One of my favorite origin-of-life theories involves the notion that each of us has chosen to be on Earth to experience a recreational break from Eternity which, I suppose, could become boring. Kind of like choosing to pull off the Cosmic Highway into a rest stop – in this case Earth. Like how a traveler down I-75 might check out one of those Alligator farms on the way to Florida. Certainly this can all be represented in far more noble terms but I’ll hold off on the deep theology at least until Happy Hour. Some of the early church sermons I endured as a kid were as interminable as the promised pleasures of Heaven (or agonies of Hell) that await us upon departure from this planet. I remember sitting in a stifling-hot sanctuary fidgeting against itchy “church clothes” while having to feign appreciation for the Preacher talking about things that made me paranoid long before I knew such a word existed. When someone says, “God is always watching over you” my default reaction is, “Wow. Even in the bathroom ?”
And then there was that after-the-service walk down the center aisle and the predictable comments of elderly parishioners who smelled strongly of moth balls. It was like they were being embalmed incrementally so by the time they got to their own funeral there wouldn’t be much left to do except slip them into the coffin. The only thing that made the overall church experience bearable was a number of cute girls in the nearby pews but the scene was too well chaperoned to offer any interaction opportunities. My family “churched around” at places like Springdale Christian, Perkerson Baptist, and Capitol View Baptist before settling in at Capitol View Presbyterian (no longer in existence) located across from Sylvan High School. At the time, Presbyterian churches represented a form of “Christianity light” in that you got “sprinkled”, not fully immersed and your personal interpretation of biblical passages could be as figurative as you would like as long as you didn’t try to start theological debates. I think the Presbyterians were trying to go after the “walk-aways” from the Baptist Church which was a total drag (at least for me) with its promised damnation for those refusing to comply with the hyper conservative missives of the church few of which could actually be found in the Bible. Being horny was definitely a crime even if you didn’t act on it. Even thinking about being horny was off limits so on that account alone I needed to find another scene.
The general activities at our church were geared towards the interests of “older people” and youth programs weren’t even on the map. I recalled how Pilgrim children always looked like adult Pilgrims except in miniature. There was no period of adolescence back in the the Pligrim days and the kids were viewed as adults-in-training simply to be seen an not heard until they could demonstrate comparable levels of repressed behavior customarily exhibited by adult Pilgrims. The concept of adolescence emerged only in the early 1900s evolving slowly over time well into the 60s as the youth of America grew restless with the idea of having to leap directly into forms of work favored by their parents especially when there were new possibilities on offer. That this might have been perceived as laziness or ingratitude for the sacrifices of previous generations was most unfortunate. The early work-aptitude tests I took made no mention of artistic occupations and teachers sought to route anyone with such tendencies into factory jobs, draftsmanship, architecture, or some form of engineering. No Sir. No way was society going to tolerate another generation of distracted, self-indulgent hippy workers.
When someone says, “God is always watching over you” my default reaction is, “Wow. Even in the bathroom ?“
The reason I bring any of this up is because lots of people, (then and now), didn’t seem to understand how and why various religious cults grew in popularity in the 60s and 70s, but when considering what I just told you then it should be easier to understand. Put simply, organized religion of that time, combined with long established societal expectations, ignored the interests of young people while doubling down on the practice of berating the youth of America for not falling in line with another war on communism. The social condition of the US was far from ideal at the time and a generic repetition of what might have been appropriate (or at least familiar) a decade or two before might not be in the best interest of the country. So, imagine that in this context if some new, hip church showed up that intentionally welcomed young people then could it be that big of a surprise that there were takers ? I mean a church (even if it wasn’t a recognized one) that had people your age who held common interests ? That didn’t require you to wear suffocating clothing ? Alternative religions exploded in size in the 70s because young people needed a place of their own – that’s all there was to it. In saying this I have demeaned the work of many Sociology PhD students who had to dress it all up just to get past their committees and eventually graduate although I stand by my version that has more explanatory power.
A pothead acquaintance of mine used to roll joints on his Ouija board to get “some of that paranormal thang goin’ on – Ghost Ganja !“
It didn’t mean that these setups were all on the level or that they had the best interests of everyone in mind. Maybe they did at first and the mission got corrupted over time or perhaps there was bad intent from the get go. Some “older” people figured out how to mobilize and manipulate “hippie labor” to their own ends. And it certainly didn’t escape my attention that lots of participants (young and old) were simply pleasure seekers looking for action. So you had older clergymen dipping into the congregation for some “comfort” but it was all rationalized because there are “no rules” right ? Any pretense about trying to better the world through communal action was generally abandoned although, as we moved into the 70s, the sex and drugs remained. Any time you have large collections of young people then hookups will happen and outsiders will notice – some of whom were representatives of the larger mainstream churches angry that their offering plates were losing money to some “sex cult”.
