I was raised in this religion, and so were my parents. All four grandparents professed, and most of my relatives; so I was in deep, all my life. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I knew that eventually I would be a worker. I didn’t want to be one, but I didn’t think I had much choice. There was a constant calling from the Lord that never let up, or maybe it was from the Workers — same thing, I thought.
I loved the “Truth” though, and thought it was a beautiful thing, so special and perfect. Anything that seemed less than right could always be written off as “the Truth is perfect but people are not.” And anything that really didn’t make much sense to me could always be dismissed by saying, “This is where faith comes in.” I never really had any trouble at all with the professing people. I thought they were the finest and happiest people on earth. After all, we were the chosen people, weren’t we? And during my whole 40 years as a child or as a professing saint, not once did I have a problem with a worker; never once did one tell me how to live, try to boss me, correct me, change me, belittle me, or any of the things I’ve heard about since, in the stories of other people. (My time in the work was a totally different matter, but more about that later.)
When I first began hearing and reading about all the problems others have had with workers, Friends, and the religion itself, I doubted them and thought they were greatly exaggerated or just the product of spiteful people, because I had never experienced a single thing that really upset me about the way. I thought the people were just wonderful, and the workers were nearly divine — to me, they didn’t have “feet of clay”, but rather, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel”. My one wretched year in the work changed my opinion of workers radically, but I came out thinking the saints were even finer than before.
I had always greatly enjoyed being one of the “chosen people”. I think that is one of the things about this Way that, whether they realize it or not, really holds the people in it: the idea that we had been hand-picked by the Lord Himself, that out of so many millions He chose us, and that we therefore were very special and lucky — though we were always supposed to try to feel all humble about it, knowing we had done nothing to deserve it. People really like feeling special, feeling elite, elected, above everybody else. That was one of the hardest things I had to face when leaving the Way — realizing and admitting I was really just a regular guy like everybody else in the world, just a part of the masses and throngs, and not really from the upper crust.
For actually I had always felt, from childhood, that I was a prince. We had been told all our lives we were the chosen elect, and I believed it. That is something anybody would want to believe, and would do his best to hang onto. We were royalty, the people who had all the answers, the only people who had God’s ear. I calculated once that there were actually more princes and princesses in the world than professing convention-ground kids like me. I had actually had a greater chance of being born into a royal family than into a convention-ground family. So I really felt high-class. But on the other hand, I was quite aware I was just born into it all by chance, and would never have had any desire to search for the “Truth” otherwise, so I felt a real need to help others, to bring others to the Way. After all, noblesse oblige — nobility has obligations: those fortunate enough to be born into Privilege have the obligation to help the less fortunate, and should keep a humble attitude about their own good fortune. So here I was, a prince, full of mock humility. It never crossed my mind that one day I would be just a commoner like everybody else — I liked being a prince, and wasn’t about to give it up.
I guess I was thoroughly convinced even as a little child that this was the One and Only True Way. When I was five, while riding over to visit some unprofessing people my folks knew, my Mom pointed out the church they went to. From the back seat, I immediately announced, “Well, they go to the wrong church, then!” Rather alarmed, she turned around and made me promise I wouldn’t dare say anything like that to them when we got there.
I loved living on the convention grounds. Since there was only one convention in the state (Mississippi), I felt like I had to be an example to all the other kids my age in the state, and I thought they were always looking to me to uphold the “Truth” and be exactly what a young professing kid should be. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but it sure felt like they all were. It was quite a responsibility for a young kid, but I didn’t mind and thought it a privilege — unlike my sister, Cherie, who would certainly have preferred to have been able to live her life without feeling like everybody was watching her every move. I loved preps time at home, when all the visitors and workers invaded the place, and I didn’t even mind the old sister workers taking over my bedroom for a month, because then I got to sleep alone out in the barn, which was totally cool, especially when it rained on the tin roof. But I did mind the long grey hairs I would find with my toes in my red shag carpet for weeks after convention was over.
One reason I clung so much to my feelings of royalty was because I certainly wasn’t anything special in everyday life. I was pretty much ignored at school, though I liked it okay. At least I didn’t have to look much different from everybody else, and unlike my sister, I was actually allowed to wear shorts in Physical Education — though I hated P.E. I really wanted to be in the band instead, but that was out, because they had to play at all the football games, and we didn’t believe in going to football games. Besides, what if they had to practice on Wednesday night some time? So I had to take P.E., where we did nothing much more than go out and play football every day.
I professed when I was 10 years old. I don’t remember ever having the slightest thought about doing so before, but for some reason one Saturday evening at Mississippi convention, I got all upset when they tested the meeting. Afterwards, Mom took me to see one of the workers, Mr. Charles. I told him, “I want to profess, but I don’t understand everything.” (By that, I was specifically referring to the fact that I could never understand why people in meeting kept talking about sheep all the time. Apparently I thought I had the perfect revelation on every other matter, but that one kind of threw me.)
Mr. Charles wisely told me that, well, he didn’t understand everything either, but if we profess first, then the Lord helps us to understand. So the next day, in the last meeting, I knew I had to do it. It seemed the longest meeting I’d ever sat through. Finally they made the invitation, then sang a song, soft, sad and slow (I have no idea which one). I didn’t pop right up; I looked up at Mom, she held out her hands for my hymnbook, I gave it to her, then got to my feet.
I can still remember my first testimony, word for word, because I went over it so often. That began a pattern (memorizing my testimonies), that continued for the next 30 years. I would rehearse exactly what I was going to say over and over before meeting, on the way to meeting, and all during meeting — getting the grammar and sentence structure just perfect and choosing the ideal and most effective words to get my idea across. I never did accept the idea that you shouldn’t rehearse your testimony, that you should just have a verse and an idea in mind, and that after you stand up the Lord would somehow speak right through you and it would come out all nice and fluent. He had told the disciples that was how it would be when they had to speak before rulers, and He made a similar promise to Moses and Aaron — but I knew He sure never said any where that that was how it would be for us in Sunday morning meeting, though I certainly knew people who thought so. I wasn’t about to risk standing there, losing my verse, getting befuddled, going blank, or saying that “my thoughts were scattered” — which is exactly what the people who believed the Lord would just speak right through them usually did. Of course, all this mental preparation up till the last minute meant I didn’t listen to anybody else until I was through with my bit which always made me feel a bit ashamed, especially since I was always one of the last to speak anyway. But I couldn’t do it any other way.
Giving my first testimony, at age 10, was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life, and I certainly never thought I’d have to relive that total terror again, but I did — four more times: the first gospel meeting I had to preach in (at age 14, believe it or not); the first time I had to give a testimony in French; the first time I had to preach as a worker (in front of 1500 people, yet); and the first time I had to preach in Spanish at special meeting. More about those events later.
Like any kid, I came up with a few duds in meeting. At school one day I had heard a new word, “independent”. I wasn’t too sure what it meant, so I asked Mom about it, and she explained it to me. So that night in meeting, I announced that I wanted to be more independent from the Lord. He probably had His hands full with the rest of the world, He had more important things to do than get pestered by me, I shouldn’t waste His time with my every little problem, so I was going to try to handle things better on my own; I was just going to be more independent from the Lord, and that would be my desire. Mom kindly let me know after meeting that I understood the word now, but maybe not the larger concept.
I remember often being worried about all the poor people in Russia and China who could never hear the gospel. I was assured that anyone with an “honest heart” who was truly searching would eventually find the “Truth”, and that the Lord would lead the workers to them somehow or other — no matter what. But I never heard of any missions going on in those countries, it was impossible at the time; so did that mean that not a single person over there was ever searching? They had a whole lot harder life than we did, so that didn’t stand to reason at all. I heard people at convention all the time telling about how they had prayed and sought so long for the right way, and it had finally come to them. I knew that even if only a small fraction as many people in those land were doing the same, that would still be many thousands. So were they all just doomed? Even if we suddenly got 1,000 new workers who could all speak Chinese, they would still have to cover a million people each! Any dumb kid could see this was crazy. Those poor people could obviously search all their life and never find this way. I hoped that maybe they just wouldn’t be held responsible if they never heard the “Truth”. I, however, would be, since I already had that privilege. So I’d better start learning some languages.
I had about as fine an upbringing and childhood as any boy ever had, and the high point of every year was convention time. We went to at least three a year, often more. Next to our own convention, I liked Texarkana best. I was related, in some distant fashion at least, to hundreds of people there, or so it seemed. I sat with my cousin Jert usually, which was fine, except we tended to find every little thing hysterically funny.
