One morning when I was in the seventh grade an unexpected assembly was announced. We were thrilled. We all filed into the gym where we found a large screen, stage lights, sound system, drums, and guitars. That was different. As the last group took their seats, the lights went down and we found ourselves in total darkness. The kids went wild, as they do, and then suddenly the stage lights came on and we were hit full blast with the sounds of a live concert.
What the hell was this?
This band of men and women clearly believed they were rock stars. One of the singers was walking through a sea of eighth grade girls in the floor seats, occasionally bending a knee to grab one’s hand and sing only to her. With the spotlight pointed directly on them, the girls were eating it up. The rest of us in the bleachers could only look on with confusion. Did the eighth graders know something we didn’t? This was definitely the most bizarre assembly to date, and we had endured a visit from Ronald McDonald.
When the song ended we discovered we were watching some sort of a play where the actors portrayed members of a band. Apparently one of the characters had a drug problem, and that’s when everything fell into place for the audience. Another “don’t do drugs” assembly. Yeah, yeah. Don’t drink and drive and don’t have sex, either. We get it. And so we settled in and awaited the inevitable conclusion, wondering whether or not this spectacle would take us all the way to lunch.
At the end of the performance it was announced that this group would be presenting a music-only concert at 7:00 that night. I knew I wasn’t going. It cost $3 and my parents would never take me. Also, I wasn’t interested. It sounded lame. Some of my friends went, but we never talked about what happened there. At least, I don’t remember talking about it. We never saw the group again.
Fast forward eight years. 1994. I had just graduated from high school and back then I had two main goals in life: make money singing, and get the hell out of my parents’ house. Also, some time around my junior year of high school I managed to find Jesus. So I answered an ad I found in the back of a Christian magazine and found myself auditioning for the very group that performed that weird assembly at my school years earlier.
For years people have heard that my husband and I met in a musical group that toured the country. Sometimes I say it was a cult. I hardly ever really explain, because I have too much to say about it and it’s more than a little embarrassing. It’s our “how we met” story so I can’t avoid it completely. I value the experience and the opportunity to find the love of my life. I look back fondly. I also look back in horror.
I arrived at “the dorm” on August 7th. This was our home base. There were two groups being trained to go out on the road, and some of the members had already been in training for a month. Ideally each group would have eleven members. Four singers (two girls/two guys), a drummer, a bass player, two guitarists (one lead/one rhythm), a sound tech, a lighting tech, and a media tech. I would spend about six weeks preparing at the dorm.
Preparing meant rehearsals, bible studies, chores, and terrible food. We got up early, stayed up late, and were shamed for falling asleep during morning prayer sessions. We competed over who was most godly. We practiced our witnessing skills. We learned the specifics of why every other religion is a cult and how to respond to them. We wrote letters asking for financial support from friends and family (edited without our consent). And we each had to perform our personal testimony.
The plan was simple. Schools had money they were allowed to spend on drug awareness programs. They paid us to present an assembly covering that issue, and we gave them a discount as the cost of renting out the space for an evening music concert. For the assembly we opened the show with Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.” We performed popular top 40 music and played it as close as possible to the original. The story was that our lead guitarist was a drug dealer. Our drummer had a drug problem. One of the singers was the girl he liked. And the drugs made it almost impossible for him to play “I Swear” correctly. You can imagine.
We invited everyone back for an evening music-only concert. Sometimes a handful would show up, and other times we would pack the house with kids and parents. Parents could get in for free. The evening concert was all contemporary Christian music. At first they wouldn’t notice. Some schools already knew and people actually came for that reason. But sometimes….we braced ourselves for the moment when the first song ended and one of the singers mentioned Jesus.
Anything could happen.
Most people would simply leave. We knew what to expect going forward based on what percentage of the crowd stuck around for the second song. After the reveal took place the evening was filled with prayer and testimonies. Maybe you’ve heard my testimony. Sorry about that. Right before the last song there would be a prayer inviting Jesus into our hearts and anyone who said that prayer was asked to step to the back where I would be waiting for them. I was totally qualified to handle that shit.
I wrote down names, addresses, and phone numbers. We would have a contact at a local church and I would turn those over to the youth pastor. Local churches also provided us with host homes to stay in and lots of free dinners. Oh, I have host family stories. On Sundays we offered a special concert for church services where we sang praise music, gave more testimonies, and did fun skits about marriage and church life. There was always a potluck dinner to follow.
Anyway, after I took names it was time to operate the merchandise table. Evening concert admission and merch sales were divided among the group as spending money. It’s how I bought luxurious items like toothpaste and Cheetos. I collected the money, but my future husband (Dave) was a sales genius. We had pens, shirts, key chain lights, guitar picks, etc. But some of these junior high kids in the Midwest thought we were famous. They actually sent fan mail. Dave used to tell everyone his name was Noel Redding and I would laugh when we returned to the dorm to find a pile of mail for Noel. He could get these kids to buy anything. There would be bidding wars over one of his broken guitar strings. Signed broken drum sticks were gold. Sometimes he would sell personalized haikus for a buck a piece.
Some schools loved us and some hated us. A principal once tried to shut down our evening concert, but we were careful to stay within the law. When we visited the high school Michael W. Smith graduated from the principal began the school assembly with a prayer and let us play our Christian set. You should be outraged, but something tells me those kids are pretty used to that type of thing. In fact, school after school we found both kids and staff fully embracing what we offered. One evening concert ended with every single person in a very packed room coming back to tell me they had accepted Christ.
That couldn’t have been true. I am guessing they just really liked our show because they already really liked Jesus. But Christians love to reaffirm their faith like that. Peer pressure was undeniable. Over and over I saw kids jumping on the faith bandwagon because everyone else around them was doing it. Did it stick? Maybe not. We believed we had planted a seed and that the local church and god would do the rest. I am sure the local church did plenty.
The weird thing is that I always believed in the separation of church and state. Even then I understood that it protected my freedom to be a Christian, as well. But I also believed that god was real and that the only way to salvation was through Christ. I believed god had changed my life and had called me to reach as many people as possible. It was the most right thing I could do. Finding a loophole that allowed me to reach kids who maybe didn’t have another way to get that message was a good thing.
Sure I think it’s bullshit now. But when you believe, it’s different. Only an asshole would stand by and let people burn in hell for eternity. You can’t be filled with the holy spirit and be an asshole at the same time, can you? Saving people in spite of worldly obstacles is far from easy. Kids were going to hell left and right because I was too shy to share the good news. I knew it. God knew it. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was having regular make out sessions with the guitar player in my missionary group! My journals are full of apologies. I was always falling short. But I needed to save people in spite of hating every minute of it. So these days when I hear about Christian groups infiltrating schools, I get it.
And there is that damn divide again. Because if God is real, these kinds of Christian organizations are doing something great. And if God is not real, they are trying to brainwash my kid into their cult. Which seems mostly evil. But it’s not like we are suddenly going to all agree about whether or not God exists or which god is the true God. What is a parent to do? School staff should not be involved in anything that shows bias toward one belief or another, but it will happen. Kids living in small Christian communities will be overwhelmed with guilt and fear of hell, but that’s a Christian tradition. The best we can do is to educate our kids carefully on all the options, but our own bias means the divide will remain.
I have no answers. I’m just a girl who started her independence in life by joining a cult.