Preach It, Bro!

(This is Part Two of a 3-part series of blog entries. Please go back and read Part One, “He Didn’t Bring Us This Far,” if you have not yet done so. It contains the “backstory” of the events described in this entry, which won’t make much sense without it.)

I left off at the end of Part One of this blog series with a vignette about a convention I attended in 1979 where I heard a song, by a man we’ll call Bro James, that spoke deeply to the painful experiences of my life at the time, with a message that continued to sustain me through more rough times for many years after that. At that same convention, that same man gave a sermon with a theme that was to shape much of my life from then on.

Fall 1979 was near the end of a very traumatic year for myself, my husband, and our eight year old daughter. My husband and I had been dedicated, active members of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), a small church denomination…one with a very large media presence in America and around the world…for a decade. We’d poured our time, energy, and large doses of money into our involvement, and our whole circle of friends were within the confines of the organization. As were those of our daughter… as a home-schooled child, “The Church” had been the center of her social life since birth.

Traumatic events tore at the fabric of the denomination in early 1978, disrupting the whole “order of things” in the organization from the top down when the founder, Herbert W Armstrong (HWA), had removed his son Garner Ted Armstrong (GTA) from all positions of responsibility and authority in the Church.   The younger Armstrong had, up until then, been assumed to be the “heir apparent” to HWA’s role as Pastor General at the top of the organization. By late Spring 1978 HWA had officially “disfellowshipped” (excommunicated) his son, with all Church members ordered to have no communication of any kind with him, on pain of being disfellowshipped themselves.

Most members obeyed the edict, but I was desperate to know what on earth was going on behind the scenes to cause this chaos. So I embarked on a research project to find out. What I found was a hidden world at the church’s headquarters, out of sight of the average Church member, that was rife with financial and moral corruption, greed, double-dealing, and much more. My attempts to share my findings and concerns with others eventually led to my family being cast out of the organization. In the ensuing turmoil my husband and I were cut off from nearly all our friends of a decade, and our daughter, at age 8, was cut off from nearly all of hers.

We eventually came in contact with GTA again, who had gone off and started his own independent ministry that he called “The Church of God, International” (CGI). He was back on the radio with his own evangelistic program, and was gathering around himself a group of WCG exiles, hoping to plant small fellowship groups across the country that would support his efforts and provide fellowship among themselves to replace the lost friendships from the WCG experience. We cast our lot in with his efforts, and we became a contact point in our state of Michigan for disaffected WCG members, eventually helping organize a fellowship group/congregation that met weekly in Lansing, Michigan, drawing from people scattered as far away as Toledo, Ohio.

And that’s what brought us to the convention in Jekyll Island, Georgia, in the fall of 1979 that I described in the first entry in this blog series. It was organized and hosted by GTA’s new church organization, and attended by several hundred refugees from the WCG. Like us, most had lost many, or close to all, of their “church friends” in their local areas, as a result of being disfellowshipped by the WCG pastors in their areas. They came to the convention hungry for fellowship and hungry for explanations to make sense of “what had happened” to them.

Into this stepped Bro James, to give a sermon at one of the meetings at that convention. A dynamic and gifted African-American speaker with a flair for rhetoric, his message that day became one I never forgot, and which has affected me right up to today.

He began by describing the events surrounding the arrest and trial and crucifixion of Jesus. He got to the point where Jesus was brought by Pilate before the roaring crowd, of whom he asked, “What should be done with this man?” The answer, according to the scriptures, was that everyone shouted back “Crucify him!” Yet, of course, leading up to this point, some in that crowd had likely heard Jesus preach. Some may well have even seen him perform miracles. Some may even have experienced a healing for themselves or a loved one. Surely someone in that crowd could have… should have…spoken up with a word of defense for Jesus. But no one did. Why not? Well, of course, in the face of a screaming crowd like that, it would have been dangerous to go against the consensus. It could get YOU killed, even. But Bro James solemnly said that in such an instance, “Somebody ought to say something.”

Just the night before, after the arrest of Jesus, Peter, one of His closest friends, had been asked by someone, “Weren’t you with the Nazarene?” Peter could have…should have…spoken up to defend Jesus. But he didn’t—he practically shouted “I don’t know him.”

Bro James pointed out that in both of these instances, “Somebody ought to say something.” Somebody ought to be willing to speak the truth into the situation. Somebody ought to be willing to stand up for what is right. “Somebody ought to say something”…no matter the cost.

But no one did.

And by the end of Bro James’ message, he brought the message up to modern times. All of the people in the audience had been witness to some terrible injustices within what they had earnestly believed was the “One True Church.” In fact, most of the people in that church had witnessed these things…but most turned a blind eye, because the “cost” of “saying something” was just too great. Men in positions of leadership and responsibility, “at the top” of the organization, in a position to know what was going on “behind the scenes,” ought to have said something in defense of the truth, in defense of innocent people whose lives were being torn apart by the situations. But most said nothing. The cost was too high.

Oh, I don’t even remember just how clearly Bro James may have spoken of this “modern situation.” He may have spoken primarily metaphorically…but the message was loud and clear to those with ears to hear. It wasn’t just in ancient, biblical times, that believers should have been willing to speak out against evil no matter the cost. The obligation to do so is timeless.

“Somebody ought to say something.”

And many of us had. And paid the price, in lost friendships and fellowship and more. Bro James’ message reassured us that we had made the right choice.

