Fort Worth is a Plains town, its placement in Texas notwithstanding. Like a Plains town, the center is laid out in classic rectangles, which the twentieth century sometimes extended but mostly abandoned to the suburban pattern’s curving drives or weaving cul-de-sacs. It has the feel of all American cities that grew up after the car (meaning most of them): a placeless ever-changing place, the minimum required for the time being, because we all know Progress keeps coming and Progress will cause change. So this stretch of freeway has both grown and stagnated, the Ray’s Coil and Spring with the same sign and the same building as when I was eight years old and the freeway was a sine wave ribbon ducking under the city’s east-west streets. Between 1987 and 1992, I-35W was turned into a concrete channel a la the Los Angeles River, city streets carried on concrete pylons. Ray’s floats above the channel and its roar, as close to the action as it is cut off. The streets around Ray’s are all on the same separated grid, I-35W and the city’s east-west freeways the central meridians that intersect in a central aligning cross. I-35W is straight as a spine.
Like every other Plains town, the north-south/east-west cross defines the city’s central metaphor. The dominant faith shares the same symbol, and is as omnipresent as these concrete channels that determine all movement, and thus all choice.
This billboard was on Fort Worth’s south side, a working-class to poor Hispanic part of town of leaning little frame houses. The billboard’s yellow letters screamed out at me the first day of my Thanksgiving visit. Plane ride disassociation was nothing compared to how shocking and loud this sign was. Driving north the next day, I took the time to get off the freeway, find the access road, and get this picture. The neighborhood behind looks like this:
It still does, in my mind.
Growing up here was shock and contrast. Transplanted from north of Toronto in 1978, I have a vivid memory of the first Texan I met: my ten-year-old neighbor, deeply tanned and wearing only bright red shorts with the white piping popular then. He was all smiles and greeted the eight-year-old me. I didn’t understand a word he said.
Religion pervaded every atmosphere, my experience with the East Coast’s moldy Catholicism no bridge to this new paradigm of flames as tongues and your every move and thought monitored by powerful, invisible forces. The TV brought Carl Sagan and Star Trek, but word on the thin, sun-fried streets was a yowly certainty that we were all going to Hell. I could not square the two. For the first time, I began to think about the dark side of things.
Elementary doubt and avoidance turned to fierce horror in high school. I did not know everything and was enraged by the small army of wild-eyed adherents that insisted they did. Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and all the rest were pounding their message from their gilded coliseums of tawdry fear, building their fortunes hawking a poison message that boils down to you are a bad person. Classmates delivered pronouncements of unassailable illogic. My town made the national news for a school board that wanted to remove evolution from science classes (in 1986, before it became fashionable), and later for a church-sponsored haunted house featuring the horrors of un-Christian living, one being a blood-and-gore soaked woman who cried I’m an abortion!
Looking back, I realize how enraged I was at this rigid, all-pervasive fear of an invisible Master whose love you were condemned to endure. Figuring out girls was complicated enough without adding that.
Then high school ended. College was still in Fort Worth, still in that soup, but the crazy seemed more optional. Living elsewhere proved it could be lived without. In Seattle it is all a different reality in a different place. It has nothing to do with here and now.
When I was very sick and frightened, my oldest friend would take my hourlong phone calls. I would walk when I could; on lucky nights the stars were out. From our respective time zones we looked up at the great existential questions, now far more than amazing things to wonder about from youthful safety. A few times he emailed passages from the New Testament, on strength and forces larger than us.
Ten years ago some anger flashed, briefly. There are so many stars. I understood what he meant, and was grateful.
Since taking the picture I’ve been meaning to call. There’s the number, big as life. It’s what they want, but I’m not sure why I’d call. Certainly I’m not going to heckle anyone, nor will I sit still for that. Maybe it’s just a phone tree: press one to learn more about Jesus, two to accept him as your Personal Savior®. As the weeks go by I feel the foundation form beneath me. It’s not about any of that old stuff: that’s in the past, irretrievable and inapplicable. I don’t want to shout or be shouted. I want a conversation.
