Most Americans know about TV preachers and that they get money from their viewers. Many of these TV preachers are Pentecostals, an often-emotional and loud group of “Christians” whose movement to promote Spiritual gifts, miracles, healing, and especially “speaking in tongues,” was started in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of the 20th Century.
There are many types of Pentecostals. I have encountered several of these groups, churches, and conferences–and have mixed feelings about them. Some Pentecostals are humble, kind, and helpful to their fellow human beings. They believe that God is God and can do whatever miracles He desires through His Spirit. Others are proud, entitled, promoting the “Prosperity Gospel” view that a real Christian, blessed by God, will have lots and lots of money (and probably not share it with homeless people). They believe a good Christian gives “tithes” and “gifts” to support “the ministry.” In conferences, they often take more than one noisy “offering” from the less affluent people there.
The problem with Prosperity Gospel adherents is that their leaders are very, very rich–and proud of it. Many are found on T.V. shows, running entire TV broadcast businesses and publishing houses. Some call themselves Dollar, fly in private jets (and sometimes die in them), live in huge mansions on large estates, brag about their yearly income, wear expensive clothes and hair designs, vacation in exotic places, and continue to extract money from their followers with the promise that they, too, will be rich.
Pentecostals draw more on some Old Testament examples of wealthy Jewish leaders than the New Testament teaching of Jesus and his followers, who often marked money as an evil snare and rich people as oppressors of the poor. Wealth also led to the fall of Old Testament heroes–and the tragic end of their families and personal empires. Job was the oldest Old Testament rich man who suffered much because of his riches. Gideon was a hero, mentioned in the book of Judges, who saved Israel from a huge enemy army. However, he asked for all the gold earrings (and other gold ornaments) from that army, built a giant gold statue near his hometown, got lots of wives and children, and turned Israel back to Idol worshipping. He also lost all but one of his 70 sons, and his inheritance plunged into nothingness.
Now for my story. As you know from my previous issues, I taught English overseas for more than 5 years. I went alone, with no credit card, backup plan, or help from home (I had no American family to help me). I lived in the economies where I taught (Russia, Turkey, China). Sometimes I was paid well; sometimes I wasn’t paid at all. When I came back to America after this hard duty, I felt like a soldier who had suited up every day to battle language barriers, cultural differences, and dangerous surroundings. I was attacked by men in all 3 countries (thankfully, I took Self-Defense classes, so I was not raped or killed). I returned worn out, tired of trying to get around in Taxis driven by people who didn’t understand me, toxic air, acidic water, and nauseating food. My Armenian/Turkish husband helped for part of my overseas journey, but he could not get a work permit, and his family was poor (better than my entire lack of family).
I spent most of my year back in America homeless, jobless, sleeping in my car. I kept returning to my hometown in California, in the San Bernardino Mountains not far from Los Angeles. After a miserable attempt to teach English again in China failed, 3 weeks stuck in Seoul, Korea, and the long trip home–I expected something better from people who call themselves Christians. I got some help from churches in Houston and in California. Then I went to a Pentecostal Conference in Big Bear.
The first night seemed exciting. People weren’t afraid to show emotions about God. One Korean/American kept dancing, clapping, smiling, and telling everyone, “I love you.” After living with the not-so-friendly and too-inhibited South Koreans, it was fun to watch him interacting with African Americans, white Americans, Mexican Americans, and others who were in the big hotel conference center which was surrounded by flags, tables of art and books for sale, and older women dancing in long blue dresses.
I thought the dancing was fun to watch, too, and the way some people twirled colorful flags and beat tambourines. I figure Heaven will be a noisy, happy place with sights like these. Then the “offering” time came, and the Preacher of the Night started putting down pressure, his volume going up with each demand.
“Sew a seed tonight. Reap the reward!” he yelled.
Ushers handed out envelopes, and then they passed around red velvet bags with brass handles. The Preacher’s message was pretty good, though I thought his emphasis on needing to see Signs and Wonders (like healing and people falling down, “slain in the Spirit”) might not be the best things to seek for. Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after signs.” Then he offered the sign of his resurrection.
The Conference Leader, an old man in his 80s and wearing an expensive black leather coat, started telling us how much money he “tithed” to God. He spoke of his multi-million-dollar income (admitting he was not sure where it came from), and how big his mansion was. I felt a little out of place. After all, I had only the back seat of a Chevy to sleep in that night, and the mountain was getting cold. For weeks I had not been able to stretch out flat, for I’m too tall for the back seat of a Chevy and have to curl into a ball, which kills my neck that was injured twice in bad car accidents (most recently last April in Houston).
I got the bright idea of following that Conference Leader out of the conference room when he took a bathroom break.
“I’m hoping, since you have such a wealthy ministry, that you will please give me $2000 to start a new life in America,” I said after I explained my years teaching overseas–quickly–because the old man was striding fast to the men’s room.
“I will pray for you,” he offered. He did, then kept going.
“So, will you help me?” I asked, tagging along almost to the men’s room door.
“I’m not sure what I can do,” he replied, pausing at the door. His eyes almost met mine. They were faded, blue, not all there–like he was on drugs, possessed, or half in another world. They didn’t look directly at me, but glanced sideways. Then he stepped into the men’s room and closed the door.
I couldn’t follow him, so I went back into the conference room to listen to the Preacher of the Night tell about speaking to huge crowds in Asia and healing people who were deaf or lame.
The next conference night, I wasted no time in asking a friendly-looking, blond male worker at the conference for help. This time I asked for only one night in a motel room so that I could stretch out in a real bed.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Talk to me after the service tonight.”
I was so tired when the “offering” time came that I went to the hotel lobby and stretched out flat on one of their sofas, a soft pillow under my head.
“Are you OK?” one of the hotel guests asked. I could tell that he was not here for the Pentecostal gig.
