I was born into the Worldwide Church of God (Houston East) in 1976. I have mixed feelings about the experience. I was spanked (with a belt, never a paddle) frequently, couldn’t associate with school friends outside of school (although there were a couple of exceptions), had to abide by all of the restrictions on diet and of course, the Sabbath, which prevented me from participating in extracurricular activities and, along with the Holy Days, made me an oddball to my public school mates. Mr. Armstrong died when I was 9. In the first grade I told all of my friends there was no Santa; that their parents were lying to them. It caused quite a ruckus and led to an intervention by the school faculty. I believed the doctrine of the church. There were truths (commonly accepted by many outside of the WCG), such as Christmas having origins that were prior to Christianity, and the Sabbath originating in Genesis that made sense to me, even as a little kid. The Feast (despite the homework that I usually fell behind in rather than avoid activities) was the highlight of the year; I loved it, especially the freedom of the Piney Woods in Big Sandy, and the forested, natural environment that contrasted greatly with the heavy industry of southeast Houston. I had many friends in the church, adults too, who were talented and kind to kids (the skilled pianist and children’s choir director had a gift for humor and was very maternal). My closest friend early on was the red headed daughter of the other regular pianist in our area, also a very warm lady with a pleasant smile.
My mother was strict, but very loving. Each spanking was followed by a hug and an explanation; that the purpose was the development of character, though in the moment I hated it (and maybe her, and I suspect that sometimes the spankings were more the result of frustration and anger than a principled discipline). My father was not in the church, and worked in industry. He did not interfere with my mother’s beliefs, but made sure we were vaccinated (and we were not burdened by the tithing system, though my mother was allowed to save for the Feast and contributed her own income when she had it).
As an early teen the doctrinal changes began and accelerated after a few initial reforms that were welcomed. The well liked children’s choir director stopped attending in 1992 and was ostracized. It was very upsetting. I thought of her like an aunt – no much closer – it’s difficult to describe the kind of solidarity and connection one can have to people growing up in such an insular group. She’d come to believe the church was a off base doctrinally and had embraced mainstream, nondenominational Christianity. Not long afterward, we heard that the other pianist and her family had left the church for Global. This was also upsetting, but was to set up a kind of contrast, and in 1993/1994 I started a dialog with both, through the mail. Each implored me to study the Bible and I found myself agreeing with many things both would write, and hating the disunity that made my core social group (with an intensity of belonging I’ve never experienced anywhere else – work, school, people I enjoy hanging out with at home) unable to be friends any longer. Eventually my mother also went to Global, and later to Philadelphia. In 1995 I went to Big Sandy as a freshman at AU. Having grown up regularly experiencing that campus, I felt an overwhelming nostalgia and a sense of loss. It was apparent things were falling apart rapidly, and it did not have the same atmosphere. Everywhere the zeitgeist was one of apostasy, and people embracing the ideas I grew up thinking were at best erroneous, at worst the work of the Beast (or the Harlot). I went to services with Global, and made friends with people who did not. My RA was in United, but my primary social group all transitioned to the position of Mr. Tkach, very happy at that age for the freedom that brought. For me, having grown up in public schools, it wasn’t a problem, but it was odd to be at Ambassador, among people who had previously believed, but were now more the anti-WCG than the WCG they claimed an allegiance to. I remember roaming the campus and thinking about my past and the fun my family and friends had had there. The services on campus were on Saturday, but they were alien to me. There were Protestant hymns, banners proclaiming “Jesus!” were marched about, the sentimentality was ratcheted up compared to the rather sedate mood of traditional WCG services. I played viola in “God With Us”, an evangelical musical choral/orchestral production, but it was conducted by Ross Jutsum. Then there was the time he got the students to come to a showing of the old Feast videos from the 80s to reminisce… so I’m sitting next to the same people listening to the Young Ambassadors sing that I should “Remember [my] Creator in the days of my youth, before the time of trouble will appear…”
I fell in love with my best friend, a freshman from Colorado, who seemingly loved me back, but even in the bizarre atmosphere of new paradigms and change at the site of and among the people who had once embraced Mr. Armstrong’s thought, we could not broach the subject of homosexuality. He resolved the issue by cutting me off entirely, and I went through my first depression. Over a decade later he contacted me and told me he still loved me. It was difficult to process that someone was rejecting me because they loved me, and he only confirmed what I knew at the time, even if I tormented myself with uncertainty.
