SAUGUS, Calif.—Just up and over Soledad Pass, Sierra Highway drops into the Mojave: a spare, unyielding, unspectacular desert. And just over these bare hills, in Newhall, California, Charles Manson and his Family planned their frenzied armored dune buggy attack on all that was evil in our world.
Here in Saugus, a few miles to the north, there is another army of young and hyperthyroid-eyed true believers. They belong to the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation and believe that Christ is coming soon, within ten to 20 years is a fair estimate. He will be a Christ of Wrath and there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. The Lord, in his Celestial Anger, will take the unsaved by the collar, jerk them heavenward until the whole of the earth is a sphere in their eyes. And then Jesus Christ will have his Mighty Vengeance. He will hurl the unclean earthward as God once hurled Lucifer from his Heaven. Our planet will open and swallow its sinners into the fiery bowels where the Bible tells us hell is located. The saved, those of the Foundation, will be raised to the right hand of the Heavenly Father, who will direct them to actual physical mansions he has prepared for them: mansions perhaps not unlike the one in which Tony and Susan Alamo live right here on earth.
We—writer Bill Cardoso and photographer Tim Page and myself—were driving up to Saugus, 50 miles north of the sprawling Los Angeles Basin, to plan an escape. I was going to infiltrate the Foundation to investigate the charges of a loose-knit group of broken-hearted parents organized under the unfortunate acronym of FOC, which stands for Free Our Children. The focus of FOC is a 43-year-old black man named Ted Patrick. Formerly a San Diego community relations consultant for California Governor Ronald Reagan and currently unemployed, Patrick is the tough, tireless “deprogrammer” of Jesus Freaks. He has been spectacularly successful in convincing young Christians that they have been duped by their leaders, that they are possessed by demons, that they have been involved in voodoo, not Christianity. He does this by having parents bring their children—sometimes, it is alleged, by force—to one of several designated motel rooms across the country called deprogramming centers, where the devout young are confronted by teams of parents, friends and former sect members who counter their chanted prayers with reason: High volume, high pressure reason under conditions that would be called third degree if practiced in any police station in the country. The prayerful children are not allowed to “run away,” though the vast majority of them have been over the legal age of consent. Patrick claims 125 successful deprogrammings.
Tony and Susan Alamo (A-lame-o), and the Christians of their Foundation, pray to Jesus that this Devil coming against the House of God will be stopped. Mike Pancer, a San Diego attorney and an unpaid panel member of the American Civil Liberties Union, is, involuntarily, in the Lord’s Service in this matter. He is the answer to the Alamo prayers. Pancer saw in the papers that adults, the Jesus Freaks, in the process of being deprogrammed, were subjected to what looked like kidnap, assault and false imprisonment. He contacted the Alamos and began an investigation. While eternal Vengeance belongs to the Lord—and isn’t long in coming—earthly justice, apparently, was in the hands of the ACLU.
Patrick was in good spirits Thursday of Holy Week when I visited him in his suburban tract just south of San Diego.
“If we bust one of these groups, we’ve got them all,” he said. According to Patrick there was little difference among any of the 61 different groups he knows about. They all are guilty, he says, of “psychological kidnapping.”
“All these groups have the technique of hypnotising a person on the street or anywhere. And they can do this within five or ten minutes. And they can talk about anything. If they know you are a reporter, they can talk about the news. But the key is to get a person to look you straight in the eyes. And if they can look you straight in the eyes for five or ten minutes, you’ll find yourself unable to take your eyes off of theirs. You remember Susan Atkins? She said when she first saw Manson and looked into his eyes, she couldn’t take her eyes off of his. All of the kids say the same thing. And I’ve heard them, heard kids give testimony, give testament of these various groups and they say, ‘Well, I was on my way home and I met this person on the street and I looked in his eyes and I couldn’t take my eyes off of theirs … I left everything and went with them.’
“Of course these kids are programmed to use this technique, but they are not conscious of being able to use it. They are instructed by their leaders to always look a person straight in the eye. And they use certain Bible verses and then they talk to a person and after looking them in the eye for so long of a time their subject will leave and go with them. And this is what we call psychological kidnapping.
“The person is taken to a bus, a van—most of these groups operate from a bus—and the first thing they do is give the kids either coffee, tea or punch; cookies or sandwiches. And we have reason to believe that they have some type of mind-controlling drugs or herbs in this food or drink.”
Patrick was vague on the types of drugs used, though he mentioned that the police found “speed” in cookies given by a militant Christian organization in Bellevue, Washington. After being drugged and hypnotised, according to Patrick, the recruit goes through “an intensive questioning.
