common set of rules and policies we had to adhere to. We all devoted countless hours of our time to church sponsored activities. And we can all recall specific outings or meetings unique to our YOU group, whether in the woods in the Poconos, at the New Jersey shore, at church picnics at Jasper Park, or at a Bible Baseball game at the Steel Workers' Union Hall in the Boehm Room.
Bethlehem, PA had a well-attended, devoted following that included many children and teens. Our church devoted considerable attention to the youth in the form of activities, Bible studies, and socials. The number of young people in the Bethlehem congregation (aged 13-18) during the time period about which I am writing (c.a. 1977-1990) ranged from approximately 30 to 50. Total Sabbath attendance during the peak years was approximately 300-350. Despite being a focus of attention of the ministry, many of us experienced decay in mental health. Attention had its downside - there was significant intrusion into the personal lives of us teens and a pronounced violation of the human spirit.
Four of the people I grew up with committed suicide in their young adult years, one of them in recent months. We will never know for sure whether or not attending Bethlehem was causational to their decisions to take their own lives. But I know of several additional young people that attended during this time period who were frustrated with their lives and had at least contemplated suicide. I grew up in the Bethlehem congregation and was well acquainted with a few of the suicide victims. As I experienced bouts of depression and psychological turbulence myself during my teen years, I do not believe that their attendance in Bethlehem played an insignificant role in deciding to terminate their lives.
The following pages document behavior within the Bethlehem congregation of the Worldwide Church of God. Activities mentioned may or may not have been unique to the Bethlehem church are. Maybe all Worldwide Church of God congregations behaved rather similarly, if not, identically. The time frame of "Do or Die." reflects experiences growing up under the ministries of Messrs. Robert Bragg, Ray Lisman, Roy Holladay , and Larry Wooldridge. Finger pointing is not the purpose of "Do or Die." Names of specific individuals are not provided in examples. My intent is to grant readers of all backgrounds insight into the Bethlehem church by graphically relating the conditions under which young people grew up.
In so many cases, the youth of Bethlehem were not fortified with good mental health. As we ask ourselves why some of us committed suicide, we should examine the pressures and contradictions we all faced. In some cases, we are still facing the same contradictions in adulthood. It was not only the young people of Bethlehem who suffered psychological damage. However, it was the young people who had grown up in the church that had the weakest defense against the psychological abuse they endured. Their exposure to the church and its abuses was, in most cases, involuntary. I hope that the reflections I make on Bethlehem capture the hostile climate of our formative years and provide evidence of its deleterious effects.
It is essential to note that the experiences described in "Do or Die" occurred prior to any significant doctrinal changes initiated by Joseph Tkach in the early 1990's. I stopped attending the Bethlehem church in September 1990, upon starting the first semester at Ursinus College. Aside from relatively minor policy changes such as "makeup," the teachings and doctrines established by Herbert W. Armstrong were largely still in force. Undoubtedly, doctrinal change subsequent to 1990 inflicted further confusion and mental torture on the members and youth of the church.
Fear was instilled in young people in the church from an extraordinarily young age in the Bethlehem church. Although adults of the congregation usually had some degree of fear embedded in their belief structure, it was young people who, in many cases, grew up knowing nothing else but a life of fear. The emotion of fear was a way of life for many young people who had not chosen this type of life for themselves, but were involuntarily and forcibly subjected to it.
Correction (Nipping It in the Bud)
Those born into the church in Bethlehem were usually whisked away to attend services in their infancy. Parents were commanded to bring their babies to church services, irrespective of any distracting behavioral problems the children may have had. Ministers argued that even the tiniest of attendees could learn something from the messages. Babies were routinely taken out during services to the mothers' or ladies' room, in order to be spanked into submission. Several sermons on child rearing were given in which parents were urged to physically correct their children if they disobeyed instructions. Spanking was often described as an effective punishment for children straight through the teenage years. Outbursts during services were to be dealt with promptly, even if it meant carrying the baby out of the hall several times during a sermon. Many times small children would be awoken and frightened by loud, threatening voice modulations of the ministers or pounding on the lecterns during services. Anger in the voice was often part of a "message" to the congregations during corrective or prophetic sermons. Mr. Armstrong's messages were ridden with such outbursts and came through powerfully in tape or video form. The significance of correction cannot be overstated. The ministry overused the scripture, ". . . lest ye become as little children." Even adults were to be corrected from time to time, in sermons and through ministerial intrusion into private lives.
The Great Tribulation
Sermons on the "Tribulation," "End Time" or "Second Coming of Christ," were generally used as correctional tools for the congregation and to re-ignite fear of God in their psyches. Everyone including even the youngest of children was capable of being frightened by prophetic sermons. Although many sermons were given pertaining to the upcoming Tribulation and "End Time," the most horrific, graphic description of the coming Tribulation I heard in Bethlehem was presented within a sermon in the mid-1980's.
The sermon traced the fate of an unnamed family who had attended the Worldwide Church of God but had not been saved by being taken to the place of safety prior to the Tribulation. The minister chastised the father of the family more than any other family member during the sermon because he had not been able to lead his family properly. The family exemplified "lukewarm" or "Laodicean" in God's eyes and was therefore not worthy of being spared from the horrors that ordinary people in the United States would have to endure during the End Time.
At the beginning of the sermon, the family drove to church services and found that the parking lot was empty. The church had already fled to the "Place of Safety." The Tribulation ensued. The family was not annihilated by the detonation of atomic bombs in major cities (according to many sermons in Bethlehem, 1/3 of the population of the US was to die an immediate death through nuclear warfare, another 1/3 was to die of pestilence, and the remaining 1/3 was to be taken into captivity). German soldiers arrived in the US and were taking prisoners. Throughout the sermon, the father of the family continuously recalled scriptures pertaining to tithing, devoting oneself fully to the church, keeping the Holy Days, and submitting oneself to the church ministry. The father became separated from the rest of his family during the plot of the sermon. Toward to the end of the sermon, he found himself in a torture machine somewhere in the United States of Europe. Europe had reunited and instituted some form of compulsory religious adherence to the Catholic Church. The father refused to comply with the authorities in Europe and was going to be put to death if he would not agree to accept the Catholic Church. The sermon ended in an ambiguous way in that the father was thrown into some sort of molten liquid below the torture machine just as he was stating whether or not he would express allegiance to the Catholic authorities.
