|Posted by Natacha Tormey on 10 March, 2015 at 20:55|
I was recently reminded of a very bizarre ritual that took place on an annual basis in the cult that I grew up in - The Children of God aka The Family International. It was an anticipated event that would take place in the days running up to the cult leader, David Berg’s, birthday in February.
They called it ‘The Fast’.
For three days each year, members were ordered to fast, pray, and read countless hours of Berg’s messages to his ‘flock’. The self-proclaimed prophet and ‘king’ often used this event to introduce new doctrines or ‘moves of the spirit’ as he liked to call them. God must have been a busy man in February because there were always hundreds of pages of ‘prophesies’ included in these messages.
Only pregnant women and children under 12 years of age were exempt from fasting. Everyone else was put on a liquid diet for three days and the whole commune would go into lock down.
And boy, did the commune become an eerie, bizarre place for three days. And may I clarify that by saying that, I am not implying that it was a normal place the rest of the year...
A handful of cult members were assigned to look after the younger children and do the cooking but everyone else was required to gather in the communal living room for hours and hours ‘Inspiration Time’, ‘Devotion’ and praying.
But first they were allowed to consume breakfast. A buffet bar would be set up at one end of the massive dining room (there were over 100 members living in these large communes) offering a sickly choice of various mushy foods: papaya blended into yogurt, watery yellow custard and chicken broth that looked more like dishwater, all served in industrial sized bowls with stainless steel ladles hanging off the side.
I can see it now as if I were there. Silence filled the dining room for the duration of breakfast. Everyone was preparing their minds for the spiritual orgy to come. After all, each one had to make a real effort to appear more spiritual than the others, in the hope that their holiness would be noticed by the ‘shepherds’ (the leaders of communes).
The next three days would become the biggest spiritual tournament in the cult and with so many competitors, the stakes were high. Only those who really, really showed their love for Jesus would come out on top.
Put it this way, it was the cult’s 'who-is-more-spiritual' X-Factor show.
After breakfast, everyone moved to the communal living room where rows of chairs and benches had been set up in a circular shape, leaving an open area in the middle where two chairs stood. Anyone lucky enough to sit in those two chairs had to be really, really holy, such as those given the great honor of leading ‘Inspiration Time’ or the shepherds who would be reading out the messages from Berg and leading prayers after that.
With a hundred (or more) pairs of eyes on them, the pressure was on as serious brownie points could be earned if they were deemed to be particularly ‘on fire’ for the Lord (not literally on fire...it is a term they used for people who demonstrated inhibited passion for Christ, which could also be interpreted as acting like a crazy person in the name of Jesus).
‘Inspiration Time’ was an hour long musical session in which a dozen or so cult-created songs would be sung (or shouted out) in unison. Two adults would take their place in the chairs in the middle of the room, guitars in hand. They would usually begin with a high energy, upbeat song that would get the crowd rockin’ for Jesus. One such song would be the popular ‘Honk! Honk!’ tune.
(In unison) Honk! Honk! Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
Honk! Honk! Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
(Lead singers) Well, it’s a REVOLUTION?
(Crowd shouts in response) For JESUS!
(Lead singers) For Jesus?
(Crowd shouts in response) The REVOLUTION!
(Lead singers) Holy Ghost?
(Crowd shouts in response) POWER!
(Lead singers) Power to the Lord?
(Crowd shouts in response) POWER to the LORD!
(In unison) Yes we’re talking about JEEESUS
Cuz’ we’re in love with JEEESUS
We’re gonna die for JEEESUS
Towards the end of ‘Inspiration Time’ the songs changed to slow, morbid tunes. The lead singers’ demeanors changed dramatically from spastic strumming of their guitars with wide eyes and bouncing movements to softly picking at their chords, eyes squeezed shut and their faces turned up towards the ceiling as they led the crowd in singing a love song to their Jesus. At some point in the middle of the song you were guaranteed to hear several women burst into tears, so overwhelmed were they by their love for Jesus. It would be a crime to wipe away such holy tears and so they would sit through the rest of the song with tears streaming down their face as they rocked from side to side with their eyes tightly shut, singing through their tears.
Finally, when an hour of ‘Inspiration Time’ was done, it was time for the Shepherds to read Berg’s long, drawn out messages. Three or four hours would pass and it was almost impossible not to fall asleep, although no one dared to do so as such a crime would warrant severe punishment. After all, who would not be interested in the drunken ramblings of a perverted alcoholic?
No doubt Berg’s spirit guide, ‘Abrahim the Gypsy King’ would be speaking through him, talking about how wild and free his harem of gypsy wives were as they danced around the camp fire with long skirts and no panties underneath (gospel truth people).
Those who were not struggling to stay awake were certainly trying not to faint with hunger. But luckily, lunch was served after the message reading.
Queues of pale, exhausted adults, over-12 children and teenagers would form in front of the dining room. Sighs of relief could be heard as they filled their bowls with a meager portion of...yep...papaya blended into yogurt, watery yellow custard or chicken broth.
An hour of ‘Quiet Time’ would follow in which members would retreat to their bedrooms or sit in a corner of the garden reading more of Berg’s writings and preparing for the big afternoon ahead.
After all, ‘Prayer Time’ was upon them and with it, came the infamous ‘speaking in tongues’ (the belief that a spirit is speaking through a person in a spiritual language that is undecipherable).
Speaking in tongues was a competitive sport for the adults in the cult. It was their golden chance to make themselves heard above the others. It was their one opportunity to shine like a star, brighter, longer and louder than the others.
Before any praying could be done there was a seemingly endless ‘intro’ to praying. Imagine 100 voices of all pitches and accents, chanting in unison.
Praise you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. We love you Jesus.
Over...and over...and over again.
And then, the dramatic ‘tongues’ would come into play. All it would take was for one of the shepherds to begin and all hell...I mean...all heaven would break loose.
Ah habadidum, heeba shalahab teela balalima
The men boomed out in their best 'Abrahim the Gypsy King' voice while the women screeched like castrated parrots.
Sheeeeba deeeee be deee. Sheeeeeee ba be lama shalasheeeee.
I am pretty sure God became deaf during one of these sessions.
‘Prayer Time’ would follow, which consisted of a shepherd reading out a long list of prayer requests sent out by Berg’s leadership team. More often than not, the prayers were for Berg’s failing health. Understandably, they omitted to inform us that his poor health was a direct result of his alcoholism.
An additional three hours of reading Berg’s writings would follow before members were allowed to have dinner (I will leave you, the reader, to guess what was on the menu. Hint: begins with papaya...), following which, the adult would disperse back into their bedrooms for an evening of private praying.
And the following two days were the same as the first.
However, on the last day we would have communion. Stale crackers and rose hip tea would be passed around the room, representing the more traditional bread and wine (symbols of the body and blood of Christ). As a young child I was convinced that I was actually eating the body of Christ and I was very afraid that, being nearly 2000 years old, it would make me ill. Luckily someone put me right, though I still wasn’t that keen on taking a sip of the ‘wine’ that included the saliva of fifty other people who had sipped from the same cup before me.
Luckily, when that particular torture séance was over, it was time to celebrate Berg’s birthday with a massive feast.
And that my friends, was ‘The Fast’.