Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to tonight’s performance of Wretch Like Me. Please be aware, the program you are about to see contains the following potentially objectionable elements: Profanity, adult themes, sexual situations, religious and political satire, gratuitous use of Holy Scripture, giddy descriptions of crucifixion, a conspicuous flippancy toward the sacraments of communion, one near drowning by baptism, some stuff about masturbation, and a few shocking references to radical evangelical puppetry. Additionally, there are numerous references to sheep, shepherds, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, resurrection, speaking in tongues, and the hidden messages in the song Amazing Grace. So . . . . y’ know . . . be warned. And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, Wretch Like Me.
[Cue Music. Lights come up on a bare stage containing only a stool, center-stage, and a table with various books and papers on it. David makes his way to center stage; He is dressed in black]
Good evening. Thanks for coming tonight. First, there are a few things you should know, right from the start. One! My name is David Templeton. Two, I was born on May 18, 1960, and Three, I was born again May 21, 1971 . . . which I’m guessing makes me at least a triple Taurus, don’t you think? See, I’m already a double Taurus because my-physical-birth-took-place-when-the-sun-and-the-moon-were-both-in-my-astrological-house . . .. . . . but because the-moon-and-the-sun-were-both-in-my-house-eleven-years-later-when-I-gave-my-life-to-Jesus-in-a-trailer-in-the-fifth-grade [Pausing, as if suddenly realizing something], maybe I’m actually a quadruple Taurus! I don’t know. I don’t really know how Astrology works. I don’t even believe in Astrology. I don’t really believe in God anymore either. I don’t. But not believing in God doesn’t mean I don’t believe in anything. I believe in lots of things. I believe Bruce Springsteen is the greatest rock-and-roll musician alive. I believe Reverend Dude, my former minister, would be shocked that I opened this show with a reference to Astrology. Astrology was high on his list of all-time abominations to God. A list I’m very likely on at this point, or will be by the end of the show. There’s one thing I believe in above all else, the most important thing I learned over the course of my crazy years as a teenage born-again Christian. I believe I’ll make you wait till the end of the show to tell what that thing is. I believe this concludes the prologue, and now . . . I believe it’s time to get on with the show.
[Cue musical fanfare]
Ladies and gentlemen—Wretch Like Me, Act one, Part one: Sheep.
PART ONE: SHEEP
Jesus was baptized once. I’ve been baptized three times. [It doesn’t make me better than Jesus just wetter.] The first time was at Christ Church Parish Episcopal in Ontario, in San Bernardino County, in Southern California, where I grew up. [Pausing briefly, before embarking on the first of many tangents.]
[MSL] I have two brothers—Steve, the older one, and Jeff, the younger one. My Dad, Gene Templeton, retired now, was a stationery salesman for the first half of his professional life and a school district purchasing agent for the rest of it. [CSR] My mom, Dianna, held scads of jobs, most of them vaguely secretarial, in a bunch of different cities, but if you asked her to tell you her profession, she’d have told you she was a singer. And she was. My mom was an incredible singer, of the evening gown and smoky lounge variety. In describing her singing voice people used words like, “pure,” “clear,” and “sultry.” Actually, it was her musical ambitions, her need to sing, in part, that eventually to my parents’ divorce in 1966. But I think I was talking about baptism. [MSC]
[Cue appropriately watery music-and-sound effect]
Father Williams, he was the priest who did the honors.
[This being a solo show, all voices and characters identified by name and set apart with quotation marks are performed by the actor, unless otherwise noted as recorded background voices.]
FATHER WILLIAMS: [With a strong Scottish accent]: “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost!”—I always imagined Father Williams baptizing me with a Scottish accent, though I’m not certain he was Scottish—”We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock, do sign him with the sign of the cross, that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight”—this is just very Scottish, don’t you think?—”manfully to fight against sin, the world and the devil, and to continue as Christ’s faithful servant and soldier unto his life’s end. Amen.”
[Cue wailing baby sounds]
Isn’t that interesting? With this cozy little ritual the Church is challenging its new-born members to become two contradictory things—Warriors and sheep, which is weird, because sheep are not particularly known for their aggression. There’s no football team called The Fighting Sheep. There are the St. Louis Rams, but they are clearly not based on the domesticated sheep so prevalent in scripture. There’s a reason that Psalm 23 doesn’t read: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want—and even if there were no shepherd, no one’s messin’ with me, ’cause I’m a bad-ass motherfuckin’ sheep!”
Sheep are docile. They go where they’re led. They do what they’re told. Except, of course, for those who turn out to be . . . .. . . bad sheep. So I was born-and-baptized a sheep, but the first suggestion, metaphorical though it was, that I might someday end up among the bad kind, that came in December of 1965, when I was five years old.
[Cue Jingle Bell music] At Christ Church Episcopal, the annual Christmas Nativity pageant was a huge deal. All the kids participated. According to tradition, the fourth-graders always got the speaking parts. The third graders played the angels. The second-graders were the shepherds. The first graders were the camels and donkeys—and the kindergartners were the sheep. Identical sheep. That was part of the tradition. I remember the day in Mid-November, during Sunday school, when we were all given our Nativity Pageant sheep packets, containing the official, priest-sanctioned pattern for our mothers to follow in sewing our costumes. Our teacher was Mrs. Hot Cross Buns, that’s what some of the older kids her, a slender, drill sergeant-of-a-woman. She handed out the packets, and she laid down the rules.
[Moving from SL to SR as she hands out packets in stiff, military motions]. HOT CROSS BUNS: “Let me make this perfectly clear. Neither you nor your parents are to deviate from this pattern. As sheep, you are to be uniform. Identical. The same.”
[MSC] There was just one element of our costume where we would be allowed to express ourselves.
HOT CROSS BUNS: “You may choose the color of your sheep uniform—as long as it is a color that is naturally occurring in sheep.”I didn’t have to tell my mom what color sheep I wanted to be, because, at the age of five, much like today, my favorite color was black. See where this is going? [MSR] On the evening of the pageant, I waited in the hallway with Mrs. Hot Cross Buns and 22 other sheep, all of us decked out in our costumes, with little collars and sheep bells around our necks. Mary and Joseph and the Angels and the shepherds and animals were all on stage, having hit their marks and delivered their lines or sung their specific animal song—and it was time for the sheep to make our entrance. [CSL] One-by-one, single-file, we all jingled and jangled up the steps and out onto the chancel, all baa-ing and head bumping . . . twenty-two little white sheep—yep, every single kindergartner had elected to be white sheep—uniform. Identical. The same —with one little rebel sheep, the oddball of the flock, Me. The black sheep. Everyone thought I was hilarious! After the pageant, while having donuts and punch in the social hall, one old person after another came up to pat me on the head, and say to my mom and dad . . .
LOUD OLD EPISCOPALIAN: “Well, now we know who the black sheep of the family is going to be, don’t we?” Yep, I was a hit! Next year, there were more black sheep than white sheep in the Christ Church Parish Episcopal Nativity pageant. The kid in the sheep suit had made it cool to be different. And that was the last fragment of popularity or coolness I would enjoy for the rest of my childhood.
[Move to Easel]
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part two, Childhood.
PART TWO: CHILDHOOD
[Transitional music and/or lighting change]
[MSC] By the age of seven, I’d experienced enough of life, certainly enough of elementary school, to have made the unhappy discovery that nobody liked me. At least, very few other kids did, and when you’re a kid, nobody else counts. Why didn’t kids like me? Well, I was geeky, skinny, nerdy, needy, and kinda weird. I was Painfully shy, but really friendly, which is like waving a red flag at a bull. I also had asthma, and I wheezed whenever I moved, which made me terrible at sports, including running from bullies. Oh, right—and I played with puppets. Yep. Puppets. Sometime after my parents divorce in the Spring of ’66, I’d decided to become the world’s greatest puppeteer, and let me tell you, if you are not popular at school, carrying puppets in your pockets does not help.
Any one of these factors would have been the elementary school kiss of death, but taken together, I was a leper. Now, you’re probably sitting there thinking, ‘Ah you sounded adorable.” That’s the difference between kids and adults. You take that kid I just described and present him to adults and they want to hug him and buy him a rootbeer. You present that kid to an entire elementary school, and they want to beat the shit out of him.
[Move SL, sit on couch] I remember crawling up next to my mom in front of the T.V. one night, and asking . . .
YOUNG DAVID: “Mom? Why am I, like, the least popular person in the entire school?”
And I still remember what she said. She said . . .
MOM: “Lambchop, someone has to be.”
Since leaving my Dad, and moving us to Glendora, she’d become an outspoken atheist, and an avid reader of Ayn Rand. Most nights at bed-time, she’d read to us from books like Atlas Shrugged and Psycho-Cybernetics. Her atheism was a clear response to having been ousted from the church because of the divorce. So, there was my mom, the freshly-minted realist, stroking my hair as I wheezed in her arms, and she explained things to me in clear, simple language.
MOM: “It’s mathematical honey. In any group of people, one person is the tallest, one is the shortest, one gets the best grades, one gets the worst, one is the most popular, and one is the least popular—and sweetie, at the moment, that just happens to be you.”
