The Devil's Advocate

The Church of God for All Nations, Inc. was diagonally across Walker Street from my warehouse life in Atlanta circa 1986 – right next door to the brand new U-Haul storage facility and a few houses down from the Atlanta Bible School. Popeye’s, just around the corner, shared a parking lot with the Nabisco Bakery Outlet, which filled the whole neighborhood with the sweet, slightly sensuous scent of yeasty dough fermenting and rising when the wind was right, or wrong, depending on your mood, or the time of day. I used to buy dozen-packs of cinnamon rolls marked down to 50¢ – heaven on earth, and no religion needed.

The music banged out loud on Sunday morning, and I could hear the congregation singing with an almost reckless joy in their voices. Hallelujah! Ladies carried handbags and wore white gloves. The men were in dark suits with white shirts and colorful ties. I had heard of Baptists, obviously, and seen them in movies, but had never experienced a service myself, first hand, in the flesh as it were, and at that volume. Hallelujah!

Samuel Doffee formed this particular church in 1981 – for years he had been associated with the Church of God of Prophecy and then The Church of God (Jerusalem Acres). The doctrines of Doffee’s offshoot church were similar to its predecessors, but with more emphasis on theocracy and less on prophecy. It’s mostly an individualist religion: converts must experience for themselves salvation, justification, sanctification and baptism. Divine healing, miracles, and deliverance are also important and almost required. Doffee ruled that roost, like a pious James Brown, a Soul Brother Number Two, if that's even possible or imaginable.

We’re also going to circle back to the “Great Apostasy” that occurred in 325 AD with the Council of Nicaea that I mentioned in my last blog post – Doffee’s long line of ancestral churches was a aghast at that betrayal – and they were only restored to the fold in 1903 by a certain Bishop Ambrose Tomlinson, for reasons I’m not exactly sure of.

While doing some further research, I found out that The Church of God for All Nations, Inc. is not technically Baptist but is Pentecostal. What’s the difference? Baptists believe, essentially, that baptism can only be performed on adults who are true converts, and that total immersion is required. This is known as credobaptism. The Pentecostal denomination is named after the Jewish festival of the feast of Pentecost, which occurred fifty days after Christ ascended into heaven, hence the name.

Pentecosts are waiting for the resurrection, and they believe that because of their prayers the Holy Spirit comes down and speaks to them in tongues. They emphasize the supernatural elements of the Bible, and believe that disciples have direct access to God, whereas the Baptists believe that access to God is restricted to religious authorities. There are Independent Pentecostal Churches in America, founded by pastors who at some point in their lives were called on by God to create a church, which is exactly what Doffee did.

United Baptist Church on Spring Street in Newport is the second oldest Baptist church in the United States – founded in 1638 by John Clarke (1609 – 1676), a physician, minister, statesman and religious liberty advocate. He and his wife came from England in 1637 and eventually settled in Newport, where he founded this church. Because of an arrest in Massachusetts for “leading an unlawful worship service” at a sick parishioner’s bedside, Clarke sailed to England and secured the Royal Charter of 1663 from King Charles II, which guaranteed religious liberty in the colonies.

What does “religious liberty” mean to UBC? According to their website: “Each week at our service, thanks to the effort of Clarke hundreds of years ago, we read the Bible publicly, we preach from the Bible, we sing songs that proclaim the truths of the Bible, and we pray in response to God’s promises to us in the Bible.”

Pastor David Dewberry’s sermon was “Who is the Lord?” – he read aloud Exodus 5:7 which, if you’ll remember, was the story of Pharoah and Moses trying to free the Israelites and then them having to make bricks without straw. “Let my people go” said the Lord, and Pharoah asked “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? Pastor Dewberry explained that Pharoah didn’t know the Lord, and if he knew him he wouldn’t have had to ask what his purpose or reasons were. Same with all of us – if we know the Lord, we don’t have to question him because the answers are obvious. 

Goy, oh, goy.

Growing up I thought Jews were only in the Holocaust and history books – I never knew they existed in real life because I never saw one. I had no idea what they looked like, and didn’t know anyone who knew any either. I didn’t meet my first Jew until I went to college, and it was weird to find out that they were normal people, except they all drove Saab Turbo 900s with automatic transmissions. Kidding! I couldn’t and can't understand why they inspired so much hatred and how Hitler and his minions could’ve murdered millions and millions of them. I still can’t fathom the bottom of that crime against humanity. 

By now I have a lot Jewish friends and have been to many bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, brit milahs, and funerals over the years. I even went to an Orthodox Jewish wedding once in Queens of all places, where the men and women sat and danced separately. The bride and groom went into a yichud right after the ceremony (my friend says it's called the ficken-zimmer or something like that in Hebrew – use your imagination) and came into the reception holding up a bloody sheet to show that the marriage had been consummated. No lie.

As part of my Year of Sundays challenge, I wanted to attend the service at Touro Synagogue this past Saturday morning, since the Jews don’t celebrate on Sunday. I went at 8:30, which was the time posted on the website, and when I got there the outer gate was locked. I saw a sign posted outside that said the service was at 8:45. I thought it was odd that the gate was locked, since the service would be starting in fifteen minutes. But as I was leaving a man in a bowtie came up to the gate and unlocked it. He said I could come back at 8:45 when it would be open. I said I would.

I went back at 8:45 and entered the synagogue. It’s a minor neo-Palladian masterpiece designed by self-taught architect Peter Harrison, a British-American merchant and sea captain, and built in 1763. The small but growing Jewish community of Newport had been arriving since the mid-1600s, especially from Barbados, where a settlement had existed since the 1620s, comprised mostly of Spanish and Portuguese migrants.

