Article — From the August 2009 issue
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Article — From the August 2009 issue
Last summer, forty Christian missionaries, members of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, roamed the housing projects of Connecticut telling children the condensed and colorful story of Jesus’ life. The goal was salvation, but the missionaries rarely used that long word. They employed monosyllabic language and avoided abstract concepts and homonyms. “Holy” was a problem, the missionaries said, as children thought it meant “full of holes.” “Christ rose from the dead” was also tricky because children mistook the verb for a flower.
One afternoon in July, on a basketball court in Waterbury, Scott Harris, a black nine-year-old in an oversized sleeveless jersey, was inspecting a wound on his knee. The wound was sloppily stitched and looked grotesque, like a pair of lips. “I’m mad at Adam and Eve,” Scott said to a missionary named Isaac Weaver. “If they hadn’t eaten that apple, there would be no more bushes, prickers, and bugs. I wouldn’t have busted my knee open.”
“But do you ever think,” Isaac asked, “‘What if I were the first one?’ I think I’d probably make the same mistake as Eve.”
“No, I wouldn’t have tasted that fruit,” said Scott, his voice high and hoarse. “I’m trying not to get in trouble all the time. People say, Sit down, and I’m already sitting down. They say, Be quiet, and I’m not even saying anything.”
Isaac, twenty-six years old, blue-eyed, tan, and willowy, picked up his EvangeCube, a plastic toy of eight interlocking blocks that tell the Gospel in pictures. (The cube comes in a box that bears the slogan unfolding the answer to life’s greatest questions.) He pointed to the image of Heaven: a pastel hole in the clouds emanating milky rays of light. “You were right about Adam and Eve,” Isaac said. “Where they lived, everything was perfect.” He asked Scott if he knew his ABCs, and when the boy nodded, Isaac explained that “accepting Jesus is as easy as A B C. ‘A’ stands for Admit you are a sinner. ‘B’ is for Believe that Jesus went on the cross and died for your sins. And ‘C’ is for Choose to accept Him as the boss of your life and go to Heaven forever.”
“But what if you sin when you’re in Heaven?” Scott took the EvangeCube from Isaac and jiggled it in the air. The blocks flipped, moving from the picture of Jesus’ crucifixion to Heaven and back again.
“But what if you do?”
“You can’t. You’re in Heaven.”
“Oh, it’s like an ability.”
Isaac nodded vigorously. “Now, Scott, it’s time to tell Jesus you believe what He did for you. And one day when Jesus comes back, He will make everything right.”
“Tell Him you believe He died to take your sins away,” Isaac gently prodded.
“What does that mean?”
“It means you really do believe He came and took away your sins. Do you believe that?”
“Yeah, I do.” Scott’s nostrils flared. “You died for me—from taking my sins away.”
Three young boys approached the basketball court, and Scott turned to watch them. When they called his name, he slowly stood up and dusted off the back of his nylon shorts. “I’ve got to play now,” he told Isaac bashfully.
Isaac obliged, gathering together his props—the cube and a worn Bible, bristling with sticky notes. Although he and Scott had only gotten to “B: Believe,” he said he was pleased with the conversation. It was the first time he had performed what the Fellowship calls “open-air evangelism,” approaching strangers with no introduction besides “Do you want to hear a great story?” Before introducing himself to Scott on the basketball court, he had been overtaken by anxiety. He sat down on the curb with another missionary, and they bowed their sweaty heads in prayer. “Father, I don’t know if I can do this,” Isaac said quietly, flicking a fly off his sneaker. “To me it seems like an odd thing to do. But, Lord, if this is what You are calling us to do, then I say no to fear. Please direct us to the right people so that we can show You to them. They need You. We need You.”
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.
