I Left the Church–What Now?

I’ve already told my story for others to read, but back in 1969, while I was a teenager, I got the “honor” to go to “God’s Headquarters” at Pasadena, California, and do my part to help God’s kingdom to come to earth. What I discovered in that short period was a level of arrogance and self aggrandizement that made me want to puke. Of course, being a teenager, I questioned this intensely and prayerfully, because I thought it was some shortcoming of mine that made me feel that way. I actually prayed with tears in my eyes, asking God to help me see the flaw in my understanding.

By the time I returned home, I was convinced that my prayers had been answered, but not in the way I had asked. They were arrogant and full of self congratulations on their ability to “overcome”.

I attended the home church more like a ghost than a real human being, waiting for a “sign”, anything that would show me the right decision. And then I started reading the works of Ernest Martin. There it was, my answer, my “sign”, my justification for the waiting and wondering, so I left, so happy, and oh, so free!

As I mentioned to James, this new-found freedom had good news and bad news. The good news was that I was free from all human authority systems. The bad news was that I was free from all human authority systems.

As a twenty year old whose hormones were raging, I was looking for answers. What to do, where to go, how to choose a mate, and if I do find a mate, how do I make her understand what I have learned about freedom?

I was free as I had never dreamed of being free, or perhaps even wanted, consciously. I was constantly tortured by a sense of loneliness, being cut off from any meaningful relationships or any way to even belong. Those whom I had considered friends were told to ignore me, as I was most likely demon possessed.

The good news: I was truly free.
The bad news: I was truly free.

Fortunately, a Local Elder named Larry Bathurst, who had also left the church, introduced me to the book by Eric Hoffer, titled “The True Believer”. I studied it over and over, until I could almost quote its contents from memory. I had not sought “God” as a teenager, but had merely been seeking a way to get rid of my “unwanted self”. It was, as Hoffer stated, a “passion for self-renunciation”.

To be free, in the sense I had discovered freedom, I could no longer “renounce” myself. Every decision had to be mine, along with the responsibility and outcome of that decision, and I had to accept that responsibility for myself.

A close friend began to pester me to join the marines. I was so alone, with such a feeling of helplessness, I began to rationalize. Why not? I was a weightlifter, in excellent physical condition. I could do twenty years, retire, and live off retirement at a fairly young age. What I was saying to myself unconsciously was, I won’t have to think. I won’t have to make life decisions only for myself. When my parents die, I won’t have to face life totally alone, with no one to understand me. I was making what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm called an “Escape From Freedom”.

But there was a problem I had not anticipated. Once you know something, and you know it to be true, your mind will not let you live in contradiction to yourself. I had tried to simply obey orders, keep my mouth shut, do as I was told. I didn’t want to believe in the marines, because experience taught me there was no need to believe in any human system of authority. “Just leave me alone. Let me do my job. If you want me to die for my country, fine, I said I’d do it. But don’t ask me to believe”. That was the thought that pervaded my mind from day to day.

It seemed the more I was determined to pull back within myself, the more the marines tried to pry open my mind and make me a believer. I stood before a promotion board one day, and was asked why I thought I deserved a promotion. I told them that to hear they way they talked to me for two years, I was obviously not qualified for a promotion, that I was lower than whale shit on the ocean bottom, and I was lucky I was tolerated.

“For two years” I told them, “I have been humiliated, intimidated, threatened, and constantly reminded of how useless I am. Why in the world would I want to treat others the way you treat me? I do not deserve nor do I desire a promotion in the marines, because it would just make me more like you”.

I had then learned, from two major organizations, that I did NOT want to be like them. The same question began nagging me: What, exactly, DO I want to be?

Not long after, my mother sent me a Christmas present. It was a book by Charles Reich, titled “The Sorcerer of Bolinas Reef”. Yes, Charles Reich was openly gay. My mother didn’t know that. She had merely read an excerpt on the back of the book, and she said, “This is about you”.

On the back of the book was a statement toward the bottom, which stuck in my mind: “How do I become what I am not, and know not?”

In “The Greening of America”, Reich had described, in uncomfortable terms for me, his homosexual experience and his embrace of his own homosexuality. But in that book, he had also said that he was determined to follow the truth, no matter how lonely, no matter how long and hard the road. Reich was a Yale law professor, yet he admitted he knew little of truth, but he was determined to follow and find it.