When I walked in the man in the bowtie was the rabbi, now dressed in his rabbi gear, and he  greeted me. The kind of comical quality of the re-costuming put me in mind of the guy guarding the door to  Emerald City turning out to be the Wizard of Oz himself. He was standing in a raised dais box about twelve feet square, right in the middle of the room – it was enclosed on all four sides, kind of like the booths in the Episcopal church, but bigger.

He asked me something in Hebrew, or Yiddish, I’m not sure which, and when I looked at him quizzically he asked in English if I was Jewish. I said no, but I’d like to attend the service anyway – where should I sit? He said I could sit to the right, and I asked him which way he was going to be facing. He said the front. I sat down. He asked me if I wanted a prayer book. I said sure, and he showed me where to get them – they were stored on shelves behind the “bima” which I found out later is the name of the boxing ring-like structure. I got the two prayer books, both in Hebrew and English, and sat back down.

It was almost 9 o’clock by now and I was still the only one in the place. I chuckled to myself thinking that the Greeks weren't punctual. A few minutes later another man came in and he and the rabbi spoke for a minute or two and then the rabbi came over to me and said that I had to put on a “tallit”, a prayer shawl. I said that I had been to many Jewish weddings and services and that yarmulkes and tallits were always optional for gentiles. He said I had to put one on. I said, no thank you, I’ll just leave then. He didn’t say anything, so I left.

I would have thought that he wanted to make everyone feel welcome in his temple, Jew and non-Jew alike, and would have done everything he could to be accepting and accommodating. I guess not. You might be wondering why I didn't just put on the shawl. After all, his house of worship, his rules. True enough. But when it comes to me and religion, I have three rules that I’ve lived by all these years and I feel are fair enough. Even if they aren’t, they’re mine and I stick to them.

One, I don’t wear anything religious, and this includes the aforementioned tallit, or a yarmulke, a muslim taqiya, kufi, or tarboosh. I’m attending as a guest, a civilian – I’ll respect your customs and traditions, but I won’t compromise my integrity to try to show you how much I’m willing to do or say (or not say) to belong or to at least not offend you. I think that’s a patronizing and morally dubious and dishonest attitude – I’d much rather just leave quietly, without judgment or malice, than jump myself up like a believer.

Two, I don’t kneel in churches. This is mostly because I genuflected in St. Mary’s for eighteen years while all around me and across the country and the world for that matter priests were raping young boys with impunity. Fortunately my three brothers and I all escaped harm, but someone very close to me wasn’t so lucky. I won’t go off on a tangent, but I will say this unconscionable atrocity was widespread and systematic, criminal (now I know why child rapists are killed in prison) and not only known but tolerated and even for all practical purposes condoned at the highest levels. It still disgusts me down to the individual atoms in my bones.

Third, I don’t do the “ask and answer” thing, no matter the denomination. I try to follow along closely to what is being said, and I always pay special attention to the sermon, but I don’t respond along with the rest of the congregation. I want to be still and listen as intently as I can, because I think listening with the intent to understand is the best way to show anyone respect. What about singing the hymns? I absolutely do not sing, and nobody else would want me to sing either if they had ever heard me, you can count on that.

It goes without saying, I think, that I don’t give any money when the collection plate comes around either. Not because I’m cheap, or poor; I just don’t like to virtue signal in public by flashing cash around. And I’m of the mind that the best way for anyone to give is to be grateful and positive every day, and to accept gifts, however they're given, with grace and patience. And humor most of all –  the ringleted girl in the pew in front of me put a dollar in the collection basket, and when it came to me she was watching to see what I'd do. I took her dollar out and put it in my pocket. Her eyes widened and she was just about to tell her mother on me, when I slipped it back in and held my finger up to my lips to say, shh, don't tell anyone. Her in-on-the-joke smile could've lit a thousand votives. 

On a final note, you may be wondering whether I’m an agnostic, or an atheist, or what I am exactly. Whenever I was asked if I believe in God, I used to say, tongue in cheek, that I was an Egotheist – I think I am God. But now I’m much less comical and recalcitrant and more nuanced about my comical recalcitrance – it depends on what you mean by “God” I ask. And it also depends on what you mean by “believe.” I’m not trying to be intentionally difficult or didactic, but there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding and projection, and I want to be as precise as possible and make sure we’re talking about the same things, if only definitionally. If you want a label, I’d say I’m a 'devil's advocate.'

But to answer that question even more roundaboutly, I’ll tell you that I used to hot tub every once in a while with a neighbor and friend, who was and still is a devout Christian, the kind I usually abhor/mock because they’re almost always tone-deaf, evangelists, and self-righteous. He wasn’t – he lived his faith every day, sotto voce, as the Italians say. But he was always secretly and sneakily trying to convert me, and I would always say and do things to intentionally shock him, and we would have a good laugh afterwards when he realized I was (almost) pulling his leg.

Anyway, one day he said to me out of the blue that I was the most Christian non-Christian he had ever met, and it was obvious that he was having a hard time wrapping his mind around such a profane realization, since at least at first casual glance I look like I could have just robbed a bank, or slept with your sister. Or was about to.

Seriously, I guess then that I’m a christian with a lowercase "c." I think that the Bible is a magnificent guide to life, the wisest ever written, and whether you believe in God or not, if you do your best to live in the present, with virtue, you’re already as close to heaven as you’re ever going to get.
January 28, 2020 — Johnny Mustard