Monday, January 12, 2009

Chapter 15: Memphis, Elvis, and the General Assembly

Of all the trips I took with Dad, my favorites were to the Church of God General Assembly, which was held every other year in August. Mother also went to the General Assembly. A babysitter stayed with the younger children in Cleveland.

The General Assembly was, and is, the biennial worldwide gathering for the Church of God. Even as a kid, it was for me a time of reunion with friends (mostly other preacher’s kids) I had met all over the United States in traveling with Dad to local churches, conferences and camp-meetings. It was also good to see so many grown-ups I knew. I knew preachers, missionaries and others who had paid visits to the denominational headquarters in Cleveland, and also the North Cleveland Church. It seemed to me that the Church of God was just one big family, of which I was a vital part.

Mom and Dad’s policy was that you had to be 12 years old before you could attend the General Assembly with them. As luck would have it, my 12th birthday fell on the off year, which means that my first Assembly was when I was 13 and Paul was 12. It seems we did everything together.

The General Assembly was exciting not only because I saw so many friends there, but also because it was held in a big city convention center, with 12 or 15 thousand people attending. If camp-meeting was the church big leagues, then the General Assembly was the Super Bowl.

The best dancers, runners, and screamers in the entire church of God exercised their gifts at the General Assembly. I loved to sit as high as possible in the balcony so I could get a bird’s eye view of everything that went on. One of the most amazing things I ever saw at a General Assembly was in Dallas, Texas, when I was 17. There, while a featured choir was singing a spirited number, a young man across the balcony from me stood and began to shout, hands raised high in the air. In the Spirit, he danced down the stadium-like stairs all the way to the rail at the bottom level of the balcony. To my horror, he leapt right over the rail. To my great relief, he landed on his feet in the aisle, about 12 feet below, and joined with the other shouters on the main floor.

The thing I liked most about the General Assembly was the incredible amount of freedom I had there. Dad and Mom were both very busy in meetings the entire week, so we teenage children were expected to attend the services on our own. The requirement our parents gave us was that we were to attend the youth events and evening services. This left plenty of time to explore and sightsee.

The first General Assembly I attended was in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Ellis Auditorium, and our family stayed in the Claridge Hotel. Although we lived in Tennessee, Memphis was a six hour drive away and was a whole different part of the country to me. Tennessee is such a long state, stretching from the Smoky Mountains to the Mississippi River, that parts of east Tennessee are closer to Ontario, Canada than they are to Memphis.

I roamed downtown Memphis, the streets, parks, and the Mississippi Riverfront. I climbed to the top of every tall building in town and found a way onto the rooftop to check out the view. I learned to ride the city buses and visited the Memphis Zoo, the Aquarium, and other exciting spots. I explored much on my own, and some of it with friends and siblings. The amount of freedom I enjoyed was in a greater measure than anything I had ever experienced before and I found it exhilarating.

One afternoon, at that first General Assembly, I got together with six other kids I knew from Cleveland who were also in Memphis with their parents. Maude Miller, the mother of Helen Faye, one of the girls in our group, asked if we would like to drive out and see if we could find Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.

Elvis was at the peak of his popularity and living at Graceland at the time. It was definitely not the tourist attraction it has become today and was off-limits to uninvited guests. We all eagerly piled into Sister Miller’s sedan and went off hoping to get a glimpse of the home of The King. We found it.

Sister Miller stopped in front of Graceland’s wrought iron gates and we all hopped out, gawking to see what we could see. A security guard told us Elvis was in town, home on leave from the Army, and was due back to Graceland any minute. We decided to wait around for a while in hopes of seeing his car as he passed by. In the next half hour, 25 or 30 other people also gathered.

Once, a delivery truck pulled up and the security guard opened the gate. When he did, I made a quick dash past the guard and grabbed a handful of grass from Elvis’ lawn. Now I had a souvenir.

A short time later two long, black limousines turned into the drive. The gate swung open, but the limos stopped. The left back window of the front limo rolled down, and there was Elvis.

“Hi, Folks,” he grinned. “It sure is a nice day, isn’t it?”

Elvis was immediately deluged with people wanting to shake his hand and get his autograph. He never got out of the limousine, but seemed to enjoy himself, taking at least 20 minutes to shake every hand and do a little small talk. He signed dozens of autographs. Many fans expressed their regret that he had lost his beloved mother, Gladys, just a few days earlier.I remember feeling sorry for Elvis because he had just buried his mother.