Then the college announced it would close, and in frustrated moment, I called my dad and asked to come home before the end of the semester. I didn’t even withdraw. The registrar had to email me and ask where I was.
I became an atheist, no an antitheist. I was very angry and felt duped and betrayed. What was I supposed to do now? I reconnected with a friend from elementary school, who’s parents were intellectuals and very left leaning socialists. They had participated in the anti-war movement in the 1960s and had strong views that in some ways were similar in intensity to what I had grown up around. In a way the similarities were striking. They understood the pagan origins of Christmas, and were opposed to war, and subscribed to a revolutionary worldview that in some ways paralleled the ideas of New Testament Christianity and The World Tomorrow.
It was after being immersed in this milieu for awhile that I began to wonder about what the Worldwide Church of God really was. Something had to cause it (as HWA would have said). Then I noticed the timeline of the church. It began during the Great Depression, it intensified and grew during the tumult of the 60s, and then it dismantled its own beliefs from the top, just as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were doing right at the same time. I wondered, perhaps, if the WCG wasn’t reflecting a much broader sweep of history.
America spawned many new millennial, apocalyptic religions during the Industrial Revolution, and the origins of the WCG can be traced to William Miller and the Great Disappointment. I began to wonder if doctrine in the WCG, taken figuratively, was perhaps the result of a reaction to these events in history. This feeling was only confirmed when video of old WCG productions from the 80s became available in 2009 on YouTube. If you watch (especially films like the 1985 Behind The Work), you’ll notice the themes are really political, and the religious rhetoric serves mostly as a canvas to make the image real to a religious audience. Also, I noticed that mainstream Christianity often serves the status quo, and supports imperialist maneuvers of the United States. This seems to be what the metaphor of the Harlot riding the Beast is all about.
I find myself wondering if WCG was exploiting events of history to prey on people legitimately concerned about current events in their lives, or if it was well meaning, but steeped in a crude kind of religious consciousness that could not understand events any other way. R.D. Laing writes about the delusions of schizophrenics being allegorical, and the Wikipedia entry on David Icke (a bizarre conspiracy theorist who believes the world is run by lizard aliens) comments on the allegorical possibility of his strange ideas.
Today my mother doesn’t speak to me or my brother (as ordered by Gerald Flurry in 2005). Well, she might not speak to me because I stood up to her in a way that didn’t respect who she was in my life. It happened around the same time so I don’t know why exactly she is not responding to me, but I shouldn’t have asserted my independence with the language that I did. I was never baptized, so she is probably just hurt and hiding behind an order that she’d already submitted to for my older brother.
I read these blogs and I have similar feelings, but I also feel alienated and I notice many of the same problems in modern life that led my mom to the church in the first place.
I wonder, does anyone else ever wonder about the historical context of WCG, from a sociological, rather than a religious perspective?
There was a magazine that ended in 1934 called The World Tomorrow. It seems very similar in perspective, but it was a socialist journal (but religious, not atheistic.)
Is it possible that in a country where socialism finds very little expression, similar sentiments come out in cults like the WCG and the Witnesses?
My mother sent me Steven Flurry’s “Raising the Ruins”. Check out this HWA quote:
“Nimrod, grandson of Ham, son of Noah, was the real founder of the Babylonish system that has gripped the world ever since – the system of organized competition – of man-ruled governments and empires, based upon the competitive and profit-making economic system. Nimrod built the tower of Babel, the original Babylon, ancient Nineveh, and many other cities. He organized this world’s first kingdom.”
HWA was wiped out by the Great Depression. Is it possible that what we have experienced is a religious reaction to having been brutalized by an economic system?
For me, for it to make sense at least, helps a lot with the emotional scars and losses that cannot be fixed.