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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Breaking Up With The Mall

One of the wonders of my poorer childhood was our love affair with the mall. My family lived in the mall. I called us Mall Walkers. We didn’t buy much (perhaps food one day, cheap plastic shoes the next, toilet cleaner, a coffee, a pack of large Du Maurier king sized, a bag of milk that, when carried home, left plastic bag marks dented into our hands like a temporary stigmata.) Most mornings, we would gather there. “We” meant aunts, uncles, grandparents and about a half dozen kids. As a family without money, we visited the shrine to it like hopeful disciples. We split our time almost equally between the house of god and the house of inexpensive plastic toys that smelled like Christmas in their newness.

While the parents sat in the food court and coupon swapped, we, the children, were free to walk around the mall. We usually bee-lined for either K-Mart or Woolco, both department stores. K-Mart had three toy aisles and an old fashioned sandwich counter that served “choc on the rocks” – chocolate milk over ice – for fifty cents.

Since fifty cents was a high order some days, we usually skipped K-Mart and all its temptations for Woolco which had, rather than three measly aisles, a full toy section. Up the middle escalator we’d ride (the ride was part of the fun, of course) to the second story of Woolco. Around a corner and straight to the back, where My Little Pony Shrinky-Dinks and Wrestlemania figures were on display, like cardboard sheathed works of art. Well trained critics, we trolled the aisles, examining the art, but never touching (as long as adult clerks were around, anyway.) Our eyes and minds were full of colour, scents, the sound of music not allowed in our conservative Christian household.

The mall was heaven. I mean this literally. When I imagined heaven, I imagined a golden version of Woolco, with diamond encrusted blenders, escalators of silver, and God at the counter, telling us all of it was free. Even choc on the rocks. Drink up, my good children, for you have been saved!

This love of the mall carried over into my teens. The mall was one of my many escapes, along with school and the library. Baby sitting jobs, camp counsellor gigs at the church, a McJob – suddenly I had money when I went to the mall. I became, much like my mother and aunts and grandmother, an expert bargain shopper. Cassette tapes missing their case? They still played. Shirts with a button lost to too many try-ons? I could mend a button in seconds flat. After Christmas, Halloween and all the holidays in between, I scoured the just-out-of-season bin for things I squirrelled away, filling my room with books and dolls and music, precious only to me. I could enter the mall with ten dollars and leave with my arms full.

Even as an adult, I loved the mall. For my birthday, my husband, who grew up in a farm house and understood the value of quality, would take me to the mall and help me bargain hunt. We’d pick up treats and buy overpriced coffee. He’d picked up on my habit of calling it mall walking and almost every year (save the one in which we were homeless and a few where we had other plans) we would visit a mall and tour just for me. At the end of the day, bags of two for one t-shirts and fifty percent off books clamoured for space on my lap as we bussed back to our apartment. I loved it.

I loved it less and less every year.

As a child, we did not go to museums. We did not take day trips to see the wonders of the world. We did not go to the cinema. We did not, usually, go to cultural festivals or performances. We went to church. We went on yearly trips to the beach. Mostly, we went to the mall.

As an adult, I worked as a nanny. Being a nanny has challenges and it has perks. One perk that changed my life was that the children of monied people do not go to malls on quiet days. They go to museums. The family I worked for had memberships; they had memberships to places where history and art and ideas were revered and organized and placed behind glass. Much like my childhood, I was able to walk aisles and look at brilliant things that I could not touch. There were colours and sounds and so many lovely things. The children and I visited museums until we had them memorized. We did art based on what we’d seen. We cooked meals inspired by civilizations. The fact that we couldn’t take the shiny objects home wasn’t sad because no on could. They were in their home, waiting for us to visit again and again.

The more I visited museums, the less I loved malls. The museum gave me everything the mall had, but without the jostling crowds, the garish ads, the push to purchase. Instead of hunting for bargains, I hunted for stories. I found them in the Print Shop at Black Creek Pioneer Village. I found them in the Moore Gallery at the AGO. I found them in the textile section of the ROM. I found them in the 30+ museums and galleries that fill up the city I am lucky enough to call home.

Last week I was Christmas shopping for my niblings when, exhausted, I called my husband.

“I think I’ve fallen out of love with malls.” Hiding in the back of Toys, Toys, Toys, crushed by strollers and listening to Disney teens massacre Little Drummer Boy, I couldn’t keep the sadness from my tone.