When I first met Joshua Guido, the twenty-four-year-old director of the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Connecticut, I told him I had been an uncomfortably religious child, vaguely Jewish but mostly superstitious. I had worried that the Lord would punish me for bad behavior by killing my mother. I was constantly apologizing to Him: for stepping on my own shadow; closing the sock drawer too abruptly; turning the lights off before the moment when I felt a sign, a subtle thrumming through my body, that it was right to flick the switch. I thought I could become the words I spoke and would carefully avoid such threats as “death” (made worse because it rhymed with my mother’s name, Beth) and “Hell.” With the help of a few prayers I learned in Hebrew school, I turned the childhood taunt “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back” into a religious worldview. It would have been a relief if someone had given me a rigid and alphabetized set of beliefs like those the Fellowship offers. (Instead, my parents sent me to therapy.)
Before I met Josh, one of the youngest state directors in the country, I had contacted Fellowship ministry directors in New York and New Jersey, but they both refused me access to their ministries when I told them I was writing for a secular publication. The Fellowship has never been forthcoming with the media, but since it won the right, in a controversial 2001 Supreme Court decision, to hold after-school Bible clubs in public schools, the leadership has been particularly skittish. In my initial talks with Josh at his office in Southington, a town twenty miles south of Hartford, we adopted a mode of conversation that I later realized was fundamental to the ministry: confession. I described how my early excess of religious energy, which dimmed by adolescence, had left me curious as to whether children are naturally inclined toward faith. Although Josh had some reservations about my religious background, he was open to outsiders and said he did not want to “interfere” in case I’d been sent by the Lord. It was clear that he hoped my work might lead to something more than an article, and he encouraged me to research not just through books but lived experience. Abstract learning, he warned, would not get me far. “Unless ye turn and become as little children,” he quoted from Matthew, “Ye shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Josh, who has pale skin, soft, green eyes, and a long Italian nose, grew up in an evangelical Christian family in Waterbury. He has worked for the Fellowship since his teens, and, by his own reckoning, he has led more than a thousand people to Christ. A charismatic and disciplined man, he is well regarded among children and other Fellowship staff. “I’m not someone you look at and say, ‘Oh wow, I could never be like him.’ I’m pretty average, going by my IQ and SAT scores.” For Josh, as for Isaac and many of the missionary leaders, speaking can become an exercise in self-abnegation. He does not choose what he reads, for instance, but lets “the Lord put certain books in my path.” A ministry saying is “I cannot, but God can, so I will let Him do it through me.” Josh believes children are an ideal receptacle for the Lord’s words because they are still willing to believe, without proof, in the invisible. “The Muslims understand the importance of youth,” he said. “So did the Communists.” He sometimes recites the line, “Give me a child for five years, and I’ll have him for the rest of his life.” He attributed the quotation once to Adolf Hitler and another time to Fidel Castro. When his father, who is active in the ministry, delivered the same line, he cited Karl Marx.The source is more likely a Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child, I will give you the man,” sometimes attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola.
In the Book of Matthew, Jesus holds up the young child as the pinnacle of spiritual wisdom: “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” In his radical vision, Jesus presents the child’s faith—his undiminished sense of terror and awe—as a model for adults.
The Bible designates no age of accountability, or “age of reason,” although the Church has seldom directed missionary activity toward children younger than seven. When Jesse Overholtzer, a self-described “unobtrusive little farmer” who founded the Child Evangelism Fellowship in 1937, first began counseling children, he hid it from his parishioners, unsure himself whether the effort was not in vain. He called it his “knicker and pigtail experiment.” But what was once a tentative venture has gained increasing acceptance among evangelical Christians. In the past half-century, the born-again child has been emblazoned as an ideal believer, a mascot for anti-intellectualism. In his 2003 book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, George Barna, a pioneer in the field of religious marketing, scolds the evangelical community for neglecting youngsters—“the great myth of modern ministry: Adults are where the Kingdom action is”—and treating them merely as “people en route to significance.” Barna produces his own calculations to show that between the ages of five and twelve, there is the greatest “probability of someone embracing Jesus as his or her Savior.”
