The hardwood floor was pitted with heel marks from countless gingham-skirted Dolly Parton-like women who scuffled across the floor to the drone of a pre-recorded caller with truck-driving men sporting handlebar mustaches. At least that’s how I imagined them as I sat there staring in a daze, listening to the sermon. I never actually saw anyone dance on the floor. For me, this mundane edifice with lime green walls is where God spoke to his elect, a few hundred people who gathered for two hours (or more) every Saturday in perfectly arranged brown folding chairs with “Worldwide Church of God” rubber-stamped on the chair back and the underside of an incredibly hard steel seat. I was in a dance hall daze.
This was the Swingtime Center, a concrete structure surrounded by a gravel parking lot in the shadow of an interstate freeway in Fort Worth, Texas. A dance hall for the square dancers of Fort Worth and a haven for spiritual Israelites who thought they followed God like he likes, as told by his ministers of the true church, who made plain what we should do to please him. There was no confusion.
The meeting place, however, was confusing to find. God did not advertise in tacky phone books; he used radio or TV to screen applicants. If accepted, one needed good directions: it was the next exit after the log cabin adult video store/arcade and Majestic liquor superstore, U-turn under the bridge over the railroad tracks and begin looking for a parking lot full of patched-together cars full of kids, bibles, briefcases and haggard-looking women.
The building was not unlike those of other Worldwide Church of God congregations I attended throughout my life: Elks Lodges, YMCA’s, theaters, hotel ballrooms. Rather than wasting money in a pagan-inspired church in a quiet neighborhood, God inspired church headquarters in Pasadena to pay an equal amount in rent for twenty years or so to the square dancers. This is because we were here temporarily, awaiting the end. And places like the Swingtime Center provided untainted surroundings for instruction and special events like weddings. God did not like the confusion of his people with an ordinary church with what we were told was a Satan-inspired phallic symbol over the entrance outside. At the Worldwide Church of God, the dickheads were inside the building.
Inside the windowless tomb, the rows of chairs were as straight and uniform as any found at a military funeral. I know because I made them that way. As a semi-permanent member of one of the rotating hall set-up crew, I helped make sure the hall was set up God’s way for over four years. Since halls were rented, everything had to be stored away and rolled out each week. Heavy things like podiums and pianos were on casters, which only furthered the notion of our permanent state of being here temporarily.
Two men were entrusted with the preparation of the hall: Mr. B, local deacon/dictator, and Mr. R, rival dictator. Each had his own idea on hall set-up. Mr. B invented a universal standard for chair placement: a yardstick cut off at precisely a cubit, which would be used to measure the distance between every chair on every row to ensure that all were sitting a godly distance apart. Mr. R’s methodology consisted of sticks placed in concrete with white string in between so that the very tip of every chair gently touched the string; then the string brigade moved the sticks back to the next row for the chair setters to engage. Working shoulder-to-shoulder, we set the stage for the meat of the Word that awaited us in our highly regimented chairs.
One fateful Sabbath, I changed crews and used the Mr. B holy cubit yardstick in Mr. R occupied bucket-and-string territory. The yardstick was seized and my loyalty was questioned. I had a government problem. These men were dealing with the weightier matters of the law and I could not even follow directions. How could God trust me to be a ruler (or a string) in the world tomorrow? Luckily, with a “yes sir” and a head bowed, crisis was averted and I continued on my tenure-track position in Worldwide Church of God and began to roll out the church library.
At the time, it never occurred to me that most churches did not have a stained plywood port-o-library set on casters with a special person knighted as keeper. The prominence of the position of keeper of the library was inversely proportionate to the size of the congregation and usually a step to deaconhood. The keeper made sure the sacred books filled with knowledge that most of the world ignored were safe and in order because GOD IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF CONFUSION. Books like The Babylonian Mystery Religion and a lot of Adel Davis books on eating unprocessed food were found inside. It was probably the closest many members ever got to a repository of books. Also stored here were little wooden boxes marked “Building Fund” so that spare change would go to Pasadena instead of a Coke machine. As time progressed, the library diminished in importance and the librarian became keeper of the cassette tapes, an equally important position.
Tapes would be of a past local sermon or special speakers from headquarters speaking on important topics such as “should we clap for special music?” This information must be distributed uniformly to all churches because God is not into confusion.
