She had auburn hair, and carried a Bible. She chewed Orbit spearmint gum almost continually, and snapped it often, with a sound like a pistol shot. Her eyes were burning brightly. She was almost breathlessly friendly, with a shrill, eagle-like voice. Her name was Louise.
I can't remember much of our friendship...we lived in the shelter together. She was particularly interested in my Tecsun DR-920 SW radio, which is my non-Internet data companion on the road. "I've gotten Russia, and China, and Prague..." and in the fact that I also was a visible Christian.
She was somewhat cagey about her church. In her enthusiasm, she could hardly speak, but showed me the name "Philadelphia" in her Bible. KRACK! snap!
"Well, lots of churches take their names from locations in the Bible..." I was puzzled.
She went on to talk about Germany. "I am partially German...I'm sometimes frightened of how German I can be." She went on to talk about Germans as being naturally militant, how they'd instigated almost every war in the past millenium, and how the Antichrist was alive and his name was Baron von Gutenberg.
I looked puzzled.
"I just came back from Germany a few weeks ago, and they're nothing like that." I said. "Most Germans I met were mellow as doves." I went on to talk about what I'd seen of Hamburg: people there were mostly friendly, well-dressed, and the busses ran on time.
She went on to talk about the upcoming Apocalypse, and I smiled indulgently and switched seats.
At City Shelter, it's not hard to find paranoids. "They're angry at God." one Resident Advisor opined. "What God did to them to get here. Their future is so uncertain, it's easy to think about the end of the world -- it makes little difference if they're going to die or go hungry if everyone else is going to die too."
Over the next few days, my status with her went from friend to worse than enemy: I was clearly possessed, and had taken Satan as my Master. To her, I no longer looked or spoke like a human being, but acted like "a little seething ball of hatred, who smells of shit and brimstone", and "gnashed her teeth over Easter" (strange, considering some of my other WU's).
When I found that the Philadelphia Church of God had something to do with the Worldwide Church of God, I was intrigued. You see, I remember him from late high school.
Herbert W. Armstrong was an exotic import to New Haven airwaves. Evangelical Christianity doesn't do well in New England: New England Protestantism tends towards social justice and liberal attitudes towards personal habits, while religious conservatism is served more than adequately by the Catholics. However, for several years in the Seventies, I'd heard the ravings of a curious character.
With less than a high school education and no real theological training, Armstrong started had his own faith in 1938. Utilizing the power of the press, his blend of prophecy and ultra-conservative news coverage, The Plain Truth, a monthly magazine, distributed over eight million copies a week. He also had a radio program, "The World Tomorrow", which formed the backbone of his "Radio Church of God", an opulent headquarters in Pasadena, California, with its capstone, Ambassador Auditorium, a palatial showcase designed to mimic the Temple in Jerusalem, lavish with Oriental carpets and rose onyx.
Armstrongism was, for a time, a prime source of news and faith for the farm communities across America, and revenues from his "Triple Tithe" system (which syphoned off as much as 30% or more of parishoners' incomes) funded his opulent Pasadena headquarters. He promoted Saturday Sabbatarianism, abstention from pork, shrimp, and other "unclean" meats, observance of Jewish holidays, healthy living, and a distrust of the medical profession as opposed to healing by faith alone. Other churches, notably the Roman Catholic church, were to be avoided at all costs, as representative of The Harlot of Babylon, in favor of "the hidden stream" within Christianity, kept alive by the Waldenisians and other obscure groups.
What separated him from Oral Roberts were his skills in bulldada: lacking in any kind of theological training, his writings span the range from "plausible guesses" to "totally batshit crazy".
The basic idea is this: the Bible is forty per cent prophecy, if you count all sixteen prophets, the book of Revelations, and a few bits and pieces scattered all through. Indeed, if you consider the way many passages can be seen as a metaphor, nearly all the Bible is prophetic. Many passages are out of chronological order, and ninety percent of this, so Armstrong stated, relates to the "end times", or Apocalypse, which would occur...well, any time now, so that almost any part of the Bible could be seen as dealing with YOU, right now!
I won't go into some of the more recherche parts of his faith, but here's a sample of his history...
The Nordic countries, in his mythology, are really the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, except for Germany. The English are the Royal Line of Judah, and (white, English-speaking) Americans are the Kingdom of Israel. Germans are really Assyrians, you see, and Really Bad Dudes. They can't help but do the worst of evil deeds, whoever they are! Never mind that some Germans have, historically, been as much sinned against as sinning (Napoleon, anyone?), and that Ode to Joy begins "All men are brothers"...they're all NAZIs, evil, and can't be trusted. (That some good percent of all Americans have at least some German ancestry is swept under the rug.) Germany will take over Europe, and begin to kick ass.
So, when the Tribulation hits, Germany will pull out the nukes it's been hiding (their weapons program is MUCH more advanced then ours) and start WWIII, with some help from the Communists.