In course books and publicity materials, the Fellowship proudly cites Barna’s many statistics. Teaching Children Effectively: Level I calls children a “harvest field . . . virtually untouched” and blames this oversight on a culture that distorts the importance of intellect: “subtle worldly -philosophies have persuaded the majority of Christians that children cannot make a decision for Christ until they can ‘reason.’” In the textbook’s top-ten list of “Satan’s Attacks on the Child,” number three, after drugs and sex, is “humanism,” man’s capacity for fulfillment through the mind.
In the United States, the Fellowship’s arena for battling these worldly philosophies has been the legal system. By the 1980s, a series of court decisions had effectively removed religious groups from campus during the school day. In 1996, the Fellowship gained a renewed sense of mission when it sued Milford Central School in upstate New York for preventing it from holding Good News Clubs on school premises. In its request to the school board, the ministry described the clubs, which were held at 3:00 p.m., four minutes after the end of the last class of the day, as “a group of boys and girls meeting one hour a week for a fun time of singing songs, hearing a Bible lesson, and memorizing scripture.”
Five years later, in a 6–3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in the Fellowship’s favor, accusing the school district of “viewpoint discrimination,” because it permitted other after-school clubs, such as the Boy Scouts and 4H, to use its facilities. In his dissent, Justice David Souter wrote that the “majority’s statement ignores reality” and stands for the “remarkable proposition that any public school opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as church, synagogue, or mosque.” Steven K. Green, the former legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who filed a brief on behalf of Milford, said, “The instruction takes place in the same school, with snacks, to attract the kids. It’s a little devious. They know if they held it an hour later, the children wouldn’t show up. They are trying to dovetail into the school machinery. For many young children, there won’t be any distinction between this and the rest of the school day. It is a seamless web.”
Since the ruling, the Fellowship, funded by donations, has engaged in more than twenty follow-up suits against schools that refused to comply with the Milford decision. Hundreds of other cases not directly involving the Fellowship have cited the ruling, leading to a level of church-state entanglement that had been prohibited for -decades. Meanwhile, the number of Good News Clubs in public schools has quietly and steadily swelled. The ministry held 1,155 after-school clubs in 2000; in 2007, there were 3,956, reaching 137,361 children. Jaimie Fales, the Fellowship’s spokesperson, says that she still hears people complaining about the good old days before “they took God out of the schools. I have to remind them, ‘Hey, listen, you can have prayer in public schools! You can have the Bible in public schools! That’s just complaining. We can do it. We just got to get up and actually do it! The Supreme Court flung the doors wide open.’” Mathew Staver, a Liberty Counsel lawyer who represents the Fellowship, has asserted that the cases “literally turned back the historical clock.”
If the ministry longs for an earlier stage of history, it also affirms a cruder and more elementary kind of faith, one suited to the child’s inchoate cognitive abilities. “We shall no doubt come across analogies between the child and the primitive at every step,” wrote the psychologist Jean Piaget, whose work is cited throughout Milford’s court briefs as evidence that a child believes indiscriminately in the “infallibility of adult authority.” Piaget found that the child does not yet know the limits of his own mind and confuses “his self with the universe.” He believes in an anthropomorphic God—a doting, towering man who watches his every -movement—because it is the only one he can imagine.
The notion that the young mind allows us access to an earlier historical era is one that has been repeatedly, if carelessly, articulated by scholars for centuries. Auguste -Comte argued that the life of an individual recapitulates human history, beginning in a theological stage and maturing to scientific thought. The Fellowship, too, equates children with a more primitive phase in our culture. It reaches backward in time, creating a community that is still vulnerable, prone to magical explanations, and free of secular learning. Children are predisposed to the fundamentalist’s literal mode of reading. Unlike adults, they are not yet suspicious of the way that stories—with their seductive yet predictable arcs—try to capture our imaginations. They can still surrender to the world of a narrative.
