Apparently there’s nothing that God has that the Devil doesn’t try to imitate!
IN FRONT OF THE ALLFORD Refrigerated Warehouses in Dallas, a willowy girl in a long dress seems to be swaying in the parking lot. Like most women of the Children of God, she keeps her smile hovering between spaciness and irony. It communicates nothing at all. She says her name is Deuteronomy, and that she loves me. I can think of no reason to doubt her, but even though she’s beautiful enough to break my heart back there in the carnal world, I really have no words like that to say back to her. I mumble hello and go inside with Mireh while Deuteronomy stays in the parking lot.
Mireh probably loves me too, but he knows uptightness when he sees it and he doesn’t seem much on high-pressure techniques anyway; in fact, he seems unusually reserved and tolerantly amused about everything, like a monk who has the key to the wine cellar. But there is no such thing as an unfriendly Child of God, and Mireh is cordial and articulate even though he seems to be repressing something everytime he speaks, laughing about the press version of the Children as a band of Jesus Freaks, kidnapping, drugging. hypnotizing the youth of America into a life of cretinoid worship and toil. It’s hard not to laugh along with him, in this meeting room of the refrigerated warehouse, where no doubt close by pigs and cows are hanging skinned and scalded by their hooves; hard not to laugh because there’s no discernible difference between the meeting that’s about to begin and a PTA assembly.
It’s the national meeting of THANK-COG, which stands more or less for “Thankful Parents of the Children of God,” a group which has recently sprung into existence as a counterweight to the much-publicized activities of FREE-COG, the organization of parents who claim the Children of God are a Manson-like cult preying on the gullibility and material resources of their off-spring, inducing visions and obedience with drugs and mind-control. But FREE-COG has its critics too, among them the ACLU and the Children of God themselves, whose current lawsuit against FREE-COG protests what they say is FREE-COG’s use of simple abduction to get their sons and daughters back.
But it’s FREE-COG’s view of the Children that for the most part has caught the attention of the media, and consequently the image of terrorism and fanaticism has been around a long time, has been dogging the Children since their beginnings on California beaches in 1968.
But whatever validity FREE-COG’s charges may have, they seem a little superfluous here, in view of these clean-living and well-dressed “young men and women.” The Children of God, at least the Dallas colonies, seem to have undergone a sort of transformation, and there’s a slickness about the room that would not be out of place at a Young Republican convention.
But true, it’s a slickness devoted to witnessing the soon-to-be-realized death of America, and it’s possible to catch the faint aura of apocolypse as it touches down now and then like pentecostal fire on the taut and earnest young men in sport coats and stylish hair lengths, on the women, invariably in long dresses, frequently pregnant, with the insouciance that women have who’ve spent formative time in the wilds of hippie-land.
But the apocolypse stops short of the parents, who are looking dazed or delighted, embarrassed probably at the gushiness of their children, the fathers with the same looks they may have worn to their daughters’ dance recitals. The parents are hard to figure out. There was a time when the Children of God came down hard on their parents, back in the repent-or-perish day when they were wearing sackcloth and trying to conjure up the image of hell in their street gazes.
Now the parents are being wooed back by their children who deserted them long before they found Jesus to take their place, they’re being told how much they’re loved and what a blessing they are at every opportunity. Welcome back Mom and Dad, since it turns out you’re the ones who’ve been away.
And the prodigal parents seem a little wary of the desperate love of their children. But they sit, dour and bee-hived and patient, on the folding chairs, waiting for the meeting to begin.
Meanwhile it’s not hard to find people to talk to. Genuinely affable people are everywhere. Secundus, a former medical student, is telling me about Armageddon and for no apparent reason I begin to feel a claustrophobia, a sense that there’s a point in conversation beyond which these people won’t go. Everything is visible, funnelled into Jesus at every opportunity, so that the threads of a conversation can lead only one place.
I ask Secundus what movies he’s seen lately, both to find out something about his range and to change the subject, because I find, disastrously late, that I don’t like to listen to people talking about Jesus.
“Well, I’ve seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and Man of La Mancha. Have you seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon?”