Yesterday is sunny, my street noisy with trucks. I put the phone on speaker and click record.
Thank you for calling gospelbillboards.com.
A recording. I will admit to slight relief. A young man with no professional training and the rounded but not completely spherical vowels of the Southern-to-Plains accent reads from a script.
Can I really know what is true? What will happen to me after I die? Who is Jesus? These are very important questions and it is crucial to know the answers to them. If we don’t, we will miss our purpose for being here on the Earth, and we will not be prepared for life after death–eternity. Be assured: Jesus cares abo–
Click. A brief noise coat like a coat being brushed.
Good afternoon. This is David with Gospel Billboards.
Startled by the transition, it takes time to realize this is a real man. He sounds older, raspy not from smoking but age, perhaps weight. The voice is thin and I imagine thin hair, but still hair; the skin is stretched instead of loose. There are chrome glasses. There must be glasses. There are occasional other noises, thumps and clangs, possibly voices.
I only fishmouth for a moment. Hi, David…my name’s Derek.
Oh! Hi, Derek. He sounds startled too, and this is comforting.
Uh…. thanks for taking my call. I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving in Fort Worth a couple months ago and saw one of your billboards. I was…am, intrigued and I’ve been meaning to give it a call. Glad it’s not just a recording and I got you.
Well. Okay. He laughs, a small volume of modulated rasp. Well, I’m glad that you called. There’s actually eleven of us…. He explains the operation: a self-funded group with billboards throughout the country and volunteer ministers staggering their phone time. Several churches (or ministries; he uses the terms interchangeably) cooperate to maintain the website, put up the billboards, and run the phones. We’re a prayer line as well as providing encouragement from the Scriptures, applying the Bible to their situations. To those who don’t know Christ, we’re introducing Christ and offering prayer. We’re fully funded; we’re non-profit and we’re able to take care of counseling if that’s necessary.
Vocabulary from a world left behind is the present’s thin guest. I remember that world (the churches, the Christian tinge to radio and bumper stickers, the Christian bookstores), though without the meaning this man knows. I am not part of the club. His voice is easy, undemanding and conversational, even as speech seems a minor struggle. He just sounds like someone on the phone.
I stumble with logistical questions: sounds like a real operation. David answers with friendly matter-of-fact on the group of churches–Anabaptist, Baptist Brethren, and a few others–their goal of linking the physical church to people. If there is a physical need. We’ve just started a campaign of billboards on major interstates all along the West Coast. It’s increased calls quite a bit. His little laugh has no pride but more small-town surprise that something was a success. Three fulltime and eight part-time people handle all the calls. He is fulltime. Calls not answered live are returned the next day. It’s been a bit of a challenge.
I ask what the calls are like: is there an average call? exceptional calls you’ve had?
He lets out the kind of gentle, gasping snort of someone reflecting on all the invisible and enormous worlds humans can make. Total range. We’ll have Christian callers that will pray for us, and we love that. [He laughs.] We can encourage them, so it’s a mutual encouragement. Talking about the End Times, talking about the days we live in right now. You get calls from people who are in desperate need. [The tone sinks here.] They’re faced with a life situation that they can’t handle, so we pray with them. We search the scripture. We counsel them to try to bring them some hope. Sometimes, we have…a couple of times we weren’t successful. [Pause. Mmm, I offer, thoughtlessly.] They ended up killing themselves. But…. We grieve over that. Because we desperately want to be able to help.
Against the truck rumble and the sun outside, the world of the call is still. During my times in extremis, the void opened, its airless breath vast and timeless. I can imagine what it must be like for David and his ten fellows: getting the call, the person manic or smothered, the string of electricity and bits carrying their voices the last tenuous connection and everybody knowing it. And then it was cut. I want to be thoughtful, to share something about what that must be like, to ask a meaningful question delicately. All I can think of is what training they have to deal with that.