“Woah!” He was, after 20 years of knowing me, genuinely surprised.

“Right? What’s happened?” I tried to find the joy in rows of plastic and cardboard, in bargain bin Spongebobs and half priced Barbies.

“Maybe…” I could tell he was thinking because he went silent for almost a full minute. “Maybe now that you have most of what you need, now that you’re free to get the things you want, maybe now you’ve found you don’t want everything anymore?”

My husband, the man with an engineer’s brain and philosopher’s heart, was right. My world had gotten bigger. It had grown and changed and left something I used to love behind. It had happened before with religion and family and even my need to live far up off the ground in apartments. I had left so much behind, but I was clinging to the mall, one of the last bits of nostalgic joy I had, well past the point of actual happiness.

I extricated myself from Toys, Toys, Toys tightly packed aisles and walked out of the Eaton Centre and on to Yonge Street. Preachers and Imams and the newly converted shouted into the air, trying to save my soul. A musician played plastic tubs with broken drumsticks and a masked man did breakdancing for five dollar bills. All around me was art and noise and history.

I dropped a five in his bucket and watched an artist dance. It was the best bargain I’d found all day. Worth it, as the ads used to say, at twice the price.

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.

The Apocalypse That Cried Wolf (Written in 2011)

This piece was written out of frustration with the 2012 goofiness that threatened to become actual idiocity. It is how I feel when I don’t fall down the rabbit hole of fear I wrote about in The End.

While most North American children my age were enjoying Care Bears, Pogo Balls and Transformers, I was being raised on Apocalyptica. As a youngster, I was exposed to stories, images and movies that make modern horror films seem tame.

One of the truly frightening moments of my life was when, at the age of about six, I stayed upstairs in the adult service to watch a live action play called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames. In summary, actors on stage – people I knew from the congregation – made an overt exclamation of their belief in Jesus, or their disdain for him . Then they died. After death, the believers were led through the on-stage door into heaven by Jesus (played by one of the few white fellows in our congregation.) Satan dragged non-believers, screaming, down into the baptismal tub. I ended the day unable to sleep and weeping in fear. My mother bought the cassette tape.

My mother was young, with three small children and little proper support. This violent and totalitarian version of religion drew her in, I believe, because it provided her with absolutes. It also permitted her to use fear, of punishment from God and from her, to control children that she was not equipped to raise and guide with love. Fear was a tool of both the church and the adults in my life. Fear was my constant companion and it almost removed from me the ability to think, learn and grow for myself. Almost.

As I hit high school, the disconnect between people’s belief and their behavior seemed wider. The questions grew more specific and complicated, while the answers grew simpler and less likely. Reading, research and inquiry have allowed me to slowly unwind the ball of fear that the constant watch for an imaginary apocalypse had rendered. And as the fear waned, so did the ability of those who had placed it there to control my actions.

As an adult, I maintained an interest, partly scientific and partly sensationalistic, in the social phenomenon of apocalyptica. I couldn’t help but notice when rag mags ran the latest prediction of when, where and why it would come. My ears would perk up if it entered conversation. As the Internet flourished, I started looking up information, partly to try to understand the source of this idea and partly to keep silent any remaining vestiges of that fear-ball.

The more I looked, the more ridiculous it seemed. After all, these were stories told to scare children, I thought. It turned out that the tools used to frighten children can also be used to control nations. With 2012, and the upcoming Maypocalypse, it has become clear that this concept is even ingrained in our self-vaunted, intellectual, North American psyche. So much so that NASA’s scientists – folks who should really be busy with other things – feels the need to publically debunk it. Again.

There are recorded declarations of impending doom that date back to the first written records of our species. Every time doom was called for, and the date passed, the clerics or leaders who predicted it would pronounce victory for their moral standard and come up with the next viable doomsday.

Again and again, people revealed the combination of hopelessness and hubris that is necessary to think that our actions could dictate the end of the universe. When the holy spanking never came, we rarely blamed the folks making the original threats. We could see that there was no wolf, but every time the boy howled, we ran out, just in case.

I, for one, am tired of listening. Could 2012 be the end of our species? Could the Mayans be the ones who finally get it right? Could falling blue toilet ice from an airplane kill me as I walk to work today? Er, it’s unlikely. I’m certainly not going to live my life in fear of toilet ice. The next time someone announces that the end is nigh, I plan to let the boy keep right on screaming. As I recall, when the wolf finally did come, the bratty boy was the only one out there to be eaten.