Bleeding Ink: Chick Tracts and my Evangelical Childhood

It was the mid eighties. I lived in Flemingdon Park, a mostly immigrant-populated neighbourhood on the edge of Toronto. My family – and I mean my whole family, three generations of it – attended Flemingdon Park Pentecostal Church. Of the church, I remember every detail. I remember the hardwood pews I sometimes helped my grandmother polish. I remember the chandeliers with a hundred small lights that seemed opulent next to our rented boxes, each with the same bulk-bought light fixtures. I remember the washrooms where we watched women fix their lipstick in their Sunday best, two piece polyester suits and hats with lace and flowers and small craft store birds. Sometimes their eye would meet and they’d give a knowing nod as a mother brought Jesus to their child with hands and purse straps and coat hangers.

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Pretty on the outside…

The Jesus freak movement of the seventies brought swaths of people (including my family) to religion, but it was the hard-nosed, cult-like, almost mythically weird evangelism of the eighties that kept them. Somewhere along the way, the idea that god is love gave way to the sure-fire knowledge that god was right. And as god’s chosen folks, we were right by proxy. Several times a week, we gathered in the red brick building on Grenoble Drive and listened to stories of hell, fire and redemption. My brain, always a little bit sideways, took it all in. I believed every word of it.

To explain it to someone who hasn’t been through it, imagine you were raised watching horror films every day from as early as you can remember. Only, instead of your parents assuring you it was all just a made up story, they told you it was real. All of it. They told you Freddy and Jason and Pinhead and Leatherface were real. They told you the only thing that was standing between you and them was constant prayer, never-ending obedience and diligent belief. Imagine that the judge who determined whether or not you were given over to them was always watching. Not a single moment was your own. One mistake and you would be theirs. To assure your safety, your salvation, you were hit whenever you strayed, even in thought. That was my childhood. That and potlucks, music and felt cut-outs of Noah’s ark.

An important part of our church was evangelism. We sent missionaries around the world. We rented buses to go protest women’s clinics. We delivered religious tracts door to door.

We delivered Chick tracts door to door. Jack Chick was the one man hate-machine behind the infamous comic books that still see distribution around the world. Filled with horrific racist, sexist and homophobic caricatures and oversimplified theology, Chick tracts were the preferred outreach tracts of evangelicals. The recipe was simple. Sin was shown, fear was instilled, redemption was promised and the then “sinners prayer” (which appears nowhere in the bible) was said. After that? Well, we were never given a very clear after picture, unless we were shown their ascension to heaven, the door prize for living the anti-social perfection of the Chick reality.

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I’m the short one…

On occasion, my church would do a Chick tract delivery day. On that day, we would walk the neighbourhood in small groups, carrying shopping bags or pulling trundle buggies filled with small, black and white comics that invited people to join our cause – or else. Stamped on the back was the name and address of the church. The idea was they would read the book, find god and need a place to turn.

I was an anxious child. I’m an anxious adult. For me, the idea of going door to door sent nervous tingles through my whole system. I would get dizzy just thinking about it. Still, fear of hell won out, so off I went, eagerly dropping tracts in mail boxes or through apartment mail slots, joining my mother in preaching to the folks who opened their doors to us. I remember my mother and a person of another belief system having a debate as I stood clutching my Chick tracts. Behind them was their child, looking equally unsettled.
“You love your child,” My mother said, “But you’re condemning them to hell.”
“I could say the same to you.” They replied.
I met eyes with my fellow condemned soul and said nothing.

When the day of delivery was over, each of the children was given a “comic” to take home. A gift for sharing the spirit. I was given The Poor Little Witch, a comic that only really makes sense if you remember the Satanist panic of the eighties. In it, a girl named Mandy wishes in front of a candle that girls will stop picking on her in gym class. By the end, she’s drinking baby blood. I’m not exaggerating.

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I re-read this comic often, praying the prayer at the back. Somewhere along the way I lost it, but I never forgot its heavy-handed message or the fear it set in my stomach.

You see, Chick tracts didn’t just serve the purpose of recruitment. Chick tracts were fear pamphlets. Each one served to create a massive them and a tiny righteous us. As children in our church, we were expected to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Obediently, we excused ourselves from school lessons, avoided making friends with sinners and closed our eyes if we passed an ad that might provoke sinful thoughts. These tracts confirmed that our isolation was not just right, but life-saving. What if I should talk to the wrong teacher and end up drinking baby blood at threat of knife point? What if I listen to the wrong music and let demons into my body? What if I forget for the smallest moment that I am a sinner and lose it all?