“They ask them all about their financial condition: ‘Do you have a car; is it paid for; is it in your name; do you have a bank account; do you own furniture … do your people have money; do they own a business?’ After getting all this information, they sign their whole life away. Everything they own; everything that they ever owned will belong to the leaders of this organization.”
Then, according to Patrick, there are the “brainwashing” sessions, lasting up to 30 hours apiece. “Two people work on [the new subject] at all times without food and maybe a little water and maybe a little rest. Somebody is constantly in there working and telling you we are the Leader, we are God, and all this jazz. And when they get through with them, they are zombies. That’s all they are, a complete zombie. They destroy their mind. They take their mind completely away. They have no will to think whatsoever. And all the things they are eager to do is what they are programmed by their leaders to do.”
I asked Patrick if he felt he was engaged in a Holy War with the Jesus Freak groups. “I have nothing to do with religion,” he said. “These are not religious groups. These are more Satan groups than anything else. And I will stand behind this 100%. There is nothing religious about any of these groups. They … they’re more Satan and they know they are Satan. Because God does not lie and cheat and steal and even kill. …”
“These are strong allegations,” I said.
“You haven’t forgotten Manson,” Patrick countered sharply.
“No, I haven’t forgotten Manson.”
“These groups are the same. The Family looked on Manson. They thought he was God. All of these groups are exactly the same as Manson. Tony and Susan and all the rest of them are exactly like the Manson Family. Only thing is: They’re worse. They’re more dangerous than Manson. He had a small family. But these groups—Tony and Susan—have 500 or 600 people and they’re better organized. They’re more dangerous than Manson. These groups would do anything. Believe us. …”
Patrick’s charges strained my credulity and I wasn’t about to believe much of what he said without documentation. He said he could prove his allegations, but—and here he gave me a squinty-eyed suspicious look, as if I might be a devious Christian spy—he wasn’t going to release the information to me.
I told him of my plans to infiltrate the Foundation and suggested that we talk at a later date. Patrick agreed but expressed grave concern for my safety. William Rambur, a programmer, father of Kay “Comfort” Rambur, presently living in parts unknown with the Children of God, a militant Christian organization, told me that I was dealing with perhaps “the most vicious of the California sects.”
“Watch out for your mind,” he cautioned, adding that the brainwashing techniques used by the Alamos could be as fearsomely effective as those used against American POWs by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War.
“We’ve lost contact with many of the people who have gone up there,” he said softly.
“Are you suggesting murder,” I asked.
“We’ve lost contact with them. They haven’t called us. We can’t reach them. All I’m saying is that we’ve lost contact.”
So, during the Holy Hours of Good Friday when Christians commemorate the agony and death of Christ on the Cross—when the sky darkened above Golgotha and the earth shook—a Volkswagen containing three journalists was moving east out of Saugus, toward the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation. The town itself is no more than a few stores and a classic high-noon railway station. The Foundation is another ten miles up into the rocky hills, past the beer and burger roadhouses, past the tough-looking country music bars, past the auto graveyards.
It was Grapes of Wrath country, home of the Thirties migration that didn’t make it to the Promised Land. It is a hot and tired land on the fringes of the Mojave and it attracts failed cars: Corvairs and Edsels and Falcons haunt these Holy roads. People in trailers own their own land which they share with rattlesnakes and scorpions. Great steel pylons carrying high-tension wires march two by two across the arid hills.
I experienced a definite tightening of the sphincters as we neared the Foundation. As the highway rose, the homes and trailers dropped away leaving only a few widely spaced roadhouses. If there was a fence around the place, I meant to find a weak spot. I assumed that I could escape overland, avoid the snakes, and come out at a designated point somewhere below.
But there was no fence and the Foundation looked exactly like what it was, a converted bar and night club once called the Wilson Cafe. The large parking lot held several buses, vans and cars all painted red, white and blue and clearly marked as belonging to the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation. One sign admonished readers to REPENT OR PERISH. There was a fire station nearby and we pulled into the parking lot.
Cardoso and I worked out a telephone code. If I called and said I was feeling “swell” somewhere in the conversation, I was in no danger. If I said I was “enjoying myself,” I wanted him up there immediately. If I didn’t call within three days, I wanted an all-out assault on the place by local sheriff’s deputies.
