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.

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.

My Religion Was My Prison

In my Missionettes uniform. The boys were called Crusaders.

In my Missionettes uniform. The boys were called Crusaders.

The title, I know, is a bit dramatic. In reality, my home was the prison, and religion was the warden, but that just doesn’t fit in a header.

I was raised Fundamentalist Pentecostal. For some folks, those two terms are at cross purposes, as the traditional Fundamentalists actually opposed the Pentecostals, but in my circles it was used to mean more Pentecostal than the Pentecostals. More hard core. More committed. More evangelical. More filled with the spirit. Others sometimes use the term Charismatic.

For the uninitiated, here is what defines a Pentecostal:

  • An emphasis on the Pentecost. The Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit (he gets capital letters because, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, that’s his name) descended on the Apostles (they get capital letters because…uh…they do.)
  • A belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as granted when you are filled (after praying and dedicating your life to Jesus.) Some of these include prophesy, glossolalia or speaking in tongues, healing and leading.
  • Lots and lots of rules.

For some anecdotal idea of what this meant for me, you can read my blogs about Feminism in response to religiosity, the apocalypse and even more on the apocalypse.

Or you could skip all that and watch the video I pull out whenever people really want to know what it was like:

Or you could watch this video of my former pastor.

Not to say that there weren’t merits to the church. Music. Boy, was the music fantastic. And there was the community. There were always people around to help you and judge you and sometimes hit you…wait. That doesn’t sound like a merit. Uh…music. Let’s stick with the music.

But Heather, you may say, how does any of this sound like prison? Or maybe you’re not saying that. Maybe this is just a segue from the set-up to my point. Maybe.

Since my teenaged years, when I moved away from the abuse and drama that was my Pentecostal home, I’ve looked for people to relate to. It’s a natural compulsion, I think. It’s why those tell-all books sell so well. I tried to find voices that I could relate to in all kinds of stories. Ones to give me catharsis (I can cry for them even when I cannot cry for me.) I did not find it among the Mommy Dearests or the Glass Castles. The first place I found it was in a cinema, watching In The Name Of The Father. It was 1994 and a boy I didn’t overly like had come to a movie with me. He thought it was a date, I didn’t.

The movie told the story of Gerry Conlon, a man convicted of a crime, a London bombing, that he didn’t commit. Part way through the movie, I started to cry. The boy made a clumsy, sexualized attempt to comfort me. He thought I was overwhelmed, I suppose, by Daniel Day Lewis’ performance. I wasn’t. It was the story. A man, in prison, but totally innocent.

It was my metaphor. When people write about abuse, it is almost always tinged by shame. The idea that they might have been asking for it seethes below the surface of the anger or sadness. The self-flagellation is a natural continuance of the abuse suffered. When they stop, we begin.

But in stories of those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit (or even for those they did) there is an undercurrent of rebellion. I believe that rebellion, coupled with the pain of their mistreatment, is what connected me to these stories.

In my home, I was a prisoner, psychologically and sometimes physically. I needed to ask for a glass to drink water, if my mother was in that mood. I could not take food if I was hungry. I could not turn on the television or pick up the phone or leave a conversation unless I was given permission. This occurred not just when I was a child, but when I was a teenager as well. As a child, the punishment was swift and physical. It was absolute and I never figured out the tricks my sisters did to avoid it (one cried immediately, one not at all.) Besides, I was never right. My mother once told me that as an infant I had pushed her away. I had not loved her properly. But then, my mother believed in striking infants for crying, so I don’t wonder that I did.

My childhood church. I'm second from the left.

My childhood church. I’m second from the left.

As I grew up, the church and our Pentecostal home were my whole reality. Even school was taught to be a potential haunt for demons trying to draw me away from God. I was wary of everything.

I was always watched. God was my guard. When mother or one of the church women who reported all infractions to each other were not watching, he always was. I suffered from constant guilt and fear. Unlike other children, I felt no safer breaking the rules in private than I did in public. All of my errors were honest. I remember being punished more for my enthusiasm and curiosity that for my sins.

I’ve recently started watching Rectify, a Sundance program about a man released from death row because of DNA evidence. Again I am struck by the similarities. When he enters the “real” world, he doesn’t know how to behave. I didn’t either. He is stunned by everyday things. He is missing decades of shared experiences, because his was so singular. After I was unceremoniously ejected, I found I had few tools to function in “normal” society. My normal was obedience and fear and a closed community that both policed and nurtured its own. I had never had sex, tried drugs, gone a day without praying or learned to make my own decisions.

One thing that struck me about Rectify was how easily the main character allows himself to be led. He has no direction because direction was never his to own. He is used to following orders. I don’t follow orders, but the next step, the self-initiation, still proves hard for me. I don’t know how to start. I sometimes wonder at who I really am. I am not solid. I am what’s left after I extricated gods and monsters from my being.