To most, the passing of Jack Chick is a cultural hiccup. It’s a chance to laugh at the funny books that tell such ludicrous lies that people wonder if they might be parody.

For me its a reminder of the weird horror movie I grew up in. One where demons were real and torture was promised as a punishment for reading the wrong book or thinking the wrong thought.

As they die, these men like Oral Roberts and Paul Crouch and Jack Chick, we children of their legacy keep on. We peel away the horror stories and find ourselves. We find a narrative that is not black and white, sketched in righteous fury. We revel in grey and ignore the nightmares that sometimes haunt us of blood and ink and fear.

We grow up and leave these comic books behind.

Stop Diagnosing Donald

Dear Discourse-loving intellectuals,

Please stop trying to diagnose Donald Trump. Now.

I understand the desire to put a name to the way he behaves, I truly do. I understand your frustration as he heaps disrespect on disrespect while maintaining his Teflon veneer. But in your efforts to dismantle his run for the presidency, please do not use a-neurotypicality as your proof that he does not deserve to run.

We saw this phenomenon with Barack Obama. When people ran out of ways to challenge his policies, they went for an easy out – they called him a Muslim. They did this because they knew, on some level, that there was a underlying and pernicious prejudice against Muslims. And while an open and fair examination of the rhetoric would show that there’s nothing at all wrong with being a Muslim, by associating him with an unpopular group, his detractors were able to tap into an existing prejudice and use it. Folks were quick to declare he wasn’t a Muslim. Fewer pointed out that it’s not okay to use Muslim as an insult or as an implication that his character is questionable.

Now we’re seeing the same song coming from the other side of the political spectrum in regards to Donald Trump. This time, without a diagnosis or his own self-inclusion in the community, people are calling Donald Trump mentally ill. Crazy. Mad. He’s been diagnosed by pretend doctors so many times, it’s like watching all of the seasons of House at once. And whether there is any fact to it (something that people are jumping in to debate) the real question is, what is wrong with being mentally ill? Why are we cool with the underlying and pernicious prejudice this shows against a-neurotypical folks?

In the end, much as the people who implied Obama was Muslim, the folks implying Trump is mentally ill are relying on the current climate of disrespect for mentally ill folks to help bolster their argument that he should not be president. And as a mentally ill human, I’m not happy being your insult. I’m hurt by the rush to use the way I am to discredit anyone, even someone whose behaviors I disdain. Call him cruel, call him privileged, call him un-presidential, but don’t call him mentally ill as though that were the end of a conversation and not the very beginning.

By Any Other Name: Let’s Call WBC What It Is

When I was a young pup, about 20 years ago, I wrote for a local queer magazine called Siren. It was there that I first came across stories of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church. At that time, they were protesting the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was the victim of a vicious hate crime. Since I had grown up in a hate-filled church myself, it wasn’t hard to believe that a group espoused a doctrine this harsh. I took them at face value. Most people still do.

The time has come, though, to call them what they are. They are not a Baptist church. Let’s start there. They use the word Baptist, but not one single denomination that falls under the Baptist umbrella will support them. They are autonomous. They are not Baptists. As to being a church, let us examine that as well. The Hartford Institute estimates there are around 350,000 congregations in the United States. Legally claiming to be a church is a surprisingly easy task. By definition (as set forth by the IRS) they are a church. By our social definition, though, the title is not so clear.

Most of the so-called church’s 40 members (as of 2011 paperwork) are part of the Phelps family. Led originally by violent patriarch Fred Phelps, the so-called church was more a family obligation than a community organization. According to his son (and now LGBTQ+ advocate) Nate Phelps, family members were regularly beaten with an axe handle or a barber strap. This type of violence occurred in the families of the children and grandchildren as well.

Given no choice but to comply, the children were taken along to “protests” organized by the family. At these events, they were yelled at, mocked and physically assaulted, proving the family line that there was no safe place outside of the home. WBC is not so much a church as one of the most dazzling examples of Stockholm Syndrome ever created.

After Orlando’s tragic mass shooting, and as Pride approaches, we’re seeing a lot of news that talks about WBC’s planned bad behavior. But by calling them a Baptist Church, we are lending them the legitimacy of an organization that, while certainly on the hook for its own shortcomings, is not represented here.

