Saturday, January 17, 2009

Chapter 9: A Peculiar People

It has never been cool to be Pentecostal. Even as a very young child I was well aware that we were different from other people. It was evident by the way we dressed -- especially the women. They wore long dresses (slacks were forbidden), long sleeves, high necks, and absolutely no jewelry or make-up. We were Holiness people, and some people called us Holy-Rollers, although for the most part we didn't call ourselves by that term. We considered it derogatory.
The Pentecostal/Holiness dress code was so severe that we stood out almost as much as the Amish do in today's society. There were many times I would go to town or out to a restaurant with Pentecostal friends, very aware of how different we looked, and hope other people did not notice. But of course, they did.

Some people despised us Pentecostals, a few admired us, and most people just tolerated us -- as long as we stayed on our side of town. In many places, that meant staying on the "other" side of the railroad tracks. In Cleveland, it meant remaining on the east side of Ocoee Street, which was U.S. 11.

This was very evident when I was a student in elementary school. During first grade, I attended Arnold School which was on the west side of Ocoee Street, and I was the only Church of God student in my classroom. When I was in second grade, I transferred to Mayfield School, on "our side of town." There were seven or eight other Church of God kids in my class then, including my brother Paul, but we Pentecostals were still a decided minority. That's remarkable when one considers that Cleveland was a small town and the International Headquarters of the denomination, with probably more Church of God members per capita than any other spot on earth.

We were a peculiar people and proud of it. Often I heard it said in church that the Bible calls God's people peculiar. One brother loved to proclaim it every time he would testify. With a self-righteous grin, he would loudly declare, "Halliluyer, I'm peculiar." We had Scripture to validate our status: "But ye [are] a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light:" I Peter 2:9.

We Pentecostals expressed our peculiarity primarily by the long list of things we did not do. And the list was longer for women than it was for men. We did not drink alcohol, smoke, chew tobacco or dip snuff. We didn't participate in worldly amusements, such as going to motion picture theaters, skating rinks, bowling alleys, ball games, pool halls, etc. Golf was denounced as “cow pasture pool.”

We didn't dance except in the Spirit, like the old-time Shakers and Quakers. Women wore long hair, usually piled up on top of their head in a bun. Men wore short hair, off the collar. We wouldn't dream of going in mixed swimming with the opposite sex. All jewelry and make-up was taboo. The list went on and on. I knew one minister's son who was "churched," or ex-communicated by his own preacher father for tossing a ball back-and-forth with a friend on Sunday. Even the preacher's kid was not allowed to desecrate the Lord's Day.

When I was a high school student, we had a revival meeting at our church. One of my unsaved school friends attended. She gave her heart to the Lord one night in our altar, and the next Sunday morning, when an invitation was given for new members to join the church, she went forward. A sanctified sister in the congregation stood and interrupted the minister, pointing out that this young lady was wearing a finger ring and therefore should not be allowed to join the church.

The humiliated and confused girl burst into tears and fled. I never saw her in church again. Some in the congregation were appalled and embarrassed by what had happened. Others commented on how glad they were to see someone stand up for old-time Holiness. They said the church couldn't afford to sit idly by and allow the world to creep in like that.

In Dad’s office at the Church of God Publishing House, he had a large magnifying glass in his top middle desk drawer. It was used for inspecting photos before they were published in any official church periodicals. Photos that were sent in from “the field,” picturing a church group, revival meeting or the like, weren’t usually a problem. But sometimes, to illustrate his article, Dad used a photo service such as that of H. Armstrong Roberts. Those pictures he had to screen carefully to make sure no one in them was wearing a finger ring or a necklace.

Most Pentecostals were sincere in their rigid legalistic beliefs. Many were also self-righteous in their attitude, and quick to condemn anything or anyone they considered "worldly."

