Keeping Faith in Faith

In the book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron describes every work of art as already existing in its entirety, even before the artist creates it. She says that creating is merely an act of discovery—of the artist slowly chipping away at the rock and earth that is covering her masterpiece—just as scientists do on an archaeological dig. The archaeologist never knows exactly what he or she will find, but simply continues working until the object finally reveals itself.

I often feel like that when I write. Especially with this particular blog post. I always knew that at some point in my life I would want to broach the subject of my religious upbringing, but the question was always, how? With what stories? From what place in time? And most importantly, with what objectivity?

You see, my childhood experiences with organized religion were very . . . how shall I say this . . . unique. I grew up attending a church called the Worldwide Church of God (now referred to as Grace Communion International) and it had very rigid, unorthodox guidelines for how its members were expected to live their lives. It was run by one man, Herbert W. Armstrong, who died in 1989. I was eight years old at the time.

After his death, Armstrong’s appointed predecessor, Josheph Tkach, began running the church and within a few years of being in power, he decided that many of Armstrong’s ideologies were actually inaccurate and not Biblically sound. This of course enraged and confused the massive congregation of people who had sacrificed so much and had built their lives around principles that were now seen as obsolete. The church split into various groups of angry and wounded people. Allegations were made; families were broken apart; atheists were born.

I grew up in the midst of all of this and have been waiting for a time when I felt ready to write about it. One thing I have learned about writing is that it is absolutely essential to have a sense of distance from whatever subject I am discussing. I need to be able to write about it objectively; otherwise, nothing I say is going to be wholly accurate. Its accuracy would be clouded by my own hurts, worries, anger, and bitterness.

That was, in fact, the first question that came to mind when I thought about writing on this part of my childhood: am I still—even just a little bit—bitter? I kind of was as a kid. Not that being bitter really got me anywhere, but like many children, I had difficulty with seeing the bigger picture and understanding that my present situation wasn’t all there was ever going to be.

And if I am carrying even slight remnants of bitterness on this topic, then the next question to consider before starting to write is the following: will my blog posting be a carefully crafted story, or will it be an overly candid therapy session that I’m inviting the whole world to peer in on? These are rather important questions for any writer to consider. Oddly enough, I began answering them by surfing the Internet, which is always the surest and fastest form of introspection.

I’m kidding.

Googling will usually not be the key to unlocking your innermost feelings, but in this specific situation, I knew it would be a good start. The church I attended when I was growing up was cloaked in controversy, and is therefore, highly Googleable. Go ahead and try it: type “Worldwide Church of God” into your browser and see what you will find.

You will likely find multiple references to it being a cult. If you let your eyes fall a little farther down the screen, you will stumble upon the blog of a man named Robert McNally who grew up in the WCG and is now an atheist. The tag line at the top of his blog is, “Losing faith in faith since 1997.” His blog is primarily a forum for ex-members to rant and rave about their bitter experiences. To lament the ways religion has ruined their lives.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you will find another website of a girl who grew up in the WCG and has learned to overcome her grievances through art. Her name is Andie Redwine, and she wrote and produced a film called Paradise Recovered. It’s about a girl who grows up in an oppressive, fundamentalist church and later meets an “unlikely source” who “teaches her what it really means to experience faith, love, and life.” I couldn’t find the date for when it is being released, but I think I’d like to go see Ms. Redwine’s film.

Plus, I think she has a cool last name. Sorry, I had to say it.

Next, in Google’s long line of choices, comes the blog of those who still adhere to the original principles of the Worldwide Church of God, and who think that Herbert W. Armstrong is a sacred prophet. Granted, the author of this blog seems to be exceptionally racist, as a few of his posts are openly bashing African Americans, as well as partially justifying the Holocaust.

At this point in my research, I am feeling thoroughly depressed. Every single thing that I am finding seems to point to the fact that this church was a horrible institution, including the Wikipedia articles that document all of the administrative controversies that went on behind the scenes. For example, it states that in 1979, 60 Minutes did a report on how the Worldwide Church of God was financially manipulating its members.

Of course, I knew nothing about all of that when I was a child. All I knew—like my fellow ex-members who are blogging about it on the web—was that I felt like I was never allowed to do anything. All the activities and customs that were part of the normal, every-day lives of the people around me, seemed to be off limits in my own life.

I didn’t celebrate my first birthday until I was eleven years old. I never believed in Santa, and celebrated Christmas for the first time at fifteen. I participated in my first Easter egg hunt when I was living in the dorms in college, and still have yet to partake in the time-honored tradition of watching Saturday morning cartoons. Watching television was prohibited on Saturdays because it was considered the Sabbath day; therefore, most activities were forbidden outside of attending church.

Granted, there are many people on this planet who have never done any of these things and probably never will, yet still lead completely healthy and fulfilled lives. I know that now. The problem is that I didn’t know that as a child growing up in a teensy-tiny, all white, all Christian town. When we came back to school from Christmas break and all of the other kids were excitedly comparing stories of the cool Christmas gifts they had gotten, it felt like my brother and I were the biggest odd balls on the planet. We didn’t have any stories to tell.

But this is all a rather lengthy tale—much more than I could possibly say in one blog post. Therefore, I will leave you with this as an introduction to my own journey of growing up in the Worldwide Church of God and how, in spite of it all, I am still “keeping faith in faith,” since sometime around the late 90s.