We pulled out of the firehouse and coasted slowly by the Foundation. The hills were green this spring after a wet winter, but in a month they would be brown and bare and choking with dust. They were hills, Susan Alamo was to say later, very like the hills of Galilee, upon which Christ walked. And though she didn’t say—and surely didn’t think it—they were the very hills upon which Charles Manson walked.
* * *
Four-thirty, Good Friday afternoon. Hollywood Boulevard, two blocks up from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’m lounging in the entrance to a toy store, unshaven and looking, I hope, profoundly confused. Page is across the street in the VW, camera at the ready. Two brisk but seedy looking Alamo-ites are coming my way, tracts in hand.
My witness was an exceedingly short Christian named Chris who stared up at me with a pair of smarmy eyes that rippled and glittered wetly behind a pair of thick glasses. Did I know that Christ was coming again, that the world was about to end, and that vengeance belonged to the Lord, he said all in a rush.
I considered the question in silence.
Apparently encouraged, Chris explained that he wasn’t exactly sure when Christ would make an appearance here on the boulevard, but that it was the “Season of His Coming.”
“I know that when the trees bloom summer can’t be far behind. Right?”
“Right,” I said.
“Well, the Bible gives us certain signs that indicate when Christ will come again.” According to the Bible and Chris, the end would be at hand when the armies of the world were massed around Jerusalem. I nodded. “The waters shall become bitter as wormwood,” Chris intoned, then added reasonably, “that’s pollution.” He paused to let this sink in, then hit me with what I suspect he felt was a boggler. “The Bible tells us that the Second Coming is near when the Jews preach the gospel and … the Alamos are Jewish.”
The evidence, I had to admit, was certainly piling up.
I saw a pattern developing: Fire a series of soul-rockers, then hit them where they live with a Clincher.
“The Bible says that Christ is at hand when the cities are enclosed in a smoking haze.” Chris directed my attention to the whiskey brown skies of Los Angeles. From the rapt and worshipful attention on his face, I think he half-expected Christ to descend from heaven, then and there, right through the smog in a blaze of glory, to smite the shit out of all the hustlers and the winos and the Godless shoppers of this choking Babylon.
We talked about the greatest war the earth has known, a war that raged on even as we stood there, in which the Devil battled Christ for the possession of men’s souls. I stared into Chris’ eyes for fully 30 seconds in an effort to determine if he was trying, consciously or unconsciously, to hypnotise me. I think he felt menaced because he took a backward step and stared at the tracts in his hand for several uncomfortable seconds. Hypnotism was definitely not Chris’ forte. He collected his thoughts, and came back with a strong verbal blast of fire and brimstone.
“Ah, come on,” I said, “why would a loving God make someone with the express purpose of sending him to hell.”
“You think God is Love,” Chris accused. His voice took on a sneering singsong quality. “You believe in a forgiving God. You only see what you want to see.” His voice dropped an octave. “Well, He is a God of Wrath. He is not a … permissive … God.” I further learned there was no hope for me, that I was surely hellbound, but that God had taken pity on me because I was talking to Chris, and that I could save my soul by catching the Alamo bus at six.
“I put before you this day,” Chris said, “both a blessing and a curse.”
“Here’s the good news and here’s the bad news,” I said smiling.
Chris did not smile. He apparently disapproved of jokes. His face became pinched and severe. The blessing was eternity in heaven praising God for Christ’s sake and the curse was a burning eternity of hellfire.
We had been standing in front of the toy store, talking for nearly 20 minutes. I would have stayed longer but Chris had better things to do.
“Read the tract,” he commanded, “then come get on the bus. Remember, the Devil is going to try his best to stop you from getting to the Foundation.”
“I’m going to go drink a beer or two and think it over,” I said. Chris folded his face into an ugly mask of contempt. “That’s the devil talking,” he stated flatly and stalked off down the boulevard to win another soul for Christ.
* * *
There are, of course, multiple unknowns in the world and it could very well have been the Devil himself who caused me to almost miss the Alamo bus, but if it was, his agent was photographer Tim Page, who was waiting around the corner for me. Page, a British citizen, was wounded five times in four years as a combat photographer in Vietnam. His brushes with death left him with an insatiable appetite for “scummy bars,” places with what he calls, in GI parlance, a “numbah ten clientele.”
The bar we found pleased Page immensely. At five in the afternoon of Good Friday, it was filled with cheap hustlers and even cheaper hookers. We ordered a couple of drafts and studied the tract which informed us that Tony and Susan Alamo were the first two to take the gospel to the streets. This was about 1967 when the young people were declaring war on the Establishment, taking drugs and talking about burning down the churches. So it said. Tony and Susan stopped this nonsense in its tracks and turned the dregs of the drug society to Jesus. The tract hit heavy on the theme of drug temperance and rejoined that these former stoned revolutionaries now go about “appealing to the Establishment to turn away from their sins.”