“I’m just exhausted,” I replied. “You?”
“Not too bad. I came up from LA for work, waiting for my friend.” He looked at his expensive watch. Pentecostals are not the only rich people.
From the lobby I could hear the new Preacher of the Night shouting as a second offering was ordered.
“God wants to make millionaires and billionaires tonight!” he announced. “He will bless you for giving.”
I closed my eyes and decided not to tell the man from LA that I had come for the Pentecostal Conference.
He left. I sat up, clasping the hotel’s pillow. I took it with me back into the conference room as things were winding down. The nice blond man told me that he wasn’t in charge of the money, but he could help me promote my books by introducing me to a famous publisher I happened to be standing next to as people began to file out of the massive room.
I hardly noticed the chubby publisher with wild hair. I stared at the obviously Hollywood film director who sat next to him in a flawless black suit and white shirt, tieless, poised.
I worked my way to the director’s side and did my first-ever Hollywood Pitch. The director was kind and patient as I explained each of my 7 books and how they would make great movies. Having run out of business cards, I wrote my name, amazon.com, and email on a pink post-it note. The director elegantly accepted it, smiling while I apologized for making his wife wait so long.
“I met Carrie Fisher once,” I told him. “Her assistant took a picture of us. She looked perfect, and I grinned like the Village Idiot.” He only smiled.
Not being able to find the Old Man in Charge, whom I had cornered the night before, I found a tall, gray-haired man wearing the conference ministry badge and appealed to him for my “one night at a motel because I could not take sleeping in my car anymore.”
I then made a very big mistake. I quoted a Bible verse to emphasize my request.
“You know, James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in the New Testament that anyone who sees someone in need of clothes or food or shelter and only says ‘go in peace, God help you’ but does nothing when he is able to help, has sinned.”
The middle-aged man stood to his toes, eyes flashing, and yelled, “You will not manipulate me with Scripture like some homeless people I used to work with in LA!”
I was, oddly, speechless. I just stared at him.
“If you apologize, I may consider your request,” the man added.
Feeling stupidly desperate, I uttered, “O.K. I’m sorry if you thought I was trying to manipulate you by quoting the Bible. Manipulation was not my intent. I just really need a rest.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” the man said. Then he went to my polished Hollywood director and began to speak bad about me. I saw the director feel in his elegant pocket for the post-it note I had given him. I felt terrified that the tall gray man who now hated me would make the director give my note back.
He didn’t. Directors from LA are nobody’s fool. The tall gray man went to the other side of the room and spent a few seconds on his cell phone. Then he came back and announced,
“I will not help you.”
I realized there was no point in arguing. How many envelopes had this organization collected in TWO offerings? Was it really going to poor people in Asia who needed to hear Good News and be healed? Or was it paying the expenses of the Rich Old Leader of this group, his mansion and leather coats, and maybe a TV station and private jet?
I gathered my hotel pillow and strode out of the conference room to cry in the ladies’ room down the hall.
It was late. Cold on this mountain in California. I dried my face and walked back down the hallway. Halfway down, the Hollywood director met me. He stretched out his hand and said, “Here is all the cash I have with me. I hope you get a warm motel room tonight.”
“Thanks so much!” I exclaimed, reaching for it, feeling absolutely pathetic. “Please remember to check out my books. I think you’ll like my newest one about the Turkish Freedom Protests.”
“My wife is waiting,” the director said, still smiling. “We have to drive back to LA. Meeting tomorrow. I have your note.” He patted his shirt pocket and turned in his shiny black leather shoes.
“I understand,” I added lamely. “Drive safely. And thanks again.” I pushed the tear back that threatened a corner of my left eye.
The director disappeared through automatic glass doors, into the Big Bear mountain night. I stared at the $22 in my hand and knew it really was all the cash he carried with him, and that he had no time to pay for a place at a motel (the conference hotel was booked full). He really gave all he had . . .
Hooray for Hollywood! I screamed inside my Houston car-accident-damaged brain. I love you: crazies, nonconformists, dysfunctional, and nearly-perfect all!
I walked back toward the lobby and found the tall gray man talking about me to some people lingering by the now-empty conference room doors.
“Talking about me?” I asked, holding up my Samsung phone with built-in camera. “Shame on you!”
“I will not stand in shame!” the man retorted, standing taller by the door, blocking me from entering to take photos.
“You cannot stop me. I am a journalist,” I informed him. “It is illegal for you to touch me.”
He held out his hand, which I dodged to enter the room and take photos anyway. Then he went to the hotel’s reception desk and declared,
“I do not like that woman. You should make her leave!”
The attendant merely smiled.
You are, after all, not God, I thought as I took a photo of the tall gray man standing there, a split second before he covered his face. And neither is your Pentecostal Organization.
I cried most of the hour-long, dark descent down the back side of Big Bear Mountain, past rocky curves and cactus plants, beneath a crescent moon. When we arrived at the Pilot truck stop in Hesperia, it felt like Coming Home–really, truly, strangely–to America. I shared food we had received that day from the mountain’s humble Pentecostal-ish church–with a cute homeless young man who looked like my son. I gave my hat and China Air blanket to a man who begged help for his wife, also stranded in the High Desert windy, cold midnight, but without a car.
These are my fellow Americans, I realized. Jesus walks with them, on the dusty road, in sandals and homespun robes. God humble enough to become a man. King leaving his Heavenly Palace. Unspeakable gift. There was no motel room to welcome his birth. A cross embraced his death. A stone tomb did not hold him. He washed his disciples’ feet, clothing himself only with an extra towel. They were not rich: fishermen, protestors, tax collectors, prostitutes . . .
“Love one another as I have loved you,” he told us all.
Oh my God, what has happened to my America in the 5 years I was gone?
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