The congregation was left in a state of suspense - not knowing whether the father of the family had given in to the pressure of the authorities or had refused to comply. In any case, the portrayal of the entire family suffering, including the children, as a result of the father's lack of leadership and true conversion was absolutely gruesome. The family in the sermon was portrayed as one that had dedicated a good number of years to attending the Worldwide Church of God, but had not lived up to the letter of the law and was caught spiritually unprepared. The sermon evoked strong emotions in the brethren. Many children were in tears. Children were being taught that they, too, would be held accountable for their works. This seemed to be the message to young people even though children were not allowed to be baptized and supposedly not capable of having been given the Holy Spirit. God was portrayed as a wrathful god who would punish all people who did not please Him, including those who were fulfilling at least part of the requirements as outlined in church teachings. We learned that falling short of expectations would endanger our personal safety.
Sometime in the mid-1980's, the church established YES (Youth Educational Services). Youngsters aged 5-12 in the Bethlehem church area attended a form of Bible school and completed a workbook pertaining to a particular biblical topic on a monthly basis. Classes were held on Sabbath mornings prior to services and included an hour of questions and answers as well as recitation of memory verses. The classes imposed a higher standard for biblical scholarship on the children than on their baptized parents. Completing the lessons took several hours of work, especially the memory section. Workbooks were handed in and corrected by the instructors. Parents were encouraged to review the results with their children.
Intentionally or not, fear became at least a sub-theme of each YES lesson, as the teachers (members, who, to a great extent, had no teaching background) broached topics pertaining to salvation, protection from the Tribulation, and obedience to God. Some of the more recurrent statements were:
"God only hears the prayers of children in God's church."
"Only children in God's church will be saved from the Tribulation."
"God only protects children in the church who obey their parents."
"Your best friends should be church kids."
"God can see what you're doing at all times - there's no hiding from Him."
"If you don't complete your Bible lessons and memorize scriptures, God will not grant you protection."
"You children are blessed to have these lessons available to you."
Many children were either spanked or grounded if they did not complete their memory verses. Teachers informed parents of any deviant behavior in the lessons. Extremely bad performance was reported to the ministers and became an embarrassment for both the children and their parents.
Without exception, every child I knew in Bethlehem hated these lessons. They were boring and embarrassing to sit through. Imagine the fear we had of God realizing that we hated "HIS" lessons. Well, at least our parents couldn't read our minds - otherwise, we'd get in trouble with them, too.
Fear was imparted to teens at SEP (Summer Educational Program) camp. Quietly inserted into the schedule as just another camp activity, a few ministers at Big Sandy would visit with each dorm once a week for a "Fireside Chat." These chats were an open forum for teens to ask their most personal questions and receive answers from a minister, who was allegedly knowledgeable of and sensitive to teen-specific problems. Teens were separated by gender at camp, so the chats included men or women only.
Many questions that young women asked dealt with predictable topics like sex, marriage, and dating. I can still remember some of the answers to our questions:
"Herbert W. Armstrong always said that the best age for marriage for a woman is between 22 and 24; for a man it is 25 to 27."
"Yes, having sex before marriage is breaking God's law."
"Kissing and necking before marriage is also breaking God's law."
"Even thinking about having sex before marriage is considered fornication in God's eyes."
"Masturbation is a very selfish activity. God sees you in bed."
"Dating outside of God's church is like playing with fire - you might become unequally yoked."
In each dorm at camp, four women shared a room and slept in bunk beds. Everyone in my room lay awake for a few hours every night before going to sleep talking about cute guys at camp or the church's views on sex. In darkness and privacy, we could behave like any other girls our age. We would talk about our experiences with guys and determine who had gotten the "farthest" without her parents having found out. I can remember that a 17-year-old girl in a neighboring bunk related to us that she had done everything but have intercourse with a guy in the church and had stopped short because she was afraid that God would punish her if she had intercourse before marriage. I recall that my bunkmates and I tried to fall asleep just as soon as we started to feel guilty about what we had done or were thinking. And, we all promised that we would never tell anyone anything that we had disclosed to each other.
Women also asked questions at the Fireside Chats about their salvation and safety during the Tribulation. Many teens expressed their fear of not being "into the church" enough in that they had attended services for many years but still did not know if they were ready to consider baptism. The minister would respond in such a way to these statements that would imply that they would be held accountable for what they knew about God's truth:
"God will hold all of us accountable for what we knew at the time of judgment."
"Children in God's church are very special. If they obey their baptized parents, they will be spared the Tribulation. For teens it isn't as black and white."
"You do not necessarily have to be baptized to be held accountable for what you knew. The Holy Spirit has been given to your parents and you have been exposed to it."
"I once counseled someone who was leaving the church who knew that he would be in the Third Resurrection. He had been baptized and understood God's plan. Yet he decided that he did not like living by God's laws. Unfortunately, this man will not be given a second chance. He will be destroyed in the lake of fire."
"Hardwiring" fear of authority into infants and children left an indelible mark on the Bethlehem youth. Many fearful teens in the church grew up to become fearful adults who felt they had no choice but to get baptized. The church taught that if we did not become baptized as adults, there was no chance we could be spared from the Tribulation. In the alternative, if we did not become baptized, we would be judged based on what we "knew." Thus, we could never be certain whether we would receive a second chance after the Millennium. Many older teens in the Bethlehem area, believing that they "knew too much," decided to become baptized.
Due to the logistics of Sabbath keeping and the multitude of church activities, children and teens in the Bethlehem church were generally inactive in their communities and high schools. Some parents kept their children out of public school entirely and attempted to educate them at home. Children and teens were, by default, forced to form their strongest friendships with children of church families. Children were secluded in this cult-like environment and virtually prevented from making any reality check with the rest of the world other than through exposure to school and television.