One year, we were sitting right behind the brother workers, and a nice little family we didn’t know was sitting behind us. Somebody back there had a cushion that let out a long whistling gush of air whenever anyone sat on it, which tickled us no end. But to make things worse, the wood in their bench would rub together whenever anybody sat down, producing a loud, vulgar-sounding noise which cracked us up every time. That Saturday evening was especially memorable. Joe Crane was speaking about how some religions love vain repetition, endlessly repeating, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” He said he knew a man who just loved cars, and working on cars was his favorite thing; but he didn’t try to show it by running around hollering, “Praise the Ford! Praise the Ford!” Well, that tickled my cousin so badly that he literally fell off the bench and was on the ground howling with laughter, and we kept snickering every few minutes for an hour after. But we managed to get quiet a bit later, because they were going to test the meeting. As usual, they made the invitation; they sang the final hymn, soft, slow and solemn; they came to the last verse — and the little girl behind us stood up. I looked at Jert in alarm, and he looked at me in horror. Oh, no! When she sits back down!
“You may be seated.” Sure enough. From behind us came this long gush of air with a rude-sounding grunt in the middle: “Kssssshhhhh-BRAACKI!-ssshh!” I turned as far away as I could from Jert, and he did the same, hoping we wouldn’t totally lose it. The final prayer began, and it was a long one. I was about to think we might actually make it through, but then I heard a tiny giggle out of him, and that was all it took. We both just exploded, right there in the middle of prayer. Quite mortified at ourselves, we tried our best to disguise the sound by pretending we were really bawling, just terribly touched and moved by the whole blessed event, but I doubt that it was convincing. The instant the prayer was over, we were up and running. Once outside we just collapsed on the grass in more hysterics, to the disgust of passersby. I saw that poor girl for years afterward, but not once was I ever able to look her in the face again.
When I was in junior high school, Mr. Murhl Howland and Mr. Fred Bacon were having gospel meetings in a tent way out in the country. Mr. Murhl had to go preach a funeral somewhere, so Mr. Fred inexplicably asked me to be his companion and preach with him in gospel meeting the next night. Horrors! A 14-year-old, preaching a gospel sermon! It never crossed my mind I could simply refuse, but all day long I was desperately searching for some way out. I decided I’d go ask him if, instead of me preaching, we could just have a testimony meeting instead and let everybody speak a little, which was often what was done in such a case. He said no, he’d rather have me speak. So I presented my back-up plan. How about if we had a testimony meeting for just the young people? There were several teenagers there — I could lead it off and maybe some of the others would follow. (I’d call them and tell them they’d better.) I was sure he’d like that idea, but no. He just wanted me to preach. And so I did, scared pea-green. So I guess I was fated to be a worker from childhood. But what other worker ever had to start at age 14?
At 17, 1 decided to go to Mississippi College, which was the closest college to home, in the same town I’d always gone to school in. But it also happened to be a private Baptist college, the second-oldest Baptist college in the country. Amazingly, I never heard a word of opposition to my going there from Friends or workers, and actually it was a great place. One day after my first year there, I just casually mentioned to my folks that I would like to live in the dorm there the next year, never imagining they would approve of such, with the extra expense and the fact that the college was hardly 10 miles away. But they always were more understanding than many professing parents, so to my surprise, they let me. For the first time in my life, I had to learn some social skills, and had to spend a lot of time with “outsiders”. It was the most fun I had ever had, and there was a great batch of kids there. Since most of them were religious, I wasn’t considered unusual. And so I kept out of trouble, except maybe for the time I left some Limburger cheese out in my room to get ripe, and the guys clear up on the fourth floor started complaining about the weird odor coming through the ventilation.
We didn’t have to study any kind of theology or philosophy at all there if we didn’t want to. The only religious-type requirement was a year of Bible history, which did me a world of good, and explained all sorts of things about Old Testament events that I never would have figured out from reading the Bible alone. I found it quite fascinating, and it certainly didn’t do me a speck of harm; so here at age 17 I had already figured out that our steadfast rule against any kind of religious reading outside of the Bible was hogwash. I used things I learned in that class hundreds of times in future testimonies and sermons, and they never hurt anybody either.
After two years at Mississippi College, I took off for the Sorbonne, the great University of Paris! No one else in my whole family tree in Mississippi had gone to college at all, much less a Baptist one, much less left the country to go to a foreign one! I had planned on it for years; and again, there was not a word of opposition. In fact, I still have a goodbye card signed by all the workers at preps wishing me good luck and good times in France, and another signed by dozens of Friends at convention.
Europe forced an immediate growing-up on my part. Leaving the poorest and most backward state in the union and plunging into the most sophisticated, elegant, and beautiful city on earth was culture shock, to way the least. Even though I’d studied the language before going over, the school French I had learned is a far cry from street French, or even meeting French. But workers and Friends were there to help, and they did, though in that city of 7 million people there was only one Sunday morning meeting (which inexplicably met at 3:00 p.m. on first Sundays.)
My first meeting there was a shocker. All the little phrases I’d used in prayer for years, that rolled right out with hardly any thought required had to be totally reworked, but I didn’t know the French professing lingo yet, so that was hard. I had the trauma of giving my first French testimony, trying hard to give my new meeting a good impression of this country kid from America; and then the emblems came around. The bread was a crusty chunk off a French baguette, which was fine, but when the cup came around, it didn’t taste much like “Welch’s”. I took my little sip, it burned my tongue, and I was so shocked I squirted it back in the cup and passed it on! Real wine! But now I was mad. I had had a perfect record, all my young life, of never having tasted a single drop of liquor. I was quite proud of this accomplishment and had every intention of keeping myself quite pure of alcohol for a lifetime. And now, I’d been tricked, in meeting of all places, into breaking my precious record! I was greatly annoyed, but now I faced another quandary. What would I do from then on when it came around? It would be a sin for me to drink it, and it would be a sin for me not to!
It was resolved rather easily at lunch that week. We sat down at the table, and the older sister worker started pouring wine for everybody. They drank it at every meal! “Would you like a glass of wine, too?” “Well, okay, I guess.” Since I had already broken my record, why not? So I developed a liking for the stuff from then on, and I wasn’t even 21 yet. (But I’ve still never had a beer.) So much for our strict, unbreakable rules, and the worldwide unity of the kingdom — I was catching on.
The Friends in Paris had a togetherness and a family-like feel I’ve never known anywhere else. One day I was at a lady’s house, when several of the other professing women came over to see her. She asked me to take her kids out for a walk for a while, so I asked her why. It turned out that all of the women had come over to get together and pray for her oldest son, who apparently had been causing her some problems. I was quite impressed with this event, and can’t imagine such a thing ever happening over here.
I went to a French-speaking convention in Switzerland, and met several of the young Swiss Friends, many of whom spoke five languages while still in their teens — French, Italian, German, Swiss, German, and English. Three of them later went in the work, and two were sent to South America, of all places, where they had to learn another one, Spanish. So the idea that an education is “bad” for professing kids again proved itself idiotic. I travelled around to 18 countries that year, from Norway to Turkey and on into Asia, and even hit a couple of communist ones. My first time in Amsterdam, at Wednesday night meeting, the whole meeting switched languages and gave their testimonies in English, just because I was there! Can you imagine a meeting in America suddenly switching over to Dutch, just because they had a young visitor from Holland?
I even fell in love with Gothic cathedrals while I was in Europe. We’d always been taught to literally sneer at other churches as we passed by, but now here I was going hundreds of miles by train, just to see some of them, the most spectacular and grandiose architecture the world has ever seen. Of course, I felt guilty for being so impressed by them (it took 400 years or more to build some of them, all of hand carved rock), so I gave a few testimonies here and there about how even though so beautiful outside, they were always cold on the inside, and I managed to work that into some kind of spiritual message. In other words, I was sneering at them, after all. But I still thought they were fabulous.
I think every kid should get to spend a year in another country, if at all possible. I was quite ready to come home after that, though. But once a kid has seen Paris, how are you going to keep him on the farm? So after about a year in Mississippi, I was off again, this time for California. Again, it was a whole new world, compared to the South, and a better one “Truth”-wise. There were lots of young people, and going into the work was a very real option for any kid’s future. It seemed most of them actually thought about it and considered it. Back home, Mississippi had never produced but three workers in history. I remember once when nine went out in a single year in California. Back home, it was sort of a freakish thing to do so, and we could hardly understand someone who would do such a thing. But in California, we really loved and admired our young Friends who went into the work, and it made the whole institution a lot more friendly and accessible when you had friends you had known for years, or had grown up with, going into the work. The idea of being able to cut up and carry on with a worker, rather than being so formal and respectful, was a novel idea for a deep-South kid like me.
After living a while in Berkeley in the Bay Area, I started at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). I knew perfectly well I had no career in mind. I was just stalling the inevitable — going into the work. The Friends there seemed a more sociable bunch than the Bay Area Friends. That was directly because of the foreign Friends. There was a whole group of Sri Lankans who had get-togethers nearly every week. They were quite a gregarious bunch, and we young folks all enjoyed their exotic food, so we went there whenever possible. The women almost always wore their native dress, their bare-midriffed silky saris, even to convention. If any American had dared wear anything so out of the ordinary, they would have heard about it instantly. I thought it was beautiful.
