Article — From the August 2009 issue
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Article — From the August 2009 issue
The world’s largest children’s ministry, the Fellowship conceives of its mission as overseas proselytizers did at the turn of the twentieth century. Its members swoop down on deprived, often illiterate people and inundate them with foreign notions: “Jesus died on the cross”; “Because He loves me”; “I will meet Him in Heaven.” The missionaries’ textbook Teaching Children Effectively: Level I instructs them to draft a map of each neighborhood they visit, drawing crosses by the homes where children have atoned for their sins. According to the Fellowship, once children begin to understand the difference between right and wrong—somewhere between the ages of five and twelve—they are cognitively capable of salvation, and, crucially, at risk for eternal damnation. After apologizing for wrongdoing and praying to accept the Lord’s grace, children are pronounced “saved.” Conversions often take less than ten minutes. Some hear the Gospel while on their bikes or while bathing in inflatable pools in their front yards. Others attend the Fellowship’s Bible classes in parks, homes, and public schools. The ministry is based in Warrenton, Missouri, and maintains chapters in 158 countries and in every American state. It keeps careful count of the number of youngsters it has saved: last year, there were more than one million worldwide.
I followed the Connecticut ministry on its summer missions, often crouching beside children while they prayed to be reborn. Every day for a blisteringly hot week last July, Isaac drove a team of six teenage missionaries to Country Village Apartments, a grand name for a cluster of squat brick row houses arrayed in a U around a central road, the pavement cracked. The largely black and Hispanic neighborhood is located at the northern edge of Waterbury, a city of chain stores and abandoned brassware factories. When the missionaries arrived, they canvassed every home in the neighborhood, passing out Bible club invitations to whoever answered the door: an elderly man in boxers in the midst of a teary phone call; a teenager on his way to work; a mother wearing a T-shirt that warned, most likely to steal your boyfriend.
The majority of the missionaries were white—some had heard of the clubs through their local churches; a few had themselves been saved by the Fellowship—and they stuck out as they shuffled from door to door in their crisp khakis or long, loose skirts. They were loath to skip a single house, even when it was clear that nobody was home. Only once did I hear someone express concern about safety, when a fifteen-year-old shrieked that she’d seen a sign that said, trespassers will be persecuted. In fact, it read, trespassers will be prosecuted, and she was put at ease when the distinction was made. She lived in a world of biblical proportions: prosecution was an abstraction while persecution felt probable and near.
The Bible clubs were held on a quilt under a drooping oak tree in the neighborhood park, close enough to the basketball court that children coming to play could be recruited for worship. Although parents were invited to observe the clubs, few attended. Some viewed them as free babysitting. The time was filled with songs, prayers, Bible stories, a personal tale about a missionary, and Scripture memorization. The missionaries taught the line, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.” They encouraged children to practice the sentence while hopping on one foot, twirling in place, patting their bellies, or tickling themselves. At the end of each session, an instructor asked the students to bow their heads and close their eyes. Those who wanted to “believe on Jesus”—missionaries use the outmoded phrase from the King James translation—were told to follow the instructor away from the quilt where in private they could rid themselves of their sins. They defined sin as “anything we think, say, or do that makes God sad,” drawing a tear on their cheeks.
There were roughly nine children in the club, depending on the day, and several said the A B C steps for salvation and apologized for their sins: shouting, teasing, pushing, stealing, disobeying their mothers. (A few who attended did not complete the steps but seemed to enjoy the snacks.) The older children in particular warmed to the message that there was something deeply, irrevocably wrong with them. (The Fellowship heartily reinforces the doctrine of original sin.) The missionaries nudged children toward self-consciousness yet presented an archaic view of what it means to have a self. Countless times I heard children articulate their guilt, amorphous but ever present, by describing a fantasy that must have been learned from cartoons: an angel is fluttering over one shoulder, and Satan is hovering over the other; each is barking opposing commands.
Scott Harris, the most serious student in the class, was shaken by the discovery that numerous times a day he was personally distressing the Lord. “Yesterday I took ice cream without asking, and I started to tremble,” he told me. He spoke with an embarrassed smile yet seemed eager to share his newfound religious commitment. “I knew I’d get in trouble. Later, I was throwing a ball with my friends, and I threw like a little baby. It only went like five inches. Jesus took away my strength, I think.”
The children had a nebulous sense of time, and when they were told after club to return the next day at three o’clock, the reminder was useless. “But I don’t have a clock,” whimpered a six-year-old named Karizma. “And I don’t know what three is.” The notion that their lives could be transformed in a mere ten minutes did not seem to many children preposterous. The distinction between minutes, hours, and days does not bear much weight until one realizes that these markers will inevitably come to an end. The world described by the missionaries was far removed from the mundanity of school bells and bedtimes. The Bible offered entry into a fairy-tale realm where time is everlasting: the good creatures really do live happily ever after while the bad endure a dark eternity of pain. By saying their vows and consenting to the truth of the Bible, the children became players in a mythical tale that both preceded them and had called them into being. They could enter the story and choose their own ending.
Rachel Aviv is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is her first article for Harper’s Magazine.
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