hippies ain’t what you think. You think they love babies and poor people,
but it ain’t true. They take too many drugs to know how to love. I’ll tell
you what they do. They stuff their babies into roaster pans and cook them
just like a person cooks a pot roast because they’re too high to notice
what they’re doing. You think that’s love?”
“Ma, do you think all the hippies are killing their babies?”
“I ain’t sure, but I don’t have any friends who roast their babies in the oven.”
“At least the hippies are protesting Vietnam,” I say in their defense.
“Well, that’s the only good thing they’re doing. It’s a good thing, too. Those hippies are too high to fight.”
Then we go on with our towel folding. In our silence, Mom worries about me running off to Berkeley and I worry I’ll never leave Holland and do anything important. Mom thinks I’ll be a beautician and Dad thinks I’ll get a job at General Motors. But I have bigger plans for myself, plans to be protester, a hippie, a person who does something.
Things started to change after a group of Jesus Freaks came to town and posted signs for a David Wilkerson Crusade. These Jesus Freaks were more like the hippies I had heard about. They were always singing some folksy Jesus tune, wore CPO Jackets plastered with “One Way” and “Jesus Saves” pins, and acted like peace-loving hippies. I was in the Eighth Grade and ready to link up with a group that fought for a cause.
“Hey, Ma,” I shout after entering the house, trying to figure out where she is.
“I’m in the basement. Come on down here and give me a hand with the laundry.”
“Guess what? There’s going to be a David Wilkerson Crusade in the civic center this weekend.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s church stuff, Ma. Like Billy Graham but for young people.”
“What’s wrong with Billy Graham?”
Mom doesn’t go to church often but she watches church on TV. She doesn’t think it looks good to go to church without our Dad, but Dad spends most Sundays sleeping off a drunken stupor while Mom cooks our Sunday dinner watching TV evangelists with expensive organs and all-glass cathedrals ask people for more money.
“Ma, there ain’t nothing wrong with Billy Graham. He’s just boring. Remember those books I read for English, The Cross and the Switchblade and Twelve Angels from Hell?”
“Those books! I don’t know what’s wrong with your English teacher.”
“Ma, those are good books about growing up! Well, some of the people from those books are going to give testimonies during the crusade.”
“I remember when Alice Cooper came to town. A bunch of hoodlums went in on wheelchairs so they could sneak in booze and drugs. Then Alice Cooper goes on stage and chops off a chicken’s head.”
“Ma, David Wilkerson ain’t Alice Cooper. You should be glad I’m going to this crusade. It’s like church except less phony.”
“Ah, you and your phony talk. I know you ain’t asking for my permission to go so I won’t bother telling you what I think about this kind of religion.” To get her point across she starts singing, “Give me that old time religion. Give me that old time religion,” and I walk upstairs with the laundry basket, feeling more distant from my mother.
On Thursday night, I walk to the Civic Center with my friends and we sit on the floor next to the stage, not on the chairs with the rest of the audience. It’s packed. I had no idea there were so many young people in Holland. Just about everyone looks like a hippie and I feel like I’m in Berkeley. A longhaired handsome guy from the Switchblade book starts screaming about how he used to want to shove knives in throats but now that he found Jesus, he gave up drugs and lives to help people. After he finishes with his testimony, most of the people in the audience begin to cry, and David Wilkerson asks if there is anyone in the audience with drugs, and if they have them to please bring them up to the stage.
“Give your drugs up for Jesus!” Wilkerson shouts. Then I end up with drugs thrown all over me. I am amazed at how many people came with drugs in their pockets. But they are eager to give them to God. The volunteer floor sweepers seem extremely happy about the amount of drugs being sacrificed for Christ. They fill grocery bags with marijuana, LSD, and various other pills. I can hardly wait to tell Mom about this. God truly works in mysterious ways.
But the next day Mom’s not too interested in my story.
“See, what did I tell you? The hippies are a bunch of drug addicts!”
“Yeah, but they gave them up. Ma, everyone wants peace!”
We leave it at that. I have two more sessions to attend and am certain I’ll be able to convince Mom of the wonders of being a Jesus Freak later.