As ultra-strict as the North Cleveland Church of God was, we were ridiculed by some other churches in the denomination for being too liberal. Many Church of God preachers railed against radio and television. I've heard some rant especially hard against the evil of watching I Love Lucy, and other such shows which were considered an evil influence. Some called it "Hell-a-vision" -- the devil's pipeline into the American home.

There was a pastor in Georgia whom I knew well who was one of those who railed against television for years, and then he succumbed to temptation and bought one. He told the congregation that he only bought it to watch the news so he could keep up with current events. He said he took the knobs off the T.V. and kept them locked in a safe place so his sons could not watch television while he was away.

Shortly after the television was placed in the church parsonage, a sister stood during a Sunday service and proceeded to prophecy. Speaking in a deep, loud, demanding tone, as if the very voice of God were speaking through her, she proclaimed: "Yea, I say unto thee, thou sayest thou hast bought thy T.V. to watch the news. But I say unto thee, thou hast bought it to watch I Love Lucy. Thou shalt be cut off, yes-sir-ee Bob." Her prophecy came to pass. Shortly afterwards, the pastor was forced by the congregation to leave that church and go find a more "liberal" congregation.

There were also those who preached against drinking Coca Cola, although we drank it in the fellowship hall at North Cleveland. One sister from a small mountain congregation in Kentucky saw me drinking a Coke one day when I was in college, and severely rebuked me. Not only did she consider Coke a "strong drink," which the Bible cautions against, but she said it was also known to contain cocaine.

I informed her that Coke actually did carry a trace of cocaine in its original recipe, but that it had long since been deleted from the drink's formula.

"That doesn't matter," she insisted. "You're drinking out of a bottle and liquor comes in bottles." She reminded me that the Bible teaches we are to avoid the very appearance of evil. According to her, I was destroying my testimony, and as a young preacher, it was especially wrong. Someone may see me drinking out of a bottle, presume it was alcohol, and it would cause that soul to be offended, stumble, and be lost. She warned me that that person’s blood would be on my hands.

Pentecostals as a whole lived on the lower end of the socio-economic strata. Most of our church members were poorly educated blue collar folks, although there were exceptions. I was very aware that there was not a single Church of God teacher in the entire Cleveland City School System when I was a student there. When I went to Bradley Central High School, which was in the county school system, I was very proud that two of my teachers were members of the Church of God. Both attended the North Cleveland church.

One was Mr. Wilson, my speech teacher, who served for a while as Sunday School Superintendent at the church. The other was Mrs. Platt, wife of the president of Lee College, but people at the church talked about her because of her worldly ways and lack of dedication to the Lord. She sometimes wore a light dab of lipstick at school. That was considered worldly and no “dedicated” Church of God member would think of doing such a thing.

The first time I ever felt persecuted for my faith was in first grade. Although my brother Paul was also in first grade, he was in a different classroom. A little girl in my room was having a birthday, and to celebrate it her parents reserved the entire Princess Theater in downtown Cleveland. They made arrangements to take our class to the theater on a field trip to see the movie Heidi.

The day before the field trip, our teacher, Miss Dugan, gave us all permission slips to take home and be signed by our parents so we could go see the movie. Only two of us, a girl who was a member of the Church of the Nazarene and I, were not allowed to go. That afternoon while all our classmates were at the theater, the little Nazarene girl and I were given coloring books and crayons and put at a table in the school cafeteria, where the kitchen help could keep an eye on us.

In a funny sort of way I felt both inferior and superior. The inferior feelings were brought about by the condescending looks and offensive remarks from my classmates. Even though they may be members of a Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian Church, deep inside my heart I felt we Pentecostal/Holiness folk were more righteous than they. That was the reason for my sense of superiority. I was proud of my humility.

I took comfort in feeling I was somebody special in the eyes of God. In my mind, the very Creator of the universe Himself was partial toward Holiness people. I knew God had other children besides us, but in my sincere, young heart I was quite certain we were His favorites. But, I still wanted to see Heidi.