Tony, born Bernie Lazar Hoffman, confessed that he was a vocalist (remember “Rove On”), a record company owner, a fast stepping PR man, and the owner of a chain of health spas. “… All highly successful ventures,” it said, but neglected to mention that in 1967, Tony was “broke,” by his own admission. His life “was filled with sin, filth, despair, torture and torment.” Now, six years later, after committing his life to the Lord, Tony Alamo drives a black Cadillac Fleetwood with personalized license plates and lives in an elegant hilltop mansion in Saugus.
A bulletproof waitress in a miniskirt arrived with our third beer and I asked her to look at the picture of Tony and Susan on the tract.
“He looks sneaky and she’s got a face like an elbow,” she said.
“Ah Sister, that’s the Devil talking,” I said mildly.
She gave me a quick sideways glance and left, I suspect, to tell the bartender to keep an eye on us.
So much for the testimony of sinners.
* * *
The bus, red, white and blue—with a destination sign reading HEAVEN—was right there on the corner of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard as it is every day at six o’clock. On the way a fresh set of Alamo-ites tried to hand me another tract, but I told them I was getting on the bus anyway.
“Don’t let the Weasel talk you out of it,” another very short Christian told me.
“The Devil, the Weasel, the Old Boy. He’s going to sit on your shoulder and tell you to go have some dope instead.”
The diminutive evangelist thought it best to walk me the last 30 yards to the bus.
“Thank you Jesus,” he said to no one in particular as I stepped aboard. It looked like a school bus, and a capacity crowd of about 60 was aboard. Perhaps 50 were reading Bibles. The other ten were lost sinners, like myself, on their way to the Foundation for the first time. I sat next to one of the few clean-cut Bible readers, a man of about 20 named Hal, who immediately noticed the beer on my breath. “The services aren’t like any you’ve ever seen,” he told me through an obviously forced smile. “You … will … like them.” He opened his Bible and said no more. If Hal was a hypnotist, he had a serious problem with technique.
A Christian cheerleader of sorts made his way down the aisle, stopping every five rows or so to break into song.
My Savior leads the way
My Savior leads the way
My burdens all seem lighter now
Since Jesus came to stay.
The bus, I surmised, was a purchase from the Mexican government. All the exit signs were in Spanish. Someone was reading the Bible verses to the driver and he had to shout them out as the engine labored and the gears rasped on the steep hills of the Golden State Freeway. I caught a startling verse about the “loathsome diseases of the loins,” and simultaneously wished that I had taken the time to relieve myself in the bar. Here I was, I thought, on a Mexican bus, on my way to Heaven, and I had to take a piss.
I began to chuckle softly and Hal looked up from his Bible to give me a severe look, a look that seemed to say, “laughter is the Devil’s tool and no Good can come from it.”
“Excuse me,” I offered, and Hal, sorry hypnotist that he was, went back to his Bible. I sat with my legs tightly crossed and bit my lip for the next 20 miles. The Foundation is a single-story building quartered by a kitchen and a boothed-off dining area where much of the Bible study takes place. The other half of the building might once have been the dance floor and bandstand. It was now a church, set up with a combination of lecture-seat rejects and folding chairs. A crowd of about 400 were waiting for services to begin and engaging themselves in exalted conversation.
“Christ is so close to coming. I feel it in every pore.”
“It says so in the Bible.”
“It’s the Word of God, Brother.”
“Thank you, Jesus.”
No one seemed interested in hypnotising, brainwashing or even talking to me at this point, so I circulated aimlessly through the well-integrated crowd. Males outnumbered females vastly and the typical resident might be described as a male longhair, between the ages of 20 and 30 dressed pretty much like street folk the country over.
I found myself near a door to the left of the pulpit that said PRAYER ROOM. Inside I could hear people shouting in undifferentiated syllables, without cadence. An occasional man’s voice leather-lunged, “Oh God, I wanna be ready.” A hand-lettered sign on the door listed three things to pray for: Susie’s health, someone’s sister who had “a cancer,” and “that God will stop Ted Patrick and all other Devils coming against the Foundation.”
A young black resident took the pulpit and said, “Let’s hear a mighty Amen!”
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-men!” the 400 shouted.