Sometimes we all anticipated the arrival of a special guest speaker, in person to, sent from headquarters to assure a uniform message and head-off any possibility of confusion. Dr. Herman Hoeh was such a man. A man of powerful intelligence. A man of powerful presence. A man with many missing teeth. The esteemed title of evangelist was the result of being an early Ambassador College graduate who continued through a Master’s and Doctoral degree program at an unaccredited institution with a high school graduate as chancellor. With only four students, instruction was very hands-on with the top people. God prepared his leaders to rule with education, but not just any education: an AC education. At AC, one captured true values of education without all the confusion of questioning things that happened in the world’s colleges. Here, everything was clear: Herbert W. Armstrong was in charge.
As one of only a few PhD’s AC granted, Dr. Hoeh was a top evangelist and right-hand man to God’s apostle, Herbert W. Armstrong. Dr. Hoeh’s doctoral thesis was known simply as “The Compendium.” I never knew anyone who had seen a copy, let alone read it. It was never in the port-o-library. Consensus by the ones who knew someone who read it was that is was good – really good – but hard to understand. It was written at an intellectual level far above the majority of the church members; it was said to say wise things because it was written by a wise man who spent time in thought on very deep thoughts instead of tooth care. For Dr. Hoeh was the Church Einstein and lived the role to its fullest. He spoke in slow, measured tones and paused a lot between his sentences. Apparently, deep-thoughted people do this. He often repeated things for effect and the effect was quite scholarly. He wore ill-fitting, out-of-date suits and never, ever, ever dressed casual and never, ever, ever socialized. He simply must be smart because he had a PhD and never had anything to do with the laity. The missing teeth only magnified the effect of a man possessed with knowledge rather than material goods.
After he spoke, the audience was very impressed but never quite sure of exactly what he had said. He took us from point A to point B quite logically, or so it seemed, but everyone invariably became lost along the way. We all assumed that it was because we were spiritual dunces and he knew what he was taking about. The problem must be with our understanding because, after all, he was Dr. Hoeh.
He speculated and pontificated over really smart things, like figuring out prophecy: Who was the Beast and when was America going to collapse and what would we all do in caves in Petra. We all felt swell knowing Dr. Hoeh was working on these very things at the highest levels and all those deep thoughts were going to pay off when persecution came. As long as we tithed and kept menial jobs, God would take care of his flock if he allowed “time to go on.”.
Of course, we had other minions from headquarters to keep us on the track while awaiting the end. Mr. Gerald Waterhouse came every few years to packed auditoriums to inform us Mr. Armstrong’s name meant something (i.e., strong arm) or else God would have called him Oliver Shagnasty. If you gave Mr. Waterhouse a monocle and a Nazi uniform, he would look like a skinny version of Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Hero’s. His visits were very special. Never before in the history of God’s church had a single man said so little for so long to so many without any exit doors locked.
Mr. Waterhouse’s Nazi tactics were repetition and rapid-fire talking with a GET THE POINT! thrown in every fifteen minutes for good measure and wearing down the little mental resistance there was with three-hour-plus sermons. In this limited amount of time, Mr. Waterhouse had the ability to take every world event of any magnitude, assign it a numerical significance and fit it nicely into the plan of God for mankind with Herbert and Gerald as his interpreter firmly in control. There were never any loose ends at the end of a Waterhouse sermon because GOD IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF CONFUSION.
Somewhere imbedded in the lecture it was made clear that he traveled 400 days a year and had no real home to call his own. Gerald had little or no salary. Gerald lived out of a suitcase with only an unlimited travel budget and unlimited meal allowance and was forced by his calling to unlimited travel around the globe uniting the Church under Mr. Armstrong. Gerald’s suffering was our suffering.
The speakers were not the only characters at church. The membership was a smorgasbord of dysfunction and idiosyncrasy. There were people like the white-haired couple who could not get along and often sat at opposite ends of the building during church. They were united only over one thing: they kept two suitcases packed and ready by their front door for at least twenty years awaiting that much anticipated call to flee to the place of safety. I suppose the bags are still there.
There my friends like Scott, a mid-thirties-something bachelor who still lived with his unconverted mother because he was always unemployed as a draftsman. It was Satan’s way of trying his faith. Employers were reluctant to hire a man who in the interview, informed them of his unwillingness to compromise on working on Saturday EVER and must have off about sixteen days a year (that changed every year) and the first day off was usually about a week after he was supposed to start the job. When he was once actually offered a job, he turned it down because the company made parts for a contractor who in turn made parts for a defense contractor who in turn made parts for the military who in turn went to war, and drawing anything for them was the same as serving in the military which was an allegiance to a power other than God and that was not acceptable to real Christians. How could a man work under those conditions? Besides, Scott was very suspicious of the hygiene in these places that were often filled with…germs. A woolen cap worn even during the summer months ensured that colds were not caught, and sickness indicative that he had the presence of physical sin was best avoided. His dream was to work for the College, a place that would treat him right.