At a ten-day training camp last June in the bucolic town of Cornwallville, New York, Josh, Isaac, and half a dozen other seasoned evangelists supervised the training of thirty missionaries between the ages of eleven and twenty. To learn techniques for presenting the Gospel simply, the young missionaries attended six hours of daily classes in a cavernous barn-shaped dining hall. They were genial, poised, and proudly helpless. When they traveled, they drove in a long, slow line of cars, and only those in the front vehicle knew where they were going. (By the end of the summer, several of the missionaries’ cars were dented.) The girls had angelic voices, high and lilting, and frequently professed their love: for one another, Jesus, black kids, the color green, Chinese food, the smell of gas. The more time I spent with them, the more I came to feel crass and overgrown (made worse when I got poison ivy on my legs from sitting in a playground). They were always friendly and respectful and rarely asked questions, although once, when I responded to an anecdote by calling a coincidence lucky, they took care to correct me. There is no such thing as “luck,” one girl made clear, curling her fingers into quotation marks.
The missionaries juggled two stories and casts of characters at once: a biblical reality and a far more messy and banal existence. The Lord was both the narrator and the love of their lives. With His guidance, their experiences were no longer fragmented but plotted and saturated with meaning. One
of the older trainees, Katharine, a -twenty-year-old from an affluent suburb of Hartford, explained that she associated her distaste for men (“As a general rule, I avoid them”) with her fear of losing her attachment to this narrative. “Every little girl wants to be a princess,” she told me. “I became one when I accepted the love that Christ was offering me. That’s one of the reasons I became so wary around guys. Although I had accepted that gift, I didn’t want it to become so commonplace that I was willing to trade it for any—I guess what you would call earth relationships.”
The missionaries displayed little interest in works of fiction not inspired by the Lord, and they had a radical approach to reading. They referred to the Gospel simply as “the Story.” The Bible’s sentences did not just express love, they were love—a gift from the Lord. Teaching Children Effectively instructed them to describe Heaven as a fairy-tale village that would become the home of every believer, the ultimate happy ending: “There is a street of gold—pure like glass. . . . No one is ever sick there. No one ever dies. There is no night. Every person in Heaven will be perfectly happy—always.” The question that follows so many bedtime stories—“Is it true?”—can at last be answered with certainty. Children are offered the possibility of believing, wholly and unabashedly, an extraordinary tale. They can permanently suspend disbelief. “The Bible is not just on a shelf,” one instructor, Jennifer Curtis (affectionately called “the philosopher”), told the class. “Kids are growing up with so many half-truths—but here is a book that is finally all true. The book is alive.”
Just after nine one morning in the dining hall, its ten large windows overlooking miles of green hills, the missionaries’ textbooks, sweaters, and tote bags splattered on top of portable cafeteria tables, Josh began a forty-five-minute lesson titled “How to Use the EvangeCube.” It proved to be one of the camp’s liveliest discussions. Josh asked the class whether they had the authority to edit frightening details out of the Story. When many expressed fear that this would violate the sanctity of the Lord’s message, Josh asked them to think about how they would describe Hell if mothers were watching. “What are you going to do with a class of suburban five-year-olds? Soccer moms, and they’re from Wethersfield, Connecticut. These are rich, educated people.”
“We shouldn’t water it down,” said Jake, a stout boy with blond hair and a thick jaw who had appeared lethargic in previous sessions but now spoke with a new energy. “If it’s the truth, it’s the truth.”
Josh considered the comment. “Yes, we do have to make it clear that there’s a punishment if they don’t accept Jesus as their best friend. It’s not just like, ‘Okay, gotta find another friend!’ No, there’s a punishment.” He leaned against a metal music stand that functioned as his lectern. “But does it count if someone is saved based on fear of Hell? Salvation is not just fire insurance.”
A Hispanic boy, Tim, raised his hand. Eleven years old, he was the youngest missionary in the group. “It is not wise to make a child afraid,” he managed in a wavering voice.
“But you have to let Jesus show them the truth!” interrupted Jake. “Jesus died on the cross for us—you can’t say it any other way!”