[Stand up, and MSC] That was a lot to absorb for an eight year old, but this made sense, so I resigned myself to my fate. Fortunately, I had plenty of hobbies. In addition to staging puppet shows, I read a lot of books, watched a lot of T.V., went to the movies, and wrote very sad poetry. In my family, we all had hobbies. Jeff’s were playing chess against himself and designing his own languages. Steve’s were raising animals and making things explode. Mom’s hobbies were listening to music, singing. . . and searching for love. Everything my Mom did, basically, she did to be loved, natural enough when you consider that she spent the first part of her life in an orphanage, without benefit of actually being an orphan. That’s true. Her mother left her there at the age of five and didn’t pick her up again until she was 11. The one thing my Mom felt she could do that would bring her praise and attention and love, was singing. Throughout the sixties and seventies, my mom sang with a whole series of lounge bands, performing Roberta Flack tunes, Sinatra covers, anything by Barbara Streisand. She never hit the big-time, but she kept finding new opportunities to perform. Along the way, she filled our house with music and acquired A. an eclectic collection of vinyl record albums, and B. a long string of boyfriends, shudder, each one a character worthy of . . . . [Raises hands as if fitted with puppets]
. . . . his own puppet show. Ladies, and gentlemen, I now present, The Boyfriend Show, starring, in no particular order. . . [Using one hand as an imaginary Ken-the-Biker puppet, speaking in a Clint Eastwood growl as David alternates the story with the ‘puppet’] . . . Ken-the-Biker . . .
KEN THE BIKER: “I dressed like Clint Eastwood in ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.’ I owned a pet hawk named Scratchy, and was recently the leader of a motorcycle gang called The Henchmen. . . “
We liked Ken, until he left my Mom to marry his previous girlfriend . . .
KEN THE BIKER: “Hey, if you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.”
[Switches to other hand, adopts another voice]
And there was The Soldier Guy.
SOLDIER GUY: “Intense, scary, good lookin’. . . “It was a short relationship . . .
SOLDIER GUY: “Got myself gunned down in a parking lot . . . “
And later that night, three of his former associates. . .
SOLDIER GUY: “Drug dealers, probably. . . “
Tried to force themselves into our house . . .
SOLDIER GUY: “Armed and dangerous . . . “
My mom kept them talking at the door, while Steve called the police and the Drug Dealers were all arrested, including one guy who’d broken in the back door and was found hiding in the kitchen . . .
SOLDIER GUY: “That’s some scary shit!”
You’re telling me!
[Switches to other hand, adopts another voice]
And then there was Rudy, a second-rate drummer. . .
RUDY: Fuck you! . . .
But a First rate con-man . . .
RUDY: Thank you!. . .
Who convinced my Mom to let him move in . . .
RUDY: Convinced her to pretend that we’d been married in Vegas!
And then he turned out to already be married . . .
RUDY: With a wife and baby at my other home! Gotcha! . . .
Go away now . . .
RUDY: I already did!”
There would be other puppets, oops, other boyfriends. There’d be the occasional other husband. And eventually, there would be Leon. It would be Leon, another drummer, who, in a roundabout way, would lead my mother back to the church, back to Jesus. But that was still a few years away. At this point in our story, it’s still 1969.
[Cue appropriately 1969-ish music]
[Sit on Stool] That was a very full year for me, the year I turned nine, with everyone talking about Vietnam and draft numbers and draft resisters and guns fired at protesters. . . . That was the year my mom joined a short-lived traveling show called Lynn’s Caravan of Stars, in which she’d become the featured torch singer and Lynn’s lovely assistant in his ever popular whip act. That was the year my Dad announced his engagement to Joan, my future step-mother and the love of my Dad’s life . . .it was the year my mom attempted suicide for the either the second or third time. I lose track. It was the year people started dropping like flies at the trailer park across the street from our house, most of them drug overdoses. It was a year of moon landings, and bombings, and the Manson Family murder spree. . . What’s so interesting is that, with all of that happening, the thing I remember most clearly about 1969 is the afternoon I watched my brother conduct a little experiment in our kitchen. [Cue science-appropriate music]
Steve—he was ten in the summer of ’69—collected every kind of critter you can imagine. If it was smaller than a shoe-box, we probably had it: rats, mice, hamsters, lizards, frogs, guinea pigs, salamanders, and snakes. This one afternoon, Steve and a friend from the trailer park got to wondering how long an animal—say, a salamander—would stay in a pot of gradually heating water.
Now, Steve says he never intended to actually cook the salamander.
With the pot filled all the way to the top, he had to believe the salamander would eventually think, ‘You know something, I think the temperature has reached an unacceptable level!’ and would leap out of the pot. Steve was ready to catch it when he did. But it didn’t. There it was, this little pink amphibian, swimming around happy as a salamander, going around in circles as the water slowly got hotter. At one point, he started swimming faster, a little bit, but then he started swimming slower, and slower, and slower—until finally . . . the salamander . . . . just . . . . stopped—and floated there, still as a stick.
Steve pulled the salamander from the pot with a pair of tongs. It was stiff as a carrot. I remember Steve tapping it on the side of the kitchen table [making sound of a hard-boiled salamander being bounced against a Formica table]—ponk ponk ponk. The salamander had been cooked solid.
[Pausing] Now, I learned a couple of things from this experience. First thing I learned was that guilt and grief are surprisingly similar feelings. Once it dawned on me that the salamander was dead, and that I’d stood there watching as it happened, I was overcome by a mix of guilt and grief. I felt bad for the salamander but I also felt guilty that I’d played the accomplice in its slow, simmering death. The other thing I learned—Death is very interesting. The demise of St. Salamander, heightened by the aforementioned nightly Vietnam death counts on the news, and the routine arrival of ambulances at the trailer park, marked the beginning of my fascination with death.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part three, Death.
PART THREE: DEATH
Suddenly, death was on my mind a lot. I started reading books about the afterlife, ghosts, Egyptian embalming practices—anything with dead people in it. It turns out, this was all pretty good training for a future fundamentalist Christian. Back when we were Episcopalians, I’d seen crucifixes everywhere, all the time—in the sanctuary, in the classrooms, in our bedroom at home. You’d think it would have made an impact, a corpse glued to a stick, hanging on every wall. We may have been too young to understand the concept of atonement and sacrifice, but kids know a dead guy when they see one. Still, it wasn’t until high school, when I was fully immersed in the world of evangelical Christianity, that I really got the connection between crucifixion and death. I liked it. For kids like me, kids with huge self-esteem issues, the idea of crucifixion meant there was someone who’d had suffered worse than we were suffering. I quickly learned everything I could about crucifixion. Some nights, I would lie on the floor of my room, my body arranged in crucifixion pose, listening to John Denver albums, trying to imagine what it would be like to be crucified.
[Demonstrating the “crucifixion pose”]
It was very peaceful, kind of like Christian yoga. [Sings] “Well, I got me a wife, I got me old fiddle/When the sun’s comin’ up I got cakes on the griddle/Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle/Thank God I’m a country boy!”
[Ending the pose] You’ve probably met Star Trek nerds? People who will come up to you and say stuff like, ‘Well you know, Star Trek never adequately dealt with the basic conundrum between warp drive mechanics and sub-space anomalies.” In third grade, I was still just a nerd-nerd, and I certainly didn’t know this then, but by ninth grade, I would become a full-fledged crucifixion nerd. I would walk up to people, at the first hint of a mention of or Jesus, or crucifixion, or someone feeling a little cross, I’d say . . .
YOUNG DAVID: “Interesting, Crucifixion. Yeah, you know, a lot of people think that when the Romans crucified someone they put the nails here in the hand, but they didn’t put the nails in the hand because the nail would have ripped right through the flesh and the criminal would have flopped right over the ground, so what the Romans really did was, they put the nails here, and here, between the radius and the ulna right at the carpal, because then the nail would, you know, stick.”
I also had some good material comparing blood loss with asphyxiation as the real cause of death by crucifixion, but that I saved that for people I really wanted to impress. [Pause] Okay I think this might be a good time to tell you exactly how I came to be saved and fell in love with the song Amazing Grace.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part Four, How I Came to Be Saved and Fell in Love With the Song Amazing Grace!
HOW I CAME TO BE SAVED AND FELL IN LOVE WITH THE SONG ‘AMAZING GRACE’
In the fall of 1969, what with drug dealers breaking into our house, job opportunities drying up in rural Glendora, and my Mom’s singing career as stalled as Lynn’s Caravan of Stars, my Mom decided it was time to find less green pastures, so we packed up and moved to Downey, in Los Angeles County. Downey, at that time, was a profoundly ugly, astoundingly boring city. The most exciting thing to do in Downey on a Friday Night, was to go to Long Beach. That’s All right. As it turned out, Jeff and I only had a few months to explore Downey at this point in our lives.
[Leaning over, as if putting one ear to a wall to hear conversations in the other room] Secret negotiations had been taking place between my mom and my dad, who had just gotten married to Joan and moved into a large house in Ontario. He wanted us back, and with all the ups and downs of the last few years still fresh in her mind, mom decided that maybe he was right. So, in November, Jeff and I found ourselves in the back seat of my Dad’s station wagon, my puppets and Jeff’s chess boards packed up in boxes, on our way to our new home. Terrified of being completely alone, my Mom had decided to keep Steve with her.
[Pause] It was a lot to adjust to, but for me and Jeff, a new town, a new house, new step-siblings, new kids to be ignored by, new bullies to hide from. But the biggest change in our new life was our new Sunday ritual of going to church. First Methodist of Upland. Once a week, Jeff and I were hauled there wearing our brand new church suits, with our little clip-on ties, seated in pews that smelled of old wood and tradition. At first, church was quite a shock, but after a while, I got to like the comforting predictability of it. Elementary school in Ontario was pretty much the same as it had been in all of my previous towns, except that at Berlyn Elementary, I discovered a huge hedge in front of the library. There was a nice, cool, safe place between the hedge and the wall, where I spent most of my recess time, reading a lot, avoiding the rejection and bullying I was certain would take place out on the playground.
