I was used to seeing Dwayne in a shabby pair of blue coveralls and a large ring of keys around his wrist, so it was with some measure of surprise when I met him at his apartment door that first time and he was wearing a V-neck sweater and something that looked suspiciously like a cravat. I had heard that his daughter went to our school, so I was disappointed when I didn’t see her there that night. But I quickly decided that I didn’t care. He was so warm and friendly. He gave Scott an enormous hug, but he didn’t so much as touch me, which only served to prove that he was a real gentleman. It wasn’t until later in the evening that I realized that the thing I had mistaken for a cravat was actually one of those turtleneck dickey inserts that had come up and bunched itself around his neck. Also, I noticed for the first time at that close proximity that he had that old man smell you get in thrift stores, but that just made him all the more real.
His wife, Darlene, a demure woman with long gray hair, passed around a platter of treats involving various combinations of chocolate chips, marshmallows, pretzels and canned cheese before withdrawing to a chair in the corner. This was apparently just the cue for which he had been waiting. He pulled out an old guitar from behind the plastic protected sofa and led us in a few of the older styled hymns—hymns like I Know that My Redeemer Lives, Blessed Assurance, and I Sent You to Reap. In any other setting, I would have thought these a tad old-fashioned, but in the context of the highly progressive circumstances in which we had gathered, I could see that these were, in fact, revolutionary choices.
Most of the Bible studies I had attended lately focused on the more modern choruses in an attempt to relate to us, the new generation. But we were tired of being related to. After all, we had left the protected borders of King Richard and had found the lords of our new land to be sad imposters of the original. We didn’t care how loud the speakers were in the college room at the church next to us. The leader there just couldn’t pull off U2’s “40” like Richard could. And when they sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” the entire college group looked at us like we were crazy when we called out in the appropriate place, “I saw a band of CHICKENS coming after me….”
But with Dwayne, things were different. Armed with nothing more than a beat up old acoustic and a smudged pair of bifocals so that he could read the chord progressions he had scrawled out earlier on a used Chick-fil-A napkin, he showed us the beauty in the old ways. We sang for nearly an hour, and by the time we were finished it was as if we had been baptized anew and saw for the first time with open eyes.
He talked to us for the next hour on the topic of being a “true” Christian, a subject which resonated well with us. Our heads bobbed up and down throughout as we agreed with what Dwayne was saying. He spoke of an established church that had sold out to modern culture. Of political battles amongst pastors. Of the tendency of churches to construct unnecessary rule systems in line with their interpretation. What did the true church need any of that for, he challenged. The Bible was crystal clear, he told us holding up a copy of a New Revised Standard Version Bible. Who needs a newfangled, Harvard-bred interpretation? The Bible was its own interpreter. And our hearts the open vessel.
“I am the way, the truth and the light,” he reminded us at the end. Jesus was the way to God, not the church.
At the end, when Darlene passed around an offering plate, we didn’t hesitate. It didn’t even seem weird or out of place that it was an actual offering plate: as in, a felt lined, wooden plate complete with a wide rim for ease of handling. We just doled out whatever green stuff we happened to be carrying in our already skintight freshman pockets, and were even pleased to thank them for the opportunity on the way out.
For the next few months we saw a lot of Dwayne and Darlene. Sometimes we would meet during the day on campus under trees on the grass. We would pray and sing to the accompaniment of his guitar while our fellow students passed by and wondered how they, too, could someday achieve such a level of spirituality. And we would not have dreamed of missing a meeting at his apartment on Thursday nights. I don’t know what it was—I think we were just so jazzed that we were really thinking through the issues. We weren’t mindlessly going through the motions and showing up to church each Sunday like everybody else. We were radical Christians. Richard—and Jesus, of course—would have been so proud.
At some point we developed a bad taste in our mouth for the church we were attending on Sundays, and stopped going, taking jobs in a church nursery instead. The congregation was just so lukewarm. Not like us, who were so completely on-fire. My parents with whom I had shared what we were doing were a bit annoyed by the whole thing, so I solved that little problem. I stopped calling them so much.
It was at this point that Scott and I started receiving little gifts in the mail, a pattern we would soon come to recognize whenever our parents thought we were backsliding into a life of sin and impending, eternal doom. At first, it was just the little things: cheerful little notes saying that they were praying for us, bookmarks with the Christian interpretation of our names, bulletins from our home church with notes in the margins from the previous Sunday…. I thought it was cute at first.
“Aw! They miss us!” I told Scott. He screwed up his face at me.
“No, they’re worried about us.”