This was followed by a prayer and then the band—a disparate collection of about 60 tubas, trombones, saxophones, flutes and clarinets dominated by an electric bass, an electric organ and three sets of drums—was off and running, slicing into standards like “The Old Rugged Cross,” and country devotions like “My Savior Leads the Way.” People stood and clapped and expressed thanks to God for the music. The orchestra sounded like a tank town high-school band.
After “King of Kings,” the big finish, various of the Saved stepped up to the pulpit to give testimony. “I know there’s a burning Hell,” one crisp sister in gingham non sequitured, “because I experienced a little bit of it out in the World.” Hell, in fact, seemed to be the big selling point for salvation and it beat out heaven in terms of mentions about ten to one.
The words “born again,” and “born again in the blood” were mentioned often. Very big was the phrase I know beyond the shadow of a doubt. The theme was drugs, rotten lives, torture, torment, filth and despair in “the World” as opposed to “Peace” at the Foundation while “Serving the Lord.” Most testimonies ended “so come on up and get saved.”
“You may think you came here for a free meal,” the leader said, “but God drew you here for a very special purpose.” He hit briefly on the soul rockers: hellfire, the end of the world, judgment before the Lord, and the Prophecy of the Second Coming before revealing to sinners in the crowd that the Biblical promise of eternal life was within our grasps that very evening. All we had to do, it turned out, was to humble ourselves before God—and of course everyone else at the service—by kneeling in the little area between the first folding chairs and the pulpit. There we would publicly confess that we led sinful lives in the manner of American POWs taping war crimes confessions before international cameras.
“I put before you this day both a blessing and a curse,” he said.
The organist began a churchy solo and elect Christians threaded through the crowd, looking for obvious sinners. Another short, rather pleasant-looking man in his mid-20s stood by my chair.
“Why don’t you come up and get saved,” he stage-whispered.
I shrugged stupidly.
“It’s easy,” he said. “I’ll come with you.”
A few sinners and their Christians were moving toward the saving block. The organ finished, stopped momentarily, but at a signal from the man at my side, it started again. The same song, from the top.
“I couldn’t say that prayer and mean it,” I pointed out.
“It doesn’t matter. If you kneel and say it with your lips, God will come into your heart in a very special way. Why do you think God brought you here?”
It was difficult to argue the point with every person in the place watching us, so I let myself be led forward to kneel on the hard linoleum floor, under a long fluorescent light. I said the prayer word for word and at no time did I feel God come into my heart, which, I suppose, is as it should be.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-men,” everyone shouted.
A brief announcement before dinner. Baby Christians—the newly saved—had another gift in store for them, “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Our older Christians would tell us about it.
“God promised that the saved would speak in tongues,” I was told by the man who was to become my teacher. “Don’t be denied. Seek for the gift with all your heart. Just keep saying, ‘God, you promised.'” The process, as it was explained to me, was that one started by “just praising and thanking Jesus.” At a certain point, he will begin to stutter, a signal that he is about to begin speaking in tongues. My older Christian invited me into the prayer room to give it a whirl, and since it seemed to be the thing to do after being saved, I followed him through the wooden door.
Given a generally tense state of mind, the prayer room is no place to be reassured about the sanity of the Foundation’s saved. The room was a windowless expanded closet, perhaps four steps wide and ten long. There was a muted light in one corner and as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I saw that there were wooden bench seats along three walls and an ancient, puffy sofa along the fourth. The linoleum had been torn up to reveal a wooden floor. The walls were rough-hewn wood, like a rustic sauna.
After the first few seconds of ripping claustrophobia, one became aware of a milling crowd and the monotonic sound of spoken gibberish. People were tromping back and forth lengthwise and their footsteps produced a constant low rumble, a counterpoint to the words, “thank you Jesus, praise you Jesus.” Christians stood in various corners and trilled out nonsense syllables: “Ah na na na” and the like at a rapid rate. Talking in Tongues.
I was later to happen upon a few verses in Chapter Two of Acts concerning this phenomenon. Forty days after the death of Christ, the Apostles gathered, “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Bystanders were amazed that the Apostles were speaking in their own languages, while, “Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.”
My older Christian sat me on the bench and took up a position on my right. Someone else sat close by on my left. Both men began rocking back and forth, chanting, “praise you Jesus, thank you Jesus.”
I have been at Catholic services where everyone suddenly kneels at some signal and willy-nilly, I found myself on my knees. It was impossible to remain seated. In the same way, it was difficult to sit in that room and not rock and chant.
“Thank you Jesus, praise you Jesus,” I said for a little over an hour.
