Saturday, March 10, 2007

Live Free or Die!

Until I have a washer and dryer of my own, I will never do laundry on a Saturday again. A laundromat is the last place I want to spend three hours of my life on a weekend. In addition, I was accosted by one of those missionaries from the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana with his Chick cartoon pamphlets and button-down demeanor. Actually, they aren't missionaries, per se. They're students at Hyles-Anderson College, which is part of the First Baptist Hammond organization. Students there are required to go out on what they call "soul winning" trips. They must have some script to follow, basic training, and tips on how to profile people, because they always lead with the invasive query, "If you died today, sir, would you be certain that you would go to Heaven?" The success rate among the Chinese and Spanish-speaking population in Bridgeport must be astounding.

Thanks to iPod ownership and my overall serious countenance, I have better success avoiding these people these days. A few years ago, I had a missionary on a rascal block my entry to Egg Store, then run over my foot trying to catch up to me. I've also had one Hyles-Anderson student offer me a water cannon if I would accept his testimony, which seems to work at cross purposes: if you have to play on peoples greed (a cardinal sin) into listening to how you became born again, are you going about this ministry the right way? I told him I wasn't interested in hearing him proselytize, then had to define the word "proselytize" to him. Which told me all I needed to know about the value of a Hyles-Anderson education.

Before then, when I lived in a studio apartment on Ashland and Berteau, I engaged in a philosophical debate on religion with one of these folks, smoking pot and drinking Harp the entire time. We agreed to disagree, then he headed over to my neighbor down the hall: a psychotic black man who looked like a demented version of Miles Davis, painted all the reflective surfaces in his apartment a flat black because he believed the Indian government was using "Hunter" star Fred Dryer to send him subliminal messages, and spent moonless nights dry-humping fire hydrants. He was also armed, which I didn't know about until he threatened the missionary with a warning shot that missed by a country mile, but got crazy Miles' message across in a definitive and authoritarian manner. I have a very thin skin toward those folks, a lot of it from experience. And my relationship with God is a personal matter between God and me. Not God, me, and some eager but glazed-eyed missionary who just graduated from a university where Darwin's Theory of Evolution most likely isn't on the science curriculum.

Before Mom remarried, she would use religion as a form of surrogate father for my brother Chris and me. We tried being Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Lutherans, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, and even Catholicism for a spell. But the Baptist faith was one that Mom seemed to return to occasionally. I'm not sure why; part of me theorizes that Baptists tend to be more, um, lenient, towards non-cardinal sins. Mainly, I think it's because the Baptists have found a way to meld the baser behaviors of the campus Greek system with the zealotry of fundamentalist Christianity to create a religious sub sect that's palatable to recidivist backsliders like my family, who p
refer to watch The Little Rascals and eat biscuits and gravy on Sundays.

Mom was a single woman in the '70s, a time when the entire nation seemed to embrace the state motto of New Hampshire for purposes of sexual pleasure (I can't believe I just wrote that with my mother in mind). So when Brother Jim came 'a callin' one day, she probably saw it as an opportunity to get Chris and me out of the house for a few hours as much as giving us a good dose of fire and brimstone. Even at the age of eight the irony of being told not to talk to strangers, only to be handed over to some church-goer she only knew for a couple hours, loaded on a bus, and transported over state lines so Mom could have some R&R was not lost on me. We found out quickly that getting on that bus was when the fun really started.

They went to great lengths to keep us entertained while trying to convince us that everything we liked was a sin. Comic books, television, popular music, even the malt-based non alcoholic beverages of the Latin American children were all trapdoors to a lake of fire that burned a million times hotter than the pilot light of a stove. Those of us on the cusp of puberty had our brows beaten that pre-marital sex would kill us, or physical contact of any kind, was akin to signing a death sentence. Abstinence education was the norm. Brother Jim and his cohorts drilled it into our heads that KISS was an acronym for "Kings in Satan's Service", AC/DC meant "After Christ, Devil Comes", and all rock musicians sold their souls to Lucifer to achieve their fame. And then, to convince us that they weren't complete brainwashed tools, they'd do some serious frat house bullshit, like have goldfish swallowing contests, see who could eat the most jars of baby food before we got to church, and throw shaving cream pies at each other. It steeled my resolve to hide my KISS records, in case they got to Mom and wanted me to bring them to a record burning, which they also occasionally hosted.