Josh paced at the front of the room, increasingly ill at ease. He pushed up the sleeves of his blue button-down shirt. “But what is the truth?” he asked. His question was not as existentially charged as it sounded; his uncertainty extended only to whether children must be told all facets of the Story for their salvation to be complete.
“We don’t need to worry about which word will go where,” suggested a twiggy blonde girl in khaki slacks, a silver necklace, and a padded training bra under her T-shirt that made her chest look like a gym mat. “It should be the Holy Spirit speaking, and He’s not going to mess up.” (Over the campfire one night, she had said that she prayed to “get smaller and smaller so that God will take over completely.”)
A few people said, “Amen.” The class seemed exhausted by the discussion and ready to give up all agency. It was an easy method of escape but a slippery one.
“I don’t want to hear the word ‘save’ again,” said Josh’s fifteen-year-old brother Seth. “We’re using that word too much. Let’s just tell it the way we want, and let God do his work. If you pray about it ahead of time, you’ll be fine.”
“We’re just tools,” another said, sighing. “Jesus will move us around.”
One of the most effective missionaries was Oscar, an amiable -thirteen-year-old Hispanic boy with small features and shiny black hair that flopped onto his forehead. He had already saved thirty-five children the previous summer. At the Country Village Bible clubs, he talked in a breathless and inspired pant and became friends with his younger students, often borrowing their video games or bikes before class. Of all the missionaries, he had the least trouble speaking what they called “childrenese,” and he was usually chosen to tell a Bible story about Jesus healing a crippled man or calming the sea. At the end of the story, he would ask the class to bow their heads and close their eyes. “Boys and girls, if you have never believed on Jesus, you have a problem,” he said, unconsciously adopting the cadences of local TV commercials. “But if you’d like to receive Jesus as your savior, you can do it today. You can have a friendship with God that starts right now and goes on forever.”
Oscar transformed the poetry of the Bible into something so spare and literal it nearly sounded blasphemous, but the children seemed to comprehend best his version of the Story, purged of abstractions. Each time Oscar counseled a child, he repeated roughly the same script, which he had memorized at training camp. To make the message personal, he asked the child’s age and promptly reminded him that “Jesus was your age once, too.” Then he asked the age of the child’s mother and remarked, “Jesus died at about your mom’s age,” a detail likely more unsettling than he realized.
On the second day of club, Scott Harris followed Oscar to a shady patch of grass, about ten yards away from the rest of the group, to finish the conversation about Jesus that Isaac started on the basketball court. Sitting cross-legged with his hands between his legs, Scott listened for the second time to the story of Jesus’ life, illustrated through the EvangeCube. He was particularly attentive when Oscar arrived at the image of Jesus splayed out on the cross, blood dripping from his wrists. “God really did die for our sins,” Oscar said.
“I know,” said Scott. “They whipped Him with whips. Spiky whips, and they kept hitting Him.”
“Yeah, but Jesus made a way so that we don’t have to go there.” Oscar pushed his glasses up to his face with his palm. “Because He loves you so much. Nobody else could have come back to life. But He’s God. Have you ever seen a dirty shirt? What happens when you put it in the washing machine?”
“It gets clean?”
“Yeah, Jesus wanted us all to be clean. Now you have a choice. If you ask God into your heart, you can become clean.”
Scott nodded, his knees bobbing.
“Do you need a little help?”
Scott nodded again, eager to please the older boy.
“Say, ‘Dear God.’”
Scott pinched his eyes shut. “Dear God.”
“Tell God you have sinned.”
“I have sinned,” he said, a bit too loudly. “Can You please forgive me?”
“When you’re all done, just say ‘Amen.’”
“Lord, thank you for Scott,” Oscar said. “Right now Scott is going to Heaven.”
His face flushed, Scott stood up and followed Oscar back to the quilt for the final minutes of club. With the other children, he sang a peppy tune called “God Is So Good,” and then lined up for cookies and juice.
The week after the clubs ended, I returned to Country Village Apartments to see the children who had accepted Christ as their savior. Although the Fellowship follows up with some children through Good News Clubs during the school year and with others by mail, many the missionaries never see again. The children are left on their own to make sense of the new contract they’ve struck with the Lord.