I tell him that I have, adding undiplomatically, since for some reason I’ve turned argumentative, that I thought it stunk.
In answer Secundus gives me a polite and concerned nod of the head, but it’s the kind of courtesy he might use if Satan were a guest in his house. It takes a while to extricate myself from my own bumbling: it’s obvious Zefferelli’s wimpy life of St. Francis is sacrosanct in these parts.
After Secundus retreats in annoyance or confusion, I’m adrift for awhile, then snagged by Lakum, an affable dark-haired and moustached man who seems in his late twenties, six or seven years older than the majority of the Children. Lakum has an easygoing anarchic charm that makes him immediately familiar: he could be anything from a retired campus radical to a bicycle mechanic. But now he’s with Jesus, and more than capable of asking, sincerely and unwincingly, the way you’d ask someone if they’ve had lunch: “Tell me, do you know the Lord?”
That was the question I knew I’d have to have an answer for, but I forgot to make one up. I mutter something appropriately confusing about terminology but Lakum’s right on my tail, he wants to know if I’ve let Jesus into my heart.
And I could tell Lakum some pretty mean stories about when in fact Jesus used to worm around inside my heart during adolescence, but that would probably do more harm than good.
So I stall, I philosophize, and Lakum, good Christian that he is, gets bored and lets me off the hook.
There are of course good Christians everywhere about us—genuinely good Christians. You can see zeal and concern shining through layers of shyness a foot thick. The Spirit, in some form, is inarguably among the Children of God. There may be some lukewarm minds about, but there are none of the Lukewarm Christians St. Paul told us about. And it’s all above-board: There’s no acid in the punch, as FREE-COG reports, at least not here, and there’s no hypnosis operating in the eyes which are, with varying degrees of finesse and desperation, focused directly into your own.
No, it’s authentic, even if it is not quite real. A seductive, mildly hysterical community in which Jesus sops up any residue embarrassment: men can hug and kiss each other, do the same to any woman without fear of awakening covetous desires, can say “I love you” with alarming uninvolvement or “Jesus is really heavy” with a perfectly straight face. It’s obvious that they’re blissfully happy, but I’m unable to shake off the feeling that there’s something weary and heartbreaking at the center of all this joy.
But it’s easy to get buttonholed and a little difficult to clean your head out enough to think. Everyone wants to tell you how happy they are; they need constant reinforcement. And when they find out I can’t give it they seem annoyed for a second, then exhilarated at the challenge the Lord has thrown into their path.
A Dallas policeman who for some reason is standing around “securing” this place comes up rather nervously and introduces himself.
“You’re not with them, are you? I didn’t think so.”
He’s immoderately expressive at his good fortune in finding another heathen here in the catacombs, and gives me knowing smiles about the Children which I return, knowingly enough: it’s easier to sympathize with the police when they’re confused than with anybody else.
“All these people here are supposed to be living like in the Old Testament. But they’ve all got short hair. You (indicating beard and hair length) look more like one from the Old Testament than they do.”
Thus I undoubtedly become one of the few people in the world to ever be complimented for looking like a hippie by the Dallas police.
A girl who seems to be about 16 or 17 comes up to give me a nametag. The Children of God, if it’s not obvious by now, forsake their “system names” and choose biblical ones. Hers is Jemima; mine remains the same and she painstakingly writes it down on a card mercifully devoid of either happy face or “Hi, I’m…” When Jemima finds out what I’m doing here she terms my presence a “blessing,” which leads, through some elaborate logical synapses, to a one-sided discussion on my part about flying saucers: to talk, after just an hour, about something besides Jesus is a pure joy.
But there’s a distracted edge to Jemima’s earnest gaze when I finish. “Oh yeah,” she says. “Well, we really love you.”
While I’m digesting this declaration of love, a procession is making its way through the folding chair aisle to the stage. The meeting is beginning. A song about a gypsy caravan is being sung with an enthusiasm only a little more laid-back than that of the Johnny Mann singers. The people singing and dancing are the same Children who’ve been milling around the room; now they’re up on stage, about 20 of them, ponderously accompanied by four or five guitars. Several kids of about five or six are dancing unabashedly at center stage. It’s a fairly stirring beginning for a meeting that is going to be sedate and low-keyed and endless.