My other friend was Kent, another thirty-something who grew up in the Worldwide Church of God. As a child he hid under the dining room table and vomited because he was scared to go to church because the ministers always talked of the tribulation where our parents were going to suffer needlessly at the hands of the Germans. This avoidance was childish and silly, of course, because all that never came to pass. Instead, Kent got to watch his mother suffer needlessly from cancer pain and die a horrible death when she refused any medical treatment and relied on God on the counsel of Worldwide Church of God ministers. Let’s just say Kent was a tad neurotic as a result. We all were.
After talking to my friends, it would be time to begin the service. We all began by opening our purple Worldwide Church of God bible hymnals rubber-stamped with a congregation’s name that was not ours since they were mixed up at the feast every year anyway. There was a personal from God’s apostle right in the front telling us these songs were cleansed of any possible Protestant taint and for us to go ahead and lift a joyful voice without fear and to concentrate our fears on other things like the tribulation. Even with the cleansing, the local minister had us change the words to “America the Beautiful” to “Israel the Beautiful,” since we were spiritual Israel and God really inspired it for the church anyway. I usually got confused and sang America in the wrong place and God probably didn’t like it. It did have a nice melody and was easier to sing than a Dwight Armstrong song.
God inspired Herbert to have his brother Dwight on the payroll for many years forcing Psalms into plodding melodies of his own design. The thing was, after singing them for five years or so, they actually began to flow. It was then that you knew you must have God’s holy spirit. To the unconverted, these songs stank. As we grew in grace and knowledge, so did the songs. Somebody named Ross eventually surpassed Dwight in the ability to write clunky millstone melody and even added his own insipid lyrics to boot.
After singing there was the opening prayer in which Spokesman Club-trained men bowed over double to employ God to bless the work. Men listened, also bowed with head touching the chair in front of them, and then sat down to attend to the briefcase while the ladies immediately began to fool with the kids who were sprawled all over the floor on blankets looking at Basil Wolverton’s scary black-and-white drawings of bumpy-faced people facing the terror to come.
While everyone began to settle, a cadre of deacon wannabes known as ushers emerged to seat late comers where they pleased, usually on the front row as punishment. Ushering had only a moderate amount of power, so it had to be used carefully. An usher also got to walk backward during the announcements, counting people and writing on little slips of paper in the palm of their hands. As a kid, I thought they were taking down the names of those who fell asleep. Individual attendance was taken by a Deaconess, who marked down if you weren’t there so a pattern of behavior could be established should a question ever arise.
The sermonette, usually given by our very own twenty-two year old Ambassador College graduate who just returned to the local area to provide us sage wisdom and late-breaking instructions from headquarters on setting up chairs. The older people who had seen everything from war to the death of loved ones were eager to hear the pearls of wisdom from one whose only responsibility since high school was to get to the class on time. And even if you were 103, you always kept the Mr. on the front of his name: He was part of the ministry. Being newly married without children of his own, he was able to tell us the details of how to live God’s way: discipline of children and how to treat women, or was it discipline of women and how to treat children? If confused, you could always review your notes.
Growing up, I thought everyone took notes when they went to church. Writing down all the scriptures kept your concentration on note-taking instead of what was said and that avoided confusion because God doesn’t like that. All those notes were supposed to help us to mark bibles in a rainbow of pretty colors that showed everyone else you were on track and knew the truth.
After being educated for fifteen minutes, we had some more songs, then my favorite part: Announcements. I liked announcements. They were short blurbs on what we were supposed to do and easier to follow than long blurbs on what we were supposed to do, which were called sermons. The ushers walked backwards while we got to find out who was “marked” for spreading confusion amongst the membership and what sick people to pray for.
I always wondered why we were all told to pray for somebody who was sick. I guess the theory was that God doesn’t listen to a lone voice very well and by us all pleading in unity, a critical mass is reached and he will be forced to act upon the collective will because we ganged-up on God and won. There is apparently safety in numbers.
Then we had special music, which was not really that special since we had it virtually every week. Usually it was along the lines of “Send in the Clowns,” sung by the regional YOU talent winner, and which was especially appropriate to have sung before the main message. Upon completion of the inspiring special music, a pause ensued with the membership frantically trying to remember what the latest instruction on clapping was from headquarters. To be wrong was the result of confusion and GOD IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF CONFUSION.