Actually, we Pentecostals could watch movies; we just couldn’t go to the motion picture theater to see them. We lived practically next door to Lee College, which was a Church of God school, and they showed movies there. I wondered why it was that we were not allowed to go to the Princess Theater downtown or the Starview Drive-In Theater to see a show, but a few months later when the same movie was shown in the Lee College auditorium, we could see it then.

Mom said there were three reasons. First, while some movies playing at the theater were good, others were bad, with people smoking, cursing, drinking and killing in them. If we went to a wholesome movie like Heidi, we would be supporting the same theater that showed the bad movies and that would be helping the Devil’s work.

Second, someone might see us go into the theater and not know what kind of movie we were going to see. That could cause them to be offended, or cause us to destroy our testimony. There were many things that were not necessarily wrong within themselves, but if doing them caused a weak brother or sister to stumble and fall, then it would be a sin.

Finally, I was told that the movie theater is a worldly place. Sinners go to theaters and they do sinful things there. I wasn’t sure what kind of sinful things went on in theaters, but I imagined it must include swearing, smoking, drinking, gambling and fornicating. That’s no place for a Christian.

There were a few students who came to Lee, especially from rural mountain areas, who were aghast that movies were being shown on campus. They protested that Lee was compromising with the world and becoming too liberal. When I became a student at Lee, I had a couple of classmates who refused to even watch an educational film that was shown in the classroom. The teacher allowed them to lay their heads on their desk and not watch, lest they violate their own conscience.

I loved going to movies when they were shown at the Lee College auditorium, which was fairly often. Since the church and the college forbade members or students from attending worldly amusements, they seemed to feel a responsibility to provide alternative entertainment.

Whenever a movie was to be shown at Lee, it first had to be pre-screened by a committee of faculty and ministers. In addition to his work as an editor for the Church of God, Dad also taught some classes at the college, so he was on the pre-screening committee. I loved it when he let me and some of the older children go with him to the pre-screenings.

They were held in a large projector room in the basement of the Lee College library. Usually 30 or 40 people were present, as the other pre-screening committee members also brought their wives and children. Everyone loved a good movie.

As the committee viewed the movies, they took notes of any objectionable words or scenes, and those were cut out before the movie was shown in the school auditorium. One Biblical movie had a scene where Salome did the Dance of the Seven Veils before King Herod. It was one of the most awesome things I had ever seen. Even as an eleven-year-old, I knew it wouldn’t pass the pre-screening committee. Sure enough, when I saw the movie again during its public showing in the auditorium, the dance had been deleted.

One of my favorite movies was the 1939, 20th Century Fox black-and-white classic, Stanley and Livingstone. It was a missionary story about Dr. David Livingstone, and a newspaper reporter named Stanley, played by Spencer Tracy. Because the movie was so popular and had a strong Christian message, it was shown for a Friday night youth service at the North Cleveland Church of God and again on Saturday evening at Lee. Both times the movie played to packed houses. It was the most exciting film I had ever seen, and almost caused me to dedicate my life to being a missionary in darkest Africa. I saw it three times, including the pre-screening. The parts where Stanley was smoking a pipe were cut out before the public showings. It would never be acceptable to allow a picture of a person smoking in church, or at the church college either.

The first time I ever went to a theater to see a movie, my dad took me and two of my brothers, but he assured us it wasn’t a real theater. We were traveling with Dad to the Church of God Florida State Camp-Meeting in the late 1950s. The camp-meeting, where Dad was to be a featured speaker, was in a large open-air tabernacle in the small town of Wimauma. In the nearby city of Tampa, there was a new “Cinerama,” a theater with a large wrap-around screen which was showing a special feature about a sailing ship called Windjammer.

Dad wanted to see Windjammer, but first he had to convince us boys it was all right. He explained to us this wasn’t an ordinary theater. The film was shown in a special building and used a newly developed “cinemiracle” process. It required three projectors and an ultra-long curved screen which enveloped the audience in the picture.