My Sunday morning meeting was quite a mixture. It was held at the house of a little black man from South Africa who had a Jamaican wife. There were two older black couples from Barbados, a girl from China, a Dutch man and his Indonesian wife, a lady from Korea, a whole family from El Salvador, an American black girl from New York City, a middle-aged couple with a mansion in Beverly Hills, and me. I thought that was pretty neat, and that was how things should be. (Mississippi’s population is almost half black, but not one has ever professed to this day.) On Union Sundays, I would often go with the Sri Lankan Friends to a Spanish-speaking meeting.
All this time I knew full well I was headed for the work, and not just the work: I expected I’d be in the foreign work eventually, in some exotic land, and preferably back in Europe. Not that I wanted to go in — not a bit. I kept putting it off, year after year. Also, I could never settle down and get started in any sort of career or decent job because I knew I’d have to quit before too long, so I suffered through a series of boring, piddly jobs, avoiding the inevitable for as long as possible. Two of my best friends had offered for the work, and had been turned down for health reasons. I was so jealous — now they were able to get on with their lives, get married and have kids. They were released from guilt, they had done what they should, and now they were free. I knew if I offered, I would have no such luck. They would snatch me up right away. I didn’t want to go, but the “call” was still there, year after year.
Strangely enough, nobody ever asked me about it. Maybe I seemed too unlikely a candidate for anyone to consider, but I often wished some worker would just come up and ask me if I was interested in the work. I was far too scared to go up to one of them and ask to have a talk. That was too final. It was almost the same as offering. You were supposed to go offer to Eldon Tenniswood, the head worker in the Southwest, but he seemed so old, lofty and august that that was out of the question for nervous little me. I planned to go through someone else, who would then tell him about me. I hoped that some worker would just suggest it to me so I could ask questions and learn more about it without looking like I was too interested. Actually, if one ever had stopped to talk to me about it, I probably would have gone ahead and offered anyway, just to get it over with, but I wasn’t about to make the first move. I had another friend with the opposite problem. A whole series of workers and Friends had bugged and pestered and coerced and constrained the poor guy about the work for so long that finally he vowed he would never go in, just to spite them. I often wished just one of them would mention it to me — that would make it so much easier. Walking up to some elder brother and offering up my life cold-turkey was something I’d rather put off indefinitely.
At age 29, 1 knew I had to do something though, and soon. Thirty seemed to be the cut-off age for accepting a new worker, and besides, Jesus “went in the work” at 29. I couldn’t risk going over the cut-off date, not getting in the work, and supposedly suffering the rest of my life from guilt and torment over not doing my duty, from refusing the Lord, from being selfish, and ignoring all the poor lost souls who would never be saved because I wasn’t willing. Since that was not a pleasant future to look forward to, I didn’t have much choice.
So my 29th year started out pretty miserable and got steadily worse. I knew that new workers always started out at Gilroy convention and went to preps in July, so I would have to offer well before that. I was hanging around workers at every possible opportunity, still hoping one would bring up the subject or give me an opening, but none ever did. I finally made up my mind to go to a convention just over the border in Mexico that May, and offer for the work there. All the workers there were California workers, so I planned to get up my nerve and offer to one of the younger ones I knew, who would relay the information to some older one there, who would then probably come and talk to me about it. So I went. But I never got up my nerve, and the hours and days went by.
Saturday night I prayed that if I was really supposed to do this thing, that the Lord would give me a sign, a definite signal. All day Sunday, I waited, still too scared to go offer. Convention ended. I didn’t want to leave yet — what I had come to do was still unaccomplished. I was even beginning to think maybe the Lord didn’t want me after all, since I hadn’t gotten my sign, but I wasn’t too sure I would get one anyway — maybe he wanted me to do it the hard way after all. So I was standing around by my truck, sadly watching the Friends and workers leaving, when suddenly a sister worker ran over to me and asked, “Are you going home through San Diego?” “I can if you want me to.” “Well, Eldon Tenniswood needs a ride. Would you mind taking him?”
Would I?! This wasn’t a sign — this was a billboard! The head worker over the whole four-state region was going to ride with me! Later, I realized even more how odd this event was. At every other convention I was at that year, the sister workers typed up a list days ahead of time and posted it, of exactly which workers would be riding with which Friends in what car to whose house after convention was over. And here at the last minute, the head honcho of the whole bunch was hitching a ride with me in my Toyota truck.
I still couldn’t make myself spill the beans right away. We were over the border and clear into the outskirts of San Diego, and he was nearly asleep before I managed to croak out, “Uh, I’ve been thinking a little bit about maybe going into the work.” He woke right on up then. He talked a while about it, but I was too stunned and relieved at having finally made the Big Step to even pay much attention. As I let him out at the house where he was going, I asked him again to consider me. Since he had barely known me before that, he said he would talk to the workers in my field and send them over for a talk with me.
So now, I had the Big Interview to look forward to. A week or so passed, and they called, so we set a date for the visit. I was scared. I knew this was even more important than talking to E.T. — he would go by whatever they reported to him about me. I practiced good answers to every conceivable question they could put to me, and had all sorts of earnest speeches prepared about how willing I was to give my all, to labor for lost souls, to go wherever needed, etc. etc. I didn’t have anything to hide, but I still wanted to have a ready answer to any personal or spiritual question they could grill me about.
The day arrived, and they came trooping in. I offered them a seat and a Coke, and I sat down nervously on the bed. The Inquisition started.
“Do you have a good suitcase?” Mr. Joel asked. I showed it to them.
“That looks fine. Can you get to preps by July 3?” I assured him I could.
And that was that.
In the Work
I received a most wonderful welcome from all the other workers when I arrived at Gilroy, but that was about the extent of it. From then on, I pretty much fended for myself. There was no particular attempt at any great friendship, brotherliness, or companionship, though all were pleasant enough. But a baby worker needs a lot more than that. You’ve just gotten rid of your entire past in a huge garage sale (the scriptures said “sell all and give to the poor”, so that’s exactly what I had done; nobody said to do otherwise.) And the future is entirely new, strange, and decidedly scary. So here I was again, wishing some worker would come talk to me about the work, but they all seemed a bit preoccupied with their own worries to bother with a new guy. They would talk some if I asked, but they seemed a bit closed and guarded. One did tell me one day that the work wasn’t going to be at all what I expected, which was not very reassuring. More than one admitted he went in mostly in order to “keep himself saved”, not through any great love of souls, though many a worker will tell you that is seldom present at first — it comes later.
Mom and Dad wanted to come to see me that year, when convention started. They talked to E.T. by phone to ask if they could come; he was very cordial and said they could. In conversation, he mentioned they were glad to have me there, but the concern now was how to properly break me in. My Mom had a problem with that. She had already seen too much of that on their own convention grounds. The “breaking in” of young workers too often resulted in breaking down.
Strangely enough, it was now that I first heard about William Irvine. A worker much younger than I, but who had already been in for two years, asked if I had ever heard about Irvine. He then told me all he knew, obviously hoping for more information. I was deflated to find out that we had a founder, having always “known” the church was from the beginning. But I believed him. However, my first week in the work was not exactly the right time to suddenly have a crisis of faith, so I became a firm believer in the theory that Irvine had been a “prophet raised up by the Lord to re-establish the “Truth” in our time”.
Somewhat later at the preps dinner table, I heard a sister worker asking the head worker of Sweden whether or not we had had a founder. “Absolutely not! It is without question that we are from the beginning.” He was very definite. So this made no sense, but apparently, I blanked it out. I’ve always been good at blanking out things about the Way that made no sense; if not, I’d have seen through the whole farce decades before.
It was terribly hot and dusty, and I didn’t care for digging ditches and painting barns, but I was willing. E.T. informed me that some workers were lazy and didn’t always do their part, which shocked me. I was still of the opinion that they were nearly all flawless, just not overly friendly. So I was surrounded by workers and still lonely, but if I thought I had it hard — I wasn’t the only one. There were six of us starting out that year, quite a good crop. One girl offered after I did. She had heard that I had offered, and said that if I actually thought I was worker material, then what excuse did she have not to offer? One of those starting that year was a young man from Tijuana. It was really rough on him because he had never been out of Mexico before, or away from his family, and he knew little English. It was quite a radical adjustment mentally-speaking for all of us, but for him, it was nearly unbearable. He could understand very little of the talk and laughter around the dinner table, or the conversations while we were working each day, though some of the brothers translated for him when necessary; he felt far more isolated and foreign than any of the rest of us, and he was. Everything in his world was new, different and strange.