Presently the three of us began rocking faster, chanting locomotive-style. “Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus, Thank you Jesus …” I assumed—half-believed—that there was some sort of self-hypnotic process in the works, and I intended to get thoroughly stoned. Several people seemed to be in a state of trance. I thought there might be some psycho-physiological process in which the tongue spewed out syllables of its own volition after a long chant. For me this was not the case.
“Thank you Jesus,” my older Christian said, then began stuttering slightly. “Thank you Jesisisis, thank you jisisisis, dank eh jisiis, dada a jisisisis.” I found myself stuttering along. The pace increased and the man on my left broke into tongues. “Ah yab badaba doedoedoe,” he stated. “Ah ra da da da da,” the man to my right replied. I tried to parlay my stutter into tongues. “Thank ooo jeejeejee,” I ventured. Apparently it wasn’t enough and we started the whole process again.
I could not, try as I might, get from the stutter to the tongues organically. I sneaked a look at my watch and realized that I had been rocking and chanting for almost two and a half hours. I was developing an unpleasant prayer sore at the base of my spine and it was becoming painfully obvious that I wasn’t going to get out of there until I began speaking in tongues.
We were working toward another crescendo. “Dank oo jejeje,” I said and burst into a tense, conservative burst of tongues. “Er rit ta tit a tit a rit,” I said, taking care to roll my r’s. “Ah yab a daba daba daba raba,” the man on my right shouted. “Ah nanananana nana nah,” the other Christian said.
I opened my eyes slightly on the down rock, saw feet gathering around me and experienced a mainline shot of mortal dread. They knew I wasn’t speaking in tongues. They were going to stomp me like a rat caught in the cheese box. “Er rit a tit tit tita,” I babbled, heavy on the rolling r’s. “Rit ti tit tit.”
There were more feet. Several people stopped chanting and were standing in a semicircle, speaking in loud and extravagant tongues. Someone shouted, “Oh, thank you Jesus, thank you for the victory.” The victory, I realized with relief that approached joy, was that I had said, “Rit ti tit tit.” I was in. I belonged. Everyone was with me. “Rit ta tit tit, diddla dit dit,” I said, introducing a pleasing variant on my basic tongues. This was well received. “Rit a little did a dit diddle dit dit.”
Beside me, my older Christian ran through a few change-ups, interspersing his standard “Yab ba da ba da ba” with nice syllables that sounded like the names of Biblical towns. “Ah Shal-la-dah, ah shal-ah-dah-dah.”
I began to realize that whatever nonsense syllables you said were all right as long as you said them rapidly, in a loud trance-like monotone. It was best if your tongue bounced rapidly off the roof of your mouth. I tried to come up with some good Old Testament sounds, but the only nonsense that came to mind belonged in old rock & roll songs.
“Ah Sha nana nana nana nana nah,” worked excellently. I was confident enough to vary my rhythms. My tongue was very loose. My friends and I took short, increasingly more rapid solos: dueling tongues.
After about 20 minutes, we tapered back down to a half an hour of “praise you Jesus, thank you Jesus.” It was past midnight when we left the rat box and the man who accompanied me to the saving block marked down three and a half hours on a sheet of paper on the outside of the door.
We stood outside the door and finally introduced ourselves. My Christian’s name was Frank and he wanted to know if I would like to stay at the Foundation and serve the Lord. The bus was about to leave.
“Any guests want to go back to Los Angeles?” the driver called.
Frank gave me to believe that my rebirth might not take if I returned to “the World” with its manifold temptations. He said I could backslide into “filth” which he defined as dope, pornography and possible homosexuality. Women, he said, were often agents of the Devil. I told him I would stay a few days because I was curious about what was involved in “serving the Lord.”
Frank shook my hand, said praise the Lord, and introduced me to several other Christians who greeted my decision with “praise the Lord,” uttered in the same vague tone other people say “far out.” I was given a dog-eared Bible and the two of us moved to the far section of the Church and sat in a booth. I should, I learned, read only the sections Frank recommended. “See,” he said, “if you just opened it up, you might get into some of the heavy prophets and it could blow your mind.”
We were to read the Book aloud. Frank asked me to to begin on Matthew, Chapter Nine. Before I could start, he closed his eyes and rotated his head from side to side in a painful manner, as if he had a chiropractic problem with his neck. He muttered something about “burning the words upon our hearts,” and looked up crossly while I stared at him. I realized that he was blessing the reading and obligingly rotated my head and muttered along. I got through the first 57 verses without incident, but when I came to 59 through 62, Frank stopped me momentarily to say that I was coming to “heavy scripture.”