Parents encouraged their children to form friendships within the church and to avoid the dangerous influences of pop culture and fads found in the public school system. For the most part, this was easy to effectuate because school children generally thought of us as freaks. In their eyes, we took a vacation in the fall every year. We kept Jewish holidays and sat with the Jehovah's Witnesses in the library during holiday parties and parades. Many of us had to wear cheap or worn-out clothing to school because of acute financial constraints, making us the target of ridicule. Many of us girls were not allowed to wear makeup or shave our legs at the time that the rest of society normally did, causing us to appear unattractive and backward. We couldn't participate in intramural sports, attend Saturday football games, or attend Friday night dance socials.
Even teachers at public schools viewed us skeptically due to extensive absences for religious observances. Whether or not it was actually the case, schoolwork and academic achievement seemed low on the list of priorities of our parents. Saving money for college and planning for future educational needs (outside of Ambassador College) was almost unheard of. Many teachers (especially in high school) did not take us seriously in the school year after going away for the Feast of Tabernacles. I remember my 11th grade teacher asking me, given that I was part of such a religious family, whether or not I would be allowed to read Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" with the rest of the class. She chuckled and rolled her eyes as she posed the question to me in front of my peers.
Frequently parents in the Bethlehem church would go to a minister or elder and ask whether or not their child should participate in an important school event. I remember several teens graduating from high school not being allowed to attend commencement ceremonies on a Friday night or Saturday. School proms that fell on Saturday nights were often forgone because of conflict with sunset or with Worldwide Church of God activities that were deemed more important.
Assimilation into secular society was not impossible while growing up in the Worldwide Church of God, but the church made it difficult for us. The cards were stacked against us being able to assimilate in adulthood. In all likelihood, we would not be looking to marry or even date young adults outside the church due to mammoth compatibility issues. Most of us did not have the funds or the grades to be able to attend a college or university other than the church college. We did not even plan on voting when we reached 18. The stage was set for us to become estranged and misanthropic in a life outside the church.
Surveillance would have to have been the trademark characteristic of the Bethlehem church. We were never too old or too young to be spied on in the church. We were never too important or too insignificant to deter interest of church authorities (or nosy members) in our behavior.
Watching the Little Ones
Surveillance of behavior was transparent and benign in certain ways. As rambunctious kids on the Sabbath, we would need fresh air and play space before and after services. We would attempt to play outside the rented Steel Workers' Union Hall. (Yes, Bethlehem, PA used to be the home of a booming steel industry several decades ago - not to be confused with Billy Joel's "Allentown.") We enjoyed playing in the parking lot. We enjoyed plucking sour cherries off the trees on the property. One day in services, it was announced that children were not allowed to loiter outside in the parking lot or to take a walk outside the property of the Union Hall. From then on, deacons reported our behavior to our parents if we misbehaved. Even for older children, just standing in the wrong place meant literally being pulled by the scruff of the neck back to the parents. Once we were caught doing something that offended the surveillance team, you were carefully monitored from that point forward through adulthood. Children under twelve years of age had to be accompanied to the rest room during services by an adult. The church feared that children would spend too much time in there, get lost, or miss too much of the sermon. Children needed discipline, even above and beyond that which most of our parents were willing to dispense.
Other forms of surveillance in Bethlehem had a more menacing feel to them. One such form was attendance taking. Members designated by the ministry took attendance prior to the start of Sabbath services. The fact that a general headcount was taken was not a secret; however, there was a covert surveillance team that kept a written log of each individual's attendance. Attendance takers walked around on each Sabbath with a notebook small enough to be concealed in a pocket. Lists of names of members and their children were on the pages. Attendance takers made notes and checkmarks next to the names.
One member approached either my brother or me on any Sabbath that one of my parents was missing. "Where's your mom/dad?" he would ask. On the first occasion of being queried, one of us simply replied that he/she was not there that day. But then he posed further indiscreet questions such as, "Why is he/she not here today? Is he/she sick?" It soon was apparent that this person was not trying to be friendly and did not wish to speak to our parent; rather, the individual was trying to determine whether there was a pattern of absenteeism taking shape that would need to be reported.
In one extreme example of overzealous attendance taking, a baptized member I knew very well missed a Passover service. She missed the service because she had to help her elderly aunt, who had caused a car accident the evening of the Passover. This member was disallowed from taking the make-up Passover and returning to church services because of her "error" in judgment - the Passover service was to supersede everything else in importance. A minister and his deputy paid a visit to her house days after the incident and "disfellowshipped" her on the spot.
Attendance taking was a vital instrument of the ministry in monitoring the entire "flock," including teens. Teens who missed youth Bible studies on a regular basis were warned that they would not be able to participate in sports or other activities if they continually failed to attend them. Attendance was also taken at Wednesday evening Bible studies. Ministers would make occasional comments during sermons regarding low attendance and that the people who attended were always the same faithful members. Registration at the Feast of Tabernacles was mandatory for every man, woman, and child.
Invasion of Privacy of the YOU (Youth Opportunities United)
The Bethlehem church paid a lot of attention to its YOU members. Ministers tried to get to know us by holding many teen activities. Each young person, after all, was a prospective member of the church. Some were prospective Ambassador College students. Some young males were even prospective pastors, elders or deacons. Because the teens were so vital to the survival and growth of the church, the ministry needed to monitor their behavior very closely, both on a personal level and as a group.
Occasionally, instead of holding a monthly YOU Bible Study (generally consisted of an hour message given to the YOU group by a minister or elder after regular church services), a "Bible Baseball" game was held in its place. During such a game, the minister divided the group into two teams and "pitched" biblical questions at each member of the group. Each teen had to stand up and answer the question in front of the entire group. The questions related to sermon topics, YES lesson material, the Ambassador College Correspondence Course, and general Bible trivia. Everyone hated the game and found it embarrassing to have to answer such questions in front of an audience. There were even parents sitting on the sidelines watching the spectacle. Besides trying to humiliate those in the group who did not seem to know much about the Bible, the ministry was probably trying to determine who was going to become a member of the church and who was not. "Problem teens" were sorted out and marked during this exercise.