The program opens with a prayer by a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Good, who apparently is the president of THANK-COG. She in turn introduces four parents to give testimony about their sons and daughters. The first, a man about 45 wearing a pink shirt and purple slacks, delivers his with the ease of a seasoned club speaker, drawing laughter from his audience as well as oohs and aahs and exclamations of “Heavy,” the official adjective of the Children of God. He talks about his son, who consistently turned his back on God & Parents until one day when Jesus entered his heart and “Greg rushed into Estelle’s and my bedroom and said ‘Get the Bible.’ His eyes were sparkling and, I might say, his beard was bristling with joy.”
He then leads the audience in a cheer: God is GOOD! God is G-G-GREAT!
The other speakers are more sedate. One mother tells about visiting her son at a COG colony in Denmark after not having heard from him in years.
“I tell you—it tore our hearts because we didn’t know where he was at. Now wherever he’s at we don’t have to worry any longer.”
This testimony is followed by are port on the education of the organization’s children. A woman of about 23, as loose and elegant as any kid’s dream teacher, explains at what becomes great length the Montessori methods for bringing up children in the Spirit.
Next Ekhana, who seems to be a sort of efficiency expert, with an air of shrewdness that makes him resemble a meteoric young business executive, gives an interminable account of the Children of God’s global expansion, a speech that reveals at least one stunning fact: Two-thirds of the members of the organization are now outside the United States. This is in keeping with the belief that the Apocolypse is coming in our lifetime, and America is the corrupt kingpin that must fall before the scriptures can be fulfilled. But the basic physical movement of the Children of God from America—Bear witness and get out before it falls on you—seems drastically at odds with this solidly institutional gathering; it’s as though the Apocalypse were a Knights of Columbus banquet.
But for the Children boredom seems a small price to pay for salvation. “To the Jew I beoame as a Jew, to the Greek I became as a Greek” is to be quoted to me later as a rationale for the slickness of the ministry these days, and there’s no reason to deny that that methods gets the Product, suitably diluted, to the Consumer. But the image of sackcloth, of hand-to-hand combat with the Devil for individual souls, is not altogether pleasantly dispelled.
There is only Ekhana to listen to, describing the proliferation of the movement in terms that flood the mind with images of cartoon maps darkening with communist domination.
“The Lord’s forming different pincer movements throughout the world,” he says in describing the logistics of the conquest of South America.
Then he tells how Federico Fellini is making a movie featuring the Children of God as a solution to the world’s problems. This brings a lot of “heavy’s” and scattered applause: the name of Fellini has survived and now that it’s been de-secularized it can be said aloud once more.
Despite its length Elkana’s speech does not seem to tire his audience: only a few itchy parents and Your Correspondent seem anxious to move on. And when it’s over the speech is warmly applauded and spoken for.
Finally, after a demonstration of Spanish religious songs, all the members of the Children get up to do up-tempo versions of “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” leaving a spotty and only moderately responsive audience. Seeing them up there all together, they’re a remarkably pleasant-looking assemblage of people; they’re not, tooth-and-nose, actually that physically attractive, but they’ve conjured up a radiance that blurs everything about them but that happiness they’ve managed to wrench into their lives. You can’t help but like them and feel a little regretful and mean about your own precious cynicism.
The meeting, after this finale, is scheduled to become a reception at the Rock House, of “Upon this rock” fame, the home of the Dallas colony.
As we’re leaving I’m embraced without preface by someone named Thomas, moving my friend the policeman to give me a manly handshake on the way out.
“Goodbye,” he says. “I hope you don’t get hugged too much.”
Oh, but I’m to be hugged by an unnatural number of people in the next day and a half. I’m to be hugged and kissed and engaged in endless smiling and staring contests, preached to, chided, read to, and told how much, sight unseen, I’m loved.
