(Editor’s note: We have on Gavin’s blog heard the testimony of Sienspirit, a young woman in her mid-20’s discuss her time being in the Worldwide Church of God (historic, orthodox and evangelical periods) and discusses the ripple effect of the church’s destuctive policy on medical care which hit directly at home with her. Though members from the splinters came out from the woodwork (let’s say) to spew their venom by suggesting that her testimony was exaggerated at best and fabricated at worst or that she was another second generation whiner who could not take any responsibility for her life and the most childish and infantile suggestion that Sienspirit was not the most attractive of appearences (I actually liked her hair done in the third segment of the video and I really do think she has an Alyson Hannigan—American Pie fame, thing going on but that’s just my humble but complementary opinion), I thank God she had her defenders and I will proudly add my name to the list. Until Anderson Cooper gives people like her some prime time, Youtube and other internet media will be the route. I have also said some time ago have desired to hear some more stories of relating to an African American (or Canadian or Carribean) experience in Armstrongism. Well I didn’t need to look to far. My brother’s friend in Y.O.U. days has a story and it is a unique story. This brotha was an independent thinker from the get-go and trust me this guy has proven that there IS life after the WCG and more abundantly. I hope all will enjoy this different kind of perspective.)
The Worldwide Church of God and Me—In Retrospect
The year was 1973. That was the year I was born. That would make me ‘Born into the Worldwide Church of God.’ On the surface level, it seemed to be a wonderful blessing. My forced affiliation and traditions with the Worldwide Church of God will be remembered as a roller coaster ride. I grew up in a conservative city. My family emigrated from a small, beautiful island in the Caribbean. My father discovered Herbert W. Armstrong on a radio station. My father was hooked on his word. My family soon after began to attend services. My family was the only black family in the local ‘church’ congregation. As you will see later on, the only black family in the church became an issue. I do not recall much about the first 5 years of my life, except for consumption of Pabulum, soiling my diapers and being in the mother’s room at ‘church’. Upon entering kindergarten, I interacted with the other children quite well, oblivious to the ‘church’. From early pictures of me, I was the “adorable black child.”
At the age of seven, my parents signed me up for little league baseball. Like most children I grew up with, I had an appreciation for sports. Little league baseball meant that every child played, regardless of ability and the teams were sponsored by local businesses. My father and mother took a little pride seeing me play. From what people say, I could hit the ball, run fast and play infield really well. The team I was on did well, advanced to the championship game. One problem for me, this game was on Saturday afternoon, coinciding with the strict observance of the Sabbath day. The Sabbath day was observed from sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night. I kept the Sabbath by sleeping and being forced to watch “the World Tomorrow” telecast. My mom was super busy preparing meals, getting our church clothes ready before sundown because it was forbidden to iron clothes on Saturday morning or prepare meals on Saturday. If that was true, how come the ladies who cooked up pot luck meals had their crock pots cooking during the sermon? The coached begged my parents to let me play. Naturally, I wanted to play. My father said no. My team lost the championship game and I felt bad since to this day, many parents said, “If I was there, team would have won.”
In the neighbourhood I grew up in, it was common knowledge that I did not go out Friday nights, ate pork hotdogs, and did not observed Christmas, any birthdays, Halloween (even the kids dared not to go my house. My overzealous parents chided at the ‘worldly’ kids). Instead I celebrated Days of Unleavened Bread (that was fun, seeing my parents scour the house as if the CIA was coming to do inspection), Pentecost, other holy days and the world renowned Feast of Tabernacles (OK, so the Feast wasn’t that bad as a youth…until my high school years came along where I spent most of the free time at the Feast doing the homework that I needed to do to keep my grades up so that I can get into university/college.). During this portion of my life, I was popular with the other children at school, received a lot of ‘compassion’ Halloween candy since they did not understand why I was not allowed to trick or treat.
On the family side, things began to sour. My father got fired from his good paying career because he refused to work a Friday night shift that he was scheduled to work. Then he tried to call the church lawyer using the “religious freedom” card. The lawyer in our church stated that he can’t help him and hung up the phone rudely. In my opinion, losing a career in the manner my father did was irresponsible. As I look around me at church, the YOU group my brother was in were nice kids outside of church, but in church a collection of disinterested teens that did not care about church. I was in YES. I dutifully completed the bible lessons and I got my YES certificate from the minister—a stiff as a cardboard Englishman. I admit his daughter was cool to me because she was coming to church with yellow hair and openly criticizing the church current doctrines. I recall when word got out that she was pregnant, the self-righteousness of many people felt it was their right to openly criticize her. Using names like “whore”, members (particularly the single men) started to quote this line about “be you not unequally yoked”. That service was just bizarre. I felt sorry for her. I saw in tears outside the meeting hall (a very old public school in another end of town) I said to her, I do not condone in this behaviour”. I then decided it was time for me to “go on strike with the WWCG”.