While several parents had chosen not to send their children to the clubs—usually with a quick “No thanks, we’re not interested”—those who had allowed it were equally trusting when I knocked on their doors. None of them chose to be present for my interviews. Scott, whose family lives in Tennessee, was in Waterbury spending the summer with a family friend who was Catholic but not observant. She lived in a small, dimly lit two-story house crammed with furniture. When I visited, three children from the neighborhood were watching television on her couch, and she was holding an infant in her arms. She did not know whether Scott’s family believed in Jesus, nor did it seem a particularly relevant topic of conversation. “I don’t think Scott would care if the clubs were Christian or not,” she said, stroking the baby’s back. “As long as it can hold his attention, it must be doing something right.”
Scott and his two friends, Jamal and Lamar Sims, were more enthusiastic. We sat by the oak tree where the clubs had been held and they shared one popsicle I had brought, cutting it into equal sections with a plastic knife. All of them recognized me from club meetings—I imagined that they saw me as one of the Bible teachers, the silent, boring one—and it took several minutes to establish that I was just a writer and that my visit would be devoid of songs and prayers. Because I had not brought a blanket, none of them wanted to sit down. They said there were ants in the grass: Scott sat on a rock, Lamar stood up, and his younger brother, Jamal, who was nine, kneeled on the ground.
While all three children had prayed to Jesus to wash away their sins, Jamal and Lamar, who said they did not come from a religious family, had not appeared particularly moved by the process, and I was surprised by how much importance they later assigned to their conversion. On these long, blank summer days, they had been waiting for a tangible sign that Jesus had, indeed, altered their lives, as the missionaries promised. They were filled with a sense of their own potential.
“I thought we’d start helping people,” said Lamar, a handsome twelve-year-old who wore a jersey so large that most of his chest peeked out through the armholes. “If someone was having a baby, we’d just take them to the hospital and leave. We’d want to be good.” He walked behind me and leaned against the tree. “Nothing changed.” When I asked him if he would consider going back to club to try again, he became plaintive. “I took my heart out for God. One time should be enough.”
Scott was more hopeful about his conversion. He said that it made him feel “smart.” “I don’t know why, but I’ll get a feeling,” he said. “God, like, reads your mind. He knows your brain. He crawls up inside you.”
At home, in Knoxville, Scott had gone to a “big church with singers,” and he said that since the age of six he had been praying—usually that it wouldn’t rain, because he didn’t like when he couldn’t play outside. Disapprovingly, he added that his older sisters “only believe in God when it thunders.” I asked Scott if he knew what kind of Christian he was, and Lamar suggested he might be “African American.” “No, I’m not,” Scott said, shaking his head. “Yes, you are,” insisted Lamar. “You’re black—that’s what you call a black person, ‘African American.’”
Scott had been chronicling his spiritual progress through his cut-up knee. At the Bible club, he had listened carefully when Oscar told the story about Jesus healing a paralytic by saying the words, “Your sins are forgiven . . . Stand up and walk.” Scott assumed the same would happen to him, although he could walk just fine. But it had been a week since his fall, and he touched the scab so much that he kept reopening parts of the wound. “I’d been hoping He’d heal me, but I think He just sits there and watches,” he explained, bending his head near his knee and examining the tiny scab particles. “But it is getting better now. I think He takes care of me a week after I do it. See, I busted it open last Wednesday, and nothing happened. But He started healing me a week after. He listens a week late pretty much.” He sounded increasingly certain of this impromptu theory.
Having only recently learned to narrate their experiences, children see patterns and correspondences in everything. James W. Fowler, in his 1981 work Stages of Faith, a psychological study of religious development, writes that children are more disposed than adults toward “Hierophanies, the giving of signs—both blessed and cursed.” Through the passage of time, most of us learn to discard these invisible threads of connection—the signs we once thought were ominous prove meaningless, and moments that felt Promethean pass without memory.