This begins when we reach the Rock House, a large, old two-story house in one of the lesser Dallas neighborhoods, where about 20 people live in segregated communality .There’s a tour going on when we arrive, featuring mostly the parents who have managed to stick it out this far.
It’s an appealing old house, with a long living room, mostly bare, which is furnished with a donated carpet and TV, a couch and a Last Supper rug on the wall. There’s a kitchen, a dining room, a bathroom and a greeting room downstairs. Upstairs is a study of sorts, containing a library with bibles and foreign language dictionaries, and the “Boys” and “Girls” dorms, two ordinary sized rooms with four sets of bunkbeds apiece. Married couples, of which Jada and Japhia, the colony’s elders, seem to be the only one in evidence, have a private room.
There is no unmarried sex among the Children of God, officially, and there really doesn’t seem to be any question of it occurring. There’s a neutered look to everyone and everything, the abstinence that follows being wasted and disappointed and used.
And the people who live here have stories like the kind that get quoted in Readers Digest: sex, motorcycles, drugs, bate, crime: Things to Try that faded out bitterly, became points on a map that had no destination to offer. And for an outsider it’s hard to tell from this distance whether Jesus has his arms open for them or if he’s just pointing down the road.
By now it’s 5 p.m. and most of the parents have started going home, leaving maybe 50 people, mostly Children from colonies around the state who come up for the THANK-COG meeting and are going home tonight.
Dinner is hot dogs and potato salad, donated, like everything else, by local businessmen. Afterward everyone sits around on the floor reading their Bibles in small little clumps, withdrawing them lovingly from the holsters they keep them in on their belts. It’s a pleasant evening, the threat of a thunderstorm making a breeze through the as-yet-un-air-conditioned living room, a nice long summer evening in which the muted voices discussing the fall of cities and the end of the world take a rightful place.
Elijah comes up to introduce himself, a short, unsentimental person of about 24, who “used to make drugs down in Austin.” And he does indeed seem like a master-craftsman newly reformed from a life of high-minded subversion. But his academic training is stored away somewhere. That claustrophobic impression returns: Elijah has staked out the perimeters of his intelligence and he won’t cross them. We end up talking about Brother Sun, Sister Moon.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon, it is probabaly a good time to throw in, comes recommended by MO, for Moses, nee David Berg, the founder and leader and interpreter of the Children of God, a Wizard of Oz-like presence who sends out periodic MO-letters, full of dense underlinings, dubious biblical interpretations and first-hand revelations. From his writings, which is apparently the only way he communicates with his followers, MO comes off as a rather eccentric and ingenuous and opportunistic prophet, one of those 50-year-old men who hang around campuses waiting to become gurus.
But MO has found his following, and they’re passionate and blind in their allegiance because he found them when they were in the dark and he was, if not suffused with light, at least mildly incandescent. It’s he who makes Jesus real for them and he who sits in front of the TV and goes to second-rate movies and reads weird doom-forecasting books from obscure presses and ties it all into the Bible with the finesse and gall of a dropped-out English major. I could find no evidence of record listened to or thought uttered or one book read or one movie seen that didn’t come from MO: the form of the movement is at the mercy of MO’s protean consciousness.
Elijah promises to send me some back issues of MO-letters, which he kindly does, but when they come I find myself unable to do much more than skim over them. And I can’t get moved to actually read a 39 stanza poem called “The Spirit of Shangri-la,” about the applications of the teachings of Ross Hunter’s dreary Lost Horizon remake, 39 stanzas all sounding exactly like:
In the spirit, in the spirit
You can go to Shangri-la.
In the spirit, in the spirit
You can meet the High Lama.
So tonight while everyone else is studying the teachings of MO, or of Jesus through him, I’m pursuing the amazing resemblance of Jada. the colony’s leader, to a friend of mine, a certain Dr. duBerry of Houston, and looking for Nogah, a woman I’d met earlier who had seemed, by the way she put me at ease in this hyper-sedate environment, possessed of a real sort of grace, the kind that the Lord doesn’t succeed in visiting upon everybody.