Like the prisoners I read about and watch, I am still trapped. I am still watched. I am still waiting for the walls to return.

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.

The End

(This was originally written for the Centennial Reader, a magazine that bought this article, then immediately went the way of other Literary Magazines before it. I will try my best not to take it as a sign.) 

“Good morning.” I wave to my neighbour, a man who does not seem to have a job – or perhaps he just works as I do. Part time. Slip shod. Between depressions and times when my brain runs tickety-tock smooth.

He makes the inhale face that real smokers have mastered. It says that, despite what we have learned, smokers are cooler than the rest of us. He nods. He does not talk very often, just glimpses over the fence as we garden, or half smiles when his son plays.

“Morning.” He mutters, shifting the cigarette in his mouth.

“It’s a nice day.” I say, and it is. It is March and it is atypically temperate. Blue crocuses spot neighbourhood lawns, defying the nightly chill.

“Too nice. I guess this is the beginning of the end.” He says without humour.

I can feel my heartbeat in my neck. I try to count the beats to calm myself as I keep walking, now reduced to my own silent, nodded reply.

The beginning of the end. Did I bring my medication with me today? The little, white, powdery pill that dissolves on the tongue like old Popeye cigarettes and takes the panic with it?

I want the calm or, at very least, the numbing. I know if I think too long, if I linger on our warming planet and our disappearing resources, I will lose myself, maybe for weeks or months.

I pull the pill out of a small plastic container that is always in my bag and slide it under my tongue. I know that in fifteen minutes, the panic will start to fade and I will be able to work my job. I will be able to watch the children and smile and play and give no sign that I am imagining the end of the world while I prepare cheese and crackers.

The end of the world is not new to me.

I first met it in church, between choruses of hallelujah and bible verses memorized for pencils or candy. My earliest memories involve the end; films, humming through ancient projectors, showing flames and death, dragons and monsters, chasing us because we did not love god properly. The only way to avoid the end was to escape to somewhere else, up in the sky. A heaven that was perfect and sinless. A place that our human mistakes could not destroy.

When I would run childhood fevers, I would hallucinate the end so vividly that I would scream and wake my sisters.

Even when I walked away from the god that never was, I could not walk away from the end. When my doctor asked me how a teenager develops ulcers, I did not tell him the truth. I did not tell him about television reports of global warming and deforestation. I did not tell him that I had read John Wyndham and Margaret Atwood and William Golding. I did not tell him what I knew – that if the planet did not devour us, then we would surely devour ourselves.

Then I lost my mind and the doctors pondered whether it had been broken all along or whether it had collapsed under all the thoughts that I could not exorcize. They gave me the little white pill, smaller than a sunflower seed. It ate away the edges until I could be cynical, rather than terrified.

I went to protests. I beat on empty oil drums and took pictures of girls with flowers in their hair. I met a boy and smiled sometimes and imagined a future of gardens and kisses and essays and babies. I saw only beginnings and pretended it was not following me.

Some men from England drilled a hole in the ocean floor.

“This may be the one.” Said my good friend. “If they kill all the fish, we have maybe a year. It’s the beginning of the end.”

He kept driving, using one hand to sip the gift I had brought him: soda pop in a glass bottle. He seemed oddly pleased that they were so very stupid; pretending it could not happen. Perhaps, like me, the end had followed him and it was a relief to stop running.

He was still the person I had know for a decade, but suddenly I could not breathe the air. Suddenly there were not enough little white pills in the whole world.

I was gone for a year that time, buried underneath the fallen supports I had so carefully built. I chose ignorance, until I could learn to tell the voices apart – the ones who preached hell and the ones who preached hell on earth.

I did not want to be stupid and pretend it was not happening. I did not want to be smart and fall apart.

We have started looking up, they say on the news (even Mr. Hawking says it.) Looking for other planets. Other places to make a home. Somewhere else, up in the sky. A heaven that will be perfect and sinless. A place that our human mistakes will not destroy. We have given up on earth.

To try to save it would require us to change and we do not change.

I try to change. I do yoga. I read books with happy endings. I debate egalitarianism online. I distract myself with friends whose questions I do not answer. How are you? What’s new?

I am afraid of the dark, I do not say. I am afraid to close my eyes. I cannot shake the ideas. I cannot sheep-count them away. I save the pill for bedtime so that I do not remember my dream-filled sleep with its earthquakes and fires and buildings falling in.

I do not read the news, though it follows me. Headlines discarded on bus seats, radios tuned and turned up loud, click-throughs on Facebook feeds. Do you want to be ignorant? I ask myself. Oh god yes, I answer.

I do not want to live in interesting times.