My biggest complaint with the ‘church’ was the policy on interracial dancing. My brother and I were not allowed to go because of this reason and I quote “The Worldwide Church of God view is that interracial dancing can ignite sexual arousal in black men so we don’t allow black men to dance with someone outside their race.” The minster went on to say that it was OK to call a black person “nigger”. The two statements are the most ignorant, short-sighted, ridiculous statements I have ever sat through in my life. This was said in the middle of church! Recall that my family was the only black family in the congregation. I threw a temper tantrum like former tennis star John McEnroe in his prime at church and to this day, I am very proud of myself for speaking out in the middle of church! I got some lashes from my father for it when I got home, but I felt strongly that what the minister said was racist. It became the ‘hot-topic’ in the church district I resided in. The minister tried to “smooth things over” but the mere sight of him entering my parents house would make me want to toss him out in the manner like Philip Banks did to Jazz on the 90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” television show—throw Jazz out of the house!
Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the Worldwide Church of God had died. From what I recall of this man, he was elderly, had this cartoon of him with the locomotive with the caption “Putting the Church back on Track”, his magnifying glass when he read the bible during that satellite transmission service on the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles (I was in Niagara Falls, New York and one year I was in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin) and the phrase “Blow the dust off your bible!”. My grade 8 year was rewarding. I did well academically, led my elementary basketball team to the city championship but I missed out on the end of term trip to Quebec City, Quebec because my father felt it would be better to save money for the Feast and the return date was a Saturday. Instead I sat at school for three days in the library thinking the ways I will get 90 percent in school so I can attend college or university and quit church!
I heard that entering YOU should be a joyous time in a young person’s life. I was versed in YOU at an early because my brother was in the track meets and volleyball tournaments. From what I recall of these events, I thought to myself that I would be better off playing high school sports. As a gift, my Mom thought it would be cool to get a YOU jacket. At first, they looked Ok from the bleacher seats at the Niagara Falls Convention Center. Upon closer look, my reaction was “UGH, who would wear this?” I advised my parents not to buy this jacket as I thought it was corny. My mom bought it for me as a Feast gift. Think of this situation like the Canadian cartoon “The Sweater” (if you have not seen this classic cartoon in which a young boy is devastated that his mother bought a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead of the Montreal Canadians’ jersey) I had similar emotions to getting this YOU jacket. I never wore it much and I asked her why when the money could be used to spend on a decent fall jacket that I could wear to school. At the Feast, the perception got around that I was “arrogant, cocky, bad attitude kid!” That perception was not true. One difficult thing to cope was the “double life” I lived. At school, I was NORMAL. I define normal as a typical teenage guy. I like sports, I liked girls (back then my prerequisites were: must like sports, must like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson music and be a nice girl). I would never date ‘in the church’ because the girls lived too far away (Have you ever had a relationship consisting of sending letters by mail and seeing someone once every six months?). I witnessed the competition to attract the love of a WWCG single woman (or man). Choices were: old men who still live at home with Mom (older women who did not appear to be confident in themselves) and/or the Ambassador College men (or woman) who, for the most part were on their way to a worthless education because Ambassador College was unaccredited (The running joke within the WWCG was that many of the young women went to Ambassador College to “get their MRS. degree”). This did not appeal to me. I dated girls from my high school because I shared some common interest with them and these girls actually liked me!
As the Worldwide Church of God became more delirious, I became a good student and a decent high school athlete. Yes, there was the odd time I could not play on a Friday night basketball game or go to an out of town tournament but I felt that the coaches were very understanding and I was grateful for that. I had friends at school that I still consider today a friend. On the other hand, at church the unjust perception of me “that black kid with an attitude problem” was there. I did not smoke, drink or act like an ass at church. To quote a line from Public Enemy rap song “Don’t Believe the Hype”: “Some say I’m a negative but I am a positive, not many understand. The media says this”. In this case, the media is the self-righteous members of the WWCG.