When I find her in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner, it’s evident my impression of her wasn’t an illusion. Of all the people here she seems to have the most balance, not in thought (for there is no variation, no trace of heresy from one person’s expressed thought to another’s) but in bearing: Nogah has style, maybe even buried somewhere she has taste. She also has shaved legs, which leads me to ask her a few questions about the division of labor among the Children. She answers, unapologetically, that the women do most of the cooking, most of the typing, most of the sewing; and she manages to convey without saying it that sex discrimination, here where sex is only elliptically in evidence, is a moot point.
And while there may be naivete in work here there is also some authority: Nogah used to hang out with the Bandidos, the San Antonio little league Hell’s Angels; she’s taken a lot of dope and been betrayed by almost every facet of hip life, and now, with a remarkable pioneer-woman gentleness and acceptance, she seems to know what she wants.
The living room is still crowded with people from the other colonies who are about to go home. Pretty soon a circle is formed out of hands to see them on their way. Jada leads an impromptu prayer that culminates in a crescendo of thankyoujesuses and waving arms. I get hugged by a) Lakum, who politely asks if I can handle it, not having Jesus in my heart, and b) a slouchy, beautiful girl in green silk with a tambourine.
After they’ve left the Dallas colony is by itself again and settles back once more into study. I go up to introduce myself to Jada, offering my hand but ending up nose-to-ear-lobe in a bear hug. He’s tall and loose and it’s evident just from watching him that his leadership has a light touch: there seem to be no visible power struggles around. Everyone, including Jada, seems content just to listen to what MO has to say. The Lord gave Jada this position out of some sort of seniority; it’s an appointive rather than a political hierarchy that makes decisions in the Children of God.
“We’re all in love with the same vision here,” he says. “There’s no hassles. People obey out of love.”
He tells how the Children have realized that not everyone is suited to the communal life: they no longer recruit, they simply bear witness. If somebody wants to join they have to come to them and undergo a trial period.
“Believe me, I know what it is to have Jesus shoved down your throat. That’s not where we’re at anymore.”
It’s getting late. Jada announces, to near-delirious response, that tomorrow is a “Free Day,” meaning people can do whatever they want. Jemima is on the floor witnessing to a Puerto Rican kid who wandered in (“I spoke to him in Spanish, man. I can’t speak Spanish. It was God, man!”) I’m sitting on the couch with Messepha, who used to be “pro-evolution and anti-babies” and who is reading me a MO-letter about Gaddafi, of Libya, who is, because of his vast oil holdings, the man that may finally bring Amerika (as MO calls it) to its knees and leave the way clear for the Antichrist to step in and fulfill the prophecies of Revelations. Messepha is also into some weird talk about how “The Mark of the Beast” is going to be a credit card burned into the skin of members of the Antichrist government.
But it’s too late, and MO’s prophetic tie-ins are getting a little hard to follow, especially now since he’s stopped tying them into the Bible and is using the story of Aladdin’s Lamp instead. People are now drifting chastely upstairs to bed and Messepha, who sleeps down here in the living room, seeing that MO’s letter has about four more pages of near-microscopic type, allows how it’s probably God’s will just to go to sleep.
The thunderstorm has arrived: God may or may not flood the basement, Jada’s going to check on it later in the night. But right now the Children of God are going to sleep.
“By the way,” says Messepha from across the room as I’m getting into my sleeping bag. “MO says it’s a good idea to air out your underwear at night.”
And it probably is.
At 7 a.m. there’s no one but me stirring until Messepha wakes up and begins a discussion of Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Then Uzzi who, like an uncanny number of his fellow Children, has a strikingly familiar, average face, comes down from the dorm and opens up his Bible.
“Boy,” he says, “the Bible’s really neat.”
It’s the first act of the day, opening and reading the Bible to get back in touch. Everything in the colony is owned in general. If someone needs something to wear he or she gets it from the storeroom (even now Uzzi is admiring the new off-brand tennis shoes the Lord has provided), but Bibles seem to be something of a possession: there’s a slightly visible consternation when one is loaned out, as though it were the last allowable symbol of the renounced life.
