I am ready to die for Jesus. I am nine years old.
I clutch my little white Bible to my chest and step up on a plastic milk crate. Once again I’m ready to prove that I’m not ashamed of the gospel. If I can preach on this street corner and withstand the heckling of sinners, I’ll show everyone I’m ready to be a martyr for the Lord.
I swallow hard and try to smile. I tell myself that God speaks through the mouths of babies. And I’m not a baby. I’m nine.
“Praise the Lord!” I shout. Nobody looks at me. “Praise the Lord !” I shout again.
This flummoxes me. I’ve preached all over the United States with my parents—to tourists at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, gay-rights activists in San Francisco, and college students in Midwest university towns—but this Rhode Island crowd is the toughest. Maybe Dad is right: maybe the most hardhearted sinners are East Coast Catholic liberals. There is a bookstore nearby, and I redirect my sermon to the Brown
University students walking toward it. “I want to share with you the glorious message of our Lord Jesus Christ!”
Street-preaching tip: shout the name of Jesus, and people will look at you.
Suddenly, eyes are on me. I try to smile again—“Always look pleasant!” Mom says—but the East Coast humidity sits heavy on my shoulders like a hot, wet blanket. I feel smothered.
I glance at Dad, and he gives me a boisterous thumbs-up. He says there’s no greater honor than being persecuted for my faith. I want somebody to heckle me. Nothing would make my dad happier.
I open my Bible to the bookmarked spot and hold it open in front of me. I pretend to read the words aloud even though I know them from memory. In my family, preaching is a competitive sport. Before I was reading, I could rattle off the books of the Bible. By age five I could preach a three-point gospel message in one minute. Damnation to salvation in sixty seconds flat.
“In Romans 3:23, the Bible says, ‘For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’!” I shout.
Street-preaching tip: always use the phrase the Bible says to make your words sound as if they come straight from God. And always give ’em the bad news first, because until sinners understand how wicked they are and how desperately they need Jesus, they won’t repent.
“God sent his only begotten Son, Jesus, to die for our sins!” I glance at the gathering crowd and decide to ratchet it up a notch. “The Bible says it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment!”
A plain-faced woman with wiry gray hair is eating ice cream on a nearby street bench. I point my finger at her. “You might die today!”
She stops midlick and raises a curious eyebrow at me.
“But there’s good news! The Bible says the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ ”
The woman shakes her head and looks away. I direct my last line at a few people standing around. “Please ask Jesus into your heart today!” I’m done. I step off the milk crate and dash to Mom, who is standing nearby holding a stack of Bible study invitations.
“Good job, Elizabeth,” Mom says and hands me some invitations.
“Now help me pass these out.”
Whenever we land in a new city to preach the gospel, Dad rents a house near a local university and then draws people to our home Bible study by holding these open-air preaching sessions and community outreaches. Our goal is to plant a new church in six weeks. I turn to hand out the invitations, but someone is yelling.
“Look here, man!” a lady shouts. “What you’re doing to your little girl is wrong!”
I turn to see the wiry-haired ice-cream lady standing in front of Dad, jabbing a finger in his face. “This is brainwashing!”
“Whoa, ma’am. Please calm down.” Dad has his hands up in a gesture of surrender.
“Don’t tell me to calm down! You’re not in charge of me!”
“Hey, hey. There’s no need to yell.” Dad chuckles, unruffled. “I’m more than happy to have a conversation with you. Would you like some cookies? Maybe a lemonade?” Dad gestures at Mom to serve something from the snacks we’ve set up on a card table.
The angry lady waves her off. “I don’t want any of your damned Kool-Aid ! I want you to listen to me for one goddamned minute.”
“Well, I’m afraid we can’t have a reasonable conversation if you insist on yelling and using foul language,” Dad replies, crossing his arms over his chest. He leans back on his heels and smiles benignly. I clutch Mom’s skirt.
The woman glances at me and then lowers her voice a notch. She leans toward Dad. “Look,” she growls, “it’s fine for you to have your religion. But sticking your little girl up there on a stage and making her yell at people? That’s wrong! You’re teaching her to manipulate people through fear. You’re brainwashing her!”
Dad raises his eyebrows, but his voice remains calm. “With all due respect, you don’t know me or my daughter. There’s no way you can prove what you’re saying.”
“I don’t need to prove anything to you!” the woman snaps. “I know abuse and manipulation when I see it. I should report you to Child Protective Services!”
“Well, we’ve got nothin’ to hide,” Dad says, still smiling. “And anyway, I can think of a lot worse things than being brainwashed to love Jesus!”
The lady spins on her heels and stalks away, muttering obscenities.
“May God richly bless ya!” Dad calls after her.
She whips back around, glares at Dad, and then looks directly at me. For one quick second, her face softens. Dad steps forward.
“Don’t be afraid to think for yourself!” she shouts before Dad blocks my view.
Mom claps her hands over my ears. But it’s too late. I already heard it. Don’t be afraid to think for yourself.
I don’t even know what that means.
I was raised in a homegrown, fundamentalist Christian group—which is just a shorthand way of saying I’m classically trained in apocalypse stockpiling, street preaching, and the King James Version of the Bible. I know hundreds of obscure nineteenth-century hymns by heart and have such razor-sharp “modesty vision” that I can spot a miniskirt a mile away.
Verily, verily I say unto thee, none of these highly specialized skills ever got me a job, but at least I’m all set for the End of the World. Selah. I was born in 1977, just a few years after my paternal grandfather, George Geftakys, began holding informal Bible studies in his living room. An insurance salesman and part-time preacher, he had never been officially ordained. He said the only requirement for serving God was “hearing the call of Jesus” and having the anointing of the Holy Spirit. True disciples of Christ didn’t need seminary or the approval of “hypocritical, organized religion” in order to do the Lord’s work. George Geftakys—known as Papa George to family—claimed his authority came straight from God. Which was just another way of saying he ordained himself. Conveniently, self-ordination also meant Papa George was the final authority on everything and answered to no one. Papa George was pretty much a prophet, priest, and king all rolled into one.