I ask nothing because David barely pauses.
But homosexuality is an issue that we’re facing. So we’re trying to give a Biblical answer, and it’s still extending the hand of hope because they’re sinners. The same as any other sinners. And we all have sin because we are children of God. We all have to come to the cross, and it’s best to come to the cross, be saved, changed, given a new heart and life, rather than face God at the end of life and…be judged.
David does not explode with fire and brimstone. He does not pull out an ax and begin grinding it on me. His raspy voice measures out the words as carefully as a doctor would explain the need to quit smoking.
My response is visceral and total: tension, deep against the bones, and cool. At once there is disbelief sharing the stage with no surprise at all. Of course he would say this. Of course he would quietly associate suicide and homosexuality. Of course his tone is even and reasonable, a little tired. His task is enormous.
I say: hmmm.
David continues for a while. If you don’t know the script, you can guess how it goes. But I am not interested in scripts now, on either his part or mine. My furious teen self–my righteous self, to use a word of Abraham–would poke at him like a caged animal, or a clown, and turn the conversation into division, maybe shouting. To use the best lesson a writing mentor ever gave me: and then what? Neither of us would learn anything, our characters as cutout as ever. I am not sure why I am calling him, but it’s not to be right.
Well, that’s…. First of all, if you’ve ever been on one of those calls with somebody who’s…who’s really in trouble and then you later find out that they took their own life, I’m…I’m sure that’s really rough. I’m really sorry if you’ve had any calls like that. I’ve…ah…last year was a really tough year for me, and I don’t think I would’ve hurt myself. Ahh…. I was having some trouble adjusting to medication and some other stresses in my life–
Yeah, yeah that’s hard! David’s response is not fawning. His voice is not fake in it’s slow-giggle rise, the sound of somebody who can empathize, maybe better than they would like, with another’s bad time.
Yeah, yeah and it’s–
That’s very hard. I realize what I hear in his voice: the muted kindness of Pooh.
Yeah, it’s hard for the person on the other end of the line, too, if they’re really there and really wanna help. You know, if you’ve been on those calls my heart goes out to you. It’s really rough with just some voice on the phone and you don’t know what’s gonna happen.
Seven months ago on the Fourth of July, on one of those hanging-by-a-thread phone calls, a friend asks: I wonder what it is you’re meant to learn in this time. I think this is part of it: to not be outraged and instead find connection with the other human being. Nobody behind the billboards is a monster. Believing this offers the chance of getting somewhere.
Well, you have to be aware there’s life situations that occur…I mean, you yourself…I mean…I can tell you mine… [He does.] …it really affects you, stress, I have to watch my stress. Not that this job isn’t stressful…because it is. But I’m a minister, and I chose that.
Improv taught me to foreclose judgment. If someone walks onstage, declaring themselves an aborted fetus, that’s the scene. Being offended or refusing to play are not choices. Your partner took a risk and committed to it, and commit to the hand that’s played.
David and I are more than playing a scene. I am, for once, trying to learn how his world works.
Anyway, it’s a recognition that God does give us strength to get through those difficult times. We also have to recognize there’s changes that occur, especially as we get older (a small catch of a laugh), that aren’t going to be perfect. We aren’t going to be perfect til we go to Heaven, to be with the Lord.
We talk some about health, losing it and getting it back. While speaking I am trying to integrate something constructive to ask about homosexuality–something that would further the conversation.
I was struck by something you just said…ah…in terms of homosexuality being something you guys are dealing with….and in the frame of, what you said about helping people through difficulties…um…. [....] I wonder if you can unpack that for me…. I mean, what…what does it mean when you say you’re facing the challenge of homosexuality?
There: I opened an unjudged door. It doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. I won’t learn anything from catchphrases.
