Ritual America (A Caged Bird Stands on the Grave of Dreams or ‘how I escaped the Worldwide Church of God’): Matthew Graham in Conversation with Chris Kelso – PART FOUR
January 1, 2022
WSC founder, Armstrong believed that mainstream Christian holidays had been blended with pagan beliefs which is why Matthew was denied any involvement in Christmas, Easter and Halloween festivities. Despite being trained in repression, more specifically a kind of retrieval-induced forgetting, Matthew claims to recall many sermons which have burned themselves into his naïve temporal indexes.
“I can remember our Pastor, Ron Washington (a fairly tall black man who would frequently raise his voice into a yell and pound his hand on the lectern).”
Washington’s performance left a young Matthew Graham in a state of anxiety. A coping mechanism was to simply deny his immediate environment, zoning out of the panic-inducing homily. This angered Pastor Washington who would drop his fists loudly on to the lectern in a bid to return the spacey teenager back to waking reality. Many sermons expressed understandable dissatisfaction about the spiritual corruption that came from the commercialisation of religious holidays.
“I can remember sermons giving the breakdown of the specific pagan nature of each holiday. Easter was kind of nebulous if I’m being honest. I think it mostly seemed like they were bummed about celebrating it with candy and bunnies and stuff like that when they felt it should have just been about Jesus. Christmas was a bit different because they talked about how there was no evidence that Jesus was born on Christmas Day. They believed that the very act of decorating and having a Christmas tree was pagan. They believed it somehow came from a custom of worshipping the tree but the basic point was it was again exalting something other than god.”
CK – Do you remember being the centre of attention during any sermons?
MG – I personally was not the centre of many sermons but my name was mentioned at various times during services when they mentioned the people who needed prayer. Most of the time it was if I didn’t feel well or something like that, although other times random people put my name in. I was never sure why, it was always at times when I wasn’t sick either. Looking back it was probably my mom talking about me to another member and I didn’t know or just sometimes people would do things like that. It was always a weird feeling to hear your name and then think about all these people who you don’t really know that well, praying for you. I grew up hating being the centre of attention so it was always a bit weird to hear.
CK – What rituals did you experience beyond the ones you’ve mentioned?
MG – Rituals that I was a part of were mostly limited to being anointed with oil. It was a pretty–I don’t want to say traumatic because I feel that’s overstating it, but it was an intense experience. I already didn’t feel well. I had a cold but I couldn’t shake it. I was in my uncomfortable church clothes and resting on my knees. Group of complete weirdos surrounded me. One steps forward and rubs oil all over my head. It feels both sticky and slick. Totally disgusting. One man starts praying the words ‘father god’ as if he’s possessed and saying things like ‘we are here in prayer for your son, Matthew.’ Another guy starts praying out of sync with the first guy then someone else starts reciting prayer over him but even quicker. The next quicker and quicker until the prayers are all overlapping and building in demonic noise. The circle drew in closer. I could feel the oil running down my face. The temperature started to rise then the words slowed down. The circle slowly opened back up and the lights turned back on. I stood up and walked out of the room to find my mom. We got in the car and went home.
CK – That must have been really a lacerating psychological experience for a teenage boy, even one who grew up with this normalised behaviour as routine.
MG – It was. I also remember a ritual that my mom initiated did that I forgot about because children weren’t allowed to attend. It was the night before Passover. She said it was adults only and there would be a short and very sombre service. Heavy on the sacrifice of Jesus and the failures of man. The service was around a half hour long and afterwards the members would gather in a room and remove their shoes and socks and wash each others’ feet as Christ did in the Bible. She said you were to be quiet and contemplative during this. She said after the foot washing ceremony everyone was free to leave. I haven’t thought of that in forever…
CK – Are you sure you’re ok to keep discussing this?
MG – Sure, it was a dormant memory. But when she mentioned it I completely remember her leaving to go to it. It was always in the evening.
Of course- the pastors came down hardest on Halloween.
“They often got right into the literal pagan origins of Halloween, as they saw them at least. All I heard about was how Halloween was the High Holiday for pagans back in the day. Halloween was the day when sinners praised the devil and the act of dressing up and getting candy was re-enacting a long standing celebration of evil. I know this sounds farfetched and ridiculous but this was all talked about at great length. I also think Halloween is not anywhere near as big of a deal in Scotland right?”
CK – Well, we do celebrate it, but it’s just an excuse to get drunk and escape your own skin when you’re an adult.
Another aspect of the WSB that Matthew struggled with were the Old Testament beliefs that pertained to diet.
“We did not eat any pork or shellfish of any kind. Eating over at friend’s house was always a touch humiliating if there was going to be a pork component to the meal. I can’t remember anyone ever eating shellfish though.”
The Grahams were permitted to keep some of the Old Testament High Holidays.
“We called Passover ‘The Feast of Unleavened Bread’. For one week we would remove all bread and things with leavening and eat motzo, just like how Jewish folks celebrate Passover. Basically a week of not eating bread to me, but I know there was a deeper meaning to it. I’d have to look some stuff up because it mostly went over my head. I can also remember getting yelled at for eating Graham crackers at Emily’s house because I had forgotten it was that week, seems funny now but I got chewed out something fierce.”