One night in Wednesday night meeting on the grounds, he broke down in mid-testimony and made a dash out of the meeting to the quarters. I asked the others after meeting was over what was wrong with him, but nobody seemed to know or to show any signs of going to find out. So I went right on over to the quarters and found him by his cot, praying. He didn’t look up at all when I came in; he was too upset. So I didn’t know what to do. I sat down on his bed beside him and patted him on the back a bit, but he still wouldn’t look up. I walked around, not wanting to say anything while he was in prayer, but soon I went back and sat by him again, so he would know somebody cared. Eventually, he looked up, obviously surprised to see it was me. We had hardly spoken much till then, but from that moment on, we were fast friends. He told me all his problems, and that was about all he needed to do to feel better. We worked and talked together every possible minute thereafter, and we would get into such loud mock-arguments and would start beating on each other so noisily that more than one worker rushed over, convinced we were actually having a fight, but it was all in fun.
Convention was still a few weeks away, so all the workers started going out to stay with some of the local Friends occasionally. I just knew, before we ever started visiting, that sooner or later I was going to have some sort of disaster. Going to all these different homes, trying to be so proper and workerly — I was bound to break the china, flood the bathroom, run over the dog, or something. So that was just more pressure to handle, having to watch my every step and move for the rest of my life. On my first official visit as a worker, we went to the fine and elegant home of some lovely people, had a grand meal and a pleasant conversation. They didn’t know who I was, so I told them I was going to be a worker. The other young worker with me, Scotty, said, “You’re already a worker.” I said, “I don’t feel like one yet.” He said, “I’ve been in for five years, and I don’t feel like one yet either.” And it’s true, you don’t have any mystical religious experience at all when you become a worker; you feel like the same old person inside, and not a bit better.
Then it was nearly bedtime. I figured I’d handled things pretty well, and maybe all this visiting wouldn’t be so bad after all. On the way to my room, I stepped in to talk to the daughter. She had a wicker chair suspended by a chain from the ceiling in her room, and it looked comfortable, so I sat down. The chair and I instantly crashed backwards to the floor, landing on a ceramic cat, and ceiling plaster came raining down on my head. Everybody came rushing upstairs, and I thought, “Oh, great, my first disaster, and this is just the beginning.” Amazingly enough, in all the rest of my time in the work, I never had another major mishap.
Convention came, and I enjoyed feeling somewhat prestigious and important, but that’s the absolute limit to the glory of worker-life. The rest of the time is spent just plodding along, trying to “keep on keeping on”. I wasn’t a bit happy about having to preach my first sermon in front of 1500 people on Saturday night. Why couldn’t it be in a small gospel meeting later? I’d probably never spoken in a microphone before, and I’d always spoken in meetings staring straight at the floor, which you don’t do when you’re a worker. Trying to meet all those eyes wouldn’t be easy. And my folks had come all that way to hear me. I couldn’t find a thing appropriately grand to speak on for such an occasion, so I finally chucked out the idea of grandeur, and tried humility instead, and it worked better. I put together (and memorized) a pleasant sermonette at the last minute and walked up there feeling like it was all some unreal sort of dream-state, and not really me; but I don’t remember a thing about what I said, or what it was like up there, because I was so worried the whole time about whether my zipper was up or not.
Speaking at Gilroy II went a bit smoother the next week. It was smaller, and the worst was over. I even said something that made the whole congregation laugh, which embarrassed me, as I didn’t expect them to, and baby workers aren’t supposed to try to be funny. It’s not humble. I was saying how glad I was to have finally found my place in life — that nothing before had been satisfying, and all my jobs had been unfulfilling. I said I had worked for General Motors one year, but the part I had to make was so small you couldn’t even see it after the car was put together. That’s when they all laughed, for some reason. I was mortified. I was afraid the older brothers would get on to me for it, but they didn’t.
Preps at Buttonwillow was next. As soon as the first convention was over there, we all went down to San Diego for the workers’ meeting at the Santee grounds, all excited (and worried) about finding out who our new companion and where our field of labor would be. I didn’t find the meeting to be any great event. I had thought that the informal one up in Gilroy was a lot more helpful, where E.T. told us to never forget that we were guests in the Friends’ houses, and even if they said to make ourselves at home, it was not our home, and not to treat it like it was. He also said to remember that we were servants and ministers, which meant we were to serve and minister to the people and not the other way around. I found that very good and true advice, though it seems workers in some parts of the country have never heard of such an idea.
The big workers’ meeting is mostly a blank to me now. The order was pretty much like a regular fellowship meeting. There were about 100 of us there. We sang, some prayed, and then each of us had to stand up and give a testimony of one sentence only, which I thought was a bit pointless. The older brothers spoke longer, but I don’t think anybody paid much attention. The main thing on everybody’s mind was who would be with who, and where this year? After the meeting was concluded, the older brothers ceremoniously carried a map outside and posted it on a wall, which had all the fields and new pairs of workers marked on it. I’d heard that this was when the “mad scramble” took place as everyone rushed out of the tent and crowded around it, so I was disappointed when they all acted quite workerly, and just strolled on over.
The worst had happened. There were two older brothers who were always assigned the first-year kids, so I figured I’d get paired with one or the other. I liked one of them, and he’d actually said he hoped I’d get to be his companion that year. I was scared to death of the other one, and for good reason, I thought. Ten years earlier, I had seen him abruptly get up and march right off the stage in the middle of a large gospel meeting and go over to a teenage girl and apparently get on to her about something (and it was true, she did occasionally whisper and giggle too much). Then he strode back up on stage, leaving her looking stunned. I thought that was quite the most disgusting spectacle of ill humor and bad temper I’d ever seen out of a worker, far worse than anything she may have been doing.
So for years, I had kept my distance from him. He was probably the only worker I’d ever really been wary of, and it was all based on that. And now he was going to be my companion. Years later, after I was out of the work, I mentioned that event to the girl’s mother. She said oh no, he had just gone down and asked the girl if she thought he needed to open a window or not. She was sitting on the end of a row, so she was the one he just happened to stop by and ask. (The mom and several others had also thought at first that he was angry at her — his manner was often rather brusque.) So I had a foul opinion of him all those years for nothing, but never even dared to ask him about it the whole year we were together.
In spite of that misunderstanding, he still merited my dislike, as the year with him was atrocious. A baby worker needs all the help, advice, encouragement, and friendship he can get, but this man had no concept of how to be a friend, teacher, father, brother, companion or anything. It was quite obvious he would far rather be alone. A young companion was just a burden for him to drag around, and his life apparently would have been a lot simpler without me; but since that would be against Jesus’s 2×2 “orders”, he had to put up with me to fulfill the scriptures. Why on earth he was always the one to get a first-year companion is beyond me, though some apparently liked him and said they had a pretty good year with him. His last few companions had all been teenagers or thereabouts, so he treated me (ten years older) the same way like I was a dumb kid. And not once all year was there the slightest word of spiritual guidance, of how to speak in gospel meetings, or what to preach about. There were plenty of instructions on table manners though.
We were up nearly every day at 6:00 a.m. and to bed at 11:00 or 12:00 p.m., which was never enough sleep for me, so I was dead tired all the time and just living for the rare afternoon nap. One day he stayed somewhere else, and the lady of the house let me sleep till 9:00 a.m. I got into no end of trouble when he found out. What a bad example! “No elbows on the table” was his strictest rule. I’d had a bad back for years, and having to sit for small-talk in hard straight chairs for an hour or more after every meal with no elbow support was ridiculous, especially when the people of the house were all doing it. So I twitched and squirmed and sat sideways with my arm over the back of the chair for support, which looked far worse than the elbows on the table ever would have.
He was hyperactive and always on the move. In total violation of one of Jesus’s most specific commands to the disciples when He sent them out, “Go not from house to house”, there were occasions when we actually hit seven houses in one day; and almost always we visited three or four. We got to some homes in our field far more often than others, and some we never went to. He didn’t like two of the families in our area. He actually said he could feel a bad spirit in the meeting whenever they were present. We only visited their homes once all year — and they were two of my favorite families in the whole field! He did all the talking and too much of it. I heard him tell the same trite anecdote to the same family four times; but it spared me the trouble of having to talk much, and he said I didn’t have to anyway. I was never a good conversationalist, so at least that worked out fine. Nothing about the work bored and irritated me more than the apparent necessity for trivial chatter around the table at least three times a day.