Homosexuality in our country right now has become an issue of coming out of the closet in just a…tremendous way. Fifty years ago you didn’t hear of it. I mean it existed, it existed in different cultures throughout history. But the sign of is is usually an indication of a de–…uh, a tearing apart of the society itself, as part of the downward slope before the society starts to sink.
And when you look over history you can see, like the Greco-Roman societies, fell into that when they were really, especially when Christ came and presented the truth, and they rejected it. It just went downhill. Different times which Christ and his ways have been rejected, you can see depravity hitting. When you read in Romans chapter one, it talks about it as being a giving over to the lusts of the flesh in an abnormal way. So it’s a product of sin and a continued downward spiral of sin.
You lose track of reality, of how that God made us, in the beginning, Man and Woman–it’s obvious what we are. [I can hear him smile.] But when you start sliding in your sense of real, sense of reality, and everything’s relative, there is no absolute truth, and all of a sudden everything is subject to feelings. And when it gets subject to feeling, everything falls apart.
We talk a while. It’s a one-sided conversation, but I’ve set it up that way. I learn many things, directly or by inference. David is old. He knows this, feels it, has no doubt had long talks with God about it. Times were better when he was younger, when everything worked and made sense. Nothing had fallen away then. Everything had a place to go and someone to put it there. People were decent and good. Now, as his physical body falls apart, the outer world is falling apart too.
I also think David is terrified of feelings. Beyond the accepted go-to conclusion that he must be a repressed homosexual, he fears what we all share as humans: rage, lust, joy, fear itself. Feelings are dangerous evidence of our flawed nature and inherent brokenness. They must be contained.We are lucky to have Christ to bind them, to fix how unimaginably broken we are.
David’s worldview is ridiculous to mine, easily dismissed as self-flagellation from a previous, crueler era. The talk of sin and homosexuality are artifacts of the early Church fathers who were terrified of sexuality in all its forms, Origen rejecting it to the point of castrating himself. As a kid I was repulsed by David and what he represented. Now I feel no anger. Not even pity. I see him as another person struggling to find meaning but, like joke where the drunk lost his keys, looking over and over in the same place that gives the same anti-human answers.
Should I argue with David that he is wrong? Beyond insulting someone who has opened his home in kindness to strangers, what does it even mean to say he is wrong and I am right? The very science I would argue this embodies the task’s futility: there is no privileged reference frame. What you see depends on where you are standing and how fast you are moving. There is no stillness, no center of the universe. The observer changes what he or she sees. Homosexuality exists throughout nature, and sexuality is a broad continuum. The flourishing of human societies has little to do with what their beliefs and practices are, more with how compatibly they live within their environment’s available resources.
I am not judging. David has walked on the stage and presented this character: and older man headed to frailty, a man with strong but not adamant opinions, a man from an age where the Bible had all the answers in a way that was magic. I don’t want to go for the cheap joke. The keys aren’t under the drunk’s light.
I understand what you’re talking about, and I’m not trying to start an argument, or be dismissive, or be disrespectful in any way, but I just…the arguments that I hear, I don’t…they’re difficult for me to square. You [...] said that there’s a decline…what is the decline that you’re seeing?
A hardening of the heart.
I remember my surprise at hearing this.
It’s a loving of self rather than a loving of God. Or loving…seeking of self-pleasure over everybody else. Self-serving. I was in the Navy a number of years ago. Our headquarters was down in New Orleans. There’s an area down there called the Vieux Carré [French Quarter]. And we were told, as sailors we were told: don’t go to the Vieux Carré…. [When traveling in the vicinity] go as a group, because you’d be in danger otherwise, especially at night. These are sailors! It’s just a recognition that… [He makes an exasperated sound.] Sin increases when righteousness of God is rejected. And so that’s what I mean by hardening of the heart. A rejection of righteousness of God. God is all love. He is a righteous God; He is a holy God and his judgment is sure, but because of his judgment his mercy is sure, and in his mercy he forgives. And he forgives and forgives and forgives. And he works with us until there’s no more working–either our heart is completely hardened and we receive no…nothing from Him to give us any strength to live this life….