Thirty years ago, the First Baptist Church of Hammond was just beginning a massive expansion. Their formula then, as now, was to target depressed neighborhoods in Chicago for new members. Specifically, they seemed to make beelines to single-parent families and communities that were easily swayed by the power of the preacher. Preying on the inherent fatalism that's present in all of us, it was a cinch to fill the church's ranks with bastards and indigenous people with a suspect command of English. It was all reinforced by the late Reverend Jack Hyles, a man who pioneered bus ministry and had some seriously constrictive views on Christianity, bordering on cult-like behavior. Reverend Hyles taught that folks could only be born again if they used the King James Bible in their testimony; Hyles' philosophy was that the Scripture was dictated to the apostles in Kings James English. Any other Bible - essentially, any Bible written in plain English - was looked as an element of false worship. Like many men of God, Reverend Hyles also had his share of criticism and scandal (detailed at his Wikipedia entry).

As his congregation grew, Reverend Hyles needed a larger space, so church was in a converted department store in downtown Hammond. The interior was a classic example of the ego of man trumping the humility of Christ. Reverend Hyles held court from a giant stage, high above the floor, projecting in a theatrical manner intended to scare hundreds to the baptismal pool. I eventually made it there, and, under the weight of my dress clothes and the robe the church provided me for the occasion, nearly drowned the first time I accepted Christ as my Saviour.

Returning home that afternoon, shivering in damp clothes Mom bought on layaway, was the first sign for her that maybe this church wasn't such a good idea after all. This came on the heels of my Aunt Marie's conversion to the Unification Church, which to this day is a sore spot to some in the family. But mainly, it was the sound of squishy shoes and the bluish complexion of her oldest child that soured Mom on our experience with Jack Hyles and his minions. She was a pro about it when Brother Jim praised how I entered a covenant with God of my own volition, standing at the door, nodding her head. Then she closed the door, quietly helped me remove my clothes, fixed Chris and me some tuna casserole and chicken soup, and retreated to her bedroom for a while, exiting red-faced and puffy. Soon after, phone calls from Brother Jim would go unreturned, our Saturdays were filled with out-of-the-house field trips to the zoo, park visits, Cubs games, or Uncle Stu's place, and we would be conveniently occupied on Sundays with family matters. Actually, those family matters consisted of watching The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and Flash Gordon on WGN, sponsored by Bert Weinman Ford, and later The Three Stooges on Channel 32 sponsored by Schmerler Ford and Harry Schmerler, your singing Ford dealer ("rock-a-bye-a-babyyyy"). It kept our attention and Mom was certain we weren't going to drown or catch a cold mimicking Leo Carillo's and Duncan Renaldo's "Oh, Cisco/Oh, Pancho" tag line.

Mom eventually relented and let us find our own way to religion. Tammy, my sister, seems to have developed a synthesis of Wicca and Christian tenets that works for her. Chris falls back on fundamentalism whenever he's in trouble, which is often. And I understand the contradictions of organized religion, but otherwise take the hedging, agnostic stance. Religion, for me, is at odds with my more libertarian leanings. We don't truly know the existence of God, and those who do are dead, so they can't tell us.

My main argument is, since we as humans have the gift of rational thought and doubt, why should we blindly accept something that we're not certain exists? It's faith, I know. But faith is often blind. It's likely that, because of my experiences with organized religion as a child, I take the position that living such a blindly Christian lifestyle, as espoused by Reverend Hyles and his flock, is an even greater sin than not being saved. If you're living your life in fear that even the slightest misstep will prevent your entry to Heaven, then you're not living life to the fullest.

The saying goes that religion is the opiate of the masses. Even drugs have their cycle where the effects subside. I'm content right now to live life and, if there is something beyond this, to accept the terms.

But I most certainly won't live in fear of living.

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