He was extremely tight-fisted, always concerned about wasting the Friends’ money. I was reasonably diligent about the same, but I resented not being able to take a decent shower, the one simple luxury a person ought not to have taken away. I was instructed to get wet for a few seconds, and then turn off the water and soap up, and then turn it back on (which invariably would freeze or burn you) and rinse quickly. He was often listening to see if I did it right. All to save a few cents of water. A sister worker once told me that her first companion made her do the same thing. But soon into her second year, her new companion told her she needed to take longer showers; she was afraid she wasn’t getting clean enough! I couldn’t even buy myself a candy bar on a rare afternoon walk without feeling guilty about wasting the Friends’ hard-earned money. However, my companion was totally addicted to coffee (which I never have liked) and even carried a large jar in his suitcase in case the Friends ran out after his many essential cups a day. I seem to have poor circulation in the morning and I’m always cold after getting up, so during the winter, I started putting on a sweater for breakfast every day. Right away he informed me that wouldn’t do at all, because the Friends might feel their house was too cold, and go turn the heat up (exactly what I wanted), which would cost them too much money. So I had to sit there shivering in a thin shirt every morning, while he tanked up on hot coffee.
Still, never a word of spiritual talk. Perhaps he thought that I knew enough about all that, or maybe saving those pennies was more important to talk about. But the money given to me was piling up. I had many hundreds of dollars in my suitcase most of the time, and not a thing in the world to spend it on except gas. I sent most of it to foreign workers. I guess I figured all workers were as tight as he was with their money, because I was quite appalled later when a whole bunch of workers went out to an expensive restaurant once, and rather surprised when I saw another middle-aged worker actually putting quarters into a video game.
I thought that I had given my life to help save lost souls, but only twice the whole year long did we visit an outsider’s house. All the rest of the time we were with the Friends helping solve internal problems, about which I was always kept in the dark — he handled them alone. All that sort of suited me. One thing about the work I had dreaded the most was the idea of endlessly knocking on strangers’ doors and getting them slammed on me. It never happened. So if you think a worker’s life consists of constantly going out to witness to the “unsaved”, it doesn’t. I figured out that they feel maintenance is more important than evangelizing — they find it easier for them to keep the existing Friends in the church than to try to win new converts to it.
It wasn’t long until I was literally counting the days until I could get back to preps, which was still many months away. It was truly a miserable existence, but I didn’t feel it was my place to try to befriend my companion more, or to make the first move toward a better relationship. He was the older companion, and he knew what he was supposed to do — that was part of his job, to help me, to be an example, to take me under his wing, to give me a good start in my life’s new work; he knew it, but for some reason he didn’t want to. Instead, I literally wanted to die. If the rest of my life was to be this dreary, I didn’t want it.
There was no question of me dropping out of the work — I had too much pride for that. Nothing is drilled into workers at preps more than staying in the work. “You can’t just try the work, like you can’t just try marriage – it’s for life.” Every letter and conversation between workers is full of encouragement to stay in, stay in for life. That type of reinforcement, competition, and appeals to one’s pride is necessary, or else they would be dropping out like flies — and plenty of them do, in spite of it. I was determined I wouldn’t. Whenever I heard of a young worker who had dropped out, I’d always try to get the exact details so I’d be sure never to get into a similar situation. I’m sure each of us six new workers secretly wondered who would be the first to go, and I was bound and determined it wouldn’t be me. (It was.)
But since getting out and staying in were both horrible, death seemed far more attractive, though unlike several other young workers I’ve heard of, I was never even remotely suicidal. I just wished it would happen, because for the first time in my life, I truly felt saved. We were never supposed to feel that way before, but I knew good and well I was obeying every possible rule and command in the whole 2×2 religion; and I was so constantly surrounded by other people that I couldn’t possibly sneak in a major sin. Therefore, I was saved. And to go on to my reward wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I certainly had nothing else to look forward to but a lifetime of drudgery.
I was getting fat. I had a worse case of pimples than I ever had as a teenager. I thought my hair looked hideous short, and I hated dress clothes — I looked like a dork in them. I would wander through department stores just wishing I could wear a shirt with some color in it again. I tried to get a light blue dress shirt with a white collar once, and was told “no way”. Was that too worldly? I’d always been allergic to the Dacron in Perma-prest pants, but I had to wear them now in spite of the itching, because we “lived out of a suitcase”.
The idea that workers have it good and that life is easy because of all the nice houses they get to stay in is total hogwash. Lots of the Friends have very nice houses, but luxury is no big deal when you can’t ever get a decent night’s sleep. Workers staying in their own batch in foreign lands have it more comfortable in many ways than we did. Since we were in a different place every night, you never get used to anything. Either the bed is too hard or it’s too soft. The cover is too thick or too thin. The pillows are too fat or too flat. The room is too quiet or too noisy. The house is too warm or too cold. And there is always a snoring companion nearby, who is none too comfortable himself.
Then every night, in the middle of the night, would come the dreaded trip to the bathroom. I heard other workers complaining about suffering from “I.B.B.” – itty-bitty bladder. I knew what they were going through. Stumbling around in the dark, trying not to wake up your companion or the people of the house, trying not to ram into the furniture, hoping the doors wouldn’t squeak…. No matter how well you scouted out the house before going to bed, trying to find the bathroom in a dark hallway could be an uncertain event. I was always just terrified I’d go bumbling into the people’s bedroom, or worse yet, into some teenage girl’s, and have her wake up screaming – just try to explain that in the middle of the night… and the gossip would go on forever. I never had any such disaster. But the fear of one, and the total inconvenience of the whole thing was such that I quit drinking anything at all after about 5 p.m., so I could sleep through the whole night.
A few times that year my companion actually did sit me down for a serious talk, but every time, I had the feeling it was primarily for the purpose of telling me I wasn’t right for the work, though he didn’t say so directly. He would talk about how some people were called by God into the work, and others just go in because they want to be helpful or to do the right thing, but they’re not really called and therefore don’t make it. They eventually break down and have to quit. I certainly felt like I was called, but he apparently thought I wasn’t, so I was confused. I tried hard to be a perfect little worker, so he could have no possible reason to think I shouldn’t be one.
As time went by, it seemed more certain that I was on trial, for no reason that I could see. I was beginning to be afraid he would put me out. We’d never once had an argument (I wouldn’t dare); never once an unpleasant scene to convince him I was unfit for the work. I knew other young companions of his who had acted far more immature than I ever did. Yet, I was getting the definite feeling he wanted me gone. The people of the field certainly liked me, and several resented the way he treated me. He apparently talked to E.T. about me, because I had to go have a private talk with E.T. once, but nothing he said seemed to make any real sense to me, except to convince me more that I had better be perfect if I was expecting to stay in. I was learning that the California staff was run on fear — fear of the ultimate degradation: getting kicked out. I wished I could be on the Oregon staff, which actually seemed to be run by love, with a happier and freer bunch of workers, though I figured Washington was about the same as California or worse, under Tharold Sylvester. My companion himself, usually seeming so all-powerful, was a meek puppy around E.T.
There was one bright spot, though most other workers would be amazed that I ever thought it was one. I actually liked to preach. That was the only time I could ever really be heard, the only time I felt like I was accomplishing anything; the only time I ever felt useful and appreciated. And I was good, too. I’d always promised myself I would be. I’d sat through far too many hundreds of boring, incompetent sermons to ever inflict such on anyone else. There was many a year before when I would never think of taking a friend or outsider to certain workers’ gospel meetings, because I knew good and well they would be bored to extinction. I had always been assured that our workers didn’t need to be trained how to speak well, because if any outsider had an honest heart and was really searching, the Lord could speak to them, even through the poorest of speakers. Well, maybe so, but what if they weren’t really searching? Few people ever were. What would be wrong about trying to attract them to the Way with good sermons? What would be the advantage of driving them away by incompetent bunglers who couldn’t talk in a straight line? I heard a younger brother one night mispronounce four words in a single verse; he kind of laughed about his stumbling around on the words, but I was disgusted. If I had been an outsider there, I would have thought, “How can he possibly know what he’s preaching about if he doesn’t even know how to pronounce it?”
So I made sure I could speak well. Besides that, the people of my field were so wonderful, generous and loving that I felt that was the least and only thing I could do to ever repay them for their kindness. (After all, that was what I was getting paid for.) E.T. had talked to me a bit at that first preps about speaking in meeting. He told me to always put in something personal. Tell a story, make up a parable, or relate an event — never just dry preaching. It was good advice, and I never failed to follow it. It really worked too. People would get that bored, glazed-over look during the Bible-talk part, but they would immediately perk up and start listening as soon as I said something like, “One time I heard…” or “When I was young…” or “I once knew someone who…” etc. My companion followed no such advice. He was a straight-through, ranting and threatening Bible-waver, and after the first two minutes, my mind was invariably wandering all over the world. He was certainly loquacious enough, but never once the entire year did he tell a single story or say one thing that ever stayed with me. Of course, I always felt wrong for not listening, but I couldn’t, and I don’t see how anyone else could either.
My practice of memorizing every word before a meeting was starting to worry me greatly. Down the road a few years, I would have to start speaking a whole lot longer than my usual five to ten minutes. That was already about the limit of my memory. How could I possibly come up with, and memorize, a 30 to 45 minute sermon two or three times a week? It certainly didn’t make the future seem inviting — it was really somewhat terrifying.