The first few sentences elevate me. Self-reflective comment on the world’s cruelty is coming. But I break an improv rule: I have an expectation. So I am let down when his offer, like so much religious, folds back on itself without explaining anything. Nothing is connected. He took no risk. But I take one.
So this hardening of the heart you talk of, I mean, is it exclusive to homosexuality, is that the largest problem? I mean when I see Wall Street, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, all these guys getting away with whatever they want, that seems like a much bigger issue to me.
Well, sure, I mean, homosexuality is not the thing that everything else goes to. That’s just one. I mean, murder. The extreme end where people just go off…you’re talking about murders, serial murders. You’re talking about rape. You’re talking about total lack of respect for one another, and love. No taking care of each other over self-pursuit and the pleasure of self to the destruction of others. And I have to say the media plays on the edge. [...] People are seared by [the media's constant focus on depravity]. They’re no longer surprised, no longer ashamed by it. Just numb. And then things start happening. Then organizations like us are out there trying to pick up pieces and get people to come back together again.
We must both realize we are each playing our own game. There is something he is not saying that I want: that secret thing that makes homosexuality an ultimate bad, what the French Quarter has to do with our society’s largest problems aside from “sin is bad”. There has to be somewhere else to go. I unload about the commercial media, how its pressing of buttons doesn’t help anyone.
Yeah, David says. How are we gonna help each other? And then to this hopeful start, more about God the maker, knowing best, Biblical answers, Shias and Shiites, Satan. But that is just so much white noise from an antique radio. Where can we go?
You know, my oldest friend, who I’ve known since the seventh grade…. He’s been going to church for a while and he talks about the fellowship he receives…. You’ve probably figured out I’m not religious, but my friend has a phrase I like: we’re all on the bus together.
I mean, the boat, it’s gonna sink or swim…we’ve all gotta patch the holes, all gotta paddle together. Whatever frame or labels…. I think that more often people are talking generally about the same kinds of things most of the time but they just use different labels. They come from different cultural environments and a lot of times people just talk past each other because we use different terms, different labels, we’ve been raised different ways.
It’s sunny and Saturday morning. I am grasping at something, trying to build something in the long distance silence buzz.
I guess that’s the closest thing I have to a question for you. Are we all talking about the same kind of thing? [I relate growing up in Fort Worth and finding its species of religion oppressive and declarative, in so many words.] Is part of it that I was focused on surface things and not able to see we’re really talking about the same thing? You talk about God and following the path of God–I think you’re earnest about that, about trying to find a way to integrate and become a whole and better person, to find love and creation instead of destructive forces that want to tear us apart, physically or psychologically. There are all these forces whirling around in the world and we’ve gotta figure out what’s good for us and what’s bad for us, and now in our complex society it’s not obvious what’s good for you and what’s bad for you.
Only briefly is David silent. He hesitates to use the term Christian, he explains, because so many Christian groups have fallen away from Christ. There is another world to aspire to. It leads you to understand that I can’t do things by myself because I would go the opposite direction. I need him. His strength, his morality…because he gives that with his spirit. When I confess my sin to him I have something different. He gives me a new heart, and I recognize at that point that I can live differently. But if I’m left to myself, I can’t. It’s impossible.
He goes on that this is what Jesus has to offer, and down the rabbit hole of choice and love and punishment and sin and guilt that the Church has confused the West with for two millennia. I am not reaching him.
The call wraps itself up: his wife has things for him to do. I say I’m grateful, and I am: he has taken a lot of his time to talk to someone who will not fill up his scorecard. I took a picture of this billboard and I’ve been meaning to give it a call, because I’ve been curious–is there anybody there to talk to? And there is and I’m grateful.
