I assume most older people can look back on the panorama of their lives, and spot incidents that may have seemed mundane at the time. But that ended up having a significant impact on them at later points in their lives.
I’d like to share such an incident of my own. It involves a gathering of people, a song, and a speech. The song and the speech were by the same man. We’ll call him Bro James for the purposes of this little story.
But before I take you to the gathering to meet Bro James, I need to take you farther in the past to share what I guess you’d call the “backstory” if this were a movie.
The year is 1965. The date is May Day, May 1. That’s the day I married my hubby (now of 51 years) George. I was 18, a freshman at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He was an upperclassman of 20. We knew each other barely more than a month before the wedding…he had proposed on our second date, and we sealed the deal in a ceremony three weeks later (and informed our families after the deed was done). From a common sense point of view, such a whirlwind courtship for such young people was certainly pretty foolish. But we were both very lonely…and as you can see by the 51 years, yeah, it did work out.
With that little time under our belts together before we set up housekeeping, we hadn’t had time to discuss much of anything about ourselves in depth… including religious beliefs, if any. It just never occurred to me to bring the subject up. I had attended various churches in my childhood and teens, mostly with family members or friends for a social outing. I’d never cracked a Bible open to read it for myself, although I owned the obligatory little white-leather-bound KJV that most young girls got as a gift from some devout relative sooner or later. I kept it around more as a good-luck talisman than anything else. By the time I arrived at college, I guess you would have labeled me an agnostic.
I knew absolutely nothing about any particular religious beliefs or practices that might have been part of George’s past or present. So imagine my surprise a few days after we moved into our apartment when he brought home from his parents’ house a big stack of magazines that he’d been collecting since 1957, when he was in Junior High. Religious magazines. STRANGE religious magazines. Almost 100 of them…it was a monthly magazine.
The magazines were titled The Plain Truth—A Magazine of Understanding. The contents were an odd hodge-podge of Bible-based articles about such topics as baptism and Bible prophecy, daily living advice about such topics as marriage and child rearing and nutrition, history lessons about ancient empires, science lessons about unusual animals, long and very detailed articles and commentary about current US and world news and conditions—wars, natural disasters, political intrigue, civil unrest, economics…yes, a real potpourri.
The earliest issues were 32 pages long, the more recent issues had expanded up to 48. Most articles were lavishly illustrated with high-quality photos.
The only advertising included was for free “booklets” offered by the same publisher…Ambassador College in Pasadena, California…that covered similar topics.
There was no subscription or newsstand price…George had been getting the magazine all those years at no cost. There was never a request for “donations” either. A very strange phenomenon.
I brushed off any interest in this material at first, and George didn’t pressure me to read any of it. But university summer vacation started soon after our wedding, and George was gone off to work every day, leaving me alone and bored for many hours a day. So I started down through the stack of magazines to while away the time.
Some of the content seemed pretty goofy to me at first…one article, for instance, insisted (without any historical “proof”) that the architect of the Great Pyramid of Egypt had been the biblical patriarch Job, and that it had some sort of significance in “prophecies” of the future. After a while, I found out that most of the articles on world and US news events and conditions actually ended up with a “Bible prophecy twist” at the end.
As I eventually learned, one of the main focuses of the magazine was on an insistence that current events were leading up to a cataclysmic upheaval in the world… and the “Return of Jesus” to earth to set up a millennial kingdom. And it was the purpose of this magazine to “warn” people of this, and convince them to “act” on the information…by becoming involved with the “shadow creators” of the magazine…an organization called the “Radio Church of God.” (Its name was changed in 1967 to the “Worldwide Church of God”…WCG.) As it turned out, Ambassador College was the institution where “ministers” were trained for the church…essentially their version of a “seminary.”
With no religious background, I’d never heard any of the kind of “prophetic speculation” that was in the magazine. Ever. OR this kind of semi-clandestine organization. The magazine was intended to appear as just “neutral” information provided in the public interest by the College. New readers might be “scared off” by any overt religious pitch. So the emphasis of much of the publication was to mimic dynamic news reporting. And with the chaos of the mid-1960s, this reporting was very impelling! Documentation, dramatic photos, and breathless commentary on the significance of the clashes of the American Civil Rights movement, the build-up of the Viet Nam war…and of militant anti-war protests…natural disasters of massive proportions, chaos of anti-colonial movements in Africa, dramatic cultural shifts in “morality,” and much more filled the pages of the magazine.