Similar to Passover, The Feast of Unleavened Bread is said to begin on twilight of the 15th day of Nisan, the same month as Passover. Before fasting there is a 7-day feast. The first and last days are to be Sabbaths. After the killing of the first born, the Pharaoh agreed to release the Israelites. In their haste to depart Egypt, the Israelites did not have enough time to let their bread rise and so they were forced to bring unleavened bread with them on their journey.
Eastern Christians associate unleavened bread with the Old Testament and is often used as a symbol of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood – “leaven” (or yeast) symbolises original sin.
But a key penance in the WSC involved a day of atonement. On this day you would fast for 24 hours, abstaining from all food. Members were allowed to consume only water and there would be two services that day as well. Matthew always dreaded it. He remains philosophical about the experience.
“It seemed so stupid to me to needlessly make yourself go through that, to spend the day listening to four fucking hours of some guy droning on about ‘sins this’ and ‘sin that’. I’m hungry, this guy’s bumming me out with his bullshit up there the whole day was a drag.”
It wasn’t all fasting and shame. Another important festival was the Feast of Tabernacles which Matthew admits was one was his favourite holidays.
“It was two weeks out of town, two weeks out of school and the only vacation we took as a kid. We went multiple times to the Wisconsin Dells which is this fantastic little Midwest tourist trap town. I loved it there. They had all kinds of arcades and weird touristy stuff like Tommy Bartlett’s Robot World, Xanadu (this weird foam house place), Duck boats (this type of boat that can go on land and water. They would do these tours of local lakes and stuff, man…). It also had weird natural attractions like this walk through the cliffs that had a part called “fat man’s misery” where the cliffs made for a very narrow passage. They had lots of miniature golf courses, year round haunted houses (no chance in hell of actually going in them but I liked seeing the outsides of them), a pizza restaurant called the ‘Upper Crust’ where you ate upstairs and for some reason I really thought that was great as a kid. So as you can see I have lots of great memories tied to the place.”
Once, the Graham family even went to Missouri for the Feast. Matthew has fond memories of fishing with his father and enjoyed an excursion to Kentucky. But the fun came at a price.
“While it was two weeks away from home it was also services literally everyday twice a day. It was a trade-off having to sit through four hours of it but it seemed balanced as a kid. In retrospect I wouldn’t do it again.”
At one of these services at the Feast of Tabernacles in Missouri a pastor condemned the evils of horror movies by showing posters and clips from some of the films. It was the most attention Matthew had paid to a sermon in quite some time.
“I distinctly remember them talking about House and Hellraiser. They showed posters of both and even a clip from House. I can remember them talking about how the devil works through these films to try to corrupt your children and draw them away from god.”
Between this sermon and the major disapproval of Terri, Matthew became convinced that horror movies contained some kind of hidden power, something potent that succeeded in getting the adults all riled up. It also resulted in sharpening Matthew’s lifelong fascination with all things macabre.
Armstrong believed in tithing an absurd custom dating back to the Old Testament whereby congregates contributed a 10th of their income for religious purposes, under ecclesiastical obligation. Soon Matthew started receiving a 5 dollar a week allowance. He was able to buy the trading cards he wanted but every week he was forced to relinquish 50 cents of it to the church.
“At the time I just did it because I was told I had to but it always rankled me. What a racket. I always seethed seeing that basket coming down the aisle, gold envelopes spilling over the side as everyone drops it in and passes it down to hand to the usher at the end of the aisle.”
CK – Did you ever get to meet the titular founder, Mr Herbert Armstrong? Was your mother charmed by his image?
MG – No one in my family ever met Armstrong but my mother had a good amount of things to say about him. She said that he seemed very intelligent and that when he spoke or she read his writings he was very passionate and an excellent public speaker. She said he would give sermons and project to the churches via simulcast and that they were frequently about a coming apocalypse and that prophecy was a major part of their beliefs. He was treated like a genuine movie star.
Terri mentions Armstrong’s obsession with ‘excellence’. Be ‘excellent’ people and he wanted to be surrounded by ‘excellence’.
MG – He was a big fan of music, especially classical. He created a huge music centre where lots of people played in Pasadena California where the church’s college was located – yes they had a full on college and a second branch in Texas I believe. My mom said they would put on these cheesy productions with singing and dancing with the university’s acting students. She said he also made lots of inroads internationally and would frequently visit other countries and give lavish gifts to foreign dignitaries (using church funds of course). He was someone who was a schmoozer, you know. She also said that he started his career as a marketing and advertising man, which in retrospect makes perfect sense if you want to start a cult. She also said that she heard in some second hand stories that he was a bit of a prick and that he had been standoffish during some interactions with students at the college. Again, he was like a movie star who totally bought into his own hype.