I thought he was a very gracious gentleman to stop and chat with us under such circumstances. I got three autographs; two on the back of bank deposit slips Maude Miller gave me and one on the back of my hand. I then poked my head into the second limousine, and asked, “Who are you guys?” Three of them were members of Elvis’ band. An older man said he was Elvis’ daddy. I got his autograph too.

When I started back to school a few weeks later, in 7th grade, I sold those autographs for 25 cents each. What idiots those classmates of mine were to give me a whole quarter each for little slips of paper with a man’s name on them.

As a 13 year old boy, the 1958 General Assembly of the Church of God in Memphis, Tennessee, marked one of the first great spiritual disillusionments of my life. I had always been led to believe that God spoke to people at the General Assembly, dictating the church rules and policies which were taken back to every local church to abide by.

The specific place where God spoke to the church was in the Ordained Minister’s Council. Everyone could come to the worship services at the General Assembly, but in those days, the Ordained Minister’s Council was closed to all except credentialed ministers. No observers were allowed.

After God told the Ordained Minister’s Council what He wanted them to do for the next two years, on the last full day of the convocation, the General Assembly met and approved it. The General Assembly consisted of any and all Church of God members who cared to attend, including laity. However, only male members, 12 and older, could vote.

Even though I wasn’t legally allowed inside the Ordained Ministers Council, I was intent on seeing what it was like when God handed down His orders. I found a back way, up a fire escape route, to the darkened top balcony in Ellis Auditorium. On hands and knees, I crawled in behind the seats. Peeking out between the cracks, I was amazed at what I saw and heard. It was nothing like I expected.

I thought the inside of Ellis Auditorium, with more than 2,000 ordained ministers on the main floor, was going to be something like the Holy of Holies in the Temple that King Solomon built. I expected the very Shekinah Glory of the Lord to be present. I wondered exactly what method God would use in giving the Ordained Ministers his instructions. Would He speak in an audible voice? Would it be through unknown tongues and interpretation, or perhaps through a word of knowledge or prophecy? For all I knew, it might even be something like the way God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

What I saw shook my childish faith. Grown men with blue “Ordained” badges pinned to their lapels, were yelling at each other. It sounded like a fight -- which it was. Men whom I had seen preach and shout at camp-meeting, weeping over lost souls and praying in the altars -- men who talked about love and Holiness -- were having an angry shouting match.

The hot topic that week was the wedding band. Since the early days of the Church of God, it had been against official church teachings for any member to wear jewelry. That teaching was based primarily on I Peter 3:3-4 “Whose adorning let it not be the outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel. But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.”

I had heard that verse used by preachers to denounce the evil of wearing jewelry, and my Sunday School teachers had used it to defend the teachings of the Church. The first time I ever questioned it was when I was no more than 7 or 8 years old and I asked Mama if my sisters were going to Hell because they wore pig tails. The Bible says you’re not supposed to plait your hair, so it was obvious to me pigtails were sin.

Mama said that back during Bible times, women wove gold and silver strands into their plaits and it was the jewelry God was concerned about.

When I was twelve, we were discussing this verse in Sunday School and I told my teacher that something seemed wrong with our interpretation of that Scripture. The way I saw it, if any wearing of gold was a sin, then it was also a sin to put on any apparel -- to wear clothes. If God doesn’t want us to wear any gold, then He also wants us to go around naked.

The teacher told me I should quit talking such foolishness and just keep the teachings of the Church. After all, these teachings had been given to us by the Lord Himself through his ordained ministers.

On the agenda that year was a motion for the Church of God to make a single exception to the prohibition against jewelry by allowing church members to wear a wedding ring. The debate was long, loud, and heated. Some of the more liberal brethren said that by not wearing a wedding band, the married members of our church opened themselves to unwelcome advances from those of the opposite sex, who might think they were single. They said a wedding band did not serve the purpose of ornament or decoration, but it was a symbol that showed a person was married.

The conservatives were the most impassioned. With sweating red faces, bulging veins, and frantic expressions, they warned that through this small change in the teachings, the door would be opened for the spirit of Jezebel to enter the church. They said people wouldn’t be satisfied with just that one concession, but the next thing you knew our women would want to wear engagement rings.

They warned that soon we would be allowing class rings and birthstone rings. Eventually, God forbid, our women would be piercing their ears and bobbing their hair. To allow the wedding band would be just one small step down the long, slippery slope toward liberalism and worldliness. By the time our slide ended, we would become just like the Methodists and other once-Holiness churches that had lost their first love and gone a-whoring after the things of the world.