To make a long story short, George and I were both incredibly naïve and gullible, swayed by the very dogmatic and very persuasive writing in these magazines, and found ourselves in 1968 joining the WCG and buying into its prognostications and idiosyncratic belief system and practices.
The church’s membership had all been built by response to their media efforts—the Plain Truth magazine and its radio and TV outreach, The World Tomorrow broadcast—which left new believers scattered across the country. Over the years they “planted” centralized congregations for weekly gatherings headed by ministers trained and ordained by the organization to teach and administer their unique brand of religion. But unlike the average “church on the corner” in cities and towns, most members traveled to the meetings over long distances…usually at least an hour or so, sometimes many hours.
When we started, the nearest congregations were in Flint, Michigan, about an hour east from our home in the Lansing area, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, about an hour west. Involvement in church activities quickly became immersive—in spite of the distances people had to travel, they gathered on Saturdays for church services that lasted 2 hours, on Wednesday evenings for 90 minute Bible Study classes, and the men came together again multiple times a month for “Spokesman Club,” a men’s public speaking club modeled after Toastmasters. Additional Church “socials” including dances, and sports games for youth, were held once a month or so, and anyone involved in the church choir would also have to make the trek once a week to choir practices.
As you might guess, this left very little time for any “social life” outside the organization. Besides, having “close friendships” with people who were not involved in the WCG was not “forbidden,” but frowned upon, as such influences might interfere with the strength of the member’s adherence to the Church’s elaborate belief system—that included such positions as rejecting most aspects of modern medicine, refusing to celebrate birthdays and many holidays, not voting in national elections, and much more. And thus with the increasingly idiosyncratic customs and beliefs newbies found themselves adopting, most “outside” friendships dropped by the wayside. As did the friendships of their children. Our daughter, born in 1970, was homeschooled, so eventually her own circle of friends—outside of two next-door neighbor girls—was totally within the WCG congregation. As was ours.
The leadership of the WCG organization was strictly from the “top down,” starting with the founder, Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA).
He had started his personal ministry by broadcasting his first radio program in 1934, followed almost immediately by publication of the first Plain Truth magazine. For the first decade, it was mostly a “one-man show,” with the broadcasting and publishing supported primarily by donations from listeners and readers. By the late 1940s he had started the fledgling Ambassador College, and began training young men there to be sent out to “plant” church congregations across the land.
By the mid-1950s, he had begun grooming his son Garner Ted Armstrong (GTA) to take over the broadcasting outreach and join him in leadership of the growing organization.
GTA was ultimately considered the “heir apparent” to his father Herbert Armstrong’s role as “Pastor General” of the Church when HWA died.
Records show that in 1969, the year after we became formally involved, the booming outreach of the WCG looked like this:
- The Plain Truth passed the 2,000,000 mark in circulation. [It had been only about 50,000 in 1951.]
- The World Tomorrow had begun on television, in full color.
- The Church had 125,000 “co-workers,” [financial supporters] 200 church congregations, 56 “outlying Bible studies.”
- Enrollment in Ambassador College was at 1400, on three campuses. [AC had begun in Pasadena, California, in 1947 with four students, 8 instructors. By 1969 campuses were also up and running in Big Sandy, Texas, and Bricket Wood, England.]
- Annual conventions for the church’s 8-day “Feast of Tabernacles” celebration were held at 22 sites in 12 countries; attendance was 54,000 in US and Canada, 9,000 abroad.
