Durham News: Opinion

Jesse James DeConto: One-way train

When I was 7 years old in the mid-’80s, Mom started taking my brother Marco and me to Grace Bible Baptist Church and School in a squat, utilitarian building hidden on a back road in rural New Hampshire, with a congregation of 30 or 40 strong: The Moral Majority. There were Ronald Reagan posters in the lobby. We’d listen to sermons about the Satanist propaganda you’d hear if you played rock records backwards. One week, we came back to church every night after school to watch Russell Daughten’s four-part 1970s “Rapture” movie series, the original “Left Behind:” Polyester pandemonium.

A guy named Jack Hyles in Indiana was like our Pope, and sometimes we’d listen to his sermons on tape at church. The real Pope might have been the Antichrist; we weren’t sure. We were pretty sure the Roman Catholic Church was “the Whore of Babylon” from the book of Revelation, leading our neighbors to hell. Until I looked it up just now, I had always thought Hyles was from Denver; I must have confused him with the Broncos quarterback, our pastor’s other big hero. Some things were certain: Reagan and Hyles would save us from the Communists and Catholics, and John “The General” Elway would lead a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to beat the Browns in the playoffs.

One time a singing group from the Pope’s college in Indiana came to our church for a concert. It was an unaccredited college because Hyles, like our pastor, didn’t want any bureaucratic meddling. It was bad enough that Gorbachev and the United Nations were conspiring to form the “One-World Government” and that Mom and Dad’s credit-card company was an accomplice, stockpiling our personal information so they could link it to the Mark of the Beast in the run-up to Armageddon.

The Hyles-Anderson Singers were a barbershop-gospel quartet. They did the old folk song, “This Train,” the bass rumbling and the high tenor soaring about the “righteous and holy” who’d get on that train, the liars, gamblers, hypocrites, and midnight ramblers who’d be left behind. They sang a verse added by Woody Guthrie in the 1950s: Cigarette smokers were his target. Bad news, because Dad liked his Winstons. No wonder he didn’t come to church much. The Hyles-Anderson Singers even got creatively heterocentric with the lyrics:

This train is bound for glory, this train.

This train is bound for glory, this train.

God made Adam and Eve,

God didn’t make no Adam and Steve

This train is leavin’, get on board.

The pastor presided over both the church and the school with absolute authority. Smoke machines were meant to make a rock concert look like hell, he’d tell us. He forbade Mom and the other church ladies from wearing slacks or cutting their hair short; that would make them too much like men. Likewise, earrings and long hair were off-limits for men. Brother Starch, aptly named, wore dark, double-breasted power suits, shiny black cowboy boots, his black hair slicked back and a thick, Magnum P.I. mustache.

One morning during our weekly chapel service at school, my friend Sean threw some pocket change toward the pastor as he entered our classroom to preach. It was an innocent gesture: Sean must have seen video footage of Catholics throwing flowers in front of the Pope or heard the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem over a path of palms. “You DO NOT throw things at the man of God,” Brother Starch barked.

Brother Starch would convene us every Sunday evening to boast to one another about how many souls we had won the previous week. He that winneth souls is wise, he’d always say, quoting Proverbs 11:30. Winning souls was never about anything like, say, convincing a man to stop beating his wife or to start serving at a soup kitchen. It was about keeping people from eternal damnation. One lady, Miss Beth, would come reporting she’d won seven or 11 or 17 souls in any particular week. Nobody, not even Brother Starch, ever came close to beating her.

We were supposed to hand out “Chick Tracts,” these little comic books a guy named Jack Chick wrote against Catholics, Mormons, and evolutionists, trying to get people saved. One tract, “Back from the Dead,” showed a guy with a Luke Skywalker haircut having a near-death experience, going to hell, and then reviving in the emergency room and screaming for a preacher to tell him how to get to heaven. Another tract, “A Demon’s Nightmare,” had a guy in a nice suit telling a teenage boy about Jesus while some Disneyfied devils try to distract the kid. The demons used the new believer’s “worldly” family and friends to persecute him.

Our non-Christian relatives weren’t supposed to like us.

We were supposed to be different.

We were supposed to be weird.

That’s how we knew we were right.

Jesse James DeConto is a Durham musician and author of the spiritual memoir “This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World” (thislittlerlight.com), Cascade Books, 2013. He is releasing excerpts like this one, paired with music videos of songs that help to shape his story. Find “This Train” at tinyurl.com/nh56gh8.