I only messed up in meeting once, but nobody noticed. I was going to speak a bit about the character Felix, and then that would just logically develop and lead into talking about Festus, who was in the same chapter. It had to be in that order to get my spiritual message across. So I went up to the microphone and announced, “Tonight I’m going to speak about two men; first Festus and then Felix.” Oops, that was backwards! I had a split second to decide: should I immediately contradict myself and say, “Oh no, I mean first Felix and then Festus!” (thereby making myself look like an idiot); or else should I go ahead and do what I had just said and talk about them in reverse order, thereby having to totally wing it, making a hash of my train of thought and having to revamp the whole spiritual content in midstream? Naturally, I did the latter, and it came out fine, but it about did me in. I was all the more convinced now that just getting up there without knowing my every word ahead of time was not for me and never would be. So it was no wonder I had the first signs of an ulcer, and my hands began to break out with a nervous rash.
After several months, another worker was sent to join us for a while. It was mainly because he couldn’t stand his own companion, which he told me about at great length, even though I kind of enjoyed the elderly gentleman, and would have much preferred him to my own companion. This younger guy was apparently having all kinds of other doubts, conflicts, and traumas about being in the work, which he didn’t talk about. I knew he had them though because he took it all out on me. If he had wanted to talk about it, or discuss things, that would have been fine; but no, he just wanted to fight.
A young worker’s first year in the work is difficult enough without someone deliberately adding to it. Everything you’ve had comfortable and familiar all your life is gone for good, and now nothing at all is permanent, constant, or routine. Every night is in a different home; every meal at a different table; and you have to act cheery and friendly around strangers all day long, whether you feel like it or not. The constant pressure of meetings, sermons, and visits, plus every young worker’s ultimate dread, preaching a funeral, all combined to make this year a thorough nightmare. And now this guy enters the picture, and makes life worse, on purpose.
Had he already forgotten what it was like? I should think anyone who had already gone through his first year would do all he could to make it easier on someone else, but he was acting simply hateful. Even though I was two or three years older, he had already been in the work 5 years, and was therefore far above me in the seniority department, and wouldn’t even think of treating me as an equal or even as a friend. This hierarchy of who is the elder worker of any pair or group is measured down to the year, month, and even the week they went into the work. Age has little to do with it. This may sound absurd, but they apparently can’t come up with any better way to do it — trying to choose the lead worker by means of his maturity or spirituality, rather than by simply how long he has been in the work, would just cause all kinds of trouble and hard feelings.
At first, I tried to tell myself it was my fault that he was being so contrary. Maybe he was right about all those little faults he kept picking out in me. But soon, I just told myself (with shock that such could be true of a worker) that the way I was being treated was simply evil. I realized that one day on the way to Sunday morning meeting. There were just the two of us in the car. Usually on the way to meeting, companions are nearly silent, getting their thoughts ready for meeting, and that’s how it should be. But here he was quite deliberately trying to pick a fight, and on the way to meeting yet! He kept throwing out any line he could think of to try to make me say something he could argue about. The part I can remember went like this: A worker at a convention grounds had drowned a litter of kittens because the owner didn’t want the place overrun by cats when convention started. I remarked that I would never be able to do a thing like that. I wouldn’t say anything if someone else was to do it, but I never would do it myself. He asked me:
“What if an older worker told you to do it?”
“I don’t think one would ever make me, if I didn’t want to.”
“But what if he did?”
“I wouldn’t do it.”
“You would have to! You vowed to obey in all things.”
“That doesn’t apply to killing cats.”
“It sure does! You can’t possibly refuse an order from an older worker.”
“I would if I thought it was wrong.”
“An order from an older worker is like an order from God. You wouldn’t refuse Him, would you?”
“God would never make me do a thing like that.”
“How do you know? He told Abraham to kill his son!”
And so it went on and on. It was then that I finally lost any last vestige of the idea so carefully drilled into me for a lifetime that workers are somehow special, holier, and far above the rest of us. This guy was a real jerk! Now twelve years later, he is still in the work, and I have no doubt he would still be mean enough to force some poor young kid worker into doing something contrary to his conscience, just to exercise his holy authority. Even if it meant killing cats.
A glorious thing happened a month later. My companion went off to special meetings in Oregon. The Jerk was going back to his companion, so I was going to be put with two other workers until convention time! I had been friends with the younger one for years before we’d ever gone in the work, and the older one was the one who played video games, so I was pretty happy about this change of events. I was made to understand by my companion that I was still very much on trial, and that my new companions would be observing me for my suitability as a worker, and be reporting back to him. I felt sure they would put in a good word for me. As it turned out, the younger one was never consulted, and the other one pretty much had to go along with what the older workers expected him to say.
The month was a vast improvement, though hardly great. We stayed more often in an apartment full of professing college guys than in any other home. (My original companion would never have even considered staying in such a place.) We went to visit some Jehovah’s Witnesses once, which degenerated into a religious argument. I thought we came out looking pretty bad, but the other two proclaimed that we had won that round and we had really told them a thing or two. We visited a Pentecostal church one Sunday, but my companions got up and we left halfway through. I was irritated because I was having a good old time and didn’t want to leave; besides, it was rude to walk out. We spent one whole week on top of some of the Friends’ house, tearing off rotten roof shingles. The house had actually been an old church and the roof was steep and dangerous. I was, of course, “willing and submissive”, but I rather resented the filthy job. This was not what I’d given up my all to do, to provide free labor for Friends who could well afford to pay for the job.
Back to Preps
It was finally July again, and we were back at Gilroy. Somehow I knew what was coming, and any day I expected a summons to the house where the older workers stayed. It took a long week in coming, but it did. I was called into a suitably gloomy room. E. T. was there, my companion was there, and also the older of the two workers I had just spent my last month with. Was this to be a fair trial, or had the verdict already been reached? I was guilty of nothing and I knew it, other than sacrificing my life for this noble Work, which was now getting thrown back in my face, unwanted. They were actually quite kind; I even felt sorry for old E.T., because it was obviously hard on him to have to put me out, and of course, he wouldn’t have done it, had it not been for my companion’s reports.
They assured me I had done no wrong, and there was not one thing I could have done differently. (My companion had even told me that before.) They said they had seen far too many other willing and earnest young men and women, who had not really been called into the work at all, struggling for years to be a good worker just by sheer willpower alone, rather than the power of God helping them. These poor souls inevitably cracked up later in life and lost their health permanently, and then had to quit the work and try to start a whole new life and career, all sick and middle-aged. They could clearly see I was in this category and wished to save me from this fate, and I would just have to trust that they knew best and were doing it for my own good. They appreciated the time I had put in, but now I was released to get on with my life. They hoped, however, that I would always remember to conduct myself in a manner appropriate to an ex-worker. Then they tried several times to give me $300 “to start your new life on”, but I turned it down flat.
Was this playing God, or what?! I was both relieved and furious. I had never had any doubt about my calling, myself. Who were they to assume I had never had one? The worker I had spent my last month with never said a word through the whole session, till the end. He finally spoke up and said that he, too, agreed with their verdict, and had recommended that I should be let go. I never did blame him for having to say that — he wouldn’t have dared to do otherwise, and the fact that he had never spoken at all during the session until then had already let me know he didn’t like the goings-on.
Even though they were nice enough and never the least bit accusing, their reasons still never have quite rung true. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening to any other worker, especially a first-year one. Even the worst-behaved are usually given a second year, companion, and chance. And I had always behaved so obediently I felt I didn’t have a spark of personality left — it had all been replaced by this generic worker mold. Were they really trying to help me by putting me out before my health was ruined? They didn’t even know about my stomach and “nerve” problems; I had never mentioned it, for fear that what had just happened would happen. Was I really such a “basket case” that a religion desperate for young brother workers would so easily get rid of one? I didn’t think so. Were they really looking out for my own good, and I should trust their wisdom and experience, or was there something ulterior involved? Or did my companion just not like me? Was he jealous or something? What awful things did he ever have to make up about me to convince E.T. of my unworthiness? Or were they right?
There were lots of questions, but you’re not supposed to ask questions. It was a conflict I never settled, but I don’t care anymore. It was, of course, the best thing that ever happened to me, and I was delighted to be out, though I probably would be in to this day, had it not happened. Still, I was plenty upset at the time. But at least I could go ahead with the rest of my life not having to suffer the shame of never having tried. In effect, I had gotten the same thing as my two friends who weren’t accepted in the work because of their health — release from a burden and bondage, no more obligation to give the ultimate sacrifice, and the satisfaction of knowing I had done my best; I had been unselfish with my life, and now I could live guilt-free. For a long time after, I often told myself it had all been worth it anyway, because of the four precious souls who had professed that year in our meetings. Now I wish they hadn’t.