On a handful of occasions all YOU members had to hand in their notebooks so that the elders and ministers could review them. There was no prior warning that they were going to be collected. As a result, anything written in them was collected and most likely read - personal notes, doodles, and sermon notes. In general, every attendee of the congregation who was able to read and write was strongly encouraged to take notes on sermons and Bible studies. But only the youth were subjected to mandatory collection of personal notebooks. The ministry was probably under the impression that teens were not taking good notes (or any at all) and that this exercise would reveal who was and who was not doing so. We considered it an invasion of our privacy.
The Bethlehem church kept a close watch on what teens were wearing and how they looked. We were told to avoid wearing trendy attire to services. Slits in women's skirts had to be sewn up if they were too high. See-through blouses and halter-tops were expressly forbidden. Women were discouraged from wearing excessively high heels. During one evening YOU event, I can remember a minister's wife approaching a teen for not wearing a slip under her see-through skirt. She was told to put something on underneath the skirt before returning to the event. On one evening after Sabbath services we were shown a video that was produced at headquarters on "grooming." The video covered topics such as hygiene, hair styling, suit color coordination, clipping of nasal hairs, proper posture, and proper positioning of men's hands outside of their suit pockets.
Indeed, there was a cosmetic standard to live up to, and if we did not live up to the standard, we were told to shape up or ship out. For instance, a minister once reprimanded a young woman of 19 or 20 for wearing too much mascara. The minister visited her and told her that if she did not stop wearing excessive eye makeup she could no longer attend services. She chose not to attend services. On another occasion, before the makeup policy was liberalized, the same minister made an unannounced visit to a family that included three blonde-haired women - a mother and her two teen daughters. They were bleaching their hair blonde (their hair was naturally dirty blonde and they were lightening it), according to the minister, and were told that they had to stop doing this; otherwise, they could no longer attend Sabbath services.
To my knowledge, the most demonstrative act of intrusion into the personal lives of teens in the Bethlehem/Wilkes Barre church areas took place sometime in the mid-1980's. Our minister gave a sermon that outlined the way people in the church should distinguish "good" music and music groups from "bad" ones. The minister maintained that there were many evil types of music that were inspired, at least in part, by Satan and his demons. (We all heard of the infamous "anapestic" beat that allegedly inverted the rhythm of the listener's heart and make the listener go wild. Live demonstrations of the anapestic beat were given at church summer camp.) Parents and teens were supposed to recognize bad music and avoid it. The minister distributed a list of music groups with ratings of "generally okay" to "really bad" to the entire congregation. Soon after the sermon there was a "music burning" event held at the Mt. Pocono festival site for which parents were encouraged to search through their children's belongings and rid their homes of cassette tapes that contained evil music.
Contemporaneous with the war on bad music was the condemnation of those who engaged in playing the game "Dungeons and Dragons." Many parents forbade their children (the game appealed primarily to boys) to play the game due to its alleged satanic influence. The minister warned that excessive role-playing could suck the children into a world of demons and the occult from which they could not return. Banning it in the home seemed like a sensible idea to many of our parents.
The problem with all this surveillance, from a young person's perspective, was that there was little room to develop one's personality, tastes, and values. The difference between right and wrong was often portrayed as a cosmetic distinction rather than a heartfelt one. Emphasis was placed on the form rather than the substance of religion. Teens were taught to avoid the appearance of evil. Keeping up on all the church policies pertaining to makeup, dating and sex was hard work. Even more difficult, given the amount of surveillance, was concealing any deviant behavior from the minister.
There was nothing more vital to us as young people in the church than reassurance that we were doing the right thing. Hearing the "truth" from ministers was not enough. We wanted to see, hear, and feel what it was like to be part of the "true church." We needed assurance that we were not just playing a game or blindly following our parents and the ministers. We looked for signs of plausibility that we, out of all the billions of other people on the earth, were part of "God's work." We wanted to be able rest at night knowing that we would be saved from the Tribulation, as promised. A vibrant church social life, frequent opportunities to fellowship, the Feast of Tabernacles, YOU activities, and Ambassador College were some of the positive reinforcements we needed to muddle through.
Fellowshipping was encouraged in Bethlehem. Through spending hours and hours talking to one another, most of us built strong friendships within the church. Many families arrived several hours before the start of services for choir practice or service details. Song leaders would often have to shout at the top of their lungs to grab our attention on the Sabbath so that we began finding our seats for the start of services. Many families fellowshipped for hours after services in the meeting hall. Sometimes janitors or facility management would have to chase us out of their space. Others would go out to eat after services every week with the same families in the church. Being able to talk to our friends was a major motivator for young people and adults to attend services.
Friendships in the church were vital to our survival. We could validate our faith every week by discussing our difficulties with fellow brethren and discovering that everyone else had the same problems and fears we had. We gossiped about other people and measured ourselves against others. We complained about the ministry to one another. We valued our opportunity to talk. We would have been devastated had the ministry told us that we were no longer allowed to attend church functions. Our social club would have vanished. We would have become outcasts. Our friends would have been afraid to talk to us if we were "marked." Depriving us of our social outlet would have raped us of our identity as church people. We would have had to start from scratch making friends back in the "world" had we lost the privilege to attend services.
Feast of Tabernacles
The main purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles was purported to be getting a foretaste of what was to come in God's Kingdom and soaking up the "spiritual messages" during services each day. But a more tangible benefit of the Feast was getting a reality check on how large the "Work" was and how many people believed the doctrines of the Worldwide Church of God.
For children the visual spectacle of it all was vital. It gave us something interesting to look at during all those hours of services. Thousands and thousands of members and their children attended these conventions. Seeing a stadium or convention center swarming with spiritual clones of ourselves made us feel warm and tingly inside. Bethlehem, PA was just one small piece of the gigantic picture. Through live satellite transmissions, we were even able to sing together with most of the rest of the world, it seemed to us as children. Videos of "the Work" portrayed Messrs. Armstrong and Tkach meeting with world leaders, uniting the whole world together. It was just a matter of time before the gospel was being preached in every nation on earth. The Feast was a truly inspiring event for the youth.
