Most people who got involved in the Pentecostal denomination I was in weren’t the clean-cut proper men and women the church liked to pretend dominated their demographic. After Biff and I got married and he began doing some preaching around the area, I could see that this denomination wasn’t exactly filled with pretty people or people who seemed strictly sane by the proper definition of the word. Pentecostalism attracted (and if I may be so bold continues to attract) society’s outliers–the people who want to be more hardcore, more special, more “in” with their god, better than others, but worse than that the people who need to feel persecuted, singled-out, martyred, and wrongly vilified.
James fit the bill on all counts.
Even by Pentecostalism’s alarmingly loose parameters, James was quite an odd duck. He was a 30something African-American and clearly having some problems dealing with racial issues, but it was the 1980s and Houston was having some growing pains anyway so his deep suspicion of white people was neither surprising nor unexpected. He was weirdly over-articulate and spoke in an exaggeratedly unaccented way in that particularly quick, rushed, almost mumbling tone of voice that we know today indicates something seriously wrong upstairs, dressed in a very proper–one might almost say “English gentleman”–manner complete with waistcoats and blazers with patched elbows, and tended to focus on other people’s sins to such an extent that I’ve got to wonder just what was going on in his head. Now we’d probably say he had some socialization issue or Asperger’s or something. At the time we just thought he was a little strange. He’d converted to Pentecostalism at Biff’s direction after a protracted period of dabbling in the Jehovah’s Witnesses; his parents–both university professors who would later remind me of Lem and his mother from “Better Off Ted”–were largely non-religious and had a gorgeous little house in Rice Village that James invited us to, all nervous and hoping that his parents would approve of him having his first white friends. He was very concerned they’d think he was showing disrespect to his race. I’d never encountered anything like that concern so I had no idea how to respond. Privilege can be blinding sometimes. I hope I didn’t do too much damage in my ignorance.
I think we did okay meeting his folks. I grew up around a very diverse group of people with my dad in the military, and Biff was oblivious to pretty much everything anyway. I still think it’s kind of funny that his paradigm shifted without a clutch when he discovered Biff and I loved Frenchy’s Chicken, a most excellent fried-chicken joint way down in a very black section of town and largely unknown outside of it (but if it still exists and you’re in Houston, do try it–seriously, it was AMAZING chicken and it probably still is). His parents seemed okay with us, and he was still living with them so their approval was important. I’d actually never met upper-class black people before, and you know what? As always, what really marks us as people is how we’re alike, not how we’re different. I liked them and we visited often to hang out or eat dinner with James and his folks (he was their only child). They seemed surprised that he’d made friends at all, much less white friends; I could tell his mother especially wasn’t totally enthused about us being fundamentalists, but she was very kind and I liked talking to her. I think in the end they hoped Biff and I would be a calming influence on their son’s roiling mind.
James wasn’t technically in college right then, having dropped out, but he still came to the university to read in the library, which people could do without valid university ID cards. We met him on a campus shuttle bus; he saw one of Biff’s turn-or-burn homemade pins on his jacket and asked about it, and Biff of course was always happy to share the Good News. James had just deconverted from the JWs and needed something new to latch onto, and this Pentecostalism seemed even more hardcore and serious than the JWs had, so he dove right into it with a passion and abandon that astonished me.
Biff adored James, but I had some reservations about James’ strange take on the Bible. I didn’t know why he felt the need to accuse every single person criticizing him of being a “Pharisee.” I didn’t think that’s how Pharisees worked (and now that I’m older, I’ve learned that no, actually, it isn’t). But to James, anybody who dared even to speak against anything he wanted to do, or suggest that he was doing something incorrectly according to the Bible, was a Pharisee who was just more concerned with rules than with the Spirit of God. That attitude wore pretty thin on me, especially since I knew the Bible had set up some pretty sound guidelines about correcting members of groups. I began to perceive James as a bit of a zealot who was far less concerned with spiritual development than he was with being more correct than other people were.
It was James who suggested that we start up a prayer group on campus. He was deeply worried about how worldly our university’s students were–they’d even made fun of Brother Jed and Sister Cindy when they’d visited our campus to preach and fling poo at people! (Biff, it must be said, witnessed to Jed to try to correct him–that had to be funny as all get-out to see one bombastic Christian trying to witness to another bombastic Christian about points of procedure like that. As far as I know, the attempt failed. I didn’t hear about it from Biff but from a friend of ours who’d been with him at the time.) James wasn’t actually a student, remember, so he had to get us to do it for him.
Our university required three people to sign on for a campus group to be recognized by the Student Life Center. Biff finally located another Pentecostal student from our churches to be the second person, a sweet and gentle-hearted young man named Tim from one of Houston’s more northerly suburbs. James couldn’t be the third because he wasn’t actually a student currently and we didn’t know any other Pentecostals on campus, so I got elected to be the third co-signer.