Philip, Paul, and I questioned Dad because we still weren’t sure that either Mother or God would approve. I think I was more reluctant to go than my brothers, but I did want to see the movie. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have because I wasn’t totally convinced we weren’t sinning by being there -- especially when Dad ordered us boys to not dare tell anyone what we had done, because they might not understand.

Later that same summer I had another close call with sin, and almost missed Jesus’ Second Coming.

Every summer we children, two or three at a time, spent a week with my grandparents in the Riverside section of Atlanta, Georgia. There were so many things I enjoyed about going to Riverside. Sometimes the week coincided with Vacation Bible School at the Riverside Church of God, which was fun. Granddaddy had chickens, a goat, a big workshop, and there were woods to explore out behind the house.

My grandparents didn’t get indoor plumbing until I was a little older. In the early days they had a hand-dug well behind their house from which they hauled water up with a rope and pulley. Beyond the well, a path led down the hill to the outhouse. Saturday night baths in Atlanta were on the back porch in a galvanized tub. Water was pulled up from the well one bucketful at a time, and heated on the propane stove. I thought that was fun.

Sometimes Granddaddy would take us children with him on his Watkins Products route, or to the Southern Railway Station where he used to work before an incident in cleaning a tanker car caused him to suffer from lung problems. On the hottest summer evenings, he took all the men and boys in the family to the bath house at the railroad yard to take a shower.

The thing I liked most about going to Riverside was being pampered by Dad’s family. He had four sisters, a brother, aunts, uncles, cousins and other assorted kin who were all fun to visit. I especially enjoyed my unmarried aunts who loved to unleash all their maternal instincts on me and my siblings.

Aunt Idelle and Aunt Fay were very good at taking us to do things. They gave me my first ice cream sundae and my first Chinese food. Also, most every summer we could count on a trip to the Grant Park Zoo.

It was when Aunt Idelle and Aunt Fay took me and Paul to the Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta that I was afraid they had crossed the line and led us into the paths of sin.

When Aunt Idelle first asked if we would like to go to the Fox Theater for a Saturday Matinee, I immediately rejected the idea. “We’re not allowed to go to the theater,” I told her. “It’s a sin.’

Aunt Idelle was a devout Christian, and served as Sunday School Secretary at the Riverside Church of God. She knew the rules, and kept them. But this was different she explained, “It’s only a sin to go to the theater to see a movie. We’re going to hear a concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.” We told her that if she was sure it was okay with God, we would go.

As we rode the trolley from Riverside to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, I was already having second thoughts. I remembered a sermon I had heard an evangelist preach at the North Cleveland church not long before. It was about the rapture and how people who weren’t ready when Jesus came, which would probably be that very day, would be left behind.

For as long as I could remember, I had been expecting Jesus to come back at any moment. People at church always talked about doing things tomorrow or next week by adding to the end of their sentence, “…if the Lord tarries.” He had already been tarrying since I was just a little kid. Now, I was eleven years old and He hadn’t come back yet. I was sure He would return at any moment.

As the trolley rolled on toward the Fox Theater, I recalled how in 1953, I had been talking to my cousin Ronnie in Grandmother’s front yard about the Second Coming. I had noticed that the address on my grandparent’s house was 1958 Main Street. “Wouldn’t it be something,” I mused, “if Grandmama’s address and the year were both the same number?” But Ronnie and I agreed that would never happen. The world as we knew it wouldn’t be here in 1958. Jesus would most certainly have raptured us away long before then.

It had been three years since I had that conversation with Ronnie. Every time I returned to Atlanta I remembered, and marveled that Jesus was still tarrying. Now here it was 1956, just two more years until it would be the same number as on the Conn’s Main Street house. The Lord had already delayed His coming longer than anyone ever thought possible. Surely He would be back soon -- probably that very afternoon.

I thought again of what the evangelist had preached. “When Jesus comes again for His Church, people in the theaters will be left behind. People at the ball games, in the dance halls, pool halls, bowling alleys, skating rinks and other places of worldly amusement will be left behind.” The preacher said that when Jesus comes to rapture His church, He won’t even look under the roof of such wicked places because He knows that no Christians would be found there.

