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.

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Defending (Or At Least Explaining) Ford Nation

I recently took a month off of social media because I was finding the whole experience overwhelmingly negative. People, myself included, have a tendency to vent online. It’s fine. We all need a place to share our frustrations. Still, it can be exhausting and present a myopic view of what’s really going on in our day-to-day lives.

April done, I popped back on to Facebook. I probably should have picked any day besides the one after Rob Ford’s latest scandal/confession/excuse.

Seeing people crap on Rob Ford is not new and I’m not above criticizing him myself (as you can see here, here and here.) What I’ve noticed more and more, however, is a tendency to be harshly critical of the people who voted for or continue to support him, colloquially called Ford Nation. There is no pause before calling them f**king idiots, morons, and right-wing *ssholes (* means I’m not really swearing, honest.) While it may seem hard to defend people who continue to support someone who is so clearly off the rails, these are the people I grew up with. I lived in Flemingdon Park, Malton and in Ford’s own backyard in Rexdale. This means that there’s a really good chance you’re insulting people I grew up with and people I’m related to. And I’m a little okay with that. Still, I feel the need to explain how this mysterious demographic called Ford Nation formed and why they continue to defend a man who, well, does crack.

What most people picture when they think of Ford Nation. Rob Ford clearly being spoon-fed by his large handed nanny.

What most people picture when they think of Ford Nation. Rob Ford clearly being spoon-fed by his large handed nanny.

Explanation The First: Living In A Crappy Neighbourhood Sucks 

Not shocking news, I suppose, but something you should bear in mind when considering Ford Nation. Most people who live in the “heart of Ford Nation” live there because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. We lived there because a janitor’s salary was enough to get a decent sized apartment. This was not true for, say, anywhere the subway goes. We lived in the ass-end of the city because it was cheap, not because we liked the sounds of late-night sirens, gun shots and our downstairs crack-dealing neighbour’s bass-heavy all-night music parties. We went to schools where teachers didn’t care. We had minimum wage jobs working for folks who hopped in their pretty cars and skipped back to Forest Hill when they were done bossing us around. We were occasionally afraid for our lives and almost always afraid for our bikes, sneakers and walkmans (what? It was the 90s.) I once had my bike stolen while I was riding it. It was an unhappy place to be. We knew the cops hated us. We knew our teachers dreamed of not having 3 devices protect their cars in the parking lot. We knew that politicians either ignored us or used us as talking points.

So how did this help Ford Nation to form? It’s easy. It’s like the soggy potato chip theory of childcare. You see, kids love potato chips (here serving as a metaphor for positive attention.) Ideally kids want nice, fresh, crispy chips. Still, if the only chips left are the soggy, gross ones, they’ll take those (our stand in for negative attention.) Basically, the Fords are our soggy potato chips. They may not be all crisp and tasty, but damn it, at least they’re chips. Most politicians don’t notice crappy neighbourhoods. Even if they do, they usually come to the conversation full of misconceptions, useless platitudes or downright silly suggestions.

Like that time Lyndon Johnston's wife suggested "adding flowers" would solve the problem of gangs and Eartha Kitt was her goddess of a self and told Lady Bird where to stick it only to earn this look from LBJ.

Like that time Lyndon Johnston’s wife suggested “adding flowers” would solve the problem of gangs and Eartha Kitt was her Goddess of a self and told Lady Bird where to stick it only to earn this look from LBJ.

The Fords may not be improving our neighbourhoods (in fact, I’ve talked about the damage I think their behavior does) but they are engaging with people who are often neglected. Unless you’ve lived in Rexdale, you can’t understand just how unseen and unacknowledged the residents can feel. To be seen and acknowledged is not the same as being helped, but it’s certainly better than being ignored. When you judge Ford Nation, realize that they aren’t just choosing between between bad and good, they’re choosing between bad and being ignored.

Explanation The Second: Ford Nation Used To Have The Moral High Ground

I come from the type of people who might support a guy like Ford. They go to church a little too much. They are pretty judgmental (though only of certain things) and they read The Sun. And thirty or forty years ago, most of the city was on their side. In the 80s, when I was a kid, marriage between two people of the same sex was still 25 years in the future. In 1989, two separate people were murdered for being gay or just appearing to be gay. Both of these events happened when I was in the eighth grade. It wasn’t until 1991 that we had our first openly gay Toronto politician, and he was elected in the riding commonly called the Gaybourhood. I remember the open joking and underhanded comments that accompanied his election. Now, in 2014, we may feel that we are a better community, but this openness does not have a long history. It is young and, according to a lot of Ford Nation, wrong.

I want to be very clear here: I’m bisexual. I’m all about rights. I’m as lefty as you can get (and still swing both ways.) But I understand that there are a lot of people out there, though the number is shrinking, who are icked out by gay people. And for a long time, they were generally supported in their point of view. The same can be said of their attitudes about homelessness, immigration, culture and finances. There was a time, very recently, where their opinions were the standard.

And now they are not.

I look at the things I believe deeply: That people deserve equal opportunities and treatment, that love is more important than money, that we need to protect the environment we live in. I ask myself, what if it swung over? What if rights were stripped away? What if the majority became opposed to multiculturalism or gay rights or education and health care? If my opinion was unpopular, would I abandon it, or would I dig my heels in and fight for change?

I like to think that I would fight for what I believe, with my votes, my behavior and my money. And in the end, that is also true of Ford Nation.

Are they wrong? I really, really think so. But they spent a long time being told they were right. The world changed and they didn’t keep up. That’s often how humans operate. We listen to bands we liked in high school. We drink our favourite beer. We pine for the good old days. And Rob Ford is right there pining with Ford Nation – and that may be something we cannot change.

Explanation The Third: Tax Money Really Matters To Ford Nation

I’m a grown up. I have a mortgage and bills and more than one type of insurance. It’s tough to stay on top of it. We do fine, but it’s given me a deep appreciation for the budgets my mother created. She fed, housed and clothed five people on what I now realize is a ridiculously low amount of money. Of that ridiculously low amount of money, a good hunk went to income taxes. Another hunk went to sales taxes. All told, more than 30% of our money disappeared into the well that waters our national garden. Now, we went to school and got medical care and enjoyed garbage pick up and paved roads, so I’m not going to complain about paying taxes, but I have a pretty personal understanding of how – uh – taxing those deductions can be.

Because our income was so low and my family featured an array of dependents, we almost always got money back after tax returns were filed.

How to put this? Tax return time was second Christmas at my house. If the tax return was big enough, we’d each get a $20 bill to spend on anything we liked. Anything.

And I chose this. This is the second coolest toy I have ever owned, after my Cabbage Patch Kid.

And I chose this. This is the second coolest toy I have ever owned, after my Cabbage Patch Kid.

Tax returns helped us pay down our bills, pick up the purchases we’d been putting off and even get a few treats. I cannot overstate how exciting tax time was.

Because when you are on the bottom of the income spectrum, every loonie matters. If someone promises a person making $50,000+ a year a few more dollars, it’s dismissible. Not so much if that’s your lunch budget for the week. To understand how important tax cuts are to Ford Nation, you have to understand the impact that a 10%, 20% or 30% deduction would have on a subsistence level income.

For me, it was the difference between Rocket Hockey and no Rocket Hockey. Which I think you’ll agree is a pretty damn big difference.

So in summary, my left-leaning, sane-thinking, baffled and bemused friends, call Ford Nation whatever smug nickname you want. Mock their intelligence, their ethics and their taste in track pants. But remember, what separates you from them may be a few years, a few dollars and a few kilometers. And that ain’t much.