I grew up in one town that had two faces. One face was the glossy McMansion playground fully equipped with Trader Joe’s, an outlet shopping mall, and a Starbucks on every street corner. This upmarket face is a magnet for San Francisco foreigners hoping to take their Stanford or Berkeley education and retreat a small distance from The City with their children.
However, the second face came first. It is the remnants of a railroad town established in the Gold Rush. The former shanty town’s main drag by the river was converted into a quaint tourist attraction with its brothels and trading outposts repurposed into antique shops and old timey candy stores. The dingier remains lurk in the neighborhood next door.
Both faces of this town are imprinted on my very soul, and both faces are represented in my spiritual development.
My best friend Megan attended a megachurch on the new side of town. It was a typical model of two church services where those at the nine am service never saw anyone from the 11 am service. In fact, there was not much interaction between those who attended even the same service.
Attending Megan’s church made me feel small and anonymous. I liked their children’s program because they had great snacks and so many other children to play with. The worship seemed really professional, like a concert, and the people stood and listened. Very few people raised their hands which always struck me as strange. Twice, I gave poor Megan’s mom a challenge by revealing that there is a Devil, and that we will all die. The existence of evil in the world and life’s transience seemed natural to me. Megan’s church primarily taught on the blessings of following Christ.
My childhood church was lodged in the old part of town. It was housed in an old converted warehouse sandwiched between a print and mechanic shop. The bowling alley across from us reeked of stale beer, and bums lounged in the parking lot with their paper wrapped bottles. A large sign hung at the end of the street, “Where the West Came and Stayed”. Later, city council would remove this sign, and the western boots shop beneath it would close as we increasingly wanted to forget that we’re the Wild West and instead pretend to be in the 90210.
I spent at least half of my childhood in this building. The congregation was a family in all the best and worst ways. We were brought together by the strong convictions that God not only can but will heal and perform miracles, the day of Pentecost unleashed the Holy Spirit on earth, and prophecy is not just for the people in the Bible.
Pastor Don was a square-jawed software salesman who received no salary, but still took on all the burdens of a full pastorship. Instead of taking any of the money that we occasionally scrounged up to help support his family of five, he used it to bring in guest speakers. These guest speakers were often missionaries who made me cry with stories of starving children, but they were otherwise uneventful outside the four hour sermons they gave. However, I’ll never forget my first experience with a traveling prophet.
I left with my dad as usual that Sunday morning. His idea of proper church attire was a baseball cap and 49ers sweatpants, whereas my mom always arrived a solid twenty minutes late from taking so long on her hair. Dad and I stopped for coffee beforehand because the church coffee pot was continually used but never cleaned. He let me share his orange mocha with him and read the news to me. I loved being treated like an adult. We picked up our normal box of donuts to share and lounged about in the church kitchen with everyone before service.
We started every sermon by breaking into prayer circles insuring the whole congregation was personally prayed over. After, Pastor Don announced any larger prayer requests from the pulpit. If someone was sick or struggling we took volunteers on the spot to make sure they were consistently fed and had company. People always raised their hands to chip in. Pastor never had to ask twice. He personally filled in any remaining gaps. Looking back, I wonder how he had time to do so much. I guess he didn’t have time. People don’t have time laying around, they make time for what they care about. He cared about us.
The Pastor’s wife led worship and his eldest daughter played the piano. Worship was a raucous event. We danced in the aisles, some pounding the ground as if they were trying to stomp Satan right down into Hell where he belongs. Since the spirit was particularly present, Pastor broke out the shofar. People clapped and cried. A few of the more spiritually sensitive fell to their knees, faces lifted heavenward. The last speaker taught us about flag worship, and its power to usher in spiritual breakthrough. My favorite flags to grab at the start of worship was the set depicting a lion and a lamb. They looked like trembling watercolor when you spun them around. The pastor’s youngest daughter, Lydia, my nemesis, caught on that I loved those flags and always tried to beat me to them.
Lydia wielded her considerable hierarchical power to make my life miserable. She formed her own club with one entry requirement: to be one inch taller than I was. I was the shortest kid in our age group. All the kids in her club sat together in Sunday school, but Lydia exiled me to the little kids table. I usually ended up next to TJ who liked to squirt Capri Sun in my ear. My mom told me he did this because he had a crush on me, but that seemed like a really stupid reason to make the inside of my head feel sticky. I wanted to get out of Sunday school and into service as quickly as possible.
I was particularly excited for this sermon not just because it got me out of having snacks dumped on me, but because my mom told me that at the end the prophet would do an alter call and prophesy over those who came forward. I’d told her that I was excited to have my fortune told– like some lost princess stumbling upon a crystal ball. She corrected me saying that fortune tellers use the demonic to see the future, but prophets hear from God.
I can’t recall exactly what the prophet preached on, but I remember it having a “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” tone, and my mom wincing between her Amens’. My dad fell asleep. I, on the other hand, was eager for the actual prophesying to begin.
Towards the end, the prophet started hand selecting people out of the audience and giving them words the Lord laid on his heart for them. I was envious when I wasn’t chosen. I guessed those people just needed it more than I. A few of them fell down in the aisles, and I thought this was strange, so I asked my mom about it.
“Sometimes, when a word is given, the Spirit is released and knocks a person to the ground.”
“But not everyone is falling”
“It’s different each time you’re prayed for. God knows where you’re at and what’s going to move you.”
It seemed like an awful lot of trouble to fall. There were people standing behind whoever was prayed for to ease them to the ground, so it wasn’t like the impact was doing any damage. But I had fainted before and that wasn’t fun at all. I started to feel my excitement drain out of me.
Searching her face, I asked, “Have you ever fallen before?”