During the second night of confessions, the band plays loud rock-and-roll Christian tunes, but not songs we sing at our local church, and three of the angels from hell give their testimonies. These people know how to confess. Everyone on the floor is crying, even David Wilkerson looks like he is crying, and he must have heard their stories a hundred times. Then David Wilkerson invites the audience to come up to the stage and give testimonies.
“I’m sure most of you are feeling God’s power right now. Now’s the time to speak, be saved, and change your life for Christ. And to be saved, you got to tell others about Jesus.”
Hearing that, I am left with no choice but to get up on that stage and confess my sins to the largest audience I have ever seen. When I see all those faces staring at me, everyone quiet, waiting to hear what I have to confess, I don’t know what to say. But I don’t have to worry. Jesus takes over at the mike and uses me to say things I have only thought about but never said. This crusade is being recorded live on our local radio station and Jesus has me tell the audience to forgive their families. I tell them about my dad being a drunk, me stealing booze and getting drunk, and my anger at God for not curing Mom’s cancer.
“Tonight you are supposed to go home, wake up your family, and tell them that you love them. Families are far from perfect, but since we got to live with them, we might as well love them. Love and forgive! That’s what we have to do!” Then I hear a chorus of “Amen’s” and David Wilkerson walks me off the stage.
As we walk home from the crusade singing new Jesus tunes and talking about how we’re going to wake our families when we get home, I believe life is finally going to be good. My family has been in bed for hours, as have most families at this late hour, but not wanting to disappoint God, I go upstairs and enter my brother’s room first.
“Wake up, Joe. I love you and so does God,” I add for good measure.
“Get out of here! It’s almost two!” he screams.
“Let me give you a hug first,” I insist.
Joe tolerates my hug. As I leave his room, he says, “You’re crazy!”
“Yeah, but God loves me.” Joe groans but doesn’t say anything else.
My parents are awake. “We heard you in Joe’s room,” my father says, none too happy. “And we heard you on the radio. Damn it, now everyone in town knows there’s something wrong in our family.”
“Don’t worry, God loves you and so do I.” Reminding everyone of God’s love is great. It provides me with all sorts of indisputable leverage.
My mother gives me a hug and sighs. “What have you been doing out this late?”
“Afterwards a group of us held a prayer circle at the fish park.”
“A prayer circle this late?”
“Ma, with God, time don’t matter.”
“Well, it matters to me!” Dad’s angry. “ Now get to bed and don’t sit up reading your bible all night either. It keeps your sister awake. Why don’t you tell Sue you love her in the morning? You think you’ll still love her then?”
By the last night of the crusade, we have our biggest altar call. Just about everyone wants to be saved and David Wilkerson signs us up for his correspondence Bible Study course so we won’t backslide. Backsliding is serious business and is going to require a lot of discipline to prevent. I also order his six pamphlets that he highly recommends during the crusade.
The Bible Study assignments are fairly easy to complete but the pamphlets are frightening. The titles are: God and Witchcraft, God and Masturbation, God and Drugs, God and Alcohol, God and Petting, and God and Satan. God doesn’t like any of the things mentioned in the titles. I don’t care much about Satan, drugs, or alcohol, and I am willing to only pet with Christians, but I have a hard time with the witchcraft and masturbation philosophies.
For years I have believed I was a witch, but now I want to be a recipient of God’s miracles, not of bizarre interplanetary forces that I don’t understand. I decide to give God credit for all my ESP and witchcraft powers. God loves me. God does it. Life is going to be simpler now.
But it’s much harder giving up masturbation than giving God credit for my witch powers. I know masturbating is something to be done in the privacy of one’s home, but I had no idea God thought it was so horrible.
The pamphlet makes me feel like a sex-starved animal. No longer am I a healthy thirteen-year-old girl; instead I am a wicked beast. Before falling asleep, I beg God to have me lose that sexual urge. I tell God to give my hands a tragic ending if I am unable to stop masturbating.
Yet, I end up doing it every night. I find myself doing it without even trying. Masturbating doesn’t require any effort; it’s like breathing. I truly am ashamed of my addiction and try changing, but Satan still has a lot of power over me. I don’t tell anyone about my masturbation addiction because this isn’t something I feel comfortable confessing in front of audiences. There’s a lot of sins that my friends also do, but no one else talks about doing this. But God knows, and for unexplainable reasons he lets me keep my hands. God is truly forgiving.