Anyway, after all the smoke clears, we'll all have a second chance to believe in the Gospel, and we'll be happy...or else. You see, you don't get to go to heaven....angels only! But you do get to live out a vastly expanded lifespan on Earth with Jesus. England and America will rule over the "Gentile nations", teaching them the True Law...God's Laws. As in the book of Isaiah, all the mountains will be flattened into plains, The Grand Canyon and the like will be filled in, every crooked way will be made straight, the polar ice caps will be melted and drained to provide water for the desert regions...in short, the entire earth will be made into a vast American Midwest, albeit with Israeli overtones. You don't like it? Jesus will humanely euthanize you, by instantly burning you to ashes. No soul for you! But if you work hard and stay on everyone's good side, you get to be part of God's family...just like Jesus! Wow!
Problem was, America won the war, and Germany was on its way to becoming a gentle, peace-loving nation full of hard-working engineers and artists. While the Werewolves (a guerilla band of NAZI extremists) caused minor annoyances in post-war Germany, the majority of Germans had pretty much given up on anything close to apocalyptic war, since you can't drink the Kool-Aid twice. This didn't fool Herbert W. one bit, since the Germans, having had 3000 years to sharpen their swords against the Israelites, wouldn't be deterred by a little thing like oh, having most of their industrial base bombed and a good deal of their intellectual base (including most of the scientists that could have made a nuke) having fled to America. No! They're playing possum! The German Defense Minister is the Antichrist! The world will end in 1975! The Bible said so!
In the kind of bombast that sounds like Ivan Stang without the humor and reads like early advertising copy, Herbert W. would "prove" each and every assertion with Biblical passages taken out of context, mixed with doubtful etymologies and numerical manipulations amounting to a folk gematria. It's all true! (or in Armstrongese, "It's ALL TRUE!"), he'd assert, asking listeners to "take out your Bibles" and follow along with him, passage by passage. His radio sermons would always end with a plug for one of his books, nominally free, but available for "$2 postage and handling", with titles like "The Hidden Dimension in Sex" (that is, God hates masturbators, fornicators, and adulterers). As with many tabloid psychics, he made so many prophecies made that a few of them came true, thus bolstering his reputation, and garnering such adherents as Bobby Fischer, who claimed to have been at least a fan since 1962 and folk-art genius and MAD magazine contributor Basil Wolverton (and son), who illustrated many WCG publications.
Alas, the ways of the world caught up with the Armstrong dynasty. Rumors of embezzlement and misuse of church funds dogged the church for years. Herbert W.'s son, Garner Ted, turned out to be more than a handful, seducing young women from Ambassador College, openly criticizing the old man, drinking and spending lavishly, leading to his disfellowshipping in the early Seventies. Not to be discouraged, Garner Ted set up a splinter church in Texas. Herbert's long-suffering wife, Loma, died, and Herb remarried to a woman fifty years his junior, a marriage that ended in divorce (long a WCG taboo). During the divorce proceedings, there were hints of incest and other misdoings; 60 Minutes investigated (never a good sign) and when Herbert finally gave up the ghost in 1986, the church split into about a hundred smaller groups, which have in turn formed second generation splinters. (In all, more than 300 groups operating today have at least some part of their lineage in Armstrong's church.) The Pasadena campus has been sold, and the church's headquarters are now in a smaller suburb.
The parent church underwent radical restructuring. Joseph W. Tkach, Armstrong's successor, threw out Armstrong's last book, "The Mystery of the Ages", among others and many of the church's quirkier doctrines in favor of a mainstream evangelical slant. Armstrong was vilified as a heretic and a crook, and the name of the church was changed to Grace Communion International.
Among the splinters that kept to Armstrong's message was The Philadelphia Church of God, named for one of the seven churches in Revelation, and situated in Oklahoma. This church acquired a large chunk of Armstrong's papers, his piano and many other bits of memorabilia, and published a short book "Malachi's Message", which claimed to be the "little book" mentioned in Revelation 10. Surprisingly, it's not written in anything like the language of Revelations, not unsurprisingly, it contains a clear message that Flurry, not Tkach, is the true head of the WCOG, and that other churches in the Armstrong camp were "Laodiceans", that is, not to be trusted, let into churches, or considered members of the family. Like Armstrong, Flurry publishes a newsmagazine The Trumpet, and a TV show, The Key of David, which bills itself as "The World's Best-Informed News Source". (Close investigation, however, reveals that most of its articles are written by students at his Bible college.) Counted by most observers as a garden-variety cult-of-personality, his latest pronouncement is that the Tribulation is this year, and that the Blessed will wait out the End Times in a rebuilt Petra, in Jordan. Strangely enough, there's few direct sermons from him: his instructions are to each congregation that they listen to his sermons on tape, or CD-RW, and then erase the material after they've heard it.
Apparently, I'm somewhat lucky in meeting Louise, because the Church has been in decline. Facing her discharge from the shelter, she resolutely believes that Jordan will be her new home, despite all advice from social workers.