In these verses, Jesus is preaching to the multitudes and a man tells Him he will follow Him after he buries his father. “Jesus said unto him, ‘Let the dead bury the dead.’ “
“Thank you Jesus,” Frank said.
I continued. “And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, ‘No man having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.’ “
I asked Frank to “interpret” that last verse, and he bristled. The Alamos do not interpret the Bible, he said. They tell you what the words mean, and in this case the words were plain enough. If I took my hand from the plow, that is, if I left the Foundation and scorned the work of the Lord, I wouldn’t be fit to enter heaven. He pointed out that there were only two places to go after one dies.
“Hell is so terrible you can’t even conceive of it,” he said, and as he spoke, I felt his genuine Fear. The Alamos had a friend, he said, a woman who was a born-again Christian but who had fallen in with backsliders and found herself surrounded by Devils in some sleazy gin mill. One of the Alamos told the story over the pulpit: how the woman had passed out behind the jukebox only to have a horrifying vision of eternal torment. The lost souls were confined in a blast furnace with sloping sides. Some tried to scramble upward, toward heaven, but they fell back into the pit. The others stood stiffly, like mannequins, and cried out to God like dumb beasts.
“Mercy, Lord, mercy.” Frank imitated the hoarse, hopeless croak of the damned, and a shiver ran through his body. “The woman said that if her own mother tried to stop her from serving the Lord, she would gouge her eyes out with her high heels.”
This all made it difficult for me to tell Frank that I wanted to call my friends and tell them I wouldn’t be home. Still I insisted, and he agreed on the condition that I “witness to” my friend. “Remember, he hasn’t been saved, so the Devil will be working through him. He’ll mock you and you’re going to have to be strong.” He stood at my elbow while I dialed Cardoso. “Don’t forget to tell him you’ve been born again in the blood,” Frank whispered.
“Hello?” Cardoso sounded sleepy or fuddled in some other way.
“Bill, it’s me,” I said, while Frank hung on every word. “Say listen, I’ve been born again in the blood and I’m going to stay in Saugus and serve the Lord. Everything is … swell.”
“Swell?” Plainly Cardoso couldn’t remember what that was supposed to mean. “You sure it’s swell? Are you all right?”
“I’m … swell,” I gritted.
“What’s the matter, can’t you talk?”
“Praise the Lord.”
We hung up.
“You have to witness to them stronger than that,” Frank said. “Pretty soon they say to themselves; that guy must really have something up there.”
“Yeah, well I’ll call him tomorrow night when I know a little more,” I said. “Well …” Frank didn’t seem to think that was such a good idea. We moved back to a booth and called for some food. While we waited, I learned that as a Baby Christian I was forbidden to speak to other Baby Christians and that I would have an older Christian assigned to me who would be my instructor and guide. As I learned later, you could literally not even go into the bathroom without your older Christian.
The food consisted of a pile of noodles, some vegetables and a tomato stuffed with beans. I shared five meals at the Foundation and never did I eat anything that contained either protein or mind-controlling drugs. We spent another hour in Bible study, Alamo-style, before Frank finally took me to the bathroom. It contained a row of dirty sinks, two urinal troughs, two sit-down toilets and a shower filled to the ceiling with sleeping gear. I was given two mothy blankets. Frank had an old sleeping bag made out of some miracle fiber; the kind of thing you find at J.C. Penney’s with pictures of the characters from Bonanza on the inside.
The folding chairs in the Church section had been taken up and the two of us found a spot to sleep right there on the holy linoleum. We formed a small part of a wall to wall human carpet consisting of perhaps as many as 125 sleeping men.
“When we get up,” Frank said, “we wake up just praising and thanking Jesus.” I agreed to wake up praising sand thanking and said goodnight.
“Amen,” Frank yawned.
Belly down in the sibilant, snoring silence, I reviewed Patrick’s charges. I had not been hypnotised, drugged, nor asked to sign away my worldly possessions. And if I was to discover that the brainwashing charges were not altogether groundless, the plain fact was that it was being done with the complete and devoted cooperation of the saved. There were in fact five separate occasions when I could have refused the Foundation without substantial rebuke: when my first witness left me on the boulevard; when I got on the bus; when I moved up to be saved; when I entered the rat box, and when I chose not to take the bus back to Los Angeles. At no time was there anything that resembled a physical threat, and what mental coercion there was fell far short of being irresistible.