[Cue playground noises]
After I started fifth grade, I heard about something called “Release Time Bible Study,” a weekly event offered to fifth graders at Berlyn Elementary. Basically, it was this big, long trailer, a little classroom on wheels, that would pull up to the school each Tuesday. Mrs. Hunt—though everyone just called her the Jesus Lady—would open the trailer doors, and those of us with signed permission slips from our parents would file in for an hour’s relief from reading, writing, and science. Inside that trailer, the Jesus Lady taught us songs, told us Bible stories, gave us prizes for remembering the books of the New Testament or the names of the twelve apostles.
[Demonstrating] James, Andrew, Jimmy, Johnny, Phil, Tommy, Simon, Thad, Bart, Matthew, Judas and Pete.
As every Bible class was ending, the Jesus Lady always stated the same carefully-worded invitation.
JESUS LADY: “If there is anyone here who’d like to stay afterwards, and pray with me to accept Jesus into their heart, just remain in your seat when everyone else leaves.”
It sounded so enticing, so mysterious, the way she said that, as if she were saying . . .
JESUS LADY: “If there is anyone here who’d like to stay afterwards, and be inducted into a secret society of magical Elven time travelers, just remain in your seat when everyone else leaves.”
Now, I had never been especially good at school, but suddenly, after a few weeks of reciting Bible verses and memorizing song lyrics, I discovered that . . . .[short pause] I was good at this. I was good at God. And this was when I fell in love with the song ‘Amazing Grace.’[Cue Amazing Grace, playing softly in the background]
I was mesmerized by those lyrics: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” I learned this song forwards and backwards. Literally. I could recite it backwards.
[Demonstrating] “Me like wretch a saved that sound the sweet how Grace Amazing.” The next part, backwards, sounds like something Yoda would say. “See I now, but blind was, found am now, but lost was once I.” I took special comfort in that one weird word . . . wretch. I remember the day we sang that song during Release Time Bible Study, the Jesus Lady leading us through the words, printed on a huge cardboard display on an easel.
JESUS LADY: “Very nice. But how many of you really know what these words mean?”
She had one of those wooden pointer sticks, with the little rubber tips, and she pointed to certain key words.
JESUS LADY: “Grace. Who knows what ‘grace’ is?”
We were all silent, until one kid in the middle raised his hand and said . . .
GOOD KID: “Love? Grace is love?”
JESUS LADY: “Yes. Grace is God’s love. What about this word. Saved.”
SHIT-DISTURBING KID: “It means not going to Hell!”
. . . this one kid, making everyone gasp and snicker at the very utterance of the word ‘Hell.’
JESUS LADY: “That’s part of being saved. But to me, being Saved is being invited into the family of God, a family that will never leave you, and will always love you—love you just the way you are.”
Finally, she pointed to that word, my word—Wretch.
JESUS LADY: “Who knows what a wretch is?”
In Webster’s, ‘wretch’ is defined like this.
DICTIONARY VOICE: “One. A miserable person; one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune. Two. A person who is base, despicable, or vile. Three. One in a state of great hardship, deprivation, and hopelessness; seriously inadequate or of very low quality.”I waited, and when no one else raised their hand, I raised mine.
YOUNG DAVID: “A wretch is someone who doesn’t deserve love.”
JESUS LADY: “In God’s eyes, the only ones who don’t deserve love are those who refuse God’s invitation to join his family. And in God’s family, you will never be unhappy, or sad, or lonely, ever again.”
It was like a door opening, a door I’d never noticed though it had always been there. The Jesus Lady was offering me everything I dreamed of: love, happiness . . . acceptance. That day, after the class, I stayed in my seat while all the other kids scrambled out. When the trailer was empty, the Jesus Lady closed door, and invited me up to the front of the class.
JESUS LADY: “Let’s both kneel and pray. Repeat after me.”
I repeated the words the Jesus Lady prompted me with, declaring my unworthiness, and asking Jesus to come into my heart, and be my friend forever. Then there’s some legaleze—”I promise to devote the entire rest of my life to you and follow your every rule and regulation, to go nowhere and do nothing not sanctioned by God or the Bible”—blah blah blah. I don’t remember all the details, except for one: From this moment on, Jesus now lived in my heart. I was saved, and unless the Jesus Lady was exaggerating, I would never be sad, or unhappy again.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part 5, The Jesus Lady Was Exaggerating.
THE JESUS LADY WAS EXAGGERATING
In 1972, my mom got re-married. It was her third marriage. This was Leon, an African-American musician my mom fell in love with when he played in the band she was singing with. Leon was sweet. I have no doubt he loved my mom, probably more than anyone she’s ever been with. Unfortunately, he was also nuts, bonkers, wacko, bananas. Unhinged, unglued, and unzipped, mad as a hatter, two sandwiches shy of a picnic, toys in the attic, half a bubble off plumb, his elevator did not go to the top, both oars did not reach the water. In other words, he was street rat crazy. He’d been frequently institutionalized, but he lost it big-time one night and tried to kill her with a busted tree trunk he’d pulled up from the front yard while my older brother was on the phone trying to convince the police his step-dad was killing his mom. Around that time, there was this faith healer on T.V., Kathryn Kuhlman. She claimed that through her, God could heal anybody of anything. She eventually died of cancer, but before she did, as a last ditch effort to save Leon, my mom took him to one of Kuhlman’s faith healing service in downtown Los Angeles.
[Cue soulful organ music]
Leon wasn’t healed that day, or any other. He eventually got on a plane and disappeared forever, so he’d never hurt my mother again. But that day in Los Angeles, Kathryn Kuhlman talked about the love of Jesus, how he could not just heal minds, and bodies, and souls—he could heal broken hearts. When she invited the broken hearted to come down and accept Jesus into their hearts, my mom set aside her years of non-belief, walked down to the front of the auditorium, and gave her heart to Jesus.
[Pausing]. Like most of my mom’s relationships, the fling with Jesus didn’t last that long, but for a while there, it was cool, being Christians with my mom. Around this time, Jeff and I moved back to Downey, back in with Mom and Steve, and we started looking for a church. We found one. The First Baptist Church of Downey. The church was enormous, its sanctuary as high as a three-story building inside, and it had this baptismal pool, kind of like a balcony filled with water, at the second-story level, just above the area where the choir stood. If you could get away with doing a cannonball, you’d soak the ladies in the blue choir robes. The minister had done thousands of baptisms, but for him, the opportunity to baptize a single mother and two of her teenage boys—Jeff tagged along—made this one a bit of an event.
The church was packed. We’d each been asked to choose a song we wanted the choir to sing for us as we were baptized. My mom chose the song, “For Those Tears I Died.” None of us remember what Jeff picked. I picked “Amazing Grace.”
[Cue a choir singing “Amazing Grace” softly]
Mom went first, then me. I remember wading out into the comfortably heated, waist-deep, pleasantly chlorinated water. There was a little space between the top of the baptismal font and the actual surface of the water. The minister—a guy with dyed hair and glasses—he took his position, feet planted, his hand behind the back of my head, and he lowered me down out of sight of the crowd, where he said two things.BAPTIST MINISTER: “Hold your breath on the count of three” and “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost!He put me under, but he’d never said, “One, two, three,” so I wasn’t ready. I came up sputtering, gasping for breath, water streaming off of me. As I stood choking, the minister stepped up the insulated microphone affixed to the front of the pool, and pulling me over with one arm around me, he addressed the congregation.
BAPTIST MINISTER: “Don’t pass out on me, David, we’re all expecting big things from you! In the short time I’ve known this young man, I can say that I’ve never met someone so young who is a more willing and humble sheep in Christ’s flock. Grace will surely lead him home.”I had no idea where grace was leading me, but I knew that I was being led somewhere. I knew that my childhood was ove. I was 14 years old. It was 1974. I would soon be starting high school, and that’s where I would discover . . . the Jesus Club.
And my life was about to get weird.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part six, The Jesus Club.
PART SIX: THE JESUS CLUB
[Sound of a school bell signaling lunch]
On my first day of High School, while standing in the back of horticulture class, a guy named Jack, a notorious bully, kicked me so hard in the stomach I passed out right in front of everybody. I came-to on the floor, twitching and shaking, looking up to see Jack sneering down at me.
YOUNG DAVID: “Wow, I think . . . I fainted”
I just thought he’d be interested.
JACK: “Ya’ fainted? Ya think? What a freaking idiot!”
[Sighing] It wasn’t even lunchtime yet, and the next four years were already shaping up to be a nightmare. But later that day, as I was making my way across the quad, looking out for Jack while searching for a high hedge to eat lunch behind, one of the older kids from the Baptist Teen Group saw me and called me over. His name was Rick, a junior. Everyone called him Righteous Rick. I thought Rick was extremely cool. He was legally blind, but not so much that he couldn’t read the Bible for hours a day.
RICK: “Hey, why don’t you come have lunch with us?”
YOUNG DAVID: “Who’s ‘us?'”
RICK: “We don’t have an official name, but we’re basically the Jesus Club.”
[Cue heavenly music]
[Dreamily] The . . . Jesus . . . club. My new favorite word, Jesus, fused with a word meaning “association of people with a common interest.” It sounded so . . . irresistible. Rick led the way and I followed him in a daze. The Downey High Jesus Club met out on the grass under an ancient oak that had been whimsically dubbed, “The Sacred Tree.” The year before, someone had actually carved “SACRED TREE” on its trunk. The club had been founded by a guy named Jessie Pazonni, Jessie P., a legend at Downey High, he’d graduated a few years before, but everyone still talked about him. There were about 35 members, all outcasts and misfits of various kinds. Righteous Rick introduced me to the folks at the circle, everyone was sitting in a circle on the grass, Bibles in their laps and lunch-bags at their feet.
GIDDY JESUS-KID: “So . . . you joining us?” one of them asked me.
YOUNG DAVID: “I guess so.”