Remember, I was in a church that taught and believed one-hundred-and-crazy-percent that women shouldn’t be in leadership positions at all unless it was something like Music Ministry or Sunday School where they were lording it over other women or children. So this was a real departure from the norm for Biff. But he had no choice, really. None of our Christian friends would be even halfway okay with doing this; they’d just suggest that we join an established Christian group, but James was having none of it. They were all Pharisees. He wanted a hardcore, totally-there, completely-radical Christian prayer group that would meet frequently to pray together and demand things of our god like the Bible had promised if Christians pray together in groups.
BTW: You get bonus points if you noticed my use of the word “radical.” For some reason, that was one of the favorite words of fundagelical Christians back then. We were RADICAL. I’m still not sure exactly what we were radical about, or even what definition of “radical” we were using or what it meant in relation to other Christian customs and practices, but dangit, we were radical.
There was this other problem, too, though, you see.
I was smack in the middle of deconverting.
To put it into a timeline, it was slightly before my discovery of the Crisis Pregnancy Center manual, but not much before. I was really struggling with things I was learning about Christianity’s fact-based claims and especially struggling with how little Christianity seemed to have to do with how moral or good a person was. I was figuring out that nothing I’d ever found in any Christian church, denomination, or philosophy really measured up to the reality I could see unfolding around me. I was starting to learn that I could not trust prayer in the least either, and even more devastatingly, I was beginning to see how Christianity seemed to function as a strong-arm control over the less fortunate and the marginalized–how it was just so coincidental that the will of our “god” seemed to coincide with the best interests of its leaders and how strange that it corresponded so well to a maintaining of the status quo and resisted change in all forms.
But these were truly embryonic concerns, not even fully-formed enough that I could have spoken of their existence. I had this “deal with it later” pile like everybody has that I tossed concerns onto so I didn’t have to worry about them right then, but that pile was getting big quickly. I’d missed a lot of rolls to disbelieve, but the dice were in my hand and I had another few rolls to go before I was totally lost to the illusion.
My concerns were just barely perceptible enough, though, that I was at that point where I was starting to act out and do really outrageous things to demonstrate how eager I was for it to be true. I hadn’t felt my god’s presence inside me for years despite my desire to feel him; I had been praying and attending church and reading my Bible faithfully and doing everything Christians are supposed to do to get closer to my god, but to no avail. Maybe this group was what I needed to show my god that I was serious. Maybe then he’d at least communicate with me a tiny bit like he was with Biff and everybody I knew. Maybe then he’d talk to me. He loved me, but he was just testing me. Love was all about testing your beloved. I deserved his silence for something I’d done even if I had no idea what that might have been, surely, and I had to show him I deserved his touch.
What a load of piffle. I can’t believe I used to think that way.
So now maybe you’ll understand why I went down to the Student Life Center in the middle of campus with Biff and Tim to co-sign for our new campus group. I felt like ninjas would get me if our church found out I’d been made a group leader, but really, Biff had told me to do it, so surely that made it all right. I knew I couldn’t tell our Maranatha friends about it because they’d just snort and laugh about Pentecostalism’s silly restrictions on women. And I certainly couldn’t talk to friends who were either members of even more liberal denominations or non-Christians at all, because they’d have a lot more to say than the Maranatha people would.
We were stumped briefly by the question on the form about what our group was called. Biff decided to call the group “Prayer Warriors for Jesus.” As he began drawing little curlicues around the letters to embellish them, I objected on the grounds that that was the most idiotic name I’d ever heard and it sounded more like a cartoon superhero team than a serious Christian prayer and study group. But Biff overruled me by pointing out that our group name would be printed on all schedules of the university for the day, so everybody would have to see it. He wanted them to think we were amazing and radical, so “Prayer Warriors for Jesus” we would be called and “Prayer Warriors for Jesus” we would be.
Immediately after being accepted as a group, we began to reserve rooms for meetings.
The rules were pretty strict but, I think, reasonable. You could reserve the regular-sized and small meeting rooms for free for meetings up to three times a week and the bigger ballroom-type spaces a certain number of times per semester. At least one person from your group had to be there during the time you’d reserved; it didn’t need to be an official member, just someone from the group. If this didn’t happen and the meeting got missed three times, then the group’s right to reserve rooms at all would be revoked for the semester, though your group was still allowed to meet in the public spaces in the Student Life Center.
So three times a week, for one hour, I trooped down to the Student Life Center and into the room we’d reserved, always noticing our group name on the schedules posted on each meeting room and elevator and stairwell door as I proceeded, and Biff, Tim, James, and I prayed. Well, mostly me, Biff, and James; Tim had classes packed pretty tightly so he rarely showed up.
I guess it was the unfamiliar, purely secular surroundings that did it, but I began to see prayer out of its religious context around this time. In church and at home, it made sense to pray, but here, in these very corporate-looking meeting rooms with their neatly-arranged desk chairs and its bland decoration scheme, praying seemed markedly out of place to me. I began to see how silly Biff and James looked as they wailed and hollered and marched around waving their arms and speaking in tongues. Why on earth would any god require that kind of foolish demonstration?