Still, he found a way to harness the Jesus Movement energy and create his own personal brand of Christianity. Our basic beliefs were similar to Baptists’ but with Papa George’s added emphasis on personal holiness, evangelism, and End of the World prophecy. From our grass-roots start as a Bible study in Papa George’s living room, The Assembly—as we came to be known—grew to include about fifty sister Assemblies throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Africa.
In the beginning, The Assembly was vibrant, energetic, and revolutionary. It was groovy. The social experimentation of the sixties had broken down the walls of tired old religion, and a new generation was falling in love with Jesus. Roaring out of Southern California like wildfire, the Jesus Movement upended traditional Christian denominations and challenged the religious establishment.
Empty, impersonal ritual was replaced with charismatic, personal experiences. Written prayers gave way to spontaneous individual expression of praise. Preachers like my grandfather insisted traditional churches had become false mediators and God was allowing an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in order to bring people back into direct contact with Jesus. Among those drawn by my grandfather’s charisma and Bible preaching was my mother, a beautiful debutante and former high school cheerleader.
She’d grown up in Baptist churches, but as a college freshman, she was looking for something different, something more real. She stumbled across a Bible study being held at California State University, Fullerton, and was immediately dazzled by Papa George’s fiery preaching. She also met my dad at that Bible study. He was Papa George’s younger son.
My parents were an unlikely pair. Dad was a college dropout; Mom was a straight-A student. He was gregarious and she was an introvert. Mom told me the first time she saw my dad he was wearing tattered army fatigues, huarache sandals, and—here Mom crinkled her nose in disgust—“he’d hitchhiked to the Bible study.”
But they fell in love over studying the Bible, all-night prayer meetings, and living “100 percent sold-out for Jesus.”
As Mom liked to say with a nostalgic sigh, “In the early days, we didn’t have anything but Jesus.” Not having anything but Jesus was what everyone always talked about when they reminisced about The Assembly’s early years. They fondly remembered being enthusiastic young college students in the early seventies, radically redefining Christianity in a new, exciting way. They saw themselves as faith revolutionaries on the
cusp of a huge revival, which would usher in the return of Jesus to Earth. Everyone was finding Jesus and getting saved, baptizing each other in the Pacific Ocean, getting married, and starting families.
Sometimes, when we were traveling across the United States preaching the gospel, my parents would get all flushed with Jesus fervor, clasp hands, and burst into hymns in two-part harmony. These wild preaching sessions were inevitably followed by noisy lovemaking in whatever cheap hotel room we were renting—with me plugging my ears and pretending to be asleep in the other bed.
It was all very exciting for them, I suppose. But as a child growing up in The Assembly, I had a far different experience.
As with most revolutions, the idealistic dream that had initially ignited our little band of born-again Christians gradually hardened into a rigid lifestyle. Ironically, by the mideighties, we had morphed to become nearly indistinguishable from the legalistic, organized religion we’d rejected in the first place.
What I remember most are the increasingly strict rules and the insular, fundamentalist traditions we developed. Papa George’s interpretation of the Bible was hyperliteral: he demanded complete and total loyalty—spiritualizing this conformity as “unity in Christ.” Children were spanked from six months old until they were teenagers. Women were required to dress very modestly and behave within strict gender roles. Everything, from how we ordered our daily schedules to our tone of voice, was monitored. The only person who wasn’t held accountable for anything was Papa George.
This is why, when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts, and choices that identifies a cult. The Assembly wins on all counts.
Fundamentalism that becomes cultish destroys the God-given freedom of each person. Usually this is accomplished through fear. In my own experience, the most detrimental aspect of my childhood was our preoccupation with End of the World theology. Even though my grandfather was never quite certain whether Christians would be persecuted
before or after the Rapture, the End of the World was coming soon, and we had to stay prepared.
Indeed, everything in our lives was oriented toward the End of the World. Thus, my parents never owned a home, never had a savings account, and never invested toward retirement. They didn’t save money to send me to college because planning for the future was irrelevant when there was no future. That’s why by age nine I had simply resigned myself to dying for Jesus.
“What’s brainwashing?” I ask.
Dad squats in front of me, his face a huge, beaming smile. “Oh, don’t you worry about that crazy feminist, Wiz,” he says, calling me by the nickname he’s had for me since I was a toddler. “Keep your eye on the prize; you just endured persecution. What a privilege! I bet you just earned yourself a huge crown of glory!”
Mom whispers something in Dad’s ear, and he shakes his head. “No, no. Don’t worry about that,” he says. “If the cops show up, I’ll tell them I was exercising my constitutional right to freedom of speech and some crabby feminist didn’t like it.”
Mom leans against Dad, and he winks at me. “Mama, how ’bout you go get Wiz some frozen lemonade? She’s earned it!” I feel relief wash over me. I’ve preached the gospel and suffered for Jesus. Dad and God are proud of me. If Dad is right about this whole being-persecuted-for-Jesus thing, I’ve just scored some major heavenly swag.
The adults in our fundamentalist church are forever fantasizing about what they’ll get in heaven: new bodies, mansions, and crowns of glory. Dad likes to say he wants beachfront property on the Crystal Sea. As Mom walks me to the frozen-lemonade shop, I dream about the heavenly prizes I’ve just won. I don’t dare say it aloud because Mom will scold me for desiring “things of this world,” but if I’m being honest, all I really want is a television, a Happy Meal, and a Christmas Barbie.
Excerpted from Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther. Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Esther. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.