No, the people at the Alamo Foundation were there because they wanted to be there, a fact which strained my perspective immeasurably considering they lived what struck me as a joyless life vibrating with a strong undercurrent of psychic terror.
A week later, in search of an historical context, I visited the San Francisco offices of psychotherapist Dr. Nathan Adler. I mentioned that in my stay at the Foundation, I was surprised to discover that many of the saved had been jailed at one time or another; in two cases on the chickenshit charge of loitering. In general, the people I met were not the familiar middle and upper middle-class dropouts of the mid-Sixties. My impression was that the majority of them were stone down and outers, kids with a lower middle-class background suddenly on their own and riding the ragged edge of poverty. Few of the saved I talked to had steady jobs before being born again.
“Youth is underemployed in our country,” Adler said. “There are simply no jobs for young people. They used to be apprentices or errand boys, but today our society seems to have no place for people under 25. They are treated like old people in this respect.”
We discussed the sociological statistic that there are presently some one million people under the age of 25 on the road and in the streets: the largest body of unemployed nomads since the Depression years. They can’t get case work services, food stamps or welfare because they have no permanent address. A goodly number, of course, could give a shit because they are stoned on whatever’s cheap and available on the street.
Adler thinks a parallel can be drawn between our time and the years between 1825 and 1837—the Great Awakening—in upstate New York. Young people were moving en masse out of Boston and New York as society stratified. There were jobs to be had digging the Erie Canal. Towns like Buffalo and Binghamton experienced exponential growth and 60% of the population was under 20. Those who couldn’t find work, drank. The American Temperance Union sprang up and the term “nation of drunkards” was coined.
Besides the Union there were rural communes, Utopian communities, and—more to the point—a huge Christian revival movement. It was characterized by a rejection of traditional work roles, a contempt for the false values of “the World,” a conviction that the Devil was hard at work battling for the souls of men, and by ecstatic behavior, such as speaking in tongues. Above all there was the Apocalyptic vision: the sure knowledge—knowledge beyond the shadow of a doubt—that the world would end soon. The event was flat-out scheduled for 1837.
While the situations are not strictly analogous, certain similarities between the people of the Great Awakening and today’s Jesus people suggest themselves. We are experiencing a youth population explosion as a result of the postwar baby boom. There is widespread joblessness and an accompanying heavy drug use. “In 1825 it was alcohol, today it’s speed or heroin or downers,” says Adler, who believes the specific drug is “an accident of the market.”
Further, according to Adler, we are in the midst of a vast social upheaval. Corporate clerical workers are no longer treated like professionals, and small shopkeepers are going out of business at an unusually high rate. A country that buys its clothes from ready-to-wear manufacturers doesn’t need tailors; one that buys its furniture from automated factories doesn’t need woodworkers. The craftsman class is sinking into the muck of history.
The threat of nuclear holocaust and/or ecological disaster is seized upon by people like Susan Alamo who see doom in Biblical verses. And war, Adler points out, has always generated a conviction that humans are so hopelessly cretinated that they must soon perish. In the Seventies we will have to contend with the stale carcass of Vietnam. In the 1820s Americans were recovering from the War of 1812, while Napoleon raged in Europe. The landed gentry in upstate New York suffered status-death as a basically rural economy shifted over into an urban waterpower society virtually overnight. Everyone, it seemed, was either waiting for the end or smashed out of their senses on demon rum.
The end of the world, however, failed to roll around in 1837 and a lot of people got splendidly drunk on New Year’s Eve. “By the 1840s,” Adler said, “all these groups had become lost little islands of impotence and incompetence.”
But for me, a week earlier, lying sleepless on the floor of the Alamo Foundation in the blackest hours of the morning of Holy Saturday, there were no convenient sociological communalities. I found myself seriously disoriented; thinking on the one hand, like a FOC parent, that these gentle Jesus folk were wasting their lives babbling inane gibberish and living in some of the most squalid and humiliating poverty in America. On the other, like ACLU lawyer Mike Pancer, who has been battling Patrick, I felt that since they had freely chosen this life, they should be free to live it. Even if they were being sorely victimized.
I dropped into a fitful sleep, full of nightmarish disasters, and started awake shortly thereafter overwhelmed with the conviction that something weird was going on. Frank was sitting near my head, a human alarm clock, demonstrating the proper way to wake up when you’ve just been saved.
“Praise you Jesus thank you Jesus praise you Jesus thank you Jesus praise you Jesus thank you Jesus praise you Jesus thank you Jesus praise you Jesus thank you Jesus praise you Jesus …”