Monday, September 20, 2010

The seeds of doubt

I was 16 and working after school in an entry-level job at a company called Church Service and Supply. They marketed church related material. It was mainly pews, audio visual setups, professional grade video equipment, and Christian movies. My job was to check in returned movies, run the film backwards over a viewer to check for damage, and then repair the damage. I watched Davy and Goliath films backwards, over and over. I still have nightmares.

I was lucky. The job paid well, the work was easy, and the owners were way too trusting. I had no direct supervision and did not have to work very hard to get my 20 hours a week in. It was during one of my slow days that the pastor from my church showed up to buy and old Packard from the owners. I helped get it home.

My pastor managed El Dorado Park Community Church in Long Beach. It was a fancy place, and featured the ability to watch the service from the comfort of your car. The pastor led a large church for that era, with several hundred members. The sanctuary could seat 1,500 people. My family attended regularly, but I don’t think we ever became members.

The pastor lived like a king, or at least he lived so far above what I considered normal as to be considered rich. We were poor. Well, not poor precisely, we had a house and enough money for food and clothing, but not much else. There were people worse off than us, but we were low on the social totem pole and we knew it. Many of the other members were in the same situation, lower middleclass working poor. By comparison to my family’s house, the pastor’s house was a mansion. It had a pool with a pool house, fancy furniture, art, and the rooms I was allowed to see (but not sit on the furniture) was really clean. I remember thinking that it seemed odd that a man who did so little had so much. I knew that being a pastor was not the same as being a mechanic, or driving a truck. I also knew that my family put money in a collection plate each week while we ate beans, casseroles, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At one my, my pastor offered a class of water in a cut crystal glass that was worth more than all of the dishes in my house. I knew something was wrong then, I just did not have the maturity to put together what Christopher Hitchens’ calls, the fat shepherd and thin sheep theory of church.

A Sunday rarely passed without a call for more funds and a passing of the collection plate. Money poured in. I once witnessed the counting process. The cash room was full of people counting stacks of bills with a deacon looking over the group to make sure nobody nicked cash, and there was lots of cash. It was the beginning of doubt. I started to ask questions about where the money went and why so much was needed. The answer was always missionary work, but I knew different. The answer was an obscene salary for a pastor who lived well above the lifestyle of his flock. It did not seem right then, and now I know it as a sign of an out of control church.

We fed people a few times each year. I helped put together the gift baskets for the needed. They went to people in our area. The church bordered economically depressed Hawaiian Gardens. I worked hard for donations, brought food from our own meager pantry, and solicited my neighbors to help the cause. I gave food baskets to people just like my family. In one case, I delivered a food basket to the house of a girl I was dating. I was using resources from the poor to feed the poor. I remember going to a meeting where our pastor told us money was tight and if were were to provide this service, we would have to raise the funds on our own. I realized later, when I was visiting the pastor’s house, that he could have sold one chair, painting, or a set of crystal glasses and paid for the whole damn thing.

It was the beginning of my realization that the people who spoke of God and Jesus were more focused on money and accumulation of wealth then they were focused on trying to live an authentic Christian life. That church was a job that drew people who wanted to help but were soon corrupted by the need to make a living. I don’t know at what point I realized that the pastors who tended their flock were more interested in the appearance of doing church and on the need to support themselves, but it came on early and was reinforced over time.

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