- The daily “Radio Log” and weekly “TV Log” sections of the December 1969 issue of the Plain Truth magazine includes listings for the daily half-hour World Tomorrow broadcast on the following:
- 42 major regional U.S. radio stations heard over wide areas of the country (included such 50,000 watt stations as WRVA Richmond, WCKY Cincinnati, KXEL Waterloo, and WOAI San Antonio )
- 182 local US radio stations
- 42 Canadian radio stations, including four in the French language and two in Italian
- 4 European radio stations, including MANX radio in English and three Spanish language stations
- 1 radio station in Okinawa, one in Guam
- 21 radio stations in the Caribbean and Latin America, including 17 in English and 4 in French
- 17 US television stations
- 21 Canadian television stations
As you can see, this was not just some tiny little nondescript “sect” hidden off in a corner of the land. (By the 1980s, the organization was said to be purchasing more broadcasting time around the world than any other religious group.) And as you might imagine, this gave the members a notion, fed constantly by HWA and his associates in the church leadership, that they were part of a powerful “Work” that was going to “shake the world” with its message, announcing the “soon coming King,” Jesus. In fact, by their definition, it was… “The Only True Church” on earth.
You might say that it was claiming to fulfill a Messianic role—reaching out with “the only answers” to world problems. Of course they pointed to the biblical Jesus as the “individual” Messiah—“chosen, anointed savior”—who saved individuals spiritually from their sins, and was going to physically save the world and the people in it from destruction when He came back. But the bottom line was that the only “tool” He was using within the world to teach people what they needed to do to receive these benefits—was the Worldwide Church of God and its leadership.
For ten long years we were intimately involved with this organization, devoting huge amounts of time and energy and dedication…and significant amounts money…to that involvement. In most church denominations, money is typically donated to the church by “passing the plate” each week at church services. The money collected is then used to pay a salary and expenses for the pastor of the church, perhaps pay the mortgage on the church building, pay for charitable outreaches of the congregation such as food pantries or soup kitchens, and more.
This was not how it was in the WCG. No plates were passed at weekly church services. Instead, each member family was expected to send via US mail, directly to the Pasadena “headquarters,” a full tithe—10 percent—of their income (NOT “after taxes,” take-home pay…10 percent of their gross income.) Not paying this full tithe was considered “stealing from God.” In addition, seven times a year there were church services for special Holy Days where the plate was passed. You were expected to give generous “special offerings” at these events that were in proportion to how you felt God had blessed you during the year. The money collected locally at these events was also sent directly to the church headquarters.
Local church congregations did not have their own buildings to meet in. All such groups met in rented facilities in such venues as Moose Lodges, Masonic Temples, Labor Union Halls, or motel/hotel conference rooms. The salary, housing allowance, lease car, and other perks for the pastors of these congregations were paid directly by the central headquarters, as was the rental on the meeting halls. This created a situation in which the pastor was totally unattached to the congregation he was serving, with all his loyalty directed to the church headquarters…and the Pastor General of the Church, Herbert Armstrong.
The expenses of the ministry and meeting halls for the members was a minor part of the WCG’s budget. The major part went to pay for Armstrong’s media outreach, including publishing the magazines and other literature and paying to produce and broadcast the radio and TV programs—and, we eventually learned to our shock, for an incredibly lavish lifestyle for Armstrong and his top associates in the organization. Million dollar mansions and such.
Yes, we were naïve for many years about what was “going on” at the church headquarters, and just threw ourselves into financially supporting “The Work” (as Armstrong labeled his media outreach) and keeping busy with activities in our local congregation.
But in early 1978, it all came crumbling down around us. We discovered, to our horror, that behind the façade of piety and unified purpose of the organization was a cess-pool of greed, financial and moral corruption, in-fighting, jockeying for position, and giant clashing egos among the top leadership. The first real hint of this came when Herbert Armstrong abruptly removed his son Garner Ted Armstrong from all positions of responsibility in the church, and within a matter of weeks totally “disfellowshipped” (excommunicated) him. With no real explanation to the membership regarding what had led up to this drastic situation.
Although shocked, most members, as they had been taught to do for years, meekly accepted this new order of things. One of the key “doctrines” of the church had been that the “biblical” form of “church government” was a totally top-down dictatorship, as seen in this organizational chart from a church publication in 1981 .
The decisions from the top were to be unquestioned…and supported and obeyed by all loyal members. Flouting this system was grounds for disfellowshipment, and THAT was viewed as being a ticket to the loss of eternal salvation.