By this time, my brother is attending university and doing well academically. He and I kept in touch. He came out to watch me destroy the YOU competition at the track weekend. Yet, I had this angst about church issues. I felt this way because I had this sense that the WWCG is so bizarre. I have seen my parents struggle to make ends meet, courtesy of the tithing guidelines (how it worked was as follows 10% goes to headquarters, 10% was reserved for holy days and every third year, 3rd tithe.) I saw many examples of hypocrisy and disrespectful behaviour/attitude toward my family. I tried hard to put the ‘church’ out of my mind and not let people deter me from what I want to do with my life. I was about 16-17 years old. My local congregation got a new minister, this short, happy smiling guy on the surface. Away from church, his wife was having sexual affairs with other men in our sister congregation. The seemingly popular “in crowd” at church I describe as their definition “cool” in the church, nobodies in everyday life. As for me, I compare myself to the line in the song “Piece of my Heart” by Tara Kemp. “A brother like me kept on smoking.”
The church Summer Educational Program was the selling point and it was heavily advertised due in part to the new location in Shawinigan Lake, British Columbia, Canada. My parents were keen to send me to this camp. I was indifferent to attend this because I heard some wild stories about mental abuse, unqualified staff and something about teens committing suicide when they finished the SEP program. I was not thrilled about going because I was working, saving money for more important things like college/university tuition and my high school co-op placement as a teller at a major bank had to be completed. I asked several questions about this SEP program. The minister was quick to provide vague answers. I asked him about how many black kids go because I was not prepared to sit out a dance, not participate in dance class due to the church’s insane policy regarding interracial matters. The minister came to my parents’ house to explain how SEP works, how I would be a “leader for the black kids”. I told him I am no role model for anyone. The minister assured me that those rules were done away with, realized they were rules that created sensitivity issues etc. I went to camp, first dance they had, no interracial dancing (not even in dance class!) I remember the camp director. I never liked this man because in a YOU track meet earlier this summer, he made comments about black people that I felt were insensitive. I sat alone by the lake. One of the girls’ counsellors found me and asked why I was not dancing. I told her why. She was SHOCKED to find out the rule existed.
After camp, I went home, told my folks that the minister is a liar. SEP was something I personally did not benefit from the viewpoint that I was active with high school activities and I had much more fun participating in that. Seeing a different part of the world was great and some of the other campers were OK to get along with. I was put off by the lack of qualified staff, the instruction and the amount of ministers that were just hanging around camp with nothing to do. My last year of high school is here. Usually it is times of anticipation, excitement of apply to different community colleges and universities. I was attending the Feast in Niagara Falls. I keep a Feast journal detailing my adventures at the Feast. I was happy to write in my Feast journal that this is my last Feast and I have enough evidence to conclude that the Worldwide Church of God is a complete farce. My experience dealing with hypocrisy, racism (not just with Caucasian people but other black members of the WWCG were racist towards me due to my refusal to date their daughters and being called a “sell-out”. For those that do not understand a “sell-out” is a black person who “acts white.” By that I mean young black males like myself who do well in school, do well in extra curricular activities and are decent in character. For instance there was one young black woman who thought it was her divine right to go up in my parents face after church one and state this in a nasty attitude that was evident in some black women back then. I quote “You have raised beautiful white children”. I know most who read this may not understand but I will state that was very hurtful towards my mother. My reaction, some CHOICE words for this young woman), church leadership (and I have not even touched on the doctrinal side of the Church in this retrospective look) and the two-faced attitude of most of the members I came into contact with. My last year of YOU, I went through the motions of church. I came because I was told to by my father, dressed very nicely, took notes but when I went home, I did my homework and worked at a retail sporting good outlet (and yes I worked on Friday nights and Saturday because my boss said so!) I chose not to pay tithes because I felt that since no one in the WWCG could provide me with an accounting statement of where is the money going, why should I give my hard earned money to an organization that treats me like second class citizen, and in my view do not respect me as a young black male? I wonder how my parents endured this when I was able to see through the lies, deceit and the racial nonsense of this ‘church’.
I personally have met wonderful people that were affiliated with the WWCG. I know that those people had a positive influence in my youth. Today, I am proud university graduate…working at a career that I enjoy each day. I am healthy, happy and I have many interests that I love to do. Social networking sites like Facebook have allowed me to reconnect with friends from my elementary and secondary school days.