I propose we start calling them what they are: One Abusive Family. OAF for short. They are just one family. One family that abuses its own members, has no affiliations and reflects no legitimate doctrine. They are not a church. They are not Baptists. They are Phelps’. That is all they are. (And, thanks to the folks that keep leaving and speaking out, we can even say #notallphelps.) They are not WBC. They are One Abusive Family. Let’s call them the OAFs they are.

As you report on them, share them in your feed or express your totally legitimate heartache that people like this still exist, remember: They are a very small group that no one wants to claim. They get together to hate and yell and pretend to be important. We get together to kiss and dance and celebrate love. Love wins. And One Abusive Family will not change that. Don’t give the OAFs space in your day, or in our national discourse.

Boys on Bikes

(Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

There is a habit we, as a culture, have of reframing experiences via the male perspective. When a she-identified human is assaulted by a he-identified human, we are trained to ask about her past and his future. What did she do to deserve it? What will it take from him is he’s convicted? We’ve seen this played out vividly in the case of convicted rapist Brock Turner. I’ve never met the fellow, but thanks to the tone employed by some media coverage, I’m now aware of the scholarships he’s lost, the times of his most successful swims and how very, very hard it will be for him to enjoy his life after he was convicted of the crime he committed. His future is the window through which we were allowed to watch this story.

We have also been given the story of the two men who interrupted the assault and held convicted rapist Brock Turner until police arrived.

Despite the fact that, again, this means I’m seeing the story from the male perspective, I want to dwell on this for a bit.

When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted. For the most part, it was just the two of us in the room. But once.

Once someone walked in.

There was a moment. It was dark, my memory tells me. It was dark and maybe she didn’t see my nightgown up around my armpits. Maybe her brain hiccuped, swallowed the whole memory. Maybe there was shock. Shock can do that, right? Shock can make you delete the things that frighten you. I remember that she backed out of the room. She backed out and he left and it was never mentioned. It was dark. It was dark. Of course she didn’t see. She didn’t feel the fear radiating off me like heat from a fire. She didn’t ask why he was in my room late at night. It was dark.

Doing nothing is, like the male perspective, often our default. Anyone whose been on a bus when someone starts loudly and verbally attacking a stranger knows what I mean. We see heads drop. Earbuds go in. Books raised higher against the call to interfere. It’s a weird instinct, but it’s one our species clearly has.

So two men on bikes stopped and halted a crime in progress. A crime that, statistics tell us, isn’t treated like a crime. We wink it away. We rarely test rape kits. We rarely press charges. We rarely see convictions. It’s barely treated like a crime at all. But they stopped despite the overwhelming casual message that what was happening wasn’t a real crime.

There was a moment. It was in church. The head pastor – a man who had, once, in a sermon on forgiveness, talked about how he could imagine no worse crime than rape – told me that I needed to forgive the youth leader who had sexually harassed me while offering me a ride home from church. It was about forgiveness. He had repented and now it was on me to let it go. He didn’t feel the shame radiating off me like heat from a fire. He didn’t ask me what I wanted. It was about forgiveness.

So, you see, we are a bystander species. Doing nothing is our default. We strive for homeostasis and our norm is to close our eyes to sexual assault. I sometimes try to suss out why. I come up with a thousand explanations and reasons. In the end, I land back at: It happens because we let it. It happens because we back out of rooms, we offer forgiveness instead of justice, we mourn for the lost future of rapists.

Two men on bikes did not back away.

I’ll hold on to that.

Kim Davis and The God of Glowering Women

Dear God, please smite all the folks I don't like.

Dear God, please smite all the folks I don’t like with your magic smitey hand.

I know Kim Davis. Not personally, mind you, but I know her. She is my mother, my aunts, the women who yelled at us for being drowsy during long sermons and gave us candies for memorizing Bible verses. I know her.

I know her because I lived in the world she inhabits. She is part of the Pentecostal movement, the movement that raised me. Like my mother, she found Jesus as a grown woman. She probably found Jesus out of some combination of desperation, emptiness and a desire to be in control, while also surrendering control. The surrender comes with obeying all of the many, varied and often ridiculous rules laid out ostensibly by the Bible, but more honestly, by the clergy and the “head office.” The control comes from imposing those same rules, not just on yourself, but on your family, your community and anyone who thinks differently than you. The control comes from being right – not through years of searching and trying, but by reading the manual. Pentecostalism is a bit like assembling IKEA furniture. As long as you follow all the instructions, you’ll get to hëavën.