“Praise the lord!” they all shouted. And that was that. Every day for the next four years, I could be found in that circle. We read the bible, We held hands and prayed. We sang. We sang a lot. One of the songs we sang a bunch was, not surprisingly, ‘Amazing Grace,” but Jessie P. had decided that the tune was way too old-fashioned, so we sang it to the tune of ‘The Happy Wanderer.’ Since we were kids of the 60’s and we’d all grown up watching a lot of T.V., over the next several months, we started looking for other tunes to apply the words of Amazing Grace to. For example. [Demonstrates, singing Amazing Grace to two or three recognizable pop-tunes, including Supercalifragilisticespialidocious, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, and Jingle Bells]
I eventually suggested my own alternative tune.
[Demonstrates, singing to the Gilligan’s Island theme song tune]. “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound that saved a Wretch Like Me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
[Beat] We met every day. Once a month, we had communion, right there under the sacred tree: grape-juice and little saltine crackers. Every Wednesday, we’d get together early for morning prayer-meetings, holding hands in a circle and praying loudly for the salvation of the school. We even held our own baptisms.
[As if suddenly remembering] I remember this one day after school. It was in December, and this kid named Eddie Deek—even nerdier than me, with a high-pitched voice and places on his head where his hair would occasionally fall out—he mentioned that he’d never been baptized. I said . . .
YOUNG DAVID: “Wow. Dude, You should totally get baptized!”
Righteous Rick, who was there, overheard.
RICK: “Hey Eddie, Hey! You doing anything now? You’re not? Well, let’s go get you baptized!”So that was it.
VARIOUS JESUS-KID VOICES: “Come one everybody, let’s go to the beach!” “We’re gonna get Eddie baptized!” “Grab your bibles, kids!” “Let’s roll!” Praise Jesus!”
[Cue surf music]
There were about ten of us. We piled into our vans, and headed down to Huntington Beach. Now remember, this was December. At Huntington, the waves are big in December. And by the time we got there, it was foggy, and getting foggier.
RANDOM JESUS-KID: “I think the beach is down there somewhere, I can hear the waves!”
[Cue wave sounds]
The waves were huge, at least we assumed they were. We couldn’t see the waves because of the fog. On the way to the beach, Eddie had asked if I would do the honors of performing his baptism.
EDDIE: “You’ve been baptized twice, so, hey, you’re the most qualified.”
Standing on the sand, Righteous Rick patted my shoulder and shook my hand.
RICK: “Do it brother. Baptize the man.”
So Eddie and I waded out there into the surprisingly cold tide, and everybody gathered as close as they dare to the waterline, and hung out there, singing songs on the beach. As Eddie and I tried to gain our footing in the water, the swells would rise and fall and we’d have to move around to keep from getting knocked over. We had to do this pretty quickly, and get out. So with the voices of the Jesus Club rolling over us in song, I took Eddie in my arms, and I said the words.
YOUNG DAVID: “Eddie, In the name of the Father, the son, and the Holy. . . . .”
[Yelling] WHAM! A huge wave absolutely creamed us. It knocked us over and turned us upside down and every which way. I don’t know how I held onto my glasses. I ended up climbing to the surface, cross-eyed and dazed, sand in my hair. I climbed up out of the water and onto dry land, and I could hear the others singing through the fog, but I barely notice it because I was looking around thinking, “Where’s Eddie!” I couldn’t find Eddie. The fog was so thick, no one else could see what had happened, so I had to yell . . .
YOUNG DAVID: “Uh, guys! I lost Eddie!”
The singing stopped as everyone tried to determine if I’d actually said what I’d said. For about two seconds, I remember standing there, dripping, thinking, ‘I couldn’t possibly have drowned someone during baptism could I,’ wondering if that could possibly be a crime. Fortunately, Eddie was fine. We found him up the beach about twenty feet, lying in a tangle of seaweed having a religious experience. Rick got there first, and leaned over Eddie.
RICK: “Man, are you okay?”
Eddie just said . . .
EDDIE: “God . . . is so great!”
[Transitional Music, over which David announces]
Part Seven, God is So Great, or Shandala Kiria Bandala Agmia.
GOD IS SO GREAT or SHANDALA KIRIA BANDALA AGMIA
For months, I’d been hearing about a regular Tuesday-night Bible study, held at the home of a couple named Glenn and Marie. The leader was Jessie P., the guy who’d founded the Jesus Club. Just before Christmas, one of the Club kids told me he had an extra seat in his car that night, and if wanted to know if I’d like to go to Jessie ‘s Bible Study.
[Cue excited 1974-era music]
Glen and Marie, they were this older couple who’d dropped out of the Four-square church, and had been turning their tiny house into a chapel. They were installing a multicolored floor made of carpet samples, they put up a big wooden cross on one wall, hung some pictures of Jesus all over—and that was their chapel. As I stepped through the door that night, I felt like Alice must have felt careening down the rabbit hole. The place was packed, maybe 75 of us, and the walls physically vibrated with chatter and excitement as everyone sat cross-legged on the carpet, talking and bubbling and waiting for Jessie to start.
RANDOM JESSIE-FAN: [Whispering and pointing] “David. That’s Jessie . . . over there!”
Jessie had long hair, wore a pookah shell necklace with a dove dangling from it, and was dressed in blue denim overalls. As I looked around I realized that this was the unofficial uniform for cool teenage Christians in Downey. A week later, I’d gone down to Miller’s Outpost and gotten me my own pair of overalls. Everyone found a seat, and Jessie opened with a prayer.
[Pulling a stool over and takes a seat, closing eyes and adopting a heavenly blissful look]
JESSIE: [praying] “Heavenly father. Wow! Wow Jesus. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for bringing us together tonight. Bless us, Lord, as we dig into your amazing word. Make us worthy, Jesus, to receive your truth, because without you, we are so unworthy. Open our hearts to receive your truth because without you, we’re nothing. But you are so awesome. I mean, Wow. Wow-and-a-half! Thank you father. In Jesus name, Amen.”
Structurally, this is actually a text-book example of the way I was learning to pray. In those 66 words there were seven mentions of God, or one of his nicknmaes, , five statements of praise, thanks, and other forms of sucking up, two direct requests for blessings, three reminders of our own unworthiness, and numerous slangy exclamations of intense joy and happiness. So this was fairly typical, and it was one-hundred percent heartfelt. What was so magnetic about Jessie was his total commitment to every word he spoke. He was—and as far as I know, still is—a true believer.
[Standing up] The subject of Jessie’s Bible study that night was the Day of Pentecost, a major event in the New Testament. Jessie would read a verse, then he’d explain it while we all wrote notes in of our Tommy Guns. Tommy Guns, that’s what we called our Bibles. Thompson Chain Reference study Bibles, the primo Bible-of-choice among the pooka-and-overall set. Now, this Pentecost stuff was fairly new to me, and it slightly messed with my head, all that stuff about the fiery tongues dancing on their heads of the apostles and everybody spouting God’s praises in all the different languages of the world. Methodists and Baptists generally seem to rush through this part of the Bible, but with these people, the weirder the story was the better it proved the power of God. When the Bible Study was over, and we were all having cookies and lemonade in the kitchen, Marie asked me if I was planning to stay for the afterglow.
YOUNG DAVID: “What’s an afterglow?”
MARIE: “Oh, you should stay, Darlin’. You’ll see what an afterglow is.”
Fifteen minutes later, the lights were turned down low as a bunch of us gathered back in the chapel. Some sat on the furniture, some sat on the floor, some sat on each other. And that’s when I learned that an afterglow is where we invite God to do to us what he did to the apostles on the day of Pentecost. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was . . . completely freaked out, but, you know, in a good way. The experienced kids sang songs really quietly, in soft, ghostly voices, as Jessie explained what was about to happen.
JESSIE : “Tongues, today, serves a different purpose than it did on the Day of Pentecost. Back then it was the Holy Spirits way of helping the apostles preach the gospel to all the people of the world, but today, God uses it so we can pray in a way that pleases him. “In other words, the Holy Spirit gives us each our own special language, which only God understands, and which God really gets a kick out of. Jessie closed his eyes, and started to pray.
JESSIE : “Shondala Kiraia otrius bandala agmia Shondala Shondala.”
It started quietly. As Jessie’s words filled the room, all around me people started joining in. Those who weren’t speaking in tongues started singing in tongues. The volume rose, and some people started jumping to their feet, singing, babbling these sweet-weird-baby noises. As the volume rose,, some of the kids who’d leapt to their feet were now falling over, only to be caught by others who had stationed themselves strategically just for that purpose. Jessie explained this too.
JESSIE : “It’s called being slain in the spirit. Sometimes, the power of God is so overwhelming you just can’t stand it anymore! And then you fall over. It’s actually really beautiful.”
I knew right then that I had crossed some invisible line. I had found myself on the forefront of a Holy revolution. I had joined an alliance of mystical daredevils, and we were pole-vaulting the borders of polite spirituality, pushing deep, deep into the remotest reaches of supernatural land. It was great. Sitting in the dark in Glenn and Marie’s chapel, I didn’t know quite what was going on, but I knew, I was pretty much done with the Baptists. Later that night, I talked to Jessie . . .
YOUNG DAVID: “So, um, what religion is this, or you know, what denomination?”
JESSIE: “This is Christianity, brother. It isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship. Jesus and you. Together forever.”
PART ONE: 1975
The rest of my freshman year sped by faster than the book of Obadiah. Between lunches at the Sacred Tree and Jessie’s Bible Studies, I gradually developed a circle of friends, and we’d started doing everything together, and by everything, I mean praying, studying scripture, writing songs, carpooling to Bible study, discussing and debating the lessons we were learning at Bible Study, and praying out loud in public with the perfect blend of exhibitionism and self-rebuke.