A major component of their end times prophecy was that there were lies in the Book of Revelations – pertaining to the 7 churches. Armstrong focused on two of the seven – the Laodicean church and the church of Philadelphia. (The exact verses about these two churches are revelation chapter 3 verse 7-22). Within this foretelling, the Laodicean church was seen as a parish of lukewarm believers. Very few of Armstrong’s flock wished to be associated with the church of the Laodiceans. According to his prophecy, Laodicea represented the last of the seven churches before the return of Christ, yet remained the most popular. The Philadelphia branches have virtually disappeared from the scene, leaving only a patiently enduring few – which the Worldwide Church of God were keen to recruit to their specific cause.
MG – The Laodiceans weren’t true believers, basically half ass in their faith and they were told ‘because you are neither warm nor cold I shall spit you from my mouth’. So the Laodicean members were going to be left behind. The Church of Philadelphia was filled with nothing but true believers, they had their place in heaven assured. So my mom says she can remember many sermons with the minister yelling ‘are you going to be a Laodicean or a Philadelphian?’
Terri also said that another major tenet of their Armageddon politics was a belief that 144,000 people were going to be instantly accepted into heaven and miss out on the millennium event called Tribulation1. A free pass to the righteous few. During this time there would be a 1000 year rule in which Church superiors would spread Christ’s Gospel and become chosen leaders in paradise.
MG – They were constantly pounding it into your head that you need to be pure, you want to be amongst the 144,000 you don’t what to be here for the tribulation. The pressure was insane. They said when Christ returned the members of the church would be summoned to Petra Jordan and would live in the caves there, preaching god’s word.
Aside from the initial 10% donation you were expected to tithe, congregates were expected to contribute an additional 10% towards the Feast of Tabernacles. This would help cover travel and room prices.
MG – So this tithe you just kept at home as a form of savings but this also makes attendance of the feast practically compulsory. If you didn’t attend it really makes it seem like a racket.
Terri confirmed that every third year families were expected to pay even more money to the church – in addition to the 20% tithe, congregates had to send another 10% for the Feast of Tabernacles. The ten percent bump up was to help finance the church which went to publications, TV programs, as well as Armstrong’s swanky residence on the college campus. Congregates were also expected to pay Armstrong’s expensive largesse to dignitaries. Terri’s final words on the matter were delivered in a resigned fashion – “they took a lot of money over the years”
The congregate didn’t go to worship in an actual church building. Instead, they rented the auditorium of a junior high school.
“When we would have the holiday services they would have a local hall rented and have catering as well for The Feast of Tabernacles. They would rent pretty big places as lots of people travelled in from out of town. I can also remember seeing the church’s magazine (‘The Plain Truth2’) in the little Flat Rock library growing up. I always found that curious as I didn’t know a single other person who was a member in school or living near me.”
Another example of the Jewish/Christian consolidation was the fundamental importance of the Ten Commandments. They would dominate sermons and there could be weeks where pastors would give central focus to each principle of the Decalogue.
“Sometimes it could hold my attention but it mostly got repetitive to me. Their ideas of resurrection seemed strange as well. They believed that there was a small number of people who were chosen and they were going to go to heaven regardless of what they did.”
Matthew goes on to explain that the main tenet of the resurrection, as they saw it, was Christ’s return to earth and that the dead would rise from the earth. The horror movie parallels became more apparent to its young parishioner. This was a world of similar fictions.
“I can clearly remember sermons talking about people coming out of their caskets which was incredibly morbid and creepy. They were given the opportunity to repent and accept Jesus and go to heaven. The basic belief seemed to be that being chosen was difficult but when faced with your own resurrection, and with Jesus right there in the flesh, how could you deny it?”
The Church believed in the efficacy of prayer, firmly believing that any ailment could simply be ‘prayed away’. If an illness persisted then the afflicted would be anointed with oil while having the church elders prayed over their mortal soul.
“They also started this strange system of gift giving where they put out this table and you leave anonymous gifts for the other members. In retrospect, it’s really strange and became somehow weirdly competitive. They said it was to help spark fellowship but it just seems odd now. Every few months they would have a special late service and after they would rent the rest of the school and we would have a pot luck in the lunch area of the school and play basketball on the courts or go swimming in the pool. Those ones weren’t that bad.”
CK – How did the church deal with naysayers? Did they just quietly get on with their own business or were they outspoken against detractors?
MG – The church was a bit of a bubble and if there were any type of complaints or speaking out it was hidden from members.
Terri explained that if people started to push back privately in talks with leaders and things they would be excommunicated and instantly shunned. Active members were forbidden from interacting with someone who had been excommunicated.
MG – My mom also said members who just decided to leave on their own without consulting the church were excommunicated as well, even if they hadn’t gone through the process. Once again you were forbidden from interacting with them. There was the expectation of obedience to that rule. The same rule applies if it were your own family member. If seen consorting with an excommunicated member you risked being shunned and chastised next.
- A 3-7 experience of the life in a world reverted to a hellscape of judgement. The belief was that Christ would then return to Earth, revert it back to its normal landscape before ushering in the millennium.
- WSC flaghsip magazine