An American Christian Chapter I — The Church
It was 2002, and I had just graduated high school. The world was still in disarray after 9/11 and in the beginnings of the unending war in Afghanistan. My classmates that didn’t get conned into enlisting were looking forward to our final summer before beginning our college years. Others were starting to dread shipping out to basic training.
I felt like I was somewhere in between. Despite the constant belittlement from the Marine recruiter who seemed to always be in our school, I didn’t enlist. Still, I wasn’t exactly going to college. I was joining a cult instead.
I grew up in a small town in western Washington, just south of Olympia. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, one fully immersed in our local Church. Every Sunday, we’d embarked on a 20-minute drive and attended First Assembly of God, the old Pentecostal Church where my parents were married.
Occupying the historic Liberty Theater in downtown Centralia, First AG was quite a bizarre building. As a kid, this place was as fascinating as it was haunting. The building, which was once a stage theater when erected in 1918, was full of bizarre rooms, especially on the second story.
What used to be the area above the stage that held all the backdrops was turned into a basketball court. It had sodium lights that produced about as much power as a few large candles, and it always seems to be full of half-inflated basketballs. It was musty and used intermittently as storage and recreation for a mix of children’s Church and Royal Rangers (the Assemblies of God’s knock-off version of the Boy Scouts). It was connected on each end by a staircase, one which went directly into the room at the end of the hall. There was even an apartment upstairs at one time. Still, like everything else in the building, it was eventually converted into another space for Sunday School or some other half-baked ministry. There were secret rooms boarded up over time or had part of the staircase hidden in a closet. This building was alive, and it always seemed to be breathing, chiefly when it was empty. Despite the creepiness, I eventually felt more at home there than my own house.
I aged through every program the Church had, starting in the nursery. A nursery which was later converted into a recording studio by a few colleagues. I didn’t hate Church as a kid, it certainly wasn’t fun, but my friends were there. I also attended a private Christian school, so the aspects of God and religion were pounded into my head day in and day out. The secular world was always right there, though, tempting me and threatening to pull me in with music and movies.
My earliest memories of Church were during the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and ’90s. The dark imagery used by ministers and Chick tracts to warn us of the dangers of playing Dungeons & Dragons or listening to heavy metal was honestly much more damaging, let alone frightening, than anything else I had been exposed to. There were also the traveling evangelists and missionaries who would darken our doors for a service or two. They told us tall-tales of demonic possession and devil-worshiping cults just biding their time before attacking our neighborhoods.
Of course, as Christians, we were always under attack. Always on the cusp of another round of persecution by hungry lions. Only the lions now were liberal institutions and scientists. The ACLU was often referred to as “The Anti-Christian Lawyer’s Union,” and the absence of prayer in schools was considered America’s decline. Abortion was always at the top of the sin list, but somehow sexual assault was something that needed to be forgiven.
Despite being very upfront about not wanting to lose their tax-exempt status, my Church, along with every other evangelical Church that’s even whispered an existence, somehow found a way to tell people how they should vote. Republicans were typically cast as God-fearing, and Democrats were usually portrayed as evil. The history of the evangelical Church and it’s ties to the Republican party go back to President Eisenhower and Billy Graham. I would encourage you to put aside any political bias and read more about this as we still see its effects today.
As I got older and started attending youth group, hormones suddenly needed to be addressed in the most negative way possible. Ensuring that all the girls knew it was their fault if they caused a brother to stumble and that us brothers were supposed to be men of God but in all reality, just beasts. This set us all up for continuous curiosity as well as constant moral failure. It wasn’t just that sex before marriage was wrong; any form of sexual indulgence was deeply sinful.
Oral, hand stuff, masturbation, porn or porn adjacent (like bikini calendars), tight pants, over the clothes touching or even kissing was just as sinful as if you were in a pansexual orgy with the devil. Of course, because God is omnipresent, He can see you every time you do it. And you didn’t want to be responsible for killing kittens. With all that unremittingly being taught as a form of self-harm, something shameful, sinful, and “of the world,” you ended up with a large group of very horny kids who hated themselves. I could write a separate novel on the unbearable homophobia propagated, but I will cover it more thoroughly in a future article.
The Christian school I attended only went up to the 8th grade, so the knowledge that I would be in public high school soon and get a chance to date girls was almost all I could picture. Of course, the life of a teenager is never fair.
Around the same time, my Church decided to plunge headfirst into Joshua Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” For those of you not familiar with this incredibly problematic book, it not only taught that dating was bad because breaking up was practicing divorce (another super big sin), but that courtship was the best way, in the eyes of God, to find your mate. The book also taught blatant sexism, patriarchy, and other forms of what we now accurately call rape culture. The author himself has not only apologized for its negative impact on people but has since denounced it entirely, going so far is to be included in a documentary about it. However, purity culture is still very much alive and well within evangelical circles, and I Kissed Dating Goodbye is still a part of it.
This, of course, meant no dating and certainly no dances in high school. I was able to make a deal with my mom that I would get to go to my senior Prom, but that night was effectively ruined when I had a panic attack after dinner and threw up my lamb chops in a Taco Bell bathroom. A panic attack onset by my own fear of going to hell for even being a part of Prom. The year prior, my youth group had a prom alternative night, which both guys and girls attended. We dressed up, rented a shitty limo, and drove to Portland to eat dinner on a boat, then went back. There was no dancing, of course, absolutely no pairs or dates, and was generally just a big waste of time and money. No one had premarital sex that night. No one wanted to either.
First Assembly of God changed its name to a relatively common name in the evangelical world and shared it with its sister church in Oklahoma. I will not be disclosing the name of the Church, despite it no longer being operational. Many people attended it that still live their lives in the area, and I do not intend to bring any scrutiny upon them. Those who ran the Church are still very active in different ministries around the United States and always try to control the past’s narrative.
All of this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I can’t accurately sum up everything because it was throughout a lifetime. I attended the Church from birth until I moved out of the state on January 1st, 2008. Three months before my twenty-fourth birthday. A year before I moved, the disillusionment began to seep in. I started to see the cracks in the facade. I became fed up with the hypocrisy and blatant control tactics. I began to understand why people left and why I had such a hard time growing up there. I had dedicated my life to American Christianity and even more so to this Church. It wasn’t until I had moved 2,000 miles away that I was able to start deprogramming and see everything for what it truly was:
This is an introduction to a series that will give insight into my experiences and my peers that all attended the Master’s Commission program at First AG. Part two will discuss the Joneses, the pastoral family that ran the Church, followed by an outline of just what the hell Master’s Commission is. I’m afraid that the depth of psychological damage cannot be fully understood without this background knowledge. The intention of all that have contributed to this project is to expose the truth of what was done and not let it be another Christian horror story that goes unchecked.
To my knowledge, there was never any form of sexual abuse by the staff. However, there was sexual manipulation at the hands of at least one, and it was covered up and obfuscated.