A while back I was sharing some memories from my childhood with a friend, and while I was talking I started to see that memory with a whole new adult perspective. I realized that there’s no logical reason for what we were doing until now. Let me explain.
I remember when I was somewhere between maybe 9 and 12 (most of those years blur together for me) my parents making me and the other kids of the group hold up hand painted car wash signs in a Wal•Mart parking lot. They wanted us to hold the signs and scream as loud as we could, “CAR WASH!!” to try and get people over so the adults in the group could wash their cars, obviously. This seems like a completely normal and not at all disturbing memory, right? Well, I left something out. What I haven’t told you is that it was snowing outside and we were in these huge puff jackets with little crocheted hats and scarves. It was winter time.
Why in the world were we trying to wash people’s cars in the dead of winter? I never thought to question it before, but now I can’t help but wonder. I remember a lot of times when the adults would be counting the love offering money after a service or revival and commenting on how little it was. I got the feeling we barely made enough for the deisel to fuel the bus, nevermind food and other necessities. Some churches we would go to would give us great offerings and buy a lot of CD’s and t-shirts. Then some wouldn’t even do a love offering at all! That basically meant we were ministering for free. From what I can remember, we didn’t charge churches to come and sing, we just hoped they’d do a good love offering. We basically only got paid when people were invested enough in our performance.
That’s where evangelists and ministers are super comfortable. It’s like a huge guilt trip on the congregation. They’ll start off the service happy and singing, then introductions of the band. A couple of different adults would do the intros each service (I’ve heard the band introduced literally thousands of times) and there was always a quick funny story to tell about each member. There was the one time the lead singer painted the harmonica player’s toes when he was sleeping on the bus and when he woke up too late to take it off before the service that night he told her, “You better hope we aren’t having a foot washing service because if we do we’re all getting thrown out!” Yay for anti-gay jokes… They even teased my mom about how her perm would gradually go from poodle to Mufasa throughout the week if we weren’t able to get showers regularly, which was usually the case.
They would have all of us kids on the front pew stand up and wave to everyone as they called on us. Sometimes we’d even get on stage and sing a quick song, then run straight back to the front pew like well behaved children. We weren’t allowed to lay down and sleep during the entire service (which could last 3-4 hours) even though sometimes we were up sometimes at 5am and in bed past midnight. But we had to look good for the congregation, so no sleeping or drawing or reading during service. And if we got out of line, both moms on stage had looks that could kill.
After they’d put names to faces they would sing again for another hour or two, stopping every few songs to give testimony or talk about the trials that gave birth to the song they were singing next. They were basically trying to be really relatable and pull different people in before we’d let loose in the alter call. Talk about masters of emotional manipulation, I’m telling you.
I haven’t asked the other kids about this specifically, but I’ll get back to you when I do. For me, I always could tell when the tone of the service switched. The songs became much more longing and melancholy. Depending on the temperature of the crowd, they might start driving up the atmosphere by stopping to tell another testimony of weakness, defeat, and then triumph. The music never stopped, though. It played behind them and grew in power and volume as the congregation ate it up.
Eventually someone would start speaking in tongues. Once the first one started, the entire church would be filled, and I mean FILLED, with various screaming babbles of people desperately trying to connect to god or disconnect from their emotional or literal demons. Thinking back on it now, I know I was feeling a lot of anxiety. People were screaming in a fake language, rocking back and forth with each other, some people were falling out and looked like they were having seizures, and we were still expected to sit quietly on the front pew. I’ve seen legs “grow” two inches to match the length of the other, mental illnesses “disappear”, people “overcome” their drug addictions in an instant, and literal “demons cast out” of people. I’m telling you, it got wild sometimes.
Once we had about an hour of white people acting like literal wild animals, the pastor would come up to the stage and start settling everyone down. He would always thank god for opening up the floodgates of heaven and raining down on us with his mercy and blah blah blah. That’s when we would take up the love offering. Right when everyone was good and emotionally high. The people in the congregation are feeling so alive and open to god’s will that they’d want to open up their pocketbooks and give us all their cash and even write checks for money they don’t need to be spending. They think they just experienced a miracle, but really it’s just a very easily manufactured hysteria. I should know, I saw it done literally thousands of times. That’s what bugs me about the whole thing. It seems like such an disingenuous experience when it’s repeated week after week for many years.
When we went through a “dead” church (a congregation that’s not “emotionally open to receiving god’s touch”) we usually didn’t get more than a few hundred dollars. For 6 adults and 5 kids, plus a diesel bus….now I see why sometimes we had to do car washes in the winter. I know we weren’t con artists because we truly did believe what we were selling, but it doesn’t make me feel any less weird about it.
What would you like to read about next week? Please comment below so I can get a sense of direction beyond my random musings.