I was in the Worldwide Church of God from birth (1975) until midway through my freshman year of college – although the seeds of doubt started well before that. We moved quite a bit when I was younger, and I’d lived in three different states by the time I was 8. In the early going, church gave me consistency. There were always YES activities and a built-in set of people who are all thinking the same thing and doing the same thing under the guise of welcoming Christian fellowship.
There were whispers of things that troubled me. My father was ordained an elder at our second stop in Ohio, and he began counseling people along with the minister. I remember hearing vague stories about a man beating his wife and their receiving counseling on how to save their marriage. There were stories about “unequally yoked” members who were, on the other hand, swayed toward making a decision about whether they should stay married and whether their marriage was godly. After I left, I heard about a teen, slightly younger than me, who’d been molested by another church member for over a decade and nothing was done. But when I was young, these things didn’t surface fully. I enjoyed the annual vacations to the Feast – even if it meant going to church service every day. Sure, I had nightmares on a regular basis about Satan creeping into my room and stealing me away or, once, his showing up at a church picnic and making me eat human flesh. Satan was a big player in my early childhood, and thoughts of him sent me to sleep in my parents’ bed many nights. I believed he was roaming the earth like a lion. I also had an ongoing fear about coming home from school and realizing Christ had come and taken everyone in my family but me to the Place of Safety. I just assumed these fears were a healthy part of being Christian.
My real breaks with the Church began when we moved from Ohio to Texas in 1984, and we began attending Dallas West (and later Dallas North). It might have been moving into the South. It might have been inevitable as I got older and more aware, but I never really felt the racism of the Church until I got to Texas. Looking back, it’s utterly amazing any Black person would sign up to be a member of the Worldwide Church of God. A cornerstone belief of the Armstrongist church was British Israelism, which I now realize is a misguided tenet shared by white supremacists to redefine God’s chosen and exclude the Jews. I had to stand up during Bible Bowl, and when asked why God prohibited interracial marriage, deliver the answer given to me on the printed Bible Bowl study sheet, “Because God gave each race special talents and he doesn’t want those talents confused.” What talents are Black talents, I wonder? And what does “talents confused” even mean? I watched as my older brothers were singled out for lectures at dances for dancing with white girls. I remember being expected to attend these dances as I got to be a teenager even though I knew there was only one black male teen besides my brother. If he didn’t show, it was an evening of sitting at the table with my mother while my friends danced away. His parents knew better, and I don’t think he ever showed. But my dad was an elder so there we were. No one would even ask me to dance. It’s an insidious kind of humiliation to be forced to accept this kind of treatment because the alternative is to be cast out into “the world” and into the arms of Satan.
What if all of this is wrong? I started thinking hopefully and yet fearfully when I was about 13. I thought Satan was attacking my faith. I threw myself doubly into YOU activities. Eventually, however, I realized it was all bunk, but I felt forced to continue. I had one friend who had basically quit attending, but her mother was “outside the Church.” I had another friend whose home life was troubled, and she got married at 17 so she could move out. Early marriages were frequent in the Church. It hit the fan when I went away for the summer before my senior year of high school. I applied to a writing program at a college in Minnesota. My parents gave me the name of a family who’d agreed to pick me up and take me to church every Saturday while I was up there. I never called them. I lived for three free-wheeling, free-thinking weeks reading Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes and Alice Walker. You don’t come back from that and want to go to WCG services. So the next Saturday, I told my mother that I wasn’t going to church. As my disassociation from church grew more evident, my mother had told me that if I ever really wanted to stop, I could. Well, not so much. My father threw a fit, and we got into a huge argument. And I went. I went dutifully until I graduated high school. I got a car that summer and would drive to church and leave right after, talking to no one. Everyone thought it was weird that although I’d been accepted to Ambassador College, I was choosing to go to Southern Methodist University instead. I had a full scholarship. Were they crazy?
Slowly, my attendance dwindled and then I stopped completely. I never looked back. I felt conflicted at times until my junior year when I studied abroad for a semester, which was a part of my scholarship. I was on a metro in Paris when I had an epiphany. I looked at all the different people, people who’d probably never heard of Herbert W. Armstrong, and yet got up every morning and lived their lives as they saw fit. It occurred to me that there’s not judgment at WCG that could substitute for my own. And in the end, we’re all just guessing anyway – even the Church. I’ll remember that moment forever. I got home feeling more free than I’d ever thought possible. Who I am – more so even than what I think or what I do – is wholly incompatible with their legalistic, fundamentalist thinking. On what basis is any one religion better than another? And once my mind broke open to that idea, I began questioning the point of religion and how one arrives at believing in God. Now, I’m agnostic, much to the consternation of my father who once told me over a plate of Tex-Mex that there was a right, godly and perfect way to do everything even if we as humans can’t know it. “Even to walk from this table to the bathroom?” I asked him. “Yes,” he declared. He’s moved on to another church with a charismatic founder who rakes in millions while much of the flock is poor, a hierarchical structure, and special seats for elders and ministers that are the equivalent of orange car stickers at the Feast.
My mother passed away last year, and we’d had numerous conversations about religion since I left it behind. She apologized profusely for not standing up and telling my father that at 17, if I didn’t believe, I shouldn’t be forced to go to a church service. Warming a seat serves no purpose. She had long stopped attending any church, but she died a strong believer in God. I can appreciate the comfort it gave her, but it still leaves me cold. I do feel some camaraderie from living life in these particular trenches. My brothers and I can laugh now about how “the Feast,” “the Transmission” (my college roommate was baffled by that one), and a whole list of other things have this meaning for us that they have for no one else. I’ve run into people, started conversations, and then something gets said and we both just know we were in “the Church.” It’s like waking up from a strange and twisted dream.