Bethlehem hosted hundreds of activities for teens over the years. Many of the activities on Saturday nights and Sundays were truly fun and memorable. There were volleyball and basketball team sports, cheerleading, track meets, camp-outs, and formal dances. These activities successfully filled the void caused by Sabbath observance and lack of participation in school activities. Teens who misbehaved or abused their privileges as YOU members were barred from attending future events. Similar to avoiding the loss of the privilege of attending Sabbath services, young people strived to protect their participation in YOU outings. As a teen, there was really no other alternative to participating in the Bethlehem YOU activities because of Sabbath-keeping and exclusion from school activities.
Bethlehem held a YOU "Awards Banquet" at the end of every activity year. The banquet celebrated the athletic achievements, musical talents, and sportsmanship of the teens. Trophies were awarded to most valuable players, most improved players, players with the most positive, Christian-like attitudes, track and field stars, talent show winners - even to the "most valuable cheerleader" in the women's cheerleading squad. Teens were congratulated for being good sports, for showing tenacity, and projecting a positive image of the Bethlehem church in other church areas. Getting official recognition at this ceremony motivated us to become even more dedicated YOU members. Strong performance in YOU would meant that there was a good chance of getting accepted into SEP camp or even Ambassador College. More importantly, doing well was a form of reassurance that we would be saved from the Tribulation if the Second Coming of Christ occurred before we became baptized members.
AC (Ambassador College)
Positive reinforcement was particularly vital for us as older teens. We started to make decisions that would affect our future careers and families. We worried about finding a way to make a living, and we started searching for a "mate," as it was called in the church.
Becoming an AC student was the goal of many a teen in the Bethlehem congregation. Some children were encouraged from their birth to strive to attend "God's college," become a minister, or both. At the Feast of Tabernacles and on other special occasions, the congregation was shown a movie of the Pasadena, CA campus of AC. Lush landscaping and the interior of the elegant Ambassador Auditorium were filmed. "The Young Ambassadors," a handful of musically talented college students, would sing inspiring words to the camera in Lawrence Welk fashion. Attractive women dressed in lovely long pastel-colored gowns and men wore impeccably tailored suits. The Young Ambassadors were a source of inspiration for us all.
Attending AC was a practical solution in dealing with the uncertainties of young adulthood. Being accepted into AC was our reward for living an upright life in the church. We would have an easier time studying at God's college than at a normal accredited one, which taught courses that were not approved by the church, such as psychology, philosophy and evolution. We would not have to worry about taking time off for the Holy Days and Feast of Tabernacles. There was no need to incur large student debts at God's college. AC sheltered us from unconverted people of the world. There was a good chance of finding many young adults like us, with common interests and goals, and of acquiring a husband or wife. Most importantly, if we were very fortunate, after graduation we would gain employment in the "Work of God." There would be no need for vocational training or employment in the cruel, harsh world outside the church.
Positive reinforcement played a constructive role in our lives only to a point. It could quickly turn into negative reinforcement. Many of us could not find people our own age in Bethlehem with whom we could form close friendships. Many of us were not athletically inclined. Many of us found the members of the opposite sex in the local YOU to be repellent. Most of us considered the eligible "singles" in the congregation to be equally, if not more repellent. Many of us had no intentions of going to AC and were not creative enough to find something else to do with our lives that would be compliant with church guidelines. Many of us did not score well on the SAT. Many of us did not have good enough grades to be admitted to AC. Some of us grew up in families that were so poor (perhaps from tithing) that we felt guilty leaving them to go to AC, cutting them off from our financial contribution. Just as positive reinforcement was bound to bring most of us some degree of joy, the consequence of things not going well or as planned (or as portrayed in the glossy pages of the annual Envoy sold at the Feast of Tabernacles) was bound to bring some of us despair.
As much as we were convinced that we were in God's church, many times absurd events would overpower the resolve of our faith. Many times we thought to ourselves, "What are we doing here?" or "This cannot be the one TRUE church." There were instances when we observed such bizarre or even sacrilegious behavior that we wondered if the whole church were not really just a scam. We began to suspect that the whole thing was a joke.
Children faced stifling conditions during Sabbath services. As mentioned in the Foreword of "Do or Die.," strictness towards children varied from parent to parent. Expectations for infants have already been addressed under Fear. As very small children, we were allowed to sleep on a blanket on the floor. However, this bliss ended abruptly when a child turned four or five years old. New behavioral expectations were imposed. There were certain general "ground rules" of behavior during Sabbath services. There was an unofficial prohibition to the following:
No Talking. No Whispering. No Laughing or Giggling. No Eating. No Noises. No Foot Tapping. No Fidgeting. No Playing. No Games. No Drawing. No Fighting with Siblings. No Sleeping. No Note Passing. No Homework. No Reading (except the Bible). No Clicking Retractable Pens or Pencils.
The only things we were allowed to do were:
Listen to the Sermon. Take Notes. Page Through the Bible. Rest Head in Hands and Look Contemplative. Stare into Space.
For the vast majority of youngsters, the "stare into space" option was the most attractive. Most sermons were excruciatingly boring. Some sermons lasted over two hours. The ministers (especially the more inexperienced ones) often tortured the listeners by reading hundreds of scriptures. Most of us became experts at staring into space, tuning things out, and daydreaming.
(As an aside, the ability to stare into space is a valuable skill that stays with you as an adult. For instance, unlike my colleagues, I never fell asleep during college lectures. Verbose business presentations are easy to sit through. My husband often marvels at what a vacuous stare I can produce for extraordinarily protracted periods of time. I explained to him that I had hours of training in the art of staring as a child. The more quiet and immune we were to the conditions around us, the more highly we were regarded. Unresponsiveness was encouraged. Critical thinking only led to our demise. My best defense to anything objectionable or boring [or both] was to simply stare into space.)