For reasons only they could tell you, the Hare Krishnas used to aggressively canvas Stewart Avenue in the late 60s and early 70s which paralleled their activities in downtown Atlanta especially before rock concerts at The Omni where they would offer bread and incense in exchange for small change donations. The Krishna women (the few that there were) had this rapid fire sales move where they would step to you while pinning a rose to your shirt all within like two seconds after which they would extend their hands to get the donation. It was an impressive maneuver and easily worth the 50 cents I might offer as tribute. On Stewart Avenue, the Krishnas worked the stretch starting at Zayre’s discount store up to Stewart Lakewood Shopping Center as there was a fair amount of foot traffic which simplified their goal of selling incense or a copy of their magazine which talked of the “GodHead”. They targeted younger people such as myself but weren’t shy about talking to anyone who might have some spare change jingling in their pockets.
For those old enough to remember, Atlanta Airport, and US airports in general, used to be plagued by any number of religious and human rights groups who would aggressively panhandle travelers so much so that it was finally shut down altogether. Such activity was masterfully parodied in the Airplane movie wherein Robert Stack runs a gauntlet of donation seekers. The Krishnas had a temple down on Ponce which hosted a weekly vegetarian feast where it was rumored that they laced the food with “brain washing chemicals” which only served to intrigue me. But my objections to the Krishnas had nothing to do with religion or their choice of food (spiked or otherwise). I could just never join a group that required baldness or at least a crew cut. Maybe I was vain but I also noticed that women did not generally look favorably on Krishna men except perhaps for the female Krishnas themselves who always seemed to have a peculiar form of body odor. It’s quite possible that the men did also but the women had this flirty way about them that involved getting much deeper into your personal space which would make any hygiene deficiencies much more apparent. Of course, 4 hours of canvasing the Atlanta streets in July might result in having a certain body aroma independently of your religious mission.
I’ll be splitting this post up into multiple parts because I’m like 1800 words into this thing and still have a lot to cover. But before I wrap this up I wanted to point out that the first ever Christian (or religious) bookstore I ever encountered was Berean Christian Bookstore located on Cleveland Avenue. It’s still there ! Although I think the name might have changed. For those of you familiar with the area, who might also be having a senior moment, this was close to the Old South Bottle Shop and the K-Mart farther down Cleveland Avenue right after it crossed over I-75. One could also move farther down the road to play a few rounds of golf at Brown’s Mill Golf course.
While this doesn’t seem such a big deal now it was then because it never occurred to me that there would be an entire enterprise dedicated to christian publishing. I just assumed that all you needed was a copy of The Bible and a decent Church and you were good to go. But Berean’s had like 15 different styles of Bibles and Concordances on offer as well as study guides in addition to books about “Godly Living”, “Christian Ethics”, and several publications on the dangers of the occult – to which I was immediately attracted. This wasn’t at all a superficial interest as my Father had a book by parapsychologist Hans Holzer, all around “ghost guy”, long before such a thing was popular. I read how he and his “medium friend”, Sybil Leek would investigate supernatural activity which probably influenced later movies like Poltergeist. Just to say that I was no stranger to the terminology of the occult or its negative image in the eyes of Church.
I had a Ouija board when I was a kid and I’m certain that any spirits inhabiting that thing were scared off (more probably bored) by my inane questions. The odd thing is that I kept misplacing it although it later occurred to me that maybe it was hiding from me. “Oh no – You again ! Please, NO !” I wasn’t the only person who took a cavalier attitude towards the thing – A pothead acquaintance of mine used to roll joints ON his Ouija board to get “some of that paranormal thang goin’ on – Ghost Ganja !“. At the time, Scéances were still happening and there was a group of older kids who held these things and they talked about how they got “signs from the beyond” so I attended one of these and NOTHING happened. Well, the girl next to me did put her hand on my thigh which in my mind qualified as a supernatural event. So we left the Scéance early thus breaking the “sacred circle” albeit for a very good reason…. Stay tuned for Part 2.