[Eyes closed, as if holding hands with a circle of people]
YOUNG DAVID: “Heavenly Father, as we stand in line at this Burger King, we thank you for the food you’ve arranged to be deep-frying in oil right now, and we pray that you’d help us to decide whether to order the French fries or the onion rings, because we are too flawed and foolish and wretched to know for ourselves what is best for us. Tell us now, Lord . . . . [Whispering] I’m definitely getting . . . onion rings. Thank you, Lord. I was hoping for onion rings! In Jesus Name, Amen.”
We’d pass notes in class with scripture references, or friendly reminders—”Mary, Jesus Loves you! Your friend, David”—or little cute drawings of each other with giant exclamation points of joy coming out of our heads.
[Pauses, cringing, as if struck by a painful memory] Hmmm. Joy. Yeah, joy was sometimes a bit of a challenge, and those exclamation points we kept drawing didn’t help. See, we knew we were supposed to be feeling Joy, peace, love, every moment of every day. Jessie P. told us that joy would be the evidence of God at work in our lives, an all-encompassing, one-of-a-kind joy we would find no place else in the world, joy that was a natural bi-product of being a young, on-fire, born again Christian. The “world”—our word for everything outside of Christianity—the World had a certain kind of joy, but it was a pale, weak, embarrassing substitute compared to the overwhelming, life-changing, soul-shaking joy that only belonged to those who were among the chosen flock of God. Every once in a while, I did get a little taste of that kind of joy, but it was never the exclamation point joy that we were all supposed to be feeling. I asked Jessie about this, just before the end of the 74/75 school year.
JESSIE: “Simple, brother. You just have to get closer to God!’
So, around this point, I started running this constant inner dialogue that went something like this.
YOUNG DAVID: [With gradually escalating intensity, eventually rising to panic] “I have. To get closer. To God. Of course. A blind man could have seen it. But wait, I once was blind, but now I see. Don’t I? So why can’t I see?. . . . I have been thinking about sex a lot lately. I wonder if that’s the problem! I hang out with really cute girls all the time, and we do hold hands a lot when we pray . . . .. Stop it. Think about God. Think about Jesus. Uh . . . . okay, I know. I’ll pray more. I’ll read more and . . . what else can I do to draw closer to God? I can apologize again for being so wretched. Yes! I know, I’ll write a song about that.
[Singing] “I hate myself, I loath myself, Everything I am is Worthless/I despise myself, I disgust myself/The only thing good about me . . . is JESUS!” There. I feel better. Wait! I don’t feel better, O my God! Oh shit, I just took the Lord’s name in vain. Oh fuck! I just said shit! Where the hell is this coming from? It must be original sin! Adam and Eve and the thing with the apple! Maybe that’s why I don’t feel exclamation points coming out of my head! I’m too filled with sin! Wait, wait, wait! I know, I know, I know! I’ll give up eating food!”[Returning to a calm delivery] See, in addition to praying and reading and all that, I’d learned that one other effective tool for drawing closer to God was fasting. We were good Christians, so we didn’t do drugs, but we fasted, and sometimes that felt like the same thing. You fasted when you really feared that you were slipping away from God. During a fast, once you get past a certain point, it’s like lights going on in a darkened room. There is a sense of clarity and focus that that is accompanied by a physical sense not unlike your body singing lullabies to itself. We were teenagers, which means we were, you know, hungry all the time, so giving up food for a day or two at a time was an epic sacrifice, therefore when we fasted, we’d only go a day, two days, maybe three days. Seven days was a very big accomplishment. The big one, though, the Holy Grail of self-starvation, was a 30-day fast. There were stories of people who’d actually gone the distance, accomplishing a full 30 days, a sacred marathon of fasting that was more-or-less guaranteed to bring you right up into the face of God. No one we knew had ever actually crossed that finish line. But, it was like a gun, a dangerous tool you keep in your glove compartment just in case you ever really need it. I knew, that if things ever got really bad, a 30-day fast might be the tool to bring me back into the presence of God.
My brother Steve, who’d gone on from studying amphibians to launching small rockets from our backyard, would occasionally offer his own scientific observations about my spiritual activities.
STEVE: “You’re an idiot. To feel the presence of God, you pray an hour a day, and when you don’t feel the presence of God, you double it. And when that doesn’t do it, you double it again. Don’t you see a problem with this process? You’re going to run out of time.”YOUNG DAVID: “Um, well, maybe what I need is some kind of ministry, a ministry of my own, so I can really start devoting myself fully to God.”
The school year suddenly came to an end. To mark the beginning of Summer, Glenn and Marie decided we should have a picnic to celebrate. Marie, who’d been a very culturally savvy person before she burned all of her books and records several years before, suggested that the picnic should include a talent show. As we all started preparing songs about Jesus, poems about Jesus, interpretive dance numbers performed to music about Jesus—I began to wonder what talent I might offer to this artistic free-for-all. And then it hit me. Puppets. I’d been so busy being a full-time Christian that I’d forgotten about my puppets!
[Cue appropriate, puppet-like music]
Me, and a few of my friends, we put-together a four-minute parable called, The Good Samarimouse. It had everything—violence, redemption, and a rousing ending featuring singing-and-dancing turtles. We got a standing ovation. Almost immediately, we started getting invitations to do more shows, mostly for Christian kids’ birthday parties. I built more puppets and wrote more plays. One of our more popular ones was called, “Sheep.”
YOUNG DAVID: [As if pitching a movie script in Hollywood] “Picture this—three stupid-but-lovable sheep keep doing stupid and dangerous things, risking life and lamb-shank because they are, you know, just sheep. Ultimately, the shepherd, who will look a lot like Jesus, steps in to save the sheep from death, from dismemberment, and the jaws of three hungry wolves [Suddenly gets an idea] . . . .who will wear T-Shirts saying OF, THE, WORLD! Here’s the Shepherd’s last line: ‘Good sheep say Bah Bah—But bad sheep . . . . [Makes howling noise of distant wolves] . . .bad sheep say, ‘Bye Bye.'”
That one was great at birthday parties. Now the Psalms say, ‘Let everything that hath breath, praise the lord.’ I decided that that applied to puppets, and by the end of that summer, I’d carved out a plan by which we’d bring huge numbers of people to the Lord by sneaking our radical evangelical puppet shows into public places like parks and shopping malls.
KID AT MALL: “Look, mama! Puppets. I’m suddenly compelled to give my life to the Lord!”
Of all the puppets I built over the next few years, my favorite was Sam Galaxy. He was a big alien. Like most of my puppets, I built him out of whatever spare materials I could find lying around the garage. Kids loved Sam Galaxy, so we started using him as the M.C. of our puppet shows. As word spread about us, we started getting gigs at schools, private Christian elementary Schools, and we’d do our show. Sam had this thing, this little rap he would do. Well, I would do it, but I’d do it as Sam. And it became our signature bit, the bit we were famous for. I never actually scripted it. I never remember planning it out. It just started happening whenever I slipped Sam on and thrust him into the spotlight
SAM GALAXY: “Hey, how you doin’? Everybody okay out there? Hey, you know what’s really interesting? You probably think I look pretty cool, don’t you? ‘Cause I’m green, and I’m furry, and I’m kinda funny-lookin’. But you know what I’m made out of? I can tell you what I’m made out of. I’m made out of foam rubber, I’m made out of glue, I’m made out of pieces of cardboard that were taken off of an old box, and you know my neat green skin, with all the fur, you know where my green skin came from? It used to be a toilet seat cover.” This was true. I’d used an old leftover very 1970s toilet seat cover to make Sam Galaxy, so he’d say . . .
SAM GALAXY: “So, I might look pretty cool, and I might act pretty cool, and I might seem pretty cool, but actually, I’m just made up out of a bunch of junk. I’m not worth anything. You know what makes me worth somethin’? I got the hand of the puppeteer inside me. What do you think would happen to me if the hand came outa me? You know? It would look somethin’ like this—”And Sam would suddenly just flop over, and lay there, until none of us could stand it anymore. And then suddenly he’d pop back to life.
SAM GALAXY: “That was pretty boring, wasn’t it, this big pile of junk hanging over the end of the stage. Now I’m interesting again, aren’t I? I’m worth somethin’ again. Because of the puppeteer. And that’s just like all of you. If you don’t have Jesus livin’ inside you, you’re just a pile of junk.”
[Pauses, shrugging] It’s what I’d always been told. It’s what I’d come to believe. So I didn’t think twice about passing that message on through my puppets, and later, when I’d become the president/shepherd of the Jesus Club, it’s the message I’d pass on through my first Bible Studies. It was the message I told myself . . . every single day.
[Cue appropriately 1975ish music]
Early that year, Jessie P. met Reverend Dude, this one-time acid-dropping surfer-guy who’d found Jesus in a tent in Hawaii while overdosing on magic mushrooms. A fly talked to him in the voice of the Devil, and he got so freaked out he gave his life to Jesus and became a minister. His real name was Al, but everyone called him Reverend Dude. He was a big, bearded guy. He wasn’t as light-hearted as Jessie. He was very serious about Jesus, concerned that others weren’t as serious as they should be. Though we thought he was very cool . . .
AWED JESUS-KID: [Whispering] “Reverend Dude talks to flies!”
. . . .he often took the hard line, putting the kibash on anything he felt to be a threat to Christianity. For example, he was very down on Christmas trees.
REVEREND DUDE: “Nimrod trees! Heavy pagan idolatry. Abominations in God’s sight. Not cool.”
But Reverend Dude had a way of taking scripture and putting it into modern language that was extremely clear, even when it was obviously wrong. There was one time when he was explaining Micha, Chapter 12, from the Old Testament.