A girl of about 18 comes to the door. Her name’s Linda, here today finally with her parents’ consent, a trainee. She’s wan and reserved, talks about Jesus and professes love with an air of embarrassment and maybe detachment. She has a new, boxed, miniature Bible from a suburban bookstore and a nervous smile among her elders that makes it obvious she’s learning a new way of life here.
“Does everybody love Linda?” Uzzi bursts out, and Linda smiles and looks down while the answer comes back so loud it’s physical.
And so most of the morning passes that way, in reading the Bible or studying MO, in strumming one of the five or six guitars around the floor or in singing one of the five or six songs that get sung in this house.
Before lunch is a public reading of the latest MO-letter, a tract about Man of La Mancha and the Quixotic nature of the Children, with an epic poem rhyming gladness and sadness and madness in nearly every stanza.
After this is an ornate version of “Mighty Fortress,” then more ecstatic prayer, with joy flowing over the upturned faces like a spotlight and the sound of words geared into the sound of tongues, rising and meeting in an arc in the center of the room.
Later Nogah and I sit on the porch and argue about the end of the world and America and love. She reads me a MO-letter about the treachery of the white race. She reads haltingly, with a paranoid eye out for the grammar teacher but with the fervor of a Maoist. But everything she reads is distant and rhetorical. It seems so pointless for Nogah, who has seen so much first-hand, to get her facts from a wizard academician.
But she’s happy. “Before I was so complicated in my head.” And now it’s not complicated anymore: Now she can watch a caterpillar crawl across the porch steps and not feel estranged; she can feel love for people she can’t stand to be around; she has order, everything accounted for and awaiting the Final Judgment.
But now it’s mid-afternoon and people are drifting out of the house to witness and to solicit donations. I go with Nogah and Jeroboam, who has a guitar and seems to be able to play at least a few chords on it, on a witnessing expedition to a shoddy park down the street.
For a while we walk up and down the park trying to decide whom to approach. The prospects, even to my untrained eye, are not spectacular: mostly chicano kids splashing in a muddy municipal pool with their mothers standing guard.
Then we all see the target at once: a 15 or 16-year old kid sitting under a tree, surrounded by his siblings who scatter as soon as they see us coming. But he’s too polite, even though he does not speak English, not to listen to what Nogah and Jeroboam have to say.
“¿Esta Jesus en tu corazon?”asks Jeroboam in primitive Spanish.
And the kid’s pretty embarrassed; he doesn’t know what to do or say or how to get away. And although I know how he feels, I find, to my shock, that I’m not really on his side. I want him to understand what they’re trying to say to him.
But it ends up a stalemate, with communication being assumed so everybody can leave. Jeroboam sings a song called “Gracias Jesus”.
It’s a drab day for witnessing. No other prospects present themselves so we walk back to the house and eat donated Willy Wonka Chocolate Skrunch Bars.
When it’s time for me to leave everyone in the colony is in the living room reading the Bible. I’m wondering exactly how I can arrange an inconspicuous but friendly exit when I hear Nogah’s voice.
“Does everybody love Steve?”
Yes, they do. And they form a circle in the room while Nogah makes me a prayer.
“Lord give Steve a safe ride back to Austin Lord show him the real reason he came here Lord God he didn’t come here for any silly article Lord you know he’ll be back Lord thank you Jesus thank you Lord.”
And I am hugged by Secundus and Cephas and Turn and Uzzi and Messepha and Lakum and Jemima and Michel and Deuteronomy and everyone else. They all tell me they love me and I’m terrifically moved and a little bored: All this love without the risks and responsibilities of individual committment seems somehow tiresome. But that’s my problem, not theirs, and when it comes time to embrace Linda and I’m feeling the common ground between non-believer and novitiate I’m able to tell her, and mean it, that I hope this is an answer for her.
“Sorry about that trick I pulled on you in there,” says Nogah as she walks me to my car. “We do it to everybody.”
I tell her I’m glad she did it, thank her for everything, wish her well. She says that she really loves me and, hoping it sounds as true as I mean it to be, I tell her that I like her a lot.