The missionaries attempted to present the Bible as clearly and simply as possible, but it was the rigidity of their lessons that ultimately disoriented the children I spoke to. As they discovered that, in fact, the Lord had not swooped down to heal their wounds and scrapes and disappointments, the new beliefs they had adopted seemed destined to break down, along with whatever was driving them to have faith in the first place. And that original impulse may have been quite simple: Something is wrong with me; it is out of my control. Perhaps Jesus’ praise for the child is simply an acknowledgment of that primal sentiment—lonely fear in its purest form.
When I asked the three boys if they could imagine the world if God had never existed, they got lost in a mess of apocalyptic plot details.
“The world would be crappy,” said Scott, under his breath.
“No one would be living,” added Lamar. “We wouldn’t be here.”
“The dinosaurs would still be killing us!” Jamal said.
“No,” Lamar corrected him, “there wouldn’t be any dinosaurs. God wouldn’t have ever created dinosaurs, because He wouldn’t be here.”
Jamal looked around the park. His eyes darting, he pulled a clump of grass from the ground. “True, true. The tree wouldn’t be right here. There wouldn’t be grass. We’d probably be beat up by a lot of people and never die.”
“How can we be beat up when we’re not even alive anymore? We wouldn’t be thinking. We wouldn’t even know what’s happening.”
“We would be in the caves, tortured,” said Jamal, as if he hadn’t yet processed his older brother’s words.
“We wouldn’t be alive!” insisted Lamar.
Scott, who had been quiet throughout the conversation, suddenly perked up. “Mary. Mary would be there.”
“Who’s Mary?” Jamal asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Lamar said. “Then she would have created us. God’s mom.”
The Fellowship has established a robust presence in the public schools of Southern states; last year, in South Carolina, after-school Good News Clubs in 183 public schools reached 13,524 children. The Connecticut Fellowship has made fewer inroads. In the past few years, it focused its after-school efforts on three districts: two in rural towns in eastern Connecticut and one in Wolcott, near Waterbury. Thomas Smyth, the superintendent of Wolcott Public Schools, received several letters from Josh Guido and the Fellowship’s lawyers before approving the clubs. The memos he showed me were rife with such watery sentences as, “We strive to promote positive moral character, provide training, and reinforce values.” Smyth had only a vague sense of the club’s activities, except that the missionaries had offered to help children with their homework (a task for which they were not trained). “For single moms, that was a big hook,” he told me. “Parents wanted the kids to get assistance with homework, even if they had to sit through the Gospel message.”
Although after-school clubs are a relatively new piece of the Fellowship’s mission, Josh says that they have become the predominant measure of success. “At conferences, everyone is asking how many schools you have,” he told me. “No one is asking how many projects you have.” Josh prefers holding clubs in city housing developments because he does not have to waste time on legal negotiations, and he can reach more children at once. After every session, missionaries call Josh to report the number of children led to Christ. “When someone says, ‘Oh, it’s not about the numbers,’ often those are the ones who didn’t reach many. They’ll say, ‘It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality.’ I say, ‘No, if you were one of the numbers that didn’t get reached, you would care.’”
Of course, Josh believed that I, too, should be reached, and he frequently spoke of my soul with thinly disguised homilies (“You go to a gas station, you’re lost, and you need directions . . . ”). His language would become hackneyed, and I would find myself tuning out. Josh was far more arresting when he spoke of his own beliefs, which felt intimate and mystical, beyond words. He was empowered by the acknowledgment of his own helplessness. His conversations with God were so encompassing that he admitted he would leave friends voicemail messages and accidentally end the call by saying, “In Jesus’ name, Amen,” confusing the phone message with a prayer. There was little distinction between the spiritual reality he felt and the actual one he lived, and this convergence, I assumed, was why he continued to feel so hopeful about the potential for my salvation. He must have taken comfort in the idea that my resistance to Jesus would make my ultimate submission more beautiful. I imagined that he thought of me as a version of the Samaritan woman at the well in the Book of John who, while waiting for someone to “explain everything,” recognizes what she has failed to comprehend. If Josh did not take favorably to this article and decided I was blind, I might be cast in a new role: someone who tests, and ultimately affirms, his faith. Perhaps one of the Pharisees who know not the extent of their foolishness.