Life was still plenty hard afterward. I have no idea now why I didn’t leave the grounds right then and there, and go back to Mississippi. I guess I didn’t want to upset all the other young workers before convention. I wrote to my Mom and Dad a long sad letter with the envelope edged in black. They immediately called me, and Mom promised to come out for convention and take me home. Like any mother whose child has been hurt, she was determined to get the facts. I asked the three workers not to tell anyone I was leaving, and I told no one. For another whole month, I lived with the workers, ate with the workers, and spoke in the meetings and the daily breakfast-table Bible studies like a worker, keeping my secret inside that I was not really a worker anymore. I was not about to let them know and have to face their concern, pity, and questions — I had no answers.
Once again I was lonely at preps. I had vowed the year before that I would be especially nice and helpful to any new young guy just starting out this year. But the one who did start was a local boy who was so popular, and apparently so completely at home and at ease, that the other young workers all hung around him, and so I was hardly necessary. So again I was digging ditches and painting barns in the summer heat; but now with a secret I couldn’t tell.
I knew I had to leave right after Gilroy I. The younger workers only have to preach at three of the four conventions they get to each summer. I, of course, wouldn’t be speaking at Gilroy I. If I stayed on for Gilroy II, and my name didn’t appear on that speaking list either, the cat would be out of the bag. They would be asking questions — nobody gets out of speaking at two conventions in a row. So I had to leave between the two conventions.
Mom flew out from Mississippi and asked for a talk with my ex-companion. He agreed, but then obviously avoided her for several days. She had to ask three times. During their eventual visit, he assured her, “He has an excellent spirit, like Daniel. It is above reproach, and I wish I had one like it.” And again he said that there was absolutely nothing I could have ever done differently. I was actually somewhat comforted that he had compared me to Daniel like that — coming from him, it was high praise indeed. Of course, this was not an answer at all to her, and she was even less satisfied with E. T.’s answer that it was all for my own good. Apparently, E.T. told her they had offered several times to buy me a car before I left, and I had refused. I don’t have the remotest recollection of that, but that’s what he told her. Maybe they thought the $300 would buy me one.
My main concern now was getting through convention and getting out of there. My Mom asked me if she could tell a few of the families she knew that I was going home. She told six couples. They were all shocked and most cried. One lady in particular was very angry, telling her, “Something is wrong!” She also told Mom she couldn’t stand the way my companion was constantly teasing me (though I don’t remember him doing so much.) She had wanted to tell him, “Just leave him alone!”
Sunday night, convention was over. I had still not told anyone, not even my Mexican friend. I packed up my few belongings secretly, left him a note on his pillow explaining what little I could (which totally crushed him, but I just couldn’t talk about it or say goodbye) — and then we slipped away. The wretched year was finally over, sort of.
One of the Friends Again
I stayed in Mississippi for eight months, working for my folks. I didn’t go to meeting at all for a while, not wanting to see the people I had grown up around, who had had such high hopes for me. Not that I felt like I was a disappointment or a failure in the least. I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to have to tell them any details or hear their questions, no matter how well-meaning, because I didn’t have any answers. My parents explained what they could to them. But soon, so people wouldn’t think I had dropped out entirely, I had to start going again. It was all rather dreary. All the folks left in the area were getting up in age, and pretty much said the same thing, week after week, in every meeting. Some didn’t speak up, most were hard of hearing, and the singing was nonexistent. About the only excitement was the time Miss Looney dropped her Bible in the yard, then came in hollering, “That dog has gnawed the Epistles!”
I got to where I didn’t want to go; I was getting nothing from the meetings. One night a thought came to me that woke me up a bit, though. That night my folks couldn’t go to meeting, and I was to go alone. I dreaded the idea, but I suddenly realized, “If I’m not getting anything out of these meetings, then these poor old folks are getting even less. It’s up to me to put something into the meeting.” So with a bit more life in me now, I tried to do what I was good at once again and have a good testimony for the old people; and I think they appreciated it.
One small change in the meeting had taken place since I was last living there. One Wednesday night a worker had said they no longer had to stand up for testimonies since most of the people there were getting so old. The elder, Mr. Clarence, loudly resisted such a radical change of doctrine. He kept struggling to his feet anyway, saying that the reason we always stood up when we spoke was because that made it just a little bit harder on us, it made it just a little bit more of a sacrifice, and besides that, we had always done it that way “since the beginning”. My comment on that later was, “Why not just stand on our heads, then, when we speak? That would make it a whole lot harder on us, it would be a much greater sacrifice, and surely would get us more reward in Heaven!” Several years before that, they had already stopped getting on their knees for prayer. Even as a kid, I had thought it excessively uncomfortable to have to get down onto a hardwood floor and balance on elbows and knees, and nobody could hear the prayers anyway with everybody’s backs turned to each other and their voices going right into the upholstery. But at least that had changed.
Back to California
Eventually, I knew I would have to get back on the horse that kicked me off — go back West. The folks gave me their car, and I began a leisurely trip, hitting nine national parks along the way. (I was in no hurry.) The Nature did me good — I’ve gone camping and back-packing there once or twice a year ever since.
At first, the new life in California was no fun. My disappearance had caused a bit of a stir, and my dismissal some real anger among the Friends in my old field, who had thought all along I wasn’t being treated right. One elder had even called Howard Mooney in Oregon to try to get him to take me on the staff up there, but I wasn’t about to go back in. I hated meetings for a while, and avoided get-togethers for months, scared to death people would ask questions, show disapproval, or were thinking the worst, and I had no explanations for what had happened. Even worse were those who hadn’t heard, and would pop right over and cheerily ask me in front of everybody who my companion was, and where my field for the year was, leaving me to stammer out some weak answer, which embarrassed them and made everybody else around feel bad.
I wasn’t about to go into a new meeting while traveling, afraid the elder would expect me to lead it, and I would have to tell him in front of everybody I was no longer in the work. Again, I was certainly not ashamed — I just didn’t want to talk about the ordeal or cause embarrassment to others. And I didn’t set foot at Gilroy for five years. Or say anything more than a polite “hello” to my old companion. I would completely leave the state each year and go to conventions where nobody knew me. And surprisingly, to their credit, not one person ever did come up to me in all that time and question me about what had happened, though I was constantly afraid they would. There was never a hint of disapproval from anyone; most felt that even just a year in the work was not to be scorned — it was more than most of them had ever done, and maybe they were proud of me for it.
Things settled down eventually and became almost normal again. I would meet up with my Mexican worker friend each year at some convention, and we would always take a long walk in the evenings and he would tell me all his problems with the work. His English was wonderful now, but I could see the work was taking a toll. It is truly a “dying life”.
I had become a full-time artist by now and still am. (I still hated getting up in the morning too much to put up with a regular job.) That, of course, was technically taboo for a professing person, especially a man. It wasn’t “useful” work, like farming, construction, or nursing. But as usual, for some reason, I never heard a discouraging word, and wouldn’t have cared if I had. Quite the contrary, actually: I heard from more than one other professing person about how my decision to follow my talents rather than my “duty” had encouraged them to do the same, to advance their artistic or musical interests.
Only one thing through this whole time had aroused a glimmer of hope that there really was some kind of divine logic to all the past events. I was now expecting to inherit the convention grounds in Mississippi, which I loved. Maybe, just maybe, the Lord had really called me into the work, and really had taken me out so soon, for the express purpose of letting me know what worker life is really like. Maybe I had looked up to them too much, had thought they were far too holy. Now that I knew how human they really were, I would be all the better equipped to run a convention grounds. A weak conclusion, perhaps, but it was the only one that made any sense at all. (If the workers were right about me not being right for the work, then apparently I had never been called. If I actually had been called, apparently the workers were wrong.) So at least this explanation covered both bases, sort of.
So when my folks grew older, I fully expected to move back and take over the grounds. I knew that was my place in life. I was actually starting to feel a bit like a prince again. Single, professing, ex-worker, a convention of my own — I thought I was about the most eligible bachelor in the country now (ignoring the other 250 million people in the country who really couldn’t care less, but they, of course, didn’t count.) Then things started falling apart, and I mean dramatically. And for that I can eternally thank my sister.
Reality at Last
She stopped professing! How awful!! I couldn’t stand the idea of not having her in heaven, of her going to a lost eternity! I prayed mightily, but it did no good. Because the next thing I knew, my Mom was going out! The grandest and best-loved Southern gentlewoman in all of Dixie, the one who acted like an Ann Landers to all the young workers of the South (who constantly dumped their problems on her alone because they trusted her), the one who had taught me my love for God and the “Truth” — she was quitting?! How could things get worse? They could. Now the folks were selling the convention grounds and getting out of the state!
I had pinned my whole future on that place! It was the only stable rock in my whole existence. Taking it over was the only thing that made my past troubles make sense. It was supposed to be my home forever! Wherever I went or whatever happened to me, I had always had that anchor: the soil of Mississippi, that beautiful old plantation house, the 200 great pecan trees, all calling me home!