The moderates offered amendments they hoped would satisfy both sides. They wanted to stipulate that if we allowed the wedding band, it be specifically stated in the Minutes that only a plain band would be acceptable. There could be no engravings, stones, or decorative designs on the band.

It was decided, by an excruciatingly close vote, that the Ordained Minister’s Council would recommend to the General Assembly that the wedding band be allowed.

On the streets of Memphis, in the hallways of Ellis Auditorium, and in every hotel lobby in town, folks were talking about the wedding band. Normally it was a given that the vote of the General Assembly would simply be a perfunctory “rubber stamp” of the recommendations of the Ordained Minister’s Council -- but not this year.

It was rumored that many pastors, on both sides of the issue, made urgent calls back to their churches, appealing for their members to drop whatever they were doing and get themselves to Memphis by Saturday for the vote of the General Assembly. The very future of the Church of God was at stake. The cherished doctrine of Holiness lay in the balance.

For the General Assembly session on Saturday, Ellis Auditorium was packed. Excitement was in the air. I overheard some say that there were people in the meeting with wedding bands in their purses or pockets, ready to put them on the moment the vote was announced, if the recommendation prevailed. Others predicted the denomination would split over the issue. Many were angry. Others simply seemed hurt and in despair that the church, which they loved and believed in so much, was on the brink of destruction.

Microphones were placed throughout the large auditorium. Any male member of the Church could speak. The moderator called our attention to the challenge before us and pleaded for order. He said our General Assembly was the second largest deliberative body in the United States, second only to the National Education Association. Larger denominations, and even most smaller ones, had representative assemblies. Ours was wide open.

The recommendation of the Ordained Minister’s Council was read. It stipulated that the teaching prohibiting the wearing of jewelry was to be amended by the inclusion of the words: “This does not apply to the wedding band.”The debate that ensued was a repeat of what I had witnessed from my hiding place in the balcony during the Ordained Minister’s Council -- only the crowd was much larger and this time laymen joined the fray, speaking on both sides of the issue.

When the moderator finally called for a vote, he reminded the Assembly that only male members in good standing with the Church of God, aged 12 and older, could vote. Those in favor of the motion would say “aye” and those opposed “no.”

The vote on both sides was thunderous, but it sounded to me like the “no” vote was louder.

The moderator said it was too close to call, so he asked for a standing vote. I was sitting in the balcony with my brother, Paul. He was 12 and I was 13. We proudly stood up in favor of allowing the wedding band.

Tellers were stationed in each section of the auditorium to count the votes. The man who counted our section was obviously in opposition to the measure, and when he saw two young boys standing in support of the wedding band, he was visibly upset. He walked up to us and questioned us intently.

“Boys, what are your names? Who’s your Daddy? Where do you live? How old are you? Are you members of the Church of God? Which church do you belong to? When did you join?”

After we answered all his questions, he dutifully marked down two votes in favor of the measure.

The motion to allow Church of God members to begin wearing wedding rings narrowly passed. However, for more than 20 years thereafter I still heard some traditionalist ministers preach against it. I knew pastors who would only allow their members to wear a wedding ring if they joined the church after August, 1958. They said those who joined before that date had vowed to abide by the Church Teachings which were in effect at the time they became members. To wear a wedding ring would break their vow to God and the Church of God, so for them it was still a sin.

More than a dozen years later, when I was in my twenties and preaching revivals in South Carolina, the State Overseer strongly advised me that if I wanted to have any success preaching in his state, I should take off my wedding band. I did, for many years.

For as long as I could remember, the week following a General Assembly was a time when many of my friends and acquaintances moved. Almost every two years we got a new pastor, with new pastor’s kids, because their appointments were given at the General Assembly. And in Cleveland, in addition to our local pastor, there were numerous church officials and their families who were re-assigned, either into or out of the “Holy City,” at the General Assembly.

As far as I was concerned, these appointments came directly from God. I often heard the ministers -- whether coming or going -- say they accepted their appointment as the will of God.

Every time Dad and Mom went to one of these biennial meetings, they prepared us children by telling us there was a very good chance we would be moving the week after they got back. We could move anywhere -- just like I saw my friends move every two years. I was always sad to see my old friends go, and eager to see what the new crop of church officials’ kids would look like.

Miraculously, we never moved away. Dad was either elected or appointed to five different positions in the denomination, all of them in Cleveland, so we moved from one parsonage to another, but we stayed in town. That was unusual, and to this day Dad holds the record of having the longest tenure at church headquarters of any minister.

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