My employer gave me a couple of days off for vacation as a “reward” for completing a very large and stressful rush job on time, when a long time friend, who still attends the Worldwide Church of God, started talking to me about the Feast of Tabernacles. I had almost forgotten the whole holy day thing. Then I started to get curious.
Although my Worldwide Church of God experience ended quite a few years ago, I do have some good memories of “The Feast”. Of taking a week and a half off of work or school to drop out of society right at the beginning of the Fall school semester. Of joining a huge crowd of several thousand other people in usually scenic places like Squaw Valley or Lake of the Ozarks and seeing old friends. Of throwing around lots of money to go to restaurants and resorts most of us would never think of doing any other time of the year. Does anybody remember having the “Best Feast Ever!”? According to the letter my friend showed me, most Worldwide Church of God festival sites were only hosting a four-day extended weekend. Only three sites in the entire U.S.A. would do the whole eight days. Palm Springs was one of those “extended weekend” sites, so what harm could happen in a single weekend?
Next thing I remember I threw a few things into a suitcase and started driving that long drive across the desert to Palm Springs in California. During this long spontaneous drive I started thinking about a lot of other things. Wasn’t the new Worldwide Church of God supposed to be a kinder, gentler church? What about some of those ministerial power and ego freaks I remember from my past? Were any of those guys still around? I heard a lot of those idiots ended up going to one of the whatever church of God splinter groups, which ever would most likely give them the greatest boost to their egos. But what if I would I bump into one of those creeps in Palm Springs? Maybe worse, I would bump into some old friend who would try to talk me into coming back permanently.
Striving to be inconspicuous, I stumbled into the first church service on the first morning of the Feast. The first thing I noticed was how I was one of the only men in the entire room of about a thousand people wearing a suit and tie. The desert heat of Palm Springs never hindered us from wearing Wall Street attire before, but now even half of the women were wearing blue jeans. Even the speakers left their suits at home and went casual.
Compared to my old Worldwide Church of God life, the services were something from another planet. The opening congregational singing was no longer just a few hymns, but the main event of the whole service. There was this smiling group of young people lined up across the stage singing a lot of religious-sounding rock songs I never heard of. There were brilliant colored spotlights and a full rock band backing up the performers. There were giant screens displaying the singers larger than life, with the words to the songs displayed below. I couldn’t help but be impressed by such a production. What ever income the new Worldwide Church of God has now, no expense was spared in the setup of that stage.
The lead singer/master of ceremonies was a guy who looked around forty years old with a white T-shirt and JFK haircut who worked hard to sound hip and sanctimonious at the same time. Two of the girls were stunningly pretty one tall and the other not so tall. It appeared this group had its own Ginger and Mary Ann. All they needed was a Skipper and a Gilligan. What really freaked me out about the whole song service was how many people across the room were waving their arms around in the air when they sang. I told you it was strange.
Of course an offering was collected. Of course I put nothing in the basket. Who were they kidding?
Then there were the sermons. I kept asking, “what kind of messages would be given at a new Worldwide Church of God Feast?” The first speaker was Carn Catherwood, a long time minister since the 1950’s. He opened the message talking about how he now lives near the Big Sandy campus in Texas and about the new owners, some Evangelical Christian group. It was a little humorous to watch him stumble over his own words a bit when he mentioned about how all of us paid for the Texas campus. He then went on to the main thrust to explain how doctrinally wrong the Worldwide Church of God was in the past about so many things. That was one area I could not agree with him more. I remember getting in trouble back in the 1980’s when I tried to share scriptures I would find that didn’t fit the whatever Worldwide Church of God taught at that time. Mr. Catherwood then went on to proclaim how wonderful the new Worldwide Church of God is. I still don’t know why it is so important for the new Worldwide Church of God to impress the Protestant Christian community. Whether today’s Worldwide Church of God is ethically and doctrinally correct as he said it is I still have questions.
The next day we listened to Greg Albrecht. All I could remember was him apologizing for having a severe cold, and giving a very boring sermon that jumped from subject to subject. At one point he made fun of individual Christians, belonging to a “church of just one person”.
Then there was this Phillip Rice guy from Phoenix, the festival coordinator. He looked like a sanctimonious clown with a pot belly and a bowling shirt. His casual attire still did not convince me he was a down to earth, humble guy. His sermon didn’t seem to say anything worth remembering, either.
The final sermon on the last day was by Carn Catherwood again. The main thrust was once again how great the new Worldwide Church of God is, with its own unique (I will say checkered) history. He said the Worldwide Church of God was unique to Christianity for being racially diverse and made a few vague references to racial reconciliation workshops. If only the Worldwide Church of God would have some tithe reconciliation workshops! I don’t think I have ever seen a stronger sales pitch to keep all of the membership, along with their contributions, in the Worldwide Church of God.
I did manage to talk to a few old friends, and made conversation with others I met. There was nowhere near the same enthusiasm or energy I saw in the old days. In spite of the fact Palm Springs has a lot to do on a vacation, it seemed no one wanted to do anything. One old friend I knew just wanted to go back to the hotel and watch TV the whole time he was there. One woman’s biggest adventure was just one trip to a local mall. At the end of the three or four days, most were just happy to go home. The new Worldwide Church of God’s Feast is a far cry from the almost hedonistic rejoicing of years past.
I guess the Worldwide Church of God today is nothing like I remembered. On the surface, it looks like a lot has changed. At least they didn’t scare you to death with prophecy before passing the offering basket. They just passed the basket. Somebody had to pay for those electric guitars. Every sermon was a hard sell pitch to explain how great the new Worldwide Church of God is. But I could not help but notice reading between the lines of the sermons and the faces of the speakers to see what obviously never changed. That the Worldwide Church of God is, and always was, a money-consuming entity, marketing whatever religion they feel will be this week’s best seller.
I could not help but feel my intelligence being insulted by the speakers. It must be easy for them to look down us if we give them a chance to do so. I don’t remember seeing any of them conversing with the lay members after the services. In spite of how new the Worldwide Church of God is supposed to be, in many ways very little has changed.
As I drove home from what became a waste of a perfectly good weekend, I had to wipe some of that “Jesus, Jesus” crap out of my head that I kept hearing for the past few days. The irony is that as I cranked up the volume of my CD player, I realized I was listening to another Armstrong. Not Garner Ted and certainly not Herbert, but a Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer of the rock band Green Day. For my own sanity I just hope there is no Armstrong family relation as I say a final “good by” the Worldwide Church of God, both old and new.