I try to make it up to God by spending more time telling strangers on the streets about his love. I have become a bona-fide Jesus Freak. A fanatic for Jesus. My Jesus Freak friends and I call ourselves a family and we pool our resources to rent an apartment above a store downtown. There isn’t enough money to have the electricity connected so we burn candles and call our place “The Burning Bush.” The stores are open until nine on Monday and Friday nights. On those nights, we meet for a prayer session at our headquarters and then hit the streets, working in pairs, targeting the folks who look the most like lost souls. If I save enough souls, God will overlook my masturbation.
When innocent people get out of their cars and put money in the parking meter, we approach them. Our opening question is: “If you die this very minute, do you know if you’ll go to heaven or hell?” The wisest and most time-efficient people say “heaven.” The more honest people say they don’t have a clue. That is their mistake. We know where they are going to end up and tell them. We follow them through the stores, reading passages out of our Reach Out bibles, pointing out how similar our past lives are with their own, and proclaim our great happiness at having found Jesus as our savior. We ask them: “Would you like to have Jesus as your personal savior?”
If they answer “yes,” we get them to crouch over in a bowing position and have them repeat the words that are going to gain their entrance into heaven. Sometimes they cry. We hug them and then leave them to do their shopping, never doing a follow-up call to check on their restored souls. By this time, we know backsliding is impossible to avoid. Why scare away possible recruits by warning them about the dangers of backsliding?
I started stealing in kindergarten, but just candy, nothing expensive. I thought I’d give up stealing after I became a Jesus Freak, but Satan is sneaky and puts most of his power on me while I am at the local Bible store downtown. Otherwise he is pretty good and leaves me alone until I am in bed. The storeowners think we are wonderful people and donate Bibles and Jesus paraphernalia to our cause. As the owners give us religious tracts and other things to pass out downtown, I pocket necklaces with symbolic crosses, fancy bookmarks, and other things I never use. I feel guilty, but it’s another one of those things I have a hard time giving up. And I can’t figure out how the correspondence study is going to make me stop backsliding. Sometimes it seems like I’m only corresponding with Satan.
I also steal from the drug store near the Bible store. It never feels like stealing there because I sit by the counter, order some complicated fizz drink where the waitress has to add umpteen different flavors in one glass. I drink it. My stomach explodes. The waitress and I joke about life. Then, without her ever suspecting anything, I just get up and leave, as if I have paid.
This stealing business is like masturbation- it’s exciting, yet leaves me feeling incredibly guilty, and I never tell anyone about it. When my Jesus Freak friends start stealing new jeans from Steketee’s and expensive clothes from other stores, I start to worry that they picked this habit up from me, though I have never told them that I steal. If they know I’m a thief, they must also know I masturbate. I have got to give these things up, but it looks like God and Satan are both using me as tools and Satan is getting ahead.
One night when my friends and I are at Bunte’s drug store, I apologize to the waitress for having stolen so many free snacks from their counter. She is shocked. I offer to give her money but she refuses to accept it. My friends are embarrassed to be seen with me. They are even more embarrassed after we go to Baker Book House and I tell the owner, who also attends our church, that I have stolen from him. I return a handful of necklaces, bookmarks, and other small items. Bill, the owner, seems more disappointed about his store’s carelessness than finding out I am a thief.
“We have mirrors all over the store. I can’t believe you got this much.”
“More really. I gave everything else away. Do you want to press charges?”
“Not if you’ll show me how you do it.”
I show Bill how easy it is to steal from his store and he forgives me. “Would you like a job here? We need a honest girl like you.”
I never take the job. It just doesn’t seem right.
I decide to spend more time working on my mission for God and start attending revival meetings and faith healings on a nightly basis. These small country churches are nothing like the large Reformed church I have been attending all my life. In the Reformed church we sang a somber “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but in the small churches we sing a rapid, tear-jerking “I’ll Fly Away, Oh Lordy.” These small church ministers are always jumping off the stage and directing personal questions to individuals in the congregation. The people being questioned cower in their pews and cry while the rest of us shout, “Amen, brother Frank!”