She smiled and nodded.
“Does it hurt?” I whispered.
My mom stroked back my hair, “No, it doesn’t hurt. God would never hurt you.”
I nod slowly, feeling consoled but still a little uneasy about the whole thing.The altar call begins and I get in line to receive my prophecy. Lydia and her crony, Lauren, cut in front of me. I hoped the preacher wasn’t too worn out by the time he got to me, but since God doesn’t get tired I decided not to fuss about it. Turn the other cheek and all that jazz.
They were whispering to each other in line.
“Is it cool to fall?” Lauren asked.
Lydia paused, “You get more attention if you do.”
They’d taken it too far this time. Falling down shouldn’t be some cool trend like the latest Hannah Montana song. If it’s supposed to happen, it should just happen. Leave it to Lydia to be such a fake, making a joke out of the whole thing.
Sure enough, when Lauren and Lydia got prayed over they both fell down. Lauren collapsed so quickly and dramatically the poor people behind her hardly had a chance to ease her to the ground. This received a chorus of “Hallelujahs” from the church. Lydia performed her fall with a bit more grace. Lauren’s was a cannonball; Lydia’s a swan dive. I wondered if God came to them at all or if the entire thing was a fake. If it was just a big joke, shouldn’t the prophet have caught it? My uneasiness returned, and it was my turn.
The prophet wore a starchy suit which struck me as stuffy and intimidating since Pastor usually wore Hawaiian shirts and Levi’s. He smeared oil on my forehead. My mom always hated when they did that because it’s bad for your skin, but I figured if it has symbolic meaning it’s worth it. I tried to focus my thoughts on his prayer. I was finally getting my chance to know God’s plan for my future.
I don’t remember the words the prophet started to say over me, but he took the palm of his hand and started to push into my forehead. I began to lose my footing, but it was in no way related to the Holy Spirit. It had everything to do with the considerable amount of force this man was applying to my elementary school sized skull. He was trying to knock me down.
He was a fraud! But I wouldn’t let him get away with it. He spewed a bunch of generic garbage to buy himself time until he could knock me down. I was infuriated that this joke had smeared oil onto my forehead and was now pressing it in with his stupid hands. I could picture a line of acne forming underneath his palm as he pressed. But I pressed back. His pressing turned to shove, and I had to take a step backwards. The people lined up to catch me stepped forward, but I dug my heels in and regained my balance. The prophet met my eyes, and I scoffed defiantly up at him. In that moment, we recognized each other as adversaries. He kept up his show “Hallelujah” and “Thank you Jesusing” onto the next schmuck.
I fled angrily to the bathroom. A cocktail of fury and shock fogged my mind. Had he pushed everyone down? Or, like Lydia and Lauren, were they all too willing to fall, so he didn’t have to bother? Where did it end? I wished he was a fortune teller even if that’s evil. At least then, he would have been honest. This man made a joke of something I believed in, and now I did not know who else was a joke too. I stuck my forehead in the sink and scrubbed off the anointing oil.
I sulked on the car ride back to the suburbia side of town where we lived. Mom could tell something was off with me, but I didn’t want to try and talk about it over the local sports station dad played in the car. When we got inside, I fell to the ground where Shiloh was jumping at my knees, and she bounded into my lap. I petted her somberly. My mom sat down next to us.
“How’s our honey?”
“She seems good. She’s wagging.”
“And how’s my other honey?”
I paused for a long time tracing the tiles’ grout lines. “He pushed me.”
Her eyes bulged, “Who pushed you?”
“The prophet. While he was praying over me, he tried to knock me down.”
To my tremendous surprise, she laughed.
“Yeah, they’ll do that sometimes. You didn’t fall though.”
“Of course not, he was nothing but a big stupid fraud! I’m not going to let him push me around.”
She smiled widely. “Good for you. I’m proud.”
I just stared at her, confused. I had expected her to be shocked, for this to change everything.
“But he was supposed to be a prophet! Everybody said so!”
She nodded. “We thought he was going to be a prophet. God may even speak through him sometimes, but with situations like this, it’s important to be very careful. You can’t assume people are who they say they are, or even always trust what your church says.”
“So our church is a joke?”
“No, I didn’t say that. I’m just saying that churches are run by people, and people mess up sometimes even when they try their best. You always have to take everything people say with a grain of salt. That’s why it’s very important to know the Bible for yourself, so you don’t end up being pushed around.” She smiled jokingly, but it was too soon for laughter.
She kissed my cheek. “You are my smart, strong girl. You have your own discernment. Use it. Prophets are real, and they can provide insight, but never forget that Jesus speaks to everyone. You don’t need some prophet to tell you your future. In fact, relying on prophets can be dangerous.”
“Because they can be frauds?”
“They can be frauds, or they can just rely too much on their own false interpretations. People never have all the answers, and if they say they do, something is wrong.”
I felt like I understood the world a little more after that. Although, this would start me on a path of distrust in people and preachers, it never once made me question the existence of God or the Holy Spirit. It is strange to look back and consider since God’s powerful presence in my life wouldn’t become apparent for years.
Believing in God always seemed the most natural thing in the world to me, I just couldn’t believe in people. The best you could ask for seemed to be loyalty and follow through, and I had those things in the congregation of Victory Life Church to a degree I may never find again.
I saw the world’s two faces. The face of mankind aiming for God, and the face of them missing the mark. The face of an undistinguished church on the wrong side of town, and the face of a steadfast family. The face of a large congregation worshiping in a beautiful building, and the face of those isolated by a crowd. The face of pioneers who braved the west, and the face of those who civilized it. I cannot reject any of these faces, because I wear them all.