Then came the main meat of the day: the sermon. If we did not have a special guest speaker, we got to hear our very own pastor assigned to us from headquarters. Throughout my life I experienced at least ten different pastors. The names are interchangeable and of little importance. Some were basically nice people who suffered the same delusions we did (only the consequences for us were quite different), while others were little Hitler’s. They were all Worldwide Church of God ministers and that alone made them a breed apart.
Without the tithing requirements of the little people and having a generous housing allowance, tax breaks from being a minister, a new fleet car every few years and sent a stipend to enjoy the feast, the ministry were there to help the brethren understand the hardship of obeying God and help us realize the importance of doing the things they were exempt from doing. They were our Shepherds.
The Shepherd and his wife were of the priestly class and set apart from the flock. While this happens at a lot of churches, the closed system of the Worldwide Church of God brought it to new levels. At Church events, they always had special reserved preferred seating and were catered to and fawned over by the membership. At services, his favorite drink was kept fresh and at exactly the right temperature and located under the podium. One minister always had to have a special fan set at hurricane strength blowing on him at just the right angle during the sermon. Only one deacon knew just where to position it during set-up: no one else was trusted with its important positioning. At home, ministerial yards were often mowed and lawns kept for free by a following appreciative of their status and AC education. Free baby-sitting at any time. Free dinners at deacon’s houses and occasionally at an up-and-coming member’s home, like the keeper of the port-o-library. All the leisure allowed them to concentrate on preparing the sermon each week without the confusion of personal or financial responsibility. Of course, should the minister be taxed during a busy week, he could always play a tape or just stretch the Pastor General’s Report into an entire sermon by reading and expounding it to death. Should he actually have to give a sermon, it always had seven points to it, regardless of whether or not it needed it, because seven is the number of completion. To give any fewer or add more would confuse people and that was not good.
During the carefully prepared sermon, one could concentrate and not listen by taking notes or concentrate by daydreaming. I usually chose the latter, although growing in grace and knowledge, I found I could take notes and daydream at the same time. While writing down scripture, I could, in Walter Mitty fashion, travel to far away lands or on rare occasion, think a carnal thought. However, thinking carnal thoughts at a time when you were supposed to be at the other side of the spectrum brought a mixture of guilt and extreme titillation. Luckily, we had Passover to atone for that.
Once a year we all got together for Passover in the dance hall to feel really bad about ourselves with the help of the minister. We entered in hushed tones without the usual paraphernalia of briefcases to distract us, including the kids. We were seated in regimented rows (the chairs were even straighter than usual), and said absolutely nothing because that could be confusing and GOD IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF CONFUSION. At random, we got to wash someone’s feet whose owner had washed themselves an hour ago and then were given some bland crackers and a small shot of wine while the minister would whine that we were all stinking piles of dog poop and if we had taken the goodies unworthily, we were doomed piles of dog poop. To take it worthily meant you knew you were dog poop and this was not news to you, but you came to hear it anyway. We were then admonished to go home and think about it some more. It felt so good to feel so bad.
After daydreaming through the yada yada yada of the sermon, the minister usually came to the magic words : in conclusion. This “in conclusion” was a call for a scuttle of brief cases and a folding of blankets and general putting away of things that made noise that may incur the wrath of the speaker because we all believed he was about to stop and we made confusion. If this was indeed the end, it was time for another prayer and we were outta there. However, if the minister was confused by this, we were stuck for an indeterminate time at his mercy while he added another point or two if he had miscounted. With the service finally over, it was time to disassemble the hall for another week. As people stood and talked, the now disorderly chairs disappeared around them and the God’s presence left as the hall prepared for the entry of the spiritually dead square dancers that evening. The port-o-library and the podium were rolled into the storeroom and the sound system went back into trunks as the people returned to the gravel parking lot to talk and swap stories. We could all go home and sleep until sundown, when we could do something enjoyable.
My dance hall daze was over for another week and little did I know it would someday be over for good. With the lifting of the daze came the confusion that was always feared, but I soon found I feared only the fear. I do not know things I once thought I knew and now know I never knew them in the first place. God didn’t make it very clear to mankind if he was trying to get a point across with ancient texts and thousands of different religions. Maybe God is the author of confusion after all.
Today, I enjoy my confusion immensely. I clap for music without thinking if its right or wrong. I eat processed food. I never place chairs in rows. I spend time with my family on the weekends and ride bikes and work in the yard and mow my elderly neighbor’s lawn rather than sitting in a windowless tomb staring at the hardwood floor with the answers spoon fed to me. I may even take up square dancing. Confusion is good. I hope to someday thank the author.
Blast from the past. Article by Joseph.