If a member…including a person in leadership such as Garner Ted Armstrong…was disfellowshipped, they were to be totally shunned from that point on by all loyal members. Contact with disfellowshipped former member was itself grounds for disfellowshipment of the person foolish enough to engage in such contact.
This is, of course, one of the “classic” characteristics of abusive religious cults. Those who have been cast out are viewed as “contagious” because they have the potential to “infect” current members with the questions or complaints they had exhibited which had caused their own expulsion. Questions and complaints which may have indeed been valid and damning to the leadership, for which the leadership had no credible excuse or answer.
Most members accepted the new order. But I did not. I was filled with questions and concerns, and wanted answers. I was aware that any attempt to confess my doubts to a WCG minister, or discuss my concerns and questions among church friends, would be tempting retribution.
Members were admonished to NOT discuss the current situation among themselves. And were encouraged to “report to their minister” if any fellow members attempted to do so. (Yes, looking back, the term “Gestapo” is quite apt.) And they were ordered to ignore what public news sources had to say about what was happening in the Church. The media was accused of being likely to unfairly “smear” the Church, and promote just “unsubstantiated rumors” and outright lies. For the media, as part of the Outside World was a tool of Satan, in his attempt to “stop the Great Work of God.” The only information available to loyal members was that published by the church itself, such as this church newspaper that came out the same week we were disfellowshipped in January 1979.
They were right to fear revelations by the media…much of the evidence being exposed was incredibly damning.
Fortunately, although early on I had been totally naïve and gullible, and over the years had given in to a certain level of “brainwashing” as part of the group, in the few years leading up to 1978 I had been working my way free of it a little bit at a time. Although still emotionally attached to the environment because that was where all of my friends were, I had quietly abandoned accepting a lot of the quirkier beliefs and practices, and had embraced “thinking for myself”…but keeping that to myself.
So when most of those around me just turned a blind eye I did the unthinkable…I began doing my own research. Although most folks in the general public in 2016 have never heard of the Worldwide Church of God (its founder died in 1986 and the organization eventually fell apart into hundreds of little pieces), in 1978 its influence was great enough to be newsworthy on a national level when uproar among its leadership became a matter of public record. And when some of the associated financial corruption became a matter of governmental investigation, some of the issues went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
So even though I had no Internet, and no Google, to use at the time, I was able to use “old school” methods to gather information. I subscribed to the daily Pasadena Star News newspaper (where the WCG’s headquarters were located) by mail, and began saving clippings from it that covered the WCG situation.
I went to the Michigan State University library once a week and looked at the daily editions of the Los Angeles Times newspaper for that week, searching for related articles—Pasadena is right next to L.A., and as a much bigger paper than the Star News, its reporters were able to do some extensive investigative reporting on the WCG’s internal battles and its battles with the government. Since the situation eventually became “nationally news-worthy,” I also checked other major newspapers such as the New York Times and Miami Herald. While at the library, I would then use the coin-operated copy machines of that era to photo-copy any articles I found. I would then take the photocopies home, clip them out, and eventually tape them into montages that started filling up page after page of 8.5 X 11 paper.
And ultimately…I began taking those to a local Kinko’s to make multiple copies, with plans to eventually spread them far and wide via the US mail.
I also had a friend who lived in Pasadena at that time. He was willing to use his little tape cassette recorder and record any Pasadena and LA area TV or radio news reports about the WCG goings-on. Once a week I would call him, and he’d play that week’s collection for me over the phone.
Although early on I was careful to do nothing to call attention to myself and my concerns, by the end of the year the Gestapo caught up with me, and the first week of 1979, the local minister got behind the pulpit at our local congregation and publicly disfellowshipped us, ordering all to shun us from then on. (We were not there that day, but a friend dared to send us a tape recording of the announcement.)
After that I pulled out all stops. I began sending around those clipping montages to friends and acquaintances all across the country. I’m sure many of them tossed the envelope as soon as they saw my name on the return address, but I’m also sure many discreetly opened it up and peeked at the information…and stashed it in a safe place for future reference.
And now that I have shared with readers the “backstory,” let me introduce you to Bro James.