The trolley stopped a half block from the Fox and I drug my feet behind Aunt Idelle, Aunt Fay, and Paul, praying all the way for Jesus to please delay His coming for just one more afternoon. And if this was to be the day He came again, which I was sure it probably was, would He please look under the roof of the Fox Theater, because I was just going to be listening to a symphony orchestra and not watching an ungodly movie.

Atlanta’s Fox Theatre was originally built as the Yaarab Temple Shrine Mosque in the late 1920’s. It has been called “an outlandish, opulent, grandiose monument to the heady excesses of the pre-crash 1920’s.” It is a mosque-like structure complete with minarets, onion domes, and an interior d├ęcor which is even more grandiose than its facade.

The interior depicts an outdoor Arabian courtyard with a sky full of flickering stars and magically drifting clouds. I was so taken by the place, especially the ceiling with its star-studded sky, momentarily I forgot that Jesus was probably en-route from Heaven at that very moment to rapture His church. Then, as the orchestra started to play, I remembered Jesus and looked up, anxiously searching the starry ceiling for any sign of His appearance.

I looked around me with great compassion for the multitude of sinners in that ungodly place and thought what a terrible shame it was that all of them were going to be left behind, and me with them, unless God was merciful.
“Please, Dear Jesus,” I pleaded silently as I dug my fingernails into the upholstery on my chair. “Please, won’t You tarry just a little longer? Let us out of here before You come. And please forgive me for being here with all these sinners.”

The concert seemed to go on for hours. When the last encore had finally ended, I gave a huge sigh of relief and we walked out onto the sidewalk. The bright afternoon sun surprised me. We had been in there under the starry sky for so long, I had forgotten it was still daytime.

My first thought upon exiting the theater was to wonder if Jesus had already come and gone, and we had missed Him. The streets of the city were filled with people -- hundreds -- maybe thousands of them. How, I wondered, could I know whether Jesus had already come or not. For many anxious moments I looked up and down the street until suddenly I saw a sign from the Lord.

There, on a corner waiting for the traffic light to change, was the most welcomed sight I could have imagined. It was a middle-aged lady in a flower-print dress with long sleeves, a low hem line and a high neck. She didn’t have on a dab of lipstick and not a single piece of jewelry could be seen dangling from any part of her body. Better yet, she had long hair that was all piled up on top of her head in a bun. That was a Holiness woman if I had ever seen one. There was absolutely no question in my mind that if the Rapture had taken place, she is one person who would have been caught up to meet the Lord in the air, but here she was standing on Peachtree Street.

“Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!” I exhaled. That was a close call.

Aunt Idelle and Aunt Fay walked with Paul and me a few blocks down the street to a cafeteria and told us we could have anything we wanted for a mid-afternoon snack. I selected a beautiful slice of cake. I was uncertain of the flavor, but it looked yummy. I was more than half way through my dessert when Aunt Idelle asked, “Stephen, did you know that was rum cake?”

I was devastated. God had just delivered me from the theater, and here I was already sinning again. I pushed the cake aside and a big lump came up in my throat. Silently I prayed that God would please forgive me just one more time, and I explained to Him that I would never have chosen that particular piece of cake if I had known it had rum in it.

There was a song we sometimes sang about such things. It was just a fun “camp song,” but it was fraught with truth:

We never eat cookies
‘Cause cookies have yeast,
And one little bite makes a man like a beast.
O can you imagine a sadder disgrace
Than a man in the gutter with crumbs on his face.

We never eat fruitcake
‘Cause fruitcake has rum,
And one little bite turns a man to a bum
O can you imagine a sorrier sight
Than a man who gets drunk on just one little bite.

Away, away with the rum, by gum,
With the rum, by gum, save a bum, by gum.
Away, away with the rum, by gum,
The song of God’s Mighty Army.

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