REVEREND DUDE: “‘And I will cut off witchcrafts out of thine hand, and thou shalt have no more soothsayers.’ See, God is a jealous god. Fortune-tellers, astrology, horoscopes, he doesn’t like that. If there’s anything you need to know about the future, he wants you to get that information from him, not from anyone else. That’s like a married man going to a whore behind his wife’s back. That’s why it’s called a Whore-o-scope. It’s God’s way of telling you it’s a sin.”
Reverend Dude had started his own storefront church in a small building in downtown Downey. We liked to call it Happy Chapel, because everyone who went there smiled all the time. All the time. One Tuesday night at Glenn and Marie’s, Jessie announced that Reverend Dude had offered to officially ordain him, and that he’d be moving his weekly Bible study to Happy Chapel. Like that, Happy Chapel. Like that, Happy Chapel doubled in size, because suddenly all of Jessie’s sheep went and joined up with Jeff’s sheep. Three years later, Happy Chapel would become the biggest church in Downey, a powerful force in the rapidly expanding Southern California Evangelical Movement, a movement that would, by the time I finally left the church in 1981, claim over two-million followers. But back then, in Downey, we still felt like a bunch of crazy kids playing church all the time.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part Two, 1976.
PART TWO: 1976
[Cue Christmas carol music] Before the end of the year, a new girl joined the Jesus Club. Cindy. She was even more intense than I was. On a whim, I asked her out, for some reason, she said yes, and for our first date, we went witnessing. Witnessing is a Christian slang word which basically means ‘Harassing people for Jesus.’ My favorite place to go witnessing was the pier at Huntington Beach. After that first date, we were pretty much an item. And as the new year began, Cindy and I spent a lot of our spare time doing all the kinds of things boyfriends and girlfriends are supposed to do—reading the Bible, praying, going to church and witnessing.
[Pausing, as if deciding which way to take the story] Regarding witnessing, different Christians have different techniques. Some like the direct approach.
ABRUPT TEEN CHRISTIAN: “Hi, Can I talk to you about Jesus? No? Well, enjoy hell!”
Cindy and I were always uncomfortable with this hard-core, in-your-face approach. We had our own styles. Me, I preferred the sneak attack. I’d walk up to one of the fisherman on the pier, and strike up a casual conversation.
YOUNG DAVID: “So, you catchin’ anything?”
FISHERMAN: “Yeah, I caught a couple of Bonito and a small shark.” YOUNG DAVID: “Cool. You know, Jesus was a fisher of men.” It did start conversations. Or we’d be at the mall in Downey, and I’d sidle up to some guy at the hardware store, staring at the boxes of nails. . . .
YOUNG DAVID: “Speaking of nails, did you know that Jesus wasn’t crucified with the nails in his hands? They actually put the nail here in his wrists between the radius and the ulna . . . .”
Cindy’s approach was unique. She’d just walk up to people, smile her sweetest smile, and say . . .
CINDY: “Hi! I love you. But Jesus loves you more.”
She was the best, most naturally talented ‘witnesser’ I’ve ever known. She was also a pretty amazing kisser. A perfect date for us was lunch at Bob’s Big Boy, some witnessing at the pier, maybe a little Bible study in the park, and 20-or-30 minutes of very hot kissing. I learned a lot from Cindy over the next couple of years.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part Three, 1977
PART THREE: 1977
[Sounds of a tape player fast-forwarding]
By the summer of ’77, I was a very different person than the shy, timid little guy who started High School looking for shrubbery to hide behind. I had a hot girlfriend, I’d become the regular teacher under the Sacred Tree, my Bible Studies there were slightly infamous for their unpredictability and entertainment value, and my puppet group was getting regular gigs all over Southern California, and had started drawing the attention of the local press.
HEADLINE VOICE: “Teen Puppeteer Spreads the ‘Gospel.'”
I’d become, almost . . . popular. If I hadn’t still been spending so much time and energy thinking about death, crucifixion and my own unworthiness, I’d have said I was actually having a pretty good time. But I wasn’t. Every morning I’d wake up with a crushing feeling on my chest, as if something were pushing on me from inside and out. I would lie there thinking, “Why do I feel like this? What am I doing wrong in the eyes of the Lord?”
[Cue appropriately 1977-ish music]
My Mom, by this point, had moved on from the Baptist Church, though she and Jesus had remained good friends. As an expert on unhappiness, my mom could always sense it in others. One afternoon she came into my room and sat on the bed.
MOM: “Sweetie, do you have any idea how wiped out you are?”
YOUNG DAVID: “Wiped out? Maybe a little. I only have summer school, the Bible studies, Any Minute Productions, couple hours of praying a day, a couple more hours of Bible reading, Happy Chapel on Sundays, and Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Saturdays, and witnessing with Cindy when I can fit it into my schedule.”
I was so used to feeling tired I’d forgotten there was any alternative.
YOUNG DAVID: “It’s just, you know, what I have to do. I’m just . . . serving the Lord.”
MOM: “Uh huh. Then why are you so miserable?”
I didn’t know where it came from, but I started to cry. I just couldn’t stop. I went over and sat next to her. It had been a long time since I’d let my Mom hold me in her arms like that. A long time since that day she’d explained the evil pecking order of life. My mom was right. I was miserable.
MOM: “I’m going to tell you something, David. You are a good kid. You are kind and caring, and you love people no one else would give a rat’s ass for. That didn’t come from God. It was you’re choice to be like that, because with all the shit that you’ve been through, you could’ve decided to be angry and bitter. You are a good person. You deserve to like yourself more than you do.”
I wanted to believe her. I didn’t say anything, but inside my head I kept hearing those familiar words, that constant underlying message.
YOUNG DAVID: “I’m not doing enough to deserve God’s blessings. If I’m ever going to feel the joy of the Lord, I’m going to have to work harder.”
[Cue sounds of chains being dragged slowly]
It was announced that Happy Chapel would be holding a giant baptism and barbecue in the cove at Corona Del Mar. The Sunday before the baptism, Reverend Dude talked about what baptism means.
REVEVREND DUDE: “Baptism is a conscious pact made between you and Jesus. It’s you saying to Jesus, ‘I’m gonna be buried in the water and then brought back up again, just like you were buried and were brought back to life.’ It’s a heavy thing. It’s you telling the world that you’ve died along with Jesus, and now plan to live like he lived.”
Those words stirred something in me. ‘To live, like Jesus lived.’ I was making myself miserable, trying to pay Jesus back for his sacrifice, trying to suffer the way Jesus had suffered. Maybe, instead of sacrificing myself for God, what I should have been doing is living like Jesus lived. I started looking hard at Jesus as an example. Not just a shepherd, and a savior, and a friend, but a real man who lived an extraordinary life, a life devoted to defending the friendless, to protecting the underdog, to sticking up for people who, like my mom said, no one else gave a rat’s ass for, a life devoted to telling the truth even when it made him dangerous to the status quo. Jesus the humanitarian. Jesus the pacifist. Jesus the rebel.
[Cue surf music]
The last time I’d been baptized I spent most of the time choking and spitting up water, so it hadn’t been much of a quality moment with Christ. The morning of the big baptism, Cindy and I packed up some marshmallows, and headed down to Corona del Mar. About five-dozen of us were baptized that day, right at sunset. Reverend Dude and Jessie did the honors, baptizing us all one-by-one as we lined up by the water’s edge. The cove at Corona Del Mar is small and protected, with a lots of little crevices to sit in up on the rocks, so everyone can look down at the folks being baptized. About two hundred people were there up on the little cliffs, and as the sun set, they all lit candles, all started singing together. It was beautiful.
[Cue gentle splashing surf-sounds]
As I got my signal, and waded out into the water and up to where Jessie was standing, I cleared my mind and imagined it was Jesus I was wading out to meet. Jessie got ready to lower me into the water, and he asked me a question.
JESSIE: “So, what are you hoping for from this, David?”
YOUNG DAVID: “I just want to be like Jesus.”
JESSIE: “That’s what God wants too. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
From that moment on, my focus switched from trying to feel the presence of Jesus, from trying to absorb the enormity of his sacrifice on the cross, to simply trying to walk in his footsteps, to live life the way he lived his, to be as much like Jesus the man as I possibly could, to see my fellow human beings through his eyes I didn’t know it, but I was about to become very unpopular. Again.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part Four, 1978
PART FOUR: 1978
As the months skipped by, the young Christians of the Downey High Jesus Club kept coming up to me with questions. I tried to answer each question the way Jesus might have answered them. I decided Jesus must have said ‘I don’t know’ a lot.
HIGH-STRUNG JESUS-KID: “If I get an A in chemistry and I don’t praise the Lord, is that a sin, ’cause my Dad says I didn’t get the A, God did—but when I got a D, I was the one who got grounded. Not God”
SPACED-OUT JESUS-KID: “The Bible says not to take God’s name in vain, but it also says his name is Yaweh, so doesn’t that make God more of a job description, or maybe a species? So why can’t I say Goddammit and just not take Yahweh in vain?”
DEEPLY-ASHAMED JESUS-KID: “Is it really a sin to masturbate?”
That was a popular one. The masturbation question. I have to admit I’d been curious about that one myself. Unfortunately, the Bible is actually a little bit fuzzy on the subject of masturbation. There is a place in Leviticus where it says that ‘spilling your seed’—what a sexy phrase!—spilling your seed in the middle of the night makes you unclean, and that if you did that you’d have to wash your self, your clothes, all the animal skins that were around you, and the walls of the tent. That always made me wonder, ‘What kind of wet dreams were these people having out there in the wilderness?’ And then there’s the story of Onan, in Chapter 38 of Genesis. Onan was struck dead by God when he spilled his own seed on the ground after getting cold feet in the middle of having sex with his dead brother’s wife. Though none of this is clearly describing masturbation, it’s reasonably clear that God has it in for people who spill their seed on the ground. And by the way, because of this verse, there are thousands of Christians today who give the name Onan to their parrots and parakeets, because they also spill their seed on the ground. Anyway, I wasn’t sure what to tell the growing number of young masturbators in my flock. I really needed someone to talk to. Unfortunately, right at this point, Jessie P. announced he was leaving Happy Chapel.