I vowed to follow that same standard. Be careful when you set lofty goals. At some point, you will be required to see if you meant what you said. I was walking by “Sick Bay” one morning a few days later, when a voice behind me said sharply, “Marine!”.

We had been told this was a title of honor in boot camp. It was something we had to earn, and there was no right to wear it without hard effort. After I earned it, the only time it was ever used was for purposes of discipline and control. I began to equate ‘Marine!” with “son of a bitch”.

I turned to see a Lt. Colonel demanding to know why I hadn’t saluted. I answered that I never saw him. A corporal in my company saw it and used it as a perfect excuse for my spending a few months in what is known as Correctional Custody, which at the time made civilian prison seem like a vacation by comparison.

I explained my situation to my CO. It did no good. he was already “poisoned” against me by my refusal to accept a promotion. This was revenge, nothing more, nothing less. I was to lose two months pay and spend two months in Correctional Custody.

My company XO later cornered me in private and said “Look, Haulk, I know you got screwed over. But you knew you weren’t going to get away with spitting in their face”.

“I didn’t spit in their face. I simply said I didn’t want to be more like them.”

“That’s insubordination. You know we can’t tolerate that”.

“Apparently you can’t tolerate it anywhere in this country. Whatever happened to that freedom we’re supposed to be defending? Tell me that, Lieutenant”.

“Look, all I’m saying is keep quiet, take your medicine, and we’ll make it right. This is the system. I can’t change it”.

I remembered a similar statement by Mr McNair, who had come down to the local church to point out that “We dare not challenge Mr Armstrong. He’s God’s apostle. This is what has been established, and we have no right to challenge it”.

No one knows exactly what the truth is, but everybody seems certain that we have no right to challenge it, whatever it is. That’s when I quit the marines. Walked away, told them I was leaving. If you think leaving the church was traumatic, try leaving the marines.

Somewhere down the line, you have to decide who you are, what you are, and nobody else really has the right to tell you otherwise. I stayed away for eight months, and was brought back by the FBI, two men dressed in white suits. They were as big as the “Road Warriors” who used to be famous wrestlers. They were certainly not the Efrem Zymbalist types in black suits. I had no intention of arguing with them.

One quote kept ringing through my mind, from Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death”.
Many marines had tattoos on their arms that said “death before dishonor”.

That was the theme of my defense at my court martial. I told them about what I had learned of Washington, John Adams, what I had read in “The Federalist”, and how I had come to believe just what Patrick Henry had said, and what the tattoo on those marine arms said. I told them sometimes a person has to stand for freedom, even if he has to stand alone, and even if he couldn’t really define it. Truth and freedom. A lot of good men had died for it, and not one of them had ever left a working definition for it.

And then a most amazing thing happened. The marines apologized and promoted me meritoriously. It was, for lack of any better word, in my mind at least, a miracle. The same CO who had sentenced me to Correctional Custody purely for revenge now took my hand in his and said “God bless you, Haulk.” I cried, of course. I wept uncontrollably in front of a lot of good men, officers and NCOs who shook my hand. More than one of them said, “Anything I can do for you, let me know.”

After forty years, I still have to ask myself, “What now?” Is there something to believe in, something bigger or better than myself? Was there a God who heard my prayer at that court martial? If so, why me? Why not a lot of other people who needed desperately to get an answer at a critical time?

Life really is about meaning and purpose, and you ain’t never going to find it in any mechanical, definable way. You won’t find God waving at you to show you that you’ve done the right thing. You can’t get there from here, and you won’t have any more of a monopoly on truth than anybody else, no matter what you believe. When you die, you will leave this world alone, and no one is going along for the ride.

If it could be reduced to rules and laws, we could program it in a computer, and consult our computer every day, but that won’t happen either.

The good news is, you’re free from human authorities.
The bad news is, you’re free from human authorities.

2 Replies to “I Left the Church–What Now?”

  1. I like the way you equate the news as both good and bad. This life, even though I’m like George Burns who loved it and would like to do it again, sometimes really sucks. Thanks for sharing.

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