Oh well… I didn’t want to live down South anyway — the people were too backward, you couldn’t make any money, it was too far from my hiking and skiing areas. Besides, my sister was sending me books to read now, and exit letters, newspaper articles, and reams of “illicit” literature about the church.
I saw through the whole sham in no time. All along there had been some things that never had made any sense to me, but I could blank them out, as usual. For example, if we were supposed to work, work, work for the Kingdom all our life, and then we might just barely squeak into a corner of heaven, why did Jesus have to live and die for us at all? Also, the imbalance in the number of unmarried women to men should have been evident to everyone — two to one in most places. Would the Lord design a system in which half of the girls had to marry outsiders (forbidden!), or not marry at all? It was obvious that it was usually the prettier girls who managed to catch and marry one of the rare professing single men. Wouldn’t this make the Lord a respecter of persons, rewarding them for their looks?
My deconversion seemed almost instant; at most a matter of days. The Secret Sect alone just about did it. I had certainly had enough education and done enough reading in my life to know whether a book is full of thorough, scholarly research, or whether it’s merely the opinionated railings of a biased, angry author — which this certainly was not. It still amazes me how soon I saw through it all, and amazed others even more so — they thought I’d be a tough egg to crack.
After all, except for that one wretched year, I had led a pretty charmed existence professing-wise, compared to the horror stories of most of the other Two-by-Two’s I was reading about now. No problems, no complaints here. Mine was not at all a case of getting progressively more disgusted with a faulty system, of seeing persistent corruption, or of feeling any spiritual emptiness or wanting out of something causing me great personal torment or grief. I had thought clear up to the end that the “Truth” was a beautiful and faultless creation, a perfect jewel, and it was heart-breaking to discover now it was a fatally flawed one. I had so long been one of those “chosen few” that were privileged to know the one thing in the whole world that was pure, true, secure, forever, and divine — and now I had to let it go, realizing with sadness it was only a human creation, and not even one of humanity’s nobler works. It didn’t even have the dignity of any great age behind it.
Maybe the hardest thing, naturally, was losing my “royalty”. No longer a prince, no more one of the hand-picked elite of the Lord, now I was merely one of the plebeian masses, and quite annoyed to have to admit it. I had really liked being special and didn’t take kindly to being a peasant now. But I got over myself. And I have learned that my new place in the world is really much larger than my old position had ever been. It’s more important to be a part of the world as a whole than closed off in a small, secret sect.
Still, I may never have actually left though, if something better had not been offered in place of the “Truth”, and I think a lot of people still have that problem. They may no longer like or believe in the Way, but can’t conceive the idea that anything better is out there, because of all the brainwashing about other churches. The other books about the Two-by-Two’s, dealing with more spiritual matters, helped there. The realization that plenty of “worldly” churches were right all along was astounding. The whole concept of grace was incredible. And the simple idea that “reward” and “salvation” were not the same thing was revolutionary. Not to mention the fact that Jesus was God … !
So I was out, mentally, in no time, though still going to meeting for a while until I could move away. My sister and her family had moved to Oklahoma a few years earlier, and as soon as the convention grounds sold, my folks retired there to be near them. Houses were cheap there, and I needed a much larger studio. I had no intention to quit going to meetings in California and have to face all the questions, phone calls, worker visits, and genuine concern I would get from all sides. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so much — the workers had never come to see me a single time in the past four years, though I played the piano in all their gospel meetings. They did ask me once if I would like a visiting brother to stay with me for a night during special meeting rounds. I asked them, “Who?” They told me who: the Jerk who thought I should gladly drown cats, so I said, “No, I’ve only got one bed,” which was true.
So I was going to keep acting “normal” until I could move to Oklahoma. I had found a house there but had to wait a couple of months till it was ready. Now that I was still “in the Way but no longer of the Way.” I had to drastically revise all the standard, memorized little phrases I had used for decades in meeting, especially in prayer. No more thanking Him for “the perfect Way”, for “bringing the Truth across my pathway”, for “choosing us out of so many” — no more asking that He would “separate us from the World”, or praying for those who were still searching for “the one true Way”. That made it pretty hard to pray at all — I couldn’t say anything that would puzzle the people, anything in favor of the “Truth”, or anything that would go against my newfound beliefs either. It had to be all totally innocuous, though I sneaked in a few mildly radical ideas. (It was no problem to stop praying for the workers though, since I had never so much as mentioned the word “worker” in meeting one single time in all the nine years since getting put out of the work; I figured they could fend for themselves.)
I finally began to realize what a hideous burden it had been all these long years, having to work up a prayer and testimony twice a week (three times a week in Los Angeles.) As long as I had thought it was compulsory to salvation, I hadn’t questioned it and had tried to do it well, but now that I didn’t believe anymore, I couldn’t wait to get the hypocrisy of going to the meetings over and be rid of the drudgery of testimonies forever. The Friends have no training whatever in Scriptures. Our method was about like a class full of school kids given one textbook written in Old English, with orders from a teacher who appeared once a month or less to teach each other all about it — or die. Truly a prime example of the blind leading the blind.
That makes me think of a meeting my grandmother had been in. She had truly loved to read her Bible — none of this desperate search for a testimony a few minutes before meeting for her. She read every day because she loved the Lord’s Word, and so she had a better understanding than most. They were studying the twelve tribes of Israel, and one night the study was on Dan, the son of Jacob, a rather obscure character. Grandma figured out right away he had not been a good person, and was all prepared to say so. But one by one, every person in meeting stood up and spoke admiringly of Dan; how they appreciated Dan’s life, how they valued Dan’s example, and how they’d just like to be more like Dan. One woman read a verse that said, “Dan shall leap from Bashan.” Bashan must be an evil place, she thought, so she wanted to always just leap away from evil, and just be more like Dan.
Grandma was getting worried by now that she had misunderstood this guy, but she thought that surely when old Mrs. Montgomery spoke, who had two daughters in the work, that she would support Grandma’s opinion; but no, Mama ’Gumry too just wanted to be more like Dan. When even the younger worker present stood up and declared he too would just long to be more like Dan, poor Grandma was just about convinced she had badly misjudged this guy’s noble character; so she just sat there. The older worker looked at her to speak, and she just shook her head; no, she wasn’t going to. Then he got up and really set them all straight. Dan was not a great man! He was not a good example. Maybe we should want to just leap away from evil, but we sure shouldn’t long to be more like Dan! Grandma said afterwards she sure was relieved. She had just known old Dan was no good.
I got myself into a similar situation once, when I was in the work. Our Wednesday night study, inexplicably, was on “valleys”. So every single person droned on heavily about the “valley experiences,” “the valley of dry bones,” “the valley of salt,” and the “valley of the shadow of death.” All that had never occurred to me. I stood up, next to the last, and talked about the “choice valleys” (Isaiah 22:7), the “fat valleys” (Isaiah 28:1), the “valley of fountains” (Isaiah 41:18), the “valley of fruit” (Song of Sol. 6:11), and the “valley of wheat” (10 I Samuel 6:13). I noticed when I sat down nobody smacked their lips the way the whole meeting usually does as a substitute for saying “amen”. There was a long, disapproving pause before the final worker stood up and gave his version of the dreary valleys.
So, soon it would all be over! No more testimonies, no more faking, no more “Truth”. No one in California knew I was quitting. They knew I was moving away, but not that I was dropping out of sight. Word leaked back eventually, and like everybody else who has left meetings, I was amazed at the apparent indifference. My two best friends called and said they would still always be my friend, no matter what I had now chosen (just as I knew they would, but both are still quite convinced I’m lost). Otherwise, not a word, not a letter. Thousands of Friends out West know my name, and even more my face, but I no longer exist to them.
So, what is my opinion now of the great calling to the work I had felt for most of my life? And what about my sign from the Lord, the billboard, that made me finally offer? I don’t know — I may never know until I ask the Lord about it. I guess brainwashing, guilt, a sense of duty, for the one; coincidence, chance, an old guy who needed a ride, for the other. People feel a call into the ministry in every kind of religion on Earth and always have. And most of them were convinced they’d seen a sign or two from heaven in their life. If I’ve learned anything from all my past, it is that I don’t have all the answers. I used to think we did.
Now I’ve got my own little house with a huge art room. I have fine friends, no end of work, and a house full of exotic animals. I’m working on a picture book of the canyons of Utah and Arizona. I’ve got a big new 4-wheel-drive truck to get there in. And I can sleep late every day if I want to. But the best part is finally knowing why Jesus lived and died; having assurance of salvation and not just a hope; and having a load of guilt and bondage lifted, with real freedom for the first time to serve the Lord and not men. I’d never really been happy in my whole life before, but now, I think that life is great!
By G. R. Berry