When I look at her, I see those women. I see the stubborn, closed-off hatred disguised as piety. I see the surety that comes from having a side in a fight, from backing a team that always wins because it sets the rules. I also recognize the fervour of a new recruit. Davis “found” Jesus just four years ago. She’s still fresh. And the fresh ones make the best mouthpieces. They echo because they haven’t done their homework yet.

I did my homework. After believing for years, I started to doubt (mostly because praying felt a lot like talking to myself.) In order to challenge that doubt, I read all the books I could find about what I believed. I read the books Constantine cut out of the Bible. I read works written contemporaneous to it. I read books by biblical scholars and professors and pastors. I attended sermons and services and sleep-away camps. I mainlined god. I searched and researched the way a person should before using their religion to oppress others.

I looked and I found contradictions and problems and lies and hypocrisy and a lot of political finagling. What I didn’t find was an absolute truth. Absolute truth doesn’t come easily, if it exists at all. You can’t go to an expensive building in your best clothes and find absolute truth. No one can hand it to you. Even if they do, that will be their truth, not yours.

In all of my searching and reading and hunting, the closest thing I’ve ever found are four words: First, do no harm. That’s my truth. I will never expect it to be anyone else’s. My favourite passage from the Bible-I-do-not-follow remains, to this day, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

In the end, what I see when I look at the be-smocked and matron-haired woman who resembles my childhood is a person who chose a path that would both forgive all her shortcomings and let her judge other’s. I see someone who thinks that four years of learning means that she has the answers. With those answers she has built an ideological wall that no amount of rational discourse can climb.

So while folks mock Kim Davis, while they rally behind hashtags that vilify or martyr her, I’m remembering an easier time. A time when I knew I was right, without considering all the variables. A time when singing the right songs and saying the right prayers meant a super-hero in sandals had my back. A time when I did not have to consider why people do what they do, because demons and angels were the answer to most of the behaviour of sinners and saints.

It is easy to be holy for eschewing lipstick or mainstream music or signing documents that let others express their love and commitment. It’s easy to be right because a man behind a pulpit says you are.

When I walked away, I gave up self-assurance for self-searching. I gave up the right to judge for the right to choose, the right to love and the right to ask questions. It was not an easy trade and it destroyed a part of me that felt pure, in that it was naive and simple. I think I was happier then. I was happier trying to convert my school friends and shame people whose lives were pointed in a different direction than mine. I was happier as a girl who glowered and judged and wore long skirts and held longer grudges.

I was happier. But I know – I know for a fact – that I did more harm.

Know Your Classes – A Social Justice Guide

I’ve noticed that Social Justice Warriors get a lot of bad press. Since society, justice and even warriors are all generally viewed as positive, I wondered why they’re taking so much flack. In doing some perfunctory research, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem partly lies in the misclassification of Social Justice characters. In order to assist, I’ve created this handy guide. I hope you find it useful.

Social Justice Bard
The Bard class is most commonly associated with poets or storytellers, but likely includes any characters who use art as their predominant medium of social justice. If you’re calling out a SJW blogger you despise, you may well be misclassifying them! Odds are good they are actually a Social Justice Bard.

Bards of note: Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieMargaret Atwood and Pussy Riot.

Social Justice Cleric
Does your SJW believe in magic or a higher power? Are they wearing robes? Looks like you’ve met up with a Social Justice Cleric. SJCs are not as rare a breed as you might think. While some find justice at odds with their belief systems, these folks show that you can have faith and do good at the same time.

Clerics of note: Irshad Manji, Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes C.M.

Social Justice Druid
Are they vegan? Do they understand the ecological impact of low-cost clothing production? Have they lived in a tree for two years? You may call them warriors, but those, my friend, are Social Justice Druids. Druids are the folks trying to save our eco-system faster than we can destroy it. No small task. Their armour may be hemp, but their weapons are science…and probably more hemp.

Druids of note: Dame Jane Morris Goodall, DBE, Professor Raman Sukumar and Joanna Kerr

Social Justice Paladin
These good folks just can’t brook the BS. It’s not that they can’t tell a lie, it’s that they see through the layers to the heart of the matter. They are rarely distracted by gaslighting, bingo card rhetoric or concern trolls. They hold up a (non-gas) light so that we can see what’s ahead.