“What do you mean? Why?” This was certainly news to me. Why should they be worried about us? We had never been so right with Jesus in our lives. We had even put the kibosh on some of our more favorite couple activities, choosing to stop at a simple goodnight kiss as we actively practiced purity so that we would be all the more righteous—greenish-yellow on “The Smart Chart,” but several color progressions above the danger zone. And it was worth it. Never before had we felt like things were so good. For the first time in my life, I knew my direction. All of the questions I’d had before seemed to be laid to rest. Dwayne had all the answers.
“They think we’ve joined a cult,” Scott explained.
“Who? Dwayne and Darlene’s church?” I was completely blown away by this bit of information. If anyone knew what a cult was, it was most certainly me. My dad could fill a wing of the Library of Congress with the books he had on various cults, so I had read a thing or two. As a Sunday School teacher, he was practically famous for what he called “cult month,” which made a regular appearance in his curriculum each year.
Suffice it to say that I was quite conversant on the topic by the time I met Dwayne. I became all the more resolute. I began inviting friends.
My best girlfriend at the time, Ophelia, was so touched by the invitation that she could barely look me in the eye. I believe she was trying not to cry.
“I’ve seen you guys around campus singing and stuff,” she admitted.
I knew it! She had totally been keeping an envious eye on us. I recognized that I had been a little scarce those days. Before we met Dwayne, she and I had always eaten lunch together in the school cafeteria. Like Scott, she was a science major and would usually come over with him after class. But how could I make time for lunch every day when there were people for whom I needed to pray? What about all the godless children in China?
“They aren’t just literally starving, you know,” I pointed out to her when I had finished explaining my rationale as to why I had ditched her and practically forgotten her name.
Ophelia looked surprised by that and met my eyes for the first time. As she was in the middle of studying, she wore her long blond hair back in her thinking cap, a half opened blue handkerchief. She nervously tucked back a piece of hair that had fallen into her face as she stood to her feet. Clearly, her impulse was to go. She had no idea what to do with the revelation I had given her. It was that powerful.
“You should join us,” I told her, resting my hand on her shoulder. “We could pray for the god-starved children of China together.”
She mumbled something to the effect that she would think about it, and I just knew I had won her over. For Christ, that is. Certainly not for me. And definitely not for Dwayne and Darlene. A cult! Bah!
She never did show up to any of our meetings. As a matter of fact, I was beginning to get the impression that she was avoiding me. Bothered by this, I decided to confront her head on in the lunch line.
“Oh, hey, Ophelia. I didn’t see you there,” I said cheerily.
She smiled knowingly at me.
“How’s your day going?”
“Fine,” she said cautiously, grabbing a bowl full of orange gelatin off the metal rack.
“Doing anything later this afternoon?”
“Why? You want me to come to one of your meetings?”
I acted surprised.
“No! I just wanted to know if you wanted to go get something to drink at the café with me.”
“Does it involve Kool-Aid?”
I crossed my arms in front of my chest.
“No. It just so happens that it does not.”
She stopped in the middle of pulling some sort of jiggly plate full of saucy chicken over noodles onto her tray.
“I’m sorry. But it’s just that I’m not interested.”
“But why?” I asked, incredulous that she had so firmly made up her mind about something that she knew nothing. “We have such a great time just singing and praying together. Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that?”
“Look, there’s someone I think you should talk to. Why don’t you meet me in my room this afternoon at 3?”
Later that afternoon, I arrived to find her in her room, as promised. To my surprise, Laura was sitting on Ophelia’s bed.
“You’re Dwayne’s daughter!” I smiled, excitedly.
She rolled her eyes.
“Right. Dwayne’s daughter.” Her voice was dripping with sarcasm.
I scrunched my eyebrows at her.
I looked back and forth between her and Ophelia.
“You might as well tell her,” Ophelia encouraged her.
“Dwayne’s not my father. But he would kill me if he knew I told you.”
I was confused.
“Why does he say he’s your father if he’s not your–”
“You mean other than the God complex?”
My jaw dropped wide. How could she be saying such a thing about our leader? My leader!
“My mom and I moved in with him four years ago. We were practically living on the streets. They got married and now he insists I call him ‘Daddy’ in front of everyone. It’s a big show. He doesn’t want anyone to know.”
She went on to tell me about what a control freak he was in her life.
“Do you know that he chooses my lipstick color? And if I wear a shirt with the shoulder seam anything but at a 90 degree angle to the floor, I’m in huge trouble. He says that the shirt’s too big.”
I was incredulous. That didn’t sound anything at all like the freedom from rules he was preaching. He was like Mommy Dearest with a penis and a mop.
“But, how can this be?”
“God complex.” She and Ophelia finished the sentence in unison. She must have seen that I was having trouble with that one, because she raised her eyebrows at me.
“Haven’t you noticed how he ends every service with that whole, ‘I am the way, the truth and the light’ thing? Did you think he was talking about Jesus?”