He laughs a little, though I don’t know if from surprise. He’s glad to have spoken with me. He ends by describing the oldest among them, the cancer now pinning him in his final hospital bed. His counseling materials are in the room with him. His thoughts are: if I can talk to anybody–encourage them, pray for them–while he’s lying there in pain…. David pauses with a hard exhale, and from the cellphone distortion I hear his gravity and grace. He’s just a…he’s a gem. He’s got his mind. He’s got his heart. He’s such an example to me. I wish–I hope–that when the day comes for me and I face his situation that I’ll be as godly as he is.
I hope that for all of us.
For all of us! Yes, yes.
Over the cellphone delay, we goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture appeared on Netflix. I remember seeing it on a cold December day in 1979: nine years old, in Texas a year, the weather at last cold. My mother drove me in her spunky Pinto with the weak heater out in that Prussian blue Plains dark and we stopped at McDonald’s (very, very rare) and I got a movie-themed Happy Meal. I was amazed by the movie then–its colossal scope and darkened palette, drawn to the idea of Voyager 6, the little engine that could, finally making it home.
Despite constant panning I like this movie still, and Netflix revealed to my adult understanding why. Like 2001, the movie is a high expression of the oldest quest of mind: to know more, to be brave in the face of ignorance, to ask a question unafraid of the answer. While hobbled a little by its TV roots, the first Star Trek movie is the same metaphysical play as 2001. Both ask the ultimate questions that have always been science fiction’s mission: who are we? what is the universe? where are we going? what does it mean?
This is why I stayed up huddled against the bedside lamp that cold December of 1979, falling through the pages into Ray Bradbury’s Mars and silent city streets. It’s why the next autumn I was glued to our massive Zenith on its shaky metal stand as Carl Sagan explained the cosmos, and that we were just starting to know. This was a world so huge we could never get to the end–the idea of an end meaningless. The universe was big in time and space. There was room enough for everybody.
But even at ten years old, I understood the Texas outside books and TV was a universe removed, cut off, separated–just as the Christian story insists, so the people had made it. Rules are specific and small, designed to avoid pain, embarrassment, and shame. The horrible stories of faith–almost killing a kid, wiping out other tribes because God says so–repelled me even then. God was everywhere and nowhere to be seen, a giant god small in his terrible pique. That god seems much more the raving desert lunatic than V’Ger, who is done with this level and wants the next big thing.
I think I called that billboard number to see if things had changed. Was God indeed the god of love–not the convoluted, beyond the sky love that had been schizophrenic-ally explained to me growing up, but plain and simple mammal love?
No. David’s god is unchanged from the terrible desert of its birth: fearful even of itself, judgmental, devoid of compassion or majesty. It is like V’Ger in that it doesn’t understand humans at all. It is unlike 2001′s monolith.
People want answers. They want to know why. Science offers answers that are true but have nothing to do with us. Religion offers answers that aren’t answers but sound like them, and are of human scale. So many of us want that personal touch, the universe small enough to tell us it’ll be okay, the invisible parent. More of us than I would like want someone to punish us, to control scary parts of us, to enforce rules.
The call showed me David is a good person. I am sure as anyone with a half-hour cold read can be that he is a good neighbor, sees to his responsibilities, is kind to children. He wants hearts to be opened. But he wants them open so far it becomes a surrender, and not of the type the Buddhists talk about. His god wants an abdication of the self, an admission we are incapable of being grownups, of having autonomy. His god wants dependence through fear.
I don’t think David is broken and needs fixing. I believe he and his fellows are sincere in their desire to help. None of them realize the world has moved on. There hasn’t been a center of the universe for a long time now.
The people sat waiting
Out on their blankets in the garden
But God said nothing
So someone asked Him, “I beg your pardon:
I’m not quite clear about what you just spoke -
Was that a parable, or a very subtle joke?
God shuffled His feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at Him
“God Shuffles His Feet”, Crash Test Dummies, 1993