Paladins of note: Roxane Gay, Lindy West and Wab Kinew

Social Justice Rogue
These are the SJWs you don’t see coming. They are awesomely problematic, fantastically eccentric and often, just plain weird. Have you found yourself nodding in agreement, whilst having no idea what the heck just happened? You’ve been brain-pounced by a Social Justice Rogue.

Rogues of note: Russell Brand, Banksy and Amanda Palmer

This is just a starter guide. Other classes worth exploring include Social Justice Monks, Social Justice Fighters and Social Justice Barbarians. Remember, you don’t have to like or agree with a SJ character for them to contribute something important to a campaign!

Now go forth with your new knowledge and, when mocking people for having ideas, make sure you use the right classification.

Crime and Sin – How Churches Fail Victims of Sexual Assault

When I was a teenager, I attended Rexdale Alliance Church. I was one of very few teenagers at the church, if not the only one, who was not living at home. As I’ve outlined here, I had a fucking hard start and it didn’t get easier when I left home. I was young, but I looked even younger.

This was taken a few years later. I still looked like a kid at 20.

This was taken a few years later. I still looked like a kid at 20.

Add to my childish visage the fact that I was shockingly naive due to my religious upbringing, and I made a perfect victim.

My church had a youth group that met weekly. I was trying to hold on to my last vestiges of normalcy so I made the effort, travelling from Malton to Rexdale by bus for one of the events. I was still, I think, under the belief that it all had a reason and there was a god protecting me. Or something.

After the event, one of the youth leaders offered me a ride home.

This youth leader was closer to my father’s age than mine. He was the sort of man who sported a mullet like it was still fashionable and talked about sports like he was actually invested in the outcome. He wore his jeans tight and his t-shirts tucked in. It was like no one had told him the 80s were over. He thought he was still a teenager.

Perhaps that’s why he did what he did.

On the way home, he started asking me about how hard it was living on my own. I was honest. Most of the time I was struggling to make ends meet. I was tired from working and going to school. I was lonely.

That’s when he put $100 on the dashboard.

“If I gave you that…” He paused like he was gathering his courage, “Would you strip for me?”

At this point, I had never had consensual sex. I was too body shy to wear a bikini at the beach. I was still reeling from the sexual abuse I had experienced at home.

“I won’t touch you.” He kept going like my silence indicated contemplation and not shock.

I mumbled a refusal.

“I won’t hurt you. I just want to watch you.”

A that, I demanded he let me out of the car. He pulled over and pressed a $20 bill into my hand.

“Keep that. You need it.” I did need it, but I didn’t want it. I tossed it back in the car and walked the rest of the way home.

The next day, I called the church and reported him.

A few days later, I was given their official response: He had repented. Since he had repented, I was supposed to forgive him. He left a message on my machine asking for my forgiveness. It was also made pretty clear that since he was forgiven (by god) that I wasn’t to “spread rumours” about him. I was to keep it to myself.

I did.

He stayed at the church. I eventually left.

While my experiences don’t hold many parallels with the mess created by the Duggars, one theme carries through both narratives: If god forgives a sin, then there was no crime.

While I know better than to read the comments, I still do it. In relation to the Duggar story, there seem to be two schools of thought. One says that a pedophile is a pedophile and that hurting children is always a cause for outrage. Another says that god forgives, so why can’t we?

Beyond the obvious fact that our country does not operate by biblical law, the answer is that gods do not speak for victims of crime. One’s godhead may forgive them a sin, but they cannot absolve a person of their civil responsibilities. Sin and crime are not the same thing.

For example: Same sex love is a sin to some belief systems, but it is not a crime. Hitting a child with an implement is not a sin in some belief systems, but it is a crime. To assert that forgiveness of a sin by a non-universal godhead forgives a crime committed against a fellow human being ignores completely the rules set in place to protect people like the girls involved in the Duggar case and like me. By placing the arbitrary and randomly enforced rules of one sect of a religion over the rules of society, by seeing crimes as sins, churches do a disservice to their own followers.

In the end, what mattered most to teenaged me was the clear message that the safety of my body was secondary to the protection of his soul. My reality was not as important as his abstract self. His forgiveness was a prayer away. If I were to pursue it beyond that, I would be sinning against my “brother.”

That is the trap of calling a crime a sin. A sin can be washed away with a few words. A crime cannot.