The last time I visited Josh at his office in Southington, he was in an expansive mood, looser than I had ever seen him before. We sat in a small, stuffy conference room, at the corner of a long table used for staff meetings. With considerable calm, he told me he was contemplating marriage. When he began speculating about where he and his bride-to-be would live, he became visibly excited. He told me he wanted to move to Laurel Estates, a predominantly black and Hispanic housing development in Waterbury where the ministry had held two Bible clubs the previous summer. He would buy an apartment and “adopt the community.” He leaned forward against the desk, with his palms on the table. “In John, it says, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’” As he often did, Josh offered a Jewish analogue for me; Moses, too, built his tent in the wilderness, and it has always been God’s will to reside among his people. “It would just be so exciting to be Jesus to them, to have the kids over every week for pizza and movies.” His dream of a simple life would require a total immersion in the narrative. He would become a character, too.
It was not the first time I had heard someone admit to identifying so intensely with Jesus that he felt he could actually become Him. The most devout child I met at all the summer Bible clubs was Edwin Pareles, a tall, articulate nine-year-old with wire-rim glasses who lived in a public-housing complex in Hartford. He attended a Pentecostal church with his father, and he had already heard many stories about Jesus. Still, he called his conversion with Oscar, atop a rusted playground slide, “the most important moment of my life.”
After the missionaries had left, I asked Edwin to reflect on his conversion. “I was pretending like I was at the beach with Jesus,” he said, sitting on the untrimmed lawn outside his barrackslike brick apartment. “There were some huge waves coming to me, but Jesus said, ‘Don’t worry about the waves, I’m here.’ I felt great because Jesus was with me. I felt I was a grown-up already. I was feeling like I was Jesus.”
Edwin had been so inspired by the clubs that he said he, too, wanted to become “the kind of missionary that tells poor people about God.” Although he was excited by the prospect of answering abstract questions—“This is philosophical,” he asserted proudly—he had a habit of suddenly losing the thread of his thought. He described its loss as something tangible, as if an idea had been placed in his mind by an outside force and then suddenly whisked away. After a long conversation about the books he liked to read (tales of gothic fantasy), he told me, “In my head I’m thinking of a question from the Devil.” His younger brother ran across the lawn in a futile attempt to catch a bee with a Gatorade bottle. I asked Edwin what the question was, and he said he had already forgotten. “Boom! It just erased.”
When I visited him the next day, he said he had remembered the question, but this time it came from a dream. It was not clear whether it was a dream at all or just a new thought he wasn’t sure was his own. He sat with his knees pressed close to his body on the overgrown lawn in front of his apartment. “The Devil told me the story of Jesus rising is kind of like Goosebumps,” he said, referring to R. L. Stine’s popular horror novellas, Edwin’s favorite books. He paused and looked up at me to see if I had followed his logic, which had drawn him, for one fleeting moment, to an unnerving conclusion: the Bible was not inherently distinct in shape from a work of fiction. Jesus was like many triumphant heroes, Satan like many villains. When I asked him what made the Bible feel different, he quickly explained away his anxiety. “Well, there’s something about Jesus,” he said. “Everyone talks about Him, and then you believe in Him. And when you see Him on the cross, then you really believe in Him.” Now he was on more stable ground. The afternoon sun reflected off his glasses, and he looked calm and studious. “Jesus died for our sins. All R. L. Stine did was make a book for us. That’s the big difference.”
The Bible promises to reach out and absorb its readers, to sweep them into its tale. Edwin took comfort in the idea that his future was already written. “Sometimes when my brother is asleep and the TV is off, I imagine God standing in my room,” he said. “I hear Him whispering, ‘I will come for you, son. I will come.’”
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