With very few exceptions, the sermon was the most boring part of a Sabbath service. Singing and listening to prayer requests and other announcements were comparatively entertaining. But wasn't the sermon supposed to be the main reason for going to services? Many times my friends and I would wonder why everyone looked so bored during the sermon and why it was so long. We often felt guilty and unconverted. We felt that maybe boredom was just something that immature children suffered from. But boredom affected adults as well. Occasionally for some, but regularly for others, fits of narcolepsy set in. The problem afflicted predominantly heavyset men in Bethlehem, who, many times, also suffered from snoring problems. Sometimes the snoozers were audible several aisles away and nodded off just minutes into the sermon. Fortunately for the heavy-eyed, the occasional authoritative bellow from the pulpit awakened them into a submissive, "attention" posture.
For children aged 5-12, the Bethlehem congregation had a "Children's Choir" that practiced a few times a month after services. It was not mandatory for any given child to participate; however, many parents mandated their children's attendance and viewed the activity as one that kept their rambunctious children out of trouble whilst they chatted after services. Practicing singing with other kids in the church in a relatively unsupervised environment was a real eye-opener. As one could expect, most children hated the choir and practices after services. Practice was held on stage behind a curtain. A middle-aged woman who loved children but who had very little (if any) musical training directed the choir. Her singing voice was an octave above the children's voices, and she tried directing the choir to sing in unison. Most of the practice was devoted to disciplining the misbehaving brats. We were all "wound up" after a day of sitting and were releasing pent-up energy. Some boys liked lifting up the dresses of the girls. Some preferred hitting others and kicking the curtain. A few would escape underneath it. Meanwhile, everyone else would giggle at the nicknames of the choir director - "skuzzball" and "fatso" - that we had affectionately given to her during practice. Some of us had never seen behavior this bad before, even outside of the church. It sure was a relief to be among God's "chosen" children. Especially behind a curtain where no one could see us.
A YOU Choir existed for a brief time in the Bethlehem area. It was made up of ten or so teens, directed by a well-meaning man and self-trained musician. The music selections were self-written and difficult for untrained singers. Some of the teens were embarrassed by how terrible the music sounded. As they performed on stage for special music one Sabbath before the sermon, they held sheet music out in front of their faces. The music was held up to conceal laughter and red faces, not as a prompter for remembering the words. Several teens giggled throughout the entire performance. Thankfully, I cannot recall one instance of the YOU choir singing again after that episode.
For a number of years, the Bethlehem church area had an adult choir that was directed by a woman with many years of musical training. The choir performed special music at least once a month. One week it was abruptly announced at a practice before church services that she would no longer be able to lead the choir because she was a woman. God intended males to be in leadership positions, including that of choir director. In addition, it was announced that the choir members were spending too many hours practicing on the Sabbath and that it was a burden for their families to arrive several hours before services. A few months later, a new minister was transferred into the area along with a new male choir director. Practices before services resumed.
Minorities and Singles
At a joint Bethlehem/Wilkes Barre YOU outing in the Poconos, we had group ballroom dance lessons. As we paired up for instruction, there was a slight problem - there were one or two black teens in the group. According to the church, black people were not supposed to date, marry, or have children with white people. And since dancing with a partner required "placing a hand here" and "grabbing a shoulder waistline there," and touching a person of the opposite sex could lead from one thing to another, interracial dancing was a no-no. A resourceful instructor resolved the problem quickly by grabbing a couple of mops and draping a garment over the top of the "hair," creating a more human appearance. The blacks had to dance with mops if they were to dance at all.
Further to the topic of dating, is the subject of "Singles" must be addressed. Singles were defined as unmarried (could be single or divorced) individuals who were too old to be in YOU. Aging out of YOU automatically made one a Single. Singles were, with few exceptions, baptized members of the church. There was a plethora of eligible bachelors and disproportionately few eligible women. Some men had been "Singles" for decades and took an aggressive view towards dating young single women. Twenty-year differences in age were common. When Bethlehem Singles were disappointed with local prospects, they visited other church areas. To facilitate a broader search, regional Singles activities were held a few times each year along the eastern seaboard.
The high number of young people that would attend Ambassador College after graduation depleted the reserves of Singles in Bethlehem. The brightest and most attractive of both sexes (by church standards) would often take off for Ambassador. For a young adult looking to marry, one could either get lucky and find someone appropriate among the remains within Bethlehem, bite the bullet and marry someone in Bethlehem who was a poor match, scan the eastern seaboard for a better match, or date someone outside of the Worldwide Church of God. If someone dated outside of the church and the minister found out about it, the Single was barred from attending the Bethlehem congregation. As a result, a large number of young people who aged out of YOU after high school simply stopped attending church altogether.
In my own experience, absurdity became really absurd when I could no longer distinguish absurdity from reality. My wakeup call occurred sometime during senior year of high school. It came in the form of a phone call from none other than Mr. Joseph Tkach, Sr. My mother had written a letter to Mr. Tkach regarding the declining morale of our local congregation due to corrective, threatening sermons. She wanted to know if he was in support of the local minister disallowing several members and teens from attending services if they did not adhere to church policies. She also indicated that she was finding it difficult to send in her tithes to the church in light of what was happening in Bethlehem.
One day late in the afternoon I answered the phone and Mr. Tkach Sr. was on the line. He asked if my mother was home. I asked him to call back later, as she was still at work. Disappointedly, he hung up. He called back later and spoke to her for several minutes. My mother shared with me the essence of the conversation. With regard to her letter, he indicated that he knew the minister personally and never considered him to be a particularly harsh man. He made light of the situation. Perhaps it was just a mid-life crisis. It was sure to pass. But then Mr. Tkach indicated that despite the discouragement my mother had been experiencing, she had no excuse not to be tithing. "You have been robbing God." Just because she had been setting money aside in a savings account did not mean that she was off the hook. God would not forgive her unless she sent it all in at once. Mr. Tkach had apparently checked the financial records in the system at headquarters before making the phone call. Evidently my parents had given enough over the years to be flagged in the computer as significant patrons. Mr. Tkach cared enough about our contributions to call.