I kind of doubt Bro James actually thought his message would endure in the minds of listeners much beyond a few weeks after the convention. After all, people in church denominations typically hear a different sermon every week, often for many decades of their lives. It is understandable that most of these messages would eventually just blend into a blur over the years. Yes, Bro James’ message was no doubt primarily crafted by him to “meet the needs of the occasion.” And indeed, I don’t doubt that it did meet the needs of many at the time. But it would be unfair to expect most in attendance to remember it permanently.

So Bro James, if you are out there somewhere, you may be surprised to learn that at least one person who was there that day never forgot it! The title became my personal mantra for the rest of my life. “Somebody ought to say something.” No matter the cost.

It guided my steps almost a decade later, in 1988, when my husband and I finally became disillusioned with our involvement with the Church of God, International. Oh, things had started out great when we first got on board. Garner Ted Armstrong vowed that everything was going to be different in his organization. No dictatorial, top-down “church government.” He would stand shoulder to shoulder with all those associated with him, both ministers and lay people, and we’d go forward as a “team” to preach the gospel and feed the flock that God sent into the care of the Church. No more micro-managing of member’s lives. No more lavish spending on millionaire mansions. It all sounded just great!

And it seemed to work. For a while. My husband was ordained to serve as a pastor in 1980, and for the next seven years we helped build one of the fastest growing little fellowship groups in the organization, in our area. Unlike the WCG, the pastors in the CGI received no salary or housing allowance or perks. They were expected to hold down full-time outside jobs to support their family and pay their own expenses of ministering.  Local fellowship groups received no money from the central church headquarters to pay for meeting expenses. They were expected to take up local collections to pay rental fees for weekly meeting venues and special occasion activities.

It took several years before it dawned on us what was happening. True, there was no more micromanaging of the lives of individual members. And many of the more oppressive and idiosyncratic doctrines of the old WCG were not part of the New Order. But…all tithes of all members were to be sent directly to the church headquarters. All decisions on how they were spent were made by… Garner Ted Armstrong and his closest associates. When some local congregations began accepting some tithes locally, and building up savings accounts with an eye to buying their own church building instead of renting facilities…they were informed in no uncertain terms that they were not authorized to do this.

In spite of the promises of “collegial” relations among those in the ministry of the church, the slightest hint that some ministers wanted to organize a ministerial council to give input to the headquarters (as they had some serious concerns about how some issues were being handled) was met with great hostility. By the time we attended a national ministerial gathering in summer 1987 at the church’s headquarters, it was obvious something was drastically wrong. GTA got up and ranted at the whole assembled group of ministers that he had heard that some ministers were not sending the tithes from their “day jobs” to headquarters, but were keeping them for themselves…to pay for their own expenses, such as gas and car maintenance, to do their local ministry. This was “stealing from God!” he railed bombastically. We were dumbfounded.

By fall, we learned that a small group of ministers were still trying to organize a council of some sort in one region of the country. One of their leaders received a phone call from GTA, during which GTA screamed at him over the phone, in a voice loud enough that the man’s wife heard it clear across the room, “This is MY church. I AM YOUR TEACHER!” Within weeks, that minister and several others had been “de-frocked.”

Unfortunately, all of this was happening “behind the scenes,” with the average local member being blissfully unaware of what was going on.

A short time later, George and I came to a conclusion. We had invested another decade of our lives in involvement in a group that we had felt had a virtually “Messianic” role to play in the world. A role of pointing people to the answers to all their problems and the problems of the world, answers which were in the Bible. But in the end, we discovered that our efforts were ending up pointing people to a fallible man and his delusions of grandeur that he was God’s Special Mouthpiece on earth. In the end, Garner Ted Armstrong proved to be a clone of his father.

We also came to see that no matter how much time and love and fellowship and service we had invested over a decade in the people in our local congregation, George’s credibility in his role as a pastor wasn’t based on relationships we had built and sacrificial service we had rendered. It was based on the whims of one man, who could instantly remove George’s “ministerial credentials” and send him on his way with no recourse.

It was time to Say Something. I began privately sharing my concerns with people in our congregation and friends across the country by phone and mail, including some of the people at the church’s headquarters. I knew deep down inside that most would turn a deaf ear to what I was attempting to communicate, but it didn’t make any difference. It was truth, and needed to be said. No matter the cost.

The cost was that within a matter of months we were out of the organization and lost almost all our friends again. And our daughter, at age 17 and still homeschooled, lost almost all of hers again, too. This organization didn’t have a policy of official disfellowshipping, nor any order to shun those who left. No…here, the people themselves made the decision to do so. For after all, we were no longer loyal to the person whose media efforts made them feel part of something special and bigger than themselves.

Bro James never knew it, but his words in 1979 had given me the courage to face deep personal losses one more time, and realize that “Somebody ought to say something”… and in this case, it had to be me. No matter the cost.

Bro James, if you are out there somewhere, Thank You for giving me the words that gave me that courage. It hurt at the time, but the eventual fruit over the years has proven it was the right thing to do. No matter the cost.

But the story of Bro James’ influence is not complete yet. It is now 2016, almost 40 years after that sermon that impacted me so much. Yet the mantra is still operating in my life. On a much bigger scale now.

I’ll share that story in the final entry in this series:

Somebody MUST Say Something

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