Even more crucially, I began to notice how it felt like I was talking to myself when I prayed. I could no longer discern anything supernatural about the act. I was not communicating with anything outside myself, I came to realize in those darkened meeting rooms. And I could now tell beyond all shadow of a doubt that whatever Biff and James were doing when they spoke in tongues, they were definitely not speaking even in baby-talk in some other language (“baby-talk” was one excuse I’d been given for exactly this problem of speaking in tongues not being a language–too bad Acts never mentions that mental workaround).
And, too, if my concern was that I had not felt my god’s touch in many years, then I certainly saw Biff and James getting a heaping dose of Jesus zap while I got absolutely nothing. Did my god require me to moan and wail and holler and march around waving my arms to infill me again? Why would that be necessary? The Bible never said I had to do stuff like that, only to earnestly desire my god’s touch. It promised. What kind of god would be happy with this sort of display?
The question was, was the problem me? Or was it something else?
I was beginning to perceive that I wasn’t the problem here. That left only one other answer, as I saw it, but it wasn’t easy to think about that idea.
Unsurprisingly, after feeling so slighted, rejected, rebuffed, and ignored by my god, I began to get too busy to attend these meetings. Biff was disheartened, but in truth, I really did have a heavy course load and it’d been a huge imposition for me to attend these meetings at all; for some reason, James insisted that they had to be in the midday, rather than later in the afternoon or evening when we’d all have had plenty of spare time. Remember, James didn’t go to class, and as it happened he didn’t even have a job, much less even a driver’s license, which is why he had been on the bus at all that day we met (he was convinced that tax and legal documents would somehow be used against him in some unspecified but hugely nefarious way). When someone (Tim, I think) suggested we schedule these meetings for a time when more of us could meet, James flipped out and accused us all of being Pharisees, so midday meetings it was. James swore up and down he’d be there on those occasions when we simply couldn’t, that we could trust him, that he’d never let us down or sully our good name or the group’s reputation by missing a prayer meeting. This was the group he had wanted, and he would not mess it up.
About midway through that semester, I got a letter at home advising me that the university had revoked our standing to reserve rooms as they’d noticed that several scheduled meetings had been total no-shows from any of our group. I already knew Tim hadn’t been attending because he’d already said that the meetings conflicted with his classes, and I’d seen his schedule and knew he was telling the truth. So I confronted James and Biff about it and learned that neither of them had been attending either; just one or two sessions after I’d quit going, they had both quit as well. Apparently Biff thought nobody would notice. As for James, he’d also stopped attending for some reason. They’d both thought the other would be there because both had promised never to miss any meeting. But neither had been attending.
Now, the funny thing is that Biff had been acting like he’d been attending for the last couple weeks. Once in a while he’d miss a meeting for a pressing cause, but he hadn’t made me thought he’d just stopped going at all. He talked often like he was about to go to a prayer meeting or had just returned from one. But now it came out that no, actually, he hadn’t at all. I have no idea what he really was doing when he was supposed to be praying, just that whatever it was, it wasn’t happening in those meeting rooms.
It was hugely embarrassing to me that the group had failed, even though I hadn’t been more than a peripheral part of it, but Biff had been right about one thing: people had noticed the group’s name and had no questions whatsoever about what kind of group it was. Not long after getting our reservation privileges revoked, I caught a letter to the campus newspaper complaining about having to pay fees to help support groups with silly names like “Prayer Warriors for Jesus,” insinuating that our group made a mockery of the campus’ reputation for intellectual discourse and mature discussion (good thing that letter writer didn’t realize there was a thriving anime fan club on campus), and telling Christians to quit getting their panties in a wad over “helping support” secular groups on campus because if secular students had to support religious nuts, then religious nuts could jolly well support secular groups without griping.
I’d never seen religious groups discussed in such a negative way before; I’d always assumed that everybody supported religious groups and Christian goals. This was my first brush with well-spoken disapproval. Though it had little to do with my eventual search for truth, the idea that Christianity was not universally liked or approved did help me dare to question its assumptions and claims. I’d always thought only bad people opposed it, but now I could see that perfectly reasonable-seeming people opposed it.
So the group dissolved. James got stranger and stranger in his religious zealotry and eventually we stopped talking; he had been attending our church but left for something more radical. I don’t know what became of him. Tim got married and I think became a preacher or evangelist; he lived some distance away, and with his preaching duties we didn’t see a lot of him after he graduated.
I guess if you saw the group as promoting spiritual advancement and growth, Prayer Warriors for Jesus was absolutely effective for me, just not in the way Biff and the others would have wanted it to be.
I think it was the lying that annoyed me the most though. What’s funny is that liars-for-Jesus still do their thing today, confident that nobody will notice, and seem absolutely gobsmacked when they get caught just like Biff was when the group’s privileges got revoked. We’re going to talk about that a little more next time because the Christian world has been rocked by yet another scandal of a crazy far-out testimony being proven untrue. Want to learn more? Come join me on a wild ride.