[Beat] Reverend Dude’s church had been growing like mad. They’d already outgrown two bigger and bigger buildings and were at work constructing a third in an old abandoned department store just off the freeway. They’d added several more ministers, a Christian bookstore, and were planning a school. The bigger Happy Chapel got, the less comfortable Jessie had become with it, so right when I really needed a teacher I trusted, who spoke my language, he suddenly announced he was leaving to start building boats. Boat building suited him, but it made him less accessible as a shepherd, so I took my questions to Reverend Dude. Including, the masturbation issue.
YOUNG DAVID: “I’ve got this problem. I keep getting this masturbation question, but I don’t know what to tell these guys.”
Reverend Dude suggested we schedule a meeting between two or three Happy Chapel ministers and two or three of the more grounded Christian brothers at the Sacred Tree. We referred to this meeting as the Masturbation Summit. So we got together, three married guys and three frisky virginal teenage boys, and we looked at all the pertinent scriptures. When I asked Reverend Dude if he washed himself and waited till sunset every time he had sex with wife, as I says to do in Leviticus, he basically refused to answer, but he did agree that maybe Leviticus doesn’t always apply in every situation anymore.
Score one for the masturbators!
But wait, Reverend Dude had a scriptural ace up his sleeve. Matthew 5:28.
REVEREND DUDE: “Jesus himself says, ‘But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Even thinking about having sex with someone is a sin.”
Reverend Dude had us. But he considered himself to be a reasonable man. He thought it all out and said this.
REVEREND DUDE: “‘Here’s what you can tell any young brothers-in-the-Lord who ask you this question. Tell them that masturbation is not necessarily a sin—as long as they don’t think about sex while they’re doing it.”
What could I do? He was my shepherd. I was his sheep. I passed the message along. But there was another question I’d been getting a lot. This one was also about sin.
JESUS-KID: [whispering] I think I’m Gay. Am I really going to hell?
I was getting ready to graduate from High School, and I’d realized that a lot of gay kids had been joining the Jesus Club, attracted by the promise of unconditional love. But they were immediately confused when they discovered, at their own churches, that unconditional love didn’t necessarily apply to them. I’d never met anyone who was gay before this, not that I knew of, so, I did what I’d been learning to do. I went to my Tommy Gun to see what Jesus would have done. And I came to the conclusion that Jesus would have hung out with them and been their friend. Reverend Dude had taken to checking in with me a lot about how I was leading my flock at the high school. One day I told him about all the gay kids who’d been joining the Jesus Club.
REVEREND DUDE: “That’s heavy, yeah. Gay people. You know, it’s no coincidence that G-A-Y and S-I-N are both three-letter words. God loves everyone, but he’d love it better if they hadn’t decided to burn in hell. As the shepherd of your flock, you have to tell your sheep they are sinning in God’s eyes. If they don’t repent, tell them they are no longer welcome at the Sacred Tree.”
[Beat] More and more, whenever I talked to Revered Dude, I always felt something separating in me, like a button being slowly torn from a piece of fabric. It was becoming harder to treat my shepherd with the respect I’d been trained to give him.
YOUNG DAVID: “But, Reverend, I, kinda, you know . . . I don’t see any evidence of that in the teachings of Jesus. And for the record . . . G-O-D is a three letter word too.”
REVEREND DUDE: “You know your problem David? You’re thinking too much. God doesn’t want his sheep to think. He wants them to obey. I’m worried about you. Don’t forget what happens to the bad sheep.”
Yeah, I know what happens to bad sheep, I wrote the puppet show on bad sheep. So anyway, what could I do? My shepherd had spoken. I went back to my gay friends.
YOUNG DAVID: “Reverend Dude thinks you’re an abomination. But I don’t, ’cause I don’t think Jesus does.”
[Cue appropriately 1978-ish music]
One day, Cindy and I were witnessing at Stonewood Mall. I’d been wandering through the nail section of the hardware store looking for someone to talk to, and Cindy was working the front entrance. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been deeply engaged in conversation with a couple in their 20s. She had her Tommy Gun out, and she was all bright and cheery and . . . Cindy. So I walked down toward the Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, talked to a couple of people briefly, and walked back to where Cindy was. The three of them were still there, but something was different with Cindy. She looked . . . . uncomfortable, less animated. The next time I went by, the couple was gone. Cindy was acting weird.
CINDY: “Let’s go. I’m ready to go.”
She wouldn’t talk about what had happened. She was absolutely silent all the way back to the church. I didn’t learn what happened until the next day, at Wednesday Night Bible study. On Wednesday nights, before the bible study, we always had a moment of sharing, where people could ask for prayer requests, tell about their week and whatever glories of God they’d witnessed or been a part of. Cindy was there, but now she was back to her old self. In fact, she was glowing. And after a few minutes of listening to other people share their stories, Cindy stood up.
CINDY: “Last Night, I was at the Mall, and I met two people named Tammy and Joseph, and they really need Jesus in their lives, but they have so many doubts, so I was talking to them and sharing with them. And I knew they really wanted to be saved, but whenever I’d ask to pray with them, they just had more questions, and it was taking a long time. . . . And I had to go to the bathroom. . . . The Lord told me that if I left to use the restroom, Tammy and Joseph would leave, so I kept talking, and I had to go more and more and more, and finally I could wait anymore, and then I thought, there have been so many martyrs who gave their lives for their faith, what am I willing to sacrifice for my Lord?”
And she stood their smiling at us, while we all looked at her, slowly figuring out what she was telling us. But just to make it perfectly clear, Cindy smiled her biggest Cindy smile and said . . .
CINDY: “I wet my pants for Jesus!”
She wet her pants for Jesus. Now, how do you suppose the brothers and sisters of Happy Chapel reacted to Cindy when she made this announcement? Did they A. Sit in shocked silence, later finding it hard to look her in the eye? B. Encourage her to see a good psychotherapist? C. Quietly suggest that, all things considered, Jesus being Lord and everything else, maybe it was possible that she was taking her faith too far? D. Burst into wild, spontaneous applause?
Yeah, that one. A year or two before, I might have applauded too. Five years before, I’d have prayed that God would make me as devoted as Cindy. But on this day, all I felt was . . . fear. Fear for Cindy, and fear for me, because I felt a few more threads coming loose, I felt myself separating from all of this and all of these people, and it terrified me. But I wasn’t ready to give it all up yet. Not yet.
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part Four, 1979.
PART FIVE: 1979
Fast forward. I graduated. I did a lot of puppet shows. For some reason, I broke up with Cindy. I went to work packaging mayonnaise at a giant food manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. It was boring work, assembly line work, but it didn’t take up a lot of brainpower, so I could do a lot of thinking. I kept my Tommy Gun right with me, and whenever there was a break, or the line stopped to change from light mayo to regular mayo, I’d study my Bible. There were seven other guys on the Mayonnaise line. None of them were Christians. They were all decidedly “of the world,” so I prepared myself to be bullied and taunted. After all, these were the first non-Christians who I’d ever spent time with—except for my family, I’d been told what non-Chritians were like. Strangely, these guys, they liked me. They’d ask me questions. They’d debate stuff with me. This one guy, Yeshi, he was from Israel. He was maybe 35, and he was so full of life. He loved to sit with me in the break room and argue scripture, and I couldn’t help thinking, ‘None of these guys are the empty, desperate, loveless souls I’d been told they’d be. What else wasn’t I told the truth about?’
One day, I asked him about the pendant he wore on a chain around his neck, a little Hebrew word in gold. He told me it was the Hebrew word for JOY. It kind of surprised me. Then asked me what it was about Jesus that had a nice, smart boy like me all fired up. Among other explanations, I gave him the party line.
YOUNG DAVID: “There is no real love, no real joy, outside of Jesus.”
YESHI: “Really? That’s a whole lot of joyless, unloved people going to hell then, isn’t it, David? How can any Christian feel any Joy knowing that just about everyone he knows is going to cook in hell? No wonder you are so sad all the time.”
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part Five, 1980.
PART SIX, 1980
As a former leader of the Jesus Club, I was called up once a month or so to come back and lead a Bible Study. By then, my little brother, Jeff had joined the Jesus Club, and he was there the afternoon I came back to lead an after-school communion service. I wasn’t thinking so clearly, those days, so no one was surprised when I showed up without the sacraments, the grape juice and the crackers.
YOUNG DAVID: “Jeff, what’ve you got in your lunch box?”
He had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I thought, “What the heck?’ I sent one of the kids to the coke machine for a grape soda, and we did communion.
YOUNG DAVID: “This is my sandwich, which is broken for you. This is my blood, watch out for the bubbles, they could make you burp.”
I didn’t say that. I could just imagine what Reverend Dude would’ve done if he’d heard about that. Communion was very important to me. It was my way of thanking Jesus for dying for me. I did it the right way.
YOUNG DAVID: “Take, eat. his is my body, which is broken for you. Take, drink. This is my blood, which was shed for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” But you know what? Reverend Dude heard about it anyway. I got called into his office.
“REVEREND DUDE: “I hear you are being flippant with the things of God.”
I tried feebly to make the case that communion wasn’t about the food you used, that communion was what you felt in your heart, but Reverend Dude didn’t buy it, and me told me I had to apologize, in public, at the next Wednesday night Bible Study.
I agreed, but I kept putting off going.