Absurdities were detractors from the credibility of the church but usually did not dissuade us from believing in the Worldwide Church of God. Most of us rationalized the problems, desperately trying to hold on to the belief that we were part of God's one true church. Our rationalizations were even more bizarre than the absurdities themselves. I remember discussing them with my closest friends in the YOU group. Some of our reasoning included: ú
"No one is perfect. Not even Mr. Tkach and the ministers. We cannot expect perfection until the Kingdom." ú
"People in 'the world' are a lot worse than we are in the church." ú
"You can't believe everything you hear. There are a lot of people spreading rumors about the ministry. They're just resentful of authority."
Do or Die.
Searching for a Good Endpoint
Our mental mosaic of fear, isolation, surveillance, positive reinforcement, and absurdity generated both positive and negative emotions. Most of us went through phases of belief and disbelief growing up. Most of us survived this pull of emotions and decided at some point or another to stay within the church or to leave. One instinct outweighed the other and finally led us to make a decision. But others of us were literally torn in half mentally by the decision process itself. The perennial dilemma alone was enough for some of us to opt for "neither in nor out." They craved an immediate solution that would put them at peace.
Wishing that we had never been exposed to the "truth" (or at least that which was so vigorously purported as being "truth") in the first place was not an option. Like it or not, we had been exposed to it. And we were taught that we would be held accountable for what we knew of the truth, no matter how old we were. Each of us individually had to live with the consequences of the choices we made after hearing the "truth" (or that which had been so compellingly portrayed to be the "truth.") We all had to decide at one point or another how we would respond to the Worldwide Church of God and its "truth" in adulthood.
Futility of Outside Help
Many people reading "Do or Die." may feel that relatives, friends, or mentors of the suicide victims could have provided more support than they had before the suicides were committed, if the young people had only solicited their help. It would seem that in most instances, seeking such help would have been difficult or futile. Making a decision about our participation in the church, which had such serious ramifications, was something that we had to decide for ourselves. Soliciting the opinions of others would not have resolved the issue at hand. We were deciding who or what to believe (in) as we sorted out what to do with regard to the church.
In the vast majority of cases, it was our parent(s) who had introduced us to the church in the first place. Many of our parents thought that if we chose not to become baptized, we would be throwing away our salvation. In fact, sadly to say, parents were in many cases part of the very problem that suicide victims faced. They were just one more confounding influence in our turbulent mental mosaics. Our unconverted or disfellowshipped parent(s) were also of little help, as they never had never been "called" into the church in the first place or had already lost their salvation. Their opinions looked equally biased to us.
As far as other relatives were concerned, most of our families in the church placed trivial priority on maintaining strong bonds with them (other than with those who were also part of the church). In many cases, relatives were written off as a bad, unconverted influence. Replacing genetic family with "brothers and sisters" in the Bethlehem congregation was the norm. Assuming that the victims would have felt close enough to their relatives to ask for help, discussing problems was likely to have ignited either an "I told you so" response or bitterness because of the protracted period of time during which contact was minimal.
Readers of "Do or Die." may think that those who contemplated suicide could have been saved had a psychiatrist or other type of therapist treated them. It is likely that such attention would not have been productive or possible. The choice of whether to buy into the church or opt out of it was an extremely personal one. We knew that we were going to be held accountable for our decisions individually. While contemplating suicide, the victims would have been dealing with professional counselors who had probably never heard of the Worldwide Church of God, and in the victims' eyes had never been exposed to the "truth." Additionally, the church had urged members for years never to see psychiatrists and psychologists for mental problems. The church taught that mental problems were caused by disobedience to God's laws and could be healed by God through prayer, repentance and/or anointment. Getting financial resources or permission as a young person to see a psychiatrist would have been an insurmountable challenge in most families of the Worldwide Church of God.
Of all prospects of outside help for the victims, friends might have been the most plausible. But some of us had very few (if any friends) from whom to seek such help. Many teens and young adults in the church had no close friends at all. Approaching anyone but a best friend with one's thoughts of suicide was unthinkable. There was also the issue of whether a church friend could have been trusted. The friend may have gone to the minister or parents and reported the behavior. Church friends (or lack thereof) may have been part of the toxic mental mosaic in the first place. Many young people, as mentioned above, attended Ambassador College and left their best friends behind. Regardless of whether the victim was at Ambassador College before committing suicide or had stayed locally in the Bethlehem area, their bond was inevitably weaker as a result. Friends outside the church would most likely have been unable to understand the exposure to the church in a way that they could have related to the victim's dilemma.
Paying Now, Later, and Forever
Accountability weighed heavily on our minds as young adults who had grown up in the church. We knew that God was watching us. Whatever we decided with regard to the church, God knew what our true intentions were. In this framework, we made decisions through which we sought to avoid the greatest amount of suffering. For those of us who had any belief in the assertions made by the church ministry with regard to salvation and eternal life (i.e. those of us who had been successfully "hardwired" by the church), we faced the following unsavory options:
Option 1: Remain Unbaptized and Hope for the Best. If we stopped attending church we would be taking our chances with respect to having "known too much" at the time of being judged by God. Those of us who selected this option were fairly certain that we would not be held accountable for what we knew of God's "truth" during the Great White Throne Judgment. Or, we believed that there was a good chance that the whole prophecy story espoused by Worldwide Church of God was rubbish. Those of us who selected this option were confident enough that we would not be sanctioned in the current life or at any time in the distant future for abandoning the church.
Option 2: Remain Unbaptized and Accept Eternal Death. This option appealed to the type of individual described in "Fireside Chats" under Fear. If we decided that we were not suited for living within the framework of the church, despite believing there was a good chance of being punished with eternal death, this was the right option. After all, unlike the Catholic teaching of a purgatory or hell fire that would torture infidels eternally, the Worldwide Church of God taught us that at worst we would be thrown into the lake of fire in the Third Resurrection. We would not have to suffer terribly. We would merely forsake our chance at eternal life voluntarily.