I was not the only person in the WCG who had the guts to challenge the system. By the fall of 1979, thousands of people had been disfellowshipped from the WCG for having doubts about the leadership and sharing them with others. They were scattered across the country. About 1000 of them, including George and I, chose to cluster around the new efforts of Garner Ted Armstrong, who, after being expelled from the WCG, started his own independent radio broadcast, and formed a small church organization called the “Church of God, International.” (CGI)
In his most recent years in the WCG, GTA had been part of spear-heading efforts to make quite a bit of change in the more idiosyncratic doctrines and practices in the church, including those regarding medical care, and to “loosen up” (or maybe a better term would be “lighten up”) the very dictatorial and intrusive type of “pastoral care” that characterized the WCG. Many members really appreciated this, and looked to his efforts as a “breath of fresh air” and as giving hope for a less oppressive future.
All these hopes came crashing down when he was expelled, so it is not unusual that quite a few WCG ex-patriots were attracted to his new independent efforts. Especially when he began sending out weekly tapes of the sermons he was giving at his new headquarters in Tyler, Texas. He very quickly rolled out a “new order” of the way things would be done in the new organization, all of it sounding very promising to the weary exiles.
In September 1979, the CGI hosted a convention for hundreds of these exiles for the 8-day celebration of the church’s Feast of Tabernacles in Jekyll Island, GA. Among the exiles were George and I and a few of our friends. And Bro James, a featured singer and speaker at the event.
A gifted, semi-professional African-American singer with a deep bass voice (his Old Man River rendition could give you chills) , his first significant contribution to my future was a solo performance, a capella, of a gospel music song. Many in the audience were just barely recovering from two years of feeling rejected, lost, and alone. To most it likely felt that they had invested some of the “best years of their life” in zeal for a Great Cause that they thought was from God. Instead, it had turned out that they had been on a mission to nowhere. Oh, most likely still believed in a personal connection to Jesus Christ as their savior, and were confident of their ultimate destination out in eternity, in the “afterlife.” But in terms of being part of something “bigger than themselves” on earth in the present, it was easy to wonder if God was really involved in their experience of “this life.” That pretty much describes how I was feeling myself.
So when Bro James broke into a beautiful rendition of a “spiritual journey song,” it sunk to the core of my being. I never thought to ask him in later times if he chose that song to match the circumstances, or if it just happened to be one he liked to sing. But it definitely was “custom made” for the situation! All these years later I’ve not been sure what the title of the song was, nor could I remember any of the tune. What sank in was the main thought expressed, speaking in “God’s voice,” that said, “I didn’t bring you this far to let you down now.”
That day, it brought me to tears. And in later years, when I periodically experienced more disappointments and disillusionments and more feelings of abandonment and aloneness, those words would come back to mind, and bring me to tears again. I’d speak it quietly to myself as reassurance, or use it to gently remind my husband or daughter of its truth one more time.
For some reason, I’ve never thought until now to try to look up the song via Google. But as I started writing this piece, it dawned on me that I could. I entered the words, as closely as I could remember them, on Google and back came a few choices. That exact wording wasn’t there, but several popular songs came very close to expressing the same idea. The closest seems to be an old hymn that was big on the gospel music charts in 1979, covered by a variety of singers and groups.
It goes by a variety of titles, including “He didn’t bring us this far to leave us” and “He wouldn’t lift you up to let you down.” The words vary from singer to singer, but all are variations on this:
He would not bring you this far just to leave you…
He wouldn’t have made a way if he didn’t care…
He wouldn’t have given his life if he didn’t love you…
He wouldn’t lift you up to let you down.
Or, as another puts it…
He didn’t bring us this far to leave us
He didn’t teach us to swim to let us drown
He didn’t build His home in us to move away
He didn’t lift us up to let us down
Although I’m not positive which exact song spawned the words Bro James’ singing inserted into my heart, or which exact wording he used in singing that day, it was the “thought that counts.” That thought impacted my life for the next 37 years, and still does. If you’re out there somewhere reading my words someday, Bro James, and you thought your efforts that day were just ephemeral…nope. They are still bearing fruit.
So… that’s the first part of the story, the song. In the next entry in this series, I’ll explain what Bro James had to say at that same event that impacted my life.
Click here to read…