[Beat] Righteous Rick suddenly reappeared. He’d been at college, and around this time he came home. I went to his house, and we compared notes on our walks with the Lord, and we found that we’d been struggling with similar things, having the same doubts and questions. Then Rick closed the bedroom door, as if someone from the Jesus Club was waiting outside to hear what he was about to say.
RICK: “You know how the Bible says ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord?’ Have I got a joyful noise for you.” And then he played me Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album. On vinyl.
RICK: “I know we’re not supposed to be dabbling with the things of the world. But this is the best album I’ve ever heard in my life. God forgive me, but it’s true.”
I tried to resist. I really tried. But they got me. Rick, and the Boss. I felt things listening to that album I’d never felt in my life, and never thought I could. By the way, there are very few Bruce Springsteen tunes that can used in singing Amazing Grace. We tried.
[Picking up the pace] Fast forward. At work, there was a little radio up on a shelf above the machinery. You couldn’t hear any music when the food line was up, the machinery was too loud, but whenever we were setting up or breaking down, Yeshi would crank it way up. Sometimes, especially at the end of a long week, we’d actually all sing along. One Friday afternoon, Springsteen’s song, Out In the Street started playing on the radio.
[Cue Out in the Street, slightly tinny, as if played on the radio] ‘When I’m out in the street, oh oh oh oh oh, I walk the way I want to walk.’ Yeshi started singing and dancing.
YESHI: “When I’m out in the street, Oh oh oh oh oh, I talk the way I want to talk!”
In a second, we were all singing along at the top of our voices, me included. We stopped working, and all started dancing around the stack of cardboard boxes. We were all feeling a rush of exultation and freedom. From across the workspace, Yeshi shouted
YESHI: “David! Look at you! You are feeling joy! This is joy! Look everybody! There is Joy outside of Jesus! Hallelujah. Our David has found Joy in his life.”
[Music stops suddenly]
Yeah, I felt the joy. But now that fear I’d been wrestling with, and that horrible crushing feeling, it all suddenly doubled. I could feel a few more threads coming undone, and I was in a panic. Jesus had changed my life, but now I was in doubt about everything I’d been doing and believing. I knew that if I didn’t do something drastic, I might not just lose my church, my friends—I could lose Jesus. Not knowing where else to turn, I went to see Jessie. Jessie had quit building boats and had taken a job as a cameraman for a big Christian television station in Southern California. I called him up, and the next day we got together. I told him everything I’d been thinking and feeling. I told him I felt torn between anger and doubt, fear and joy, hope and hopelessness. I told him I’d been trying to live like Jesus lived, and that strangely, it had put me at odds with my church and my minister. Jessie listened for a while before he finally spoke.
JESSIE: “You know, Reverend Dude doesn’t own Jesus. Happy Chapel doesn’t own Jesus. That’s why I had to disappear. To walk my own walk with Jesus, not one dictated by people who interpret the Bible to fit their own need to control others. If you feel like you’re slipping away from God, you already know what to do. Think about all the things you’ve always done in the past that have brought you closer to Jesus. Do that. Just draw closer to Jesus. You’ll find your answers.”
[Transitional Music, over which David announces] Part Seven, The End.
PART SEVEN: THE END
After I left, I was resolved. If I was losing my faith, slipping away from Jesus, I wasn’t going to let it happen without a fight! But I couldn’t imagine what more I could do to, you know, draw close to God. My search for answers had turned into a fever-driven mania. I’d already been reading, praying, and . . . . fasting. Wait. I’d fasted a day or two, here or there, but . . . . my faith was on the line. It was time to break out the big guns. It was time for a 30-day fast.
[Cue sound effect] I stopped eating. I was going to draw close to God if it killed me. After a couple of weeks, I was beginning to feel short, random moments of calm and focus, moments when I began to see things clearly for a few brief minutes before it all fuzzed out again. It was while performing a big puppet show at an Elementary school, in front of 300 kids, that I experienced one especially big moment of clarity.
[Kneeling behind stool, as if a puppet stage] SAM: “Hey kids, I’m Sam Galaxy. You probably think I look pretty neat, all green and furry and everything, huh?”
As I knelt behind the puppet stage, doing the bit I was famous for, I suddenly started listening to myself. [Shifting so that David is half behind the stool, his hand operating the imaginary Sam]
SAM: “The only thing that makes me special, is the hand of the puppeteer inside of me.”
These kids, they were the same age I was when I first got saved, when I first swallowed the idea that I was inherently undeserving of love. And that only God could truly love me. I froze. Something exploded in me, soft and deep.
[David has now become Sam, no longer using a hand as if operating a puppet: he IS the puppet]
SAM: “Yeah, I’m just a puppet. . . I’m just a bunch of junk. But you . . . you kids out there. You guys, you’re beautiful. God made you, the way my puppeteer made me, but you guys are not junk. You guys are a joy in God’s eyes. You kids, you are all beautiful exactly the way you are!”
Thirteen days later, on the 28th day of my fast, a couple of my friends invited me to an afterglow at Happy Chapel. Two days away from reaching my goal of 30 days and I was definitely feeling the effects of starvation. I was shaky and weak. Taking steps was a huge effort. At times, I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or hallucinating. But I was feeling extremely calm, strangely, powerfully calm. The volume was up on everything. I felt like I’d never seen the world so clearly before. But I was still waiting for something that would tell me what to do. The afterglow turned out to be one of the long ones. We were all gathered at the front of Happy Chapel, standing in the space between the pews and the stage. For some reason, it was one of those afterglows where everyone was standing through the whole thing, and there were the usual catchers meandering around in case someone was slain in the spirit. All around me was the babble of tongues, people raising their hands, singing and praying, and I remember thinking, as I stood there . . .
YOUNG DAVID: “Hmmm. Tongues. It’s always bothered me . . . God is infinitely creative, God who thought up all the weird critters in Australia and the off-the-wall fishes in the depths of the sea, So why, while speaking these magical languages that God supposedly crafted for us individually, why is everyone speaking some variation of “Shandala Kiria Boondala Agmia?” Why does everything end in A? You would think that once in a while God would just go, “‘You know, I’m going to do something interesting with this guy. I think I’ll give him a series of clicks and grunts.’ I mean, why isn’t anybody standing up and going . . . [Makes whale noises]. I mean, the whales and the dolphins do it.”
[Cue high-pitched whine] I suddenly heard a high-pitched whine, like a whale, and for a moment, I thought maybe I was starting to pray in whale tongues. But as I looked around me, no one was looking back, they were all praying, eyes closed. As I looked at them, they started to grow dark on me, as if everything were rushing away from me down a dark tunnel, and that high-pitched whine got louder and louder.
[Pausing briefly] And I passed out. I passed out before one of the catchers could get to me. Bam! Right down on the floor. When I looked up, I saw everyone looking down at me as I twitched and shuddered, pale white on the carpet. I remember the looks on their faces. They were radiant, beaming down at me as if I’d just confirmed something wonderful about the love of God. They thought I’d been slain in the spirit. They couldn’t see how much I was actually suffering to feel the closeness of God. I was surrounded by delusional people, but . . . . as I lay there, I realized . . . these weren’t my people anymore.
For a second, I had an image of them all as sheep, and me as the black sheep, the outsider, the bad sheep. I was standing at the crossroads, my flock moving one way as I took the other path. But then that image faded, and it was replaced by another, clear as anything in my mind.
[Beat] I wasn’t a sheep.
[BeatI I was a salamander.
And it was time to get out of the pot.
[The next part should be spoken with a detectable groundedness, a palpable sense of resolution and confidence] I finished the fast. I didn’t want to take any chances. But I was done with the kind of faith that demanded complete obedience and self-hatred. I was done with the kind of faith that required its followers to listen and not think. I was done with Happy Chapel. I did go back one last time, a week later. It was a Wednesday night Bible study. I’d just gone to say goodbye to my friends, those I knew were about to turn their backs on me. I just wanted to see my adopted family on more time. I remained silent during the sharing part of the service. But then, Reverend Dude spoke up.
REVEREND DUDE: “Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody sins. What’s so cool about God is that he’s willing to forgive anyone, if they are willing to repent . . . and apologize. A couple of months ago, one of our young leaders made a mistake in leading a communion service. He’s here tonight to apologize for that. David?”
I stood up.
YOUNG DAVID: [Taking a deep breath] “Thank you Reverend. Right. Communion. The sacraments of communion are very important, they are. [Beat] But they’re not that important. Communion isn’t about the stuff you use, Communion is about you and God. If you’re heart is right, you can do communion with wine and unleavened bread, you can use saltine crackers and grape juice, you can use a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich and grape soda. I don’t think God cares. If your heart is right, God doesn’t care if you use Jack Daniels and a marijuana brownie! It’s between you and God—and it isn’t anybody else’s business.”
I walked away from the church almost 30 years ago, and though my memories of those days have shifted and softened, I know I was shaped, some for bad, some for good, by the things I did, and the people I knew. As I said at the beginning, at some point I stopped believing in God, but I’ve never stopped believing in Jesus. Sometimes, I still sing Amazing Grace, though it means something very different to me now, especially the line, ‘I once was blind, but now I see.’ Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, I still sing Amazing Grace to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. Once in a while, I even find new tunes that work beautifully.
[Muisic of Springsteen’s ‘Out in the Street’ begin to come up, and David sings to the chorus]
Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound,
that saved a wretch Like Me.
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.”
[The music continues, over which David brings the show to a close]
Oh . . I promised I’d tell you what I believe today.
Here it is.
I believe it’s our job to create a world like the one my friend Jesus envisioned, a world where everyone knows they are loved by someone, and no one is ever made to feel like a wretch.
[Exit as lights fade, Springsteen music continuing to play]