Option 3: Become Baptized and Hope for the Best. If we decided to become baptized members of the church, we knew we would have to adhere to church teachings as best as we could. We were pretty certain that what we were taught our whole life was the "truth." If we became baptized, we knew that if we were "neither hot nor cold" but rather "lukewarm," we would be "spewed" from the mouth of God as part of the Laodicean era of the church, being cut off from the Kingdom of God. If we behaved well as baptized members, we would be protected from the Tribulation and become spirit beings after the Second Coming of Christ. If successful with this strategy, our personal hardship would be limited to the remainder of this ephemeral physical lifetime. Rewards after the Second Coming of Christ would be plentiful. ú
Option 4: Cut the Losses. Unfortunately, those of us who strongly believed in the teachings of the Worldwide Church of God and feared the consequences of disobedience to God's "truth" had yet another option. Those who chose this option suffered the most relative to all young people and decided to intervene on their own behalves. Suicide was attractive (and still can be even today) to those who felt that life, as depicted by the Worldwide Church of God, with all of the high standards and expectations that had to be met, was impossibly difficult and painful to endure.
Extreme suffering has afflicted young people in both baptized and unbaptized states. It has afflicted individuals within the framework of a family or marriage. It has afflicted individuals at AC and in the local congregations. A logical antidote to someone's incorrigible perception of personal failure and woeful inadequacy in God's eyes was to minimize the pain and suffering by ending one's life. Those of us who felt that we would not qualify for eternal salvation, yet still felt compelled to live by the rules of Worldwide Church of God in this physical lifetime, stood the biggest risk of committing suicide. The prospect of living out the physical life in this way became too painful. Especially for those without a spouse or children to live for, the futility of muddling through each passing day became increasingly blatant.
Fear, Rejection and Disillusionment
Skeptics reading "Do or Die" may wonder how some us could have even thought of committing suicide, especially having grown up in "the church." Skeptics need to understand the treatment of individuals at the local level and the messages of "fear" people heard in congregations like Bethlehem. But it was not just fear alone that pushed us to contemplate or commit suicide. The practical side of living out the recommendations and orders of the local ministry brought us to the breaking point. For those of us who were lucky, we either left the church entirely or found a way to live at peace with ourselves within the framework of the church. Those of us who were not so fortunate were swallowed up by deadly feelings of rejection and disillusionment.
Ministers condemned us for our sinful prioritization and decision-making. They told us to make "God" and the church (one and the same authority) our top priority at the expense of our families and ourselves. They told us that God would provide for us if we put Him first. They told us that if we are suffering, then we were not being blessed by God or were in some sort of trial. We believed the ministers when they told us that we were sinning. We blamed ourselves for our personal failings. If our problems persisted or our attitudes did not change, we blamed ourselves even more. We began to believe that we either failed God or God must have rejected us.
Similarly, if we had parents, spouses, or other family members who were strong believers in the Worldwide Church of God and expected nothing less than our complete conversion and submission to the church, the stage was set for acute feelings of rejection. Our own parents rejected many of us if we were kicked out of YOU, disfellowshipped or "marked" by the ministry or if we failed to adhere to the policies of the church. If we decided to leave the church by our own choosing, we risked being cut off from them entirely.
Almost everyone who grew up in the church experienced some degree of disillusionment as a teen or a young adult. We grew up being told that children in the Worldwide Church of God were the most special of God's chosen people in that we had known the "truth" our entire lives. Our parents and most other members of the church had to learn from hard experience that humans suffer when they disobey God's laws. We were miraculously born into families who brought us directly into the correct church.
On one end of the spectrum of disillusionment, those who attended AC and were immersed in an adult life within the church experienced minimal disillusionment. Those "fortunate" enough to have landed a ministerial job or married a minister at College experienced the least amount of disillusionment. But the vast majority of us secured a worldly job or attended some type of college other than AC, compelling us to experience more of the real world than we had in the past. Some of us adapted to the real world, making adjustments in either our faith or our living habits to satisfy ourselves. But to others, adaptation was impossible. Those who believed they had to adhere to the letter of "God's law" often encountered financial problems, marital difficulties, unemployment, or misanthropic adaptation to society. Those who could not imagine living a life outside of "God's laws" despite their suffering were those who sometimes viewed suicide, or immediate exit, in a favorable light. For others, the mere realization that comfort within the "true church" was an illusion hit hard. The failed expectation of being treated as "special" throughout life was ugly, indeed. So ugly that some of us failed to see a reason to continue in this physical life. If we began to realize that that this life was all there was (contrary to church teachings) and we found it to be devoid of purpose as a result, suicide looked attractive. After all, we could not get in trouble for murdering ourselves if there was no God to punish us.
Perhaps the most painful mental torture afflicted us when fear, rejection, and disillusionment tore away at our consciences simultaneously. Some of us lived in an unfortunate quagmire of parental, familial, spousal or ministerial rejection and, as a result, developed a significant sense of doubt as to the validity of church teachings. If our doubt was supplanted by our indelible "hardwiring" of fear and belief that church teachings were infallible, we became devoid of hope and considered our fate a no-win situation. Resisting the temptation to escape the incessant torture of our existence was impossible. Those of us who succumbed to suicide were protecting ourselves against perpetual mental contortion.
No one will ever know exactly what brought young people in the Bethlehem church area to commit suicide. However, Bethlehem left many of us rejected, bewildered and frightened as we entered adulthood. We were bequeathed conflicting forces and instincts. The church tampered with our moral compasses. The amount each of us suffered depended to a large extent on whether or not "hardwiring" clashed with the practical side of living our personal lives according to church standards. The excessive degree to which the Bethlehem ministry meddled in the personal lives of teenagers made our private decision-making most difficult as we reached adulthood. For those of us who survived harrowing experiences in the church, we can be thankful. Others were not as fortunate. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those who committed suicide in the Bethlehem church area.
Sharon L. can be contacted at:
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