I’m not used to being around Black people, but after I start taking a bus to attend faith healing services in Muskegon, a large city forty-five miles from Holland, I get used to just about everyone and everything. The congregation is mostly Black and we meet in an abandoned drug store in the inner city. The purpose of these meetings is to heal people. My first night in Muskegon, a large woman in a wheelchair tells the minister she has been crippled all her life. Reverend Malone asked Bertha if she believes in Jesus Christ as her savior.
“Yes, I sure do!”
Then he asks the congregation if we believe in Jesus Christ as our savior. Some people shout “Amen, Reverend Malone. I’m a believer of Jesus Christ.” Others start singing “Do Lord,” and the truly saved speak in tongues. Over this cacophony of sounds, Reverend Malone hollers, “If you believe in Jesus Christ, pray for Bertha. She’s been crippled for too long.”
“Amen! Too Long!”
“Let her walk for Jesus,” Reverend Malone suggests.
“Amen! Walk for Jesus!”
This goes on for about twenty minutes. I’m bawling with everyone else. Then Reverend Malone silences us and asks Bertha if she believes in Jesus.
“I sure do.”
“Amen. Bertha believes!” the congregation chants. I usually just say “Amen” because I am new to this approach and am not sure what words follow “Amen.”
“Do you believe in Jesus enough to get up out of that wheelchair?”
We fall silent. Bertha’s eighty-eight year old mother starts weeping. No one speaks. Then Bertha pulls herself out of the chair and walks three steps in the minister’s direction.
“That’s enough, Bertha. Please sit down.” Bertha wraps her hands around Reverend Malone. “Don’t thank me. Thank Jesus.” Bertha starts crying and the congregation starts in on the “Praise Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!”
Riding home on the bus, I feel elated to have experienced my first miracle. My mother is dying of cancer and I am ready to bring her to Muskegon the next week. I know better than to wake my family after these church meetings because my excitement for Jesus angers them, but the next evening at dinner, I tell my family about this Assembly of God church.
“Ma, you should go. They try to heal everyone.”
“Shut-up about this Jesus bullshit!” my father orders.
“I ain’t making it up. A crippled woman got out of a wheelchair and walked last night.”
“Did they make anyone’s leg grow?”
This surprises me. “Yes, after Bertha a man’s leg grew a quarter of an inch.”
“Did they make someone’s arm grow?”
“Well, next week they will.” Then my father wraps both arms around his back in a circle and flings them over the table. One is shorter than the other though he has them extended evenly. “See the difference?”
“Let’s pretend a bunch of people are praying. Now watch this.” Then he shakes his left arm a bit and it is the same size as his right arm. “Oldest trick n the book. We had those faith healings in the country when I was a boy. You better be careful. Things ain’t always like they seem. I’m not going to tell you you can’t go because you wouldn’t listen to me, but don’t you ever come into this house and tell us we should go.”
“Maybe it ain’t all made up. Mom could at least try.” Dad slams his fist on the table and Mom starts to cry. This is the end of the discussion. God lets me keep my hands and Mom her tumors.
Mom places her faith in apricot pits. Those pits are supposed to cure cancer. God is something Mom fears. She believes our wars, diseases, and other catastrophes are a direct result of God’s punishments. God provides us with rules that are to be obeyed. If the rules are disobeyed, God has unpleasant consequences for us. When Mom talks about God, she doesn’t talk about happiness or peace. Instead, she reminds us: “Don’t talk like that. God hears you. He knows everything about you. Every thought. Every wish. Every evil desire. He created you and he can destroy you at any time.”
There are nights when I sit on the front porch steps until the sun comes up, wondering about all of these things. Sometimes I think my mother is right. God is unpredictable and powerful. Dad is right too. Things aren’t always like they seem. But when I think about the way things really are, I’m never sure if I’ll end up a prostitute in Grand Rapids or a missionary in Ethiopia. Maybe the apricot pit will work for Mom and whiskey will work for Dad, but for me it feels good to flash the peace sign and tell people God loves them.