I Was a Child Preacher
The author, probably thinking about God
Everything changed in 1987. For whatever reason, my mom had shacked up with a creepy long-distance coach driver who changed his name to Bob Blades. After drinking a bottle of whiskey one night, Bob Blades tried to strangle my mother in the surf off the coast of Land’s End. She escaped courtesy of his passing out, but the intervening months were spent living in fear that "Mad" Bob might return to the house where we now slept on our chair beds, kitchen knives concealed beneath our mattresses. It was at this point that the church came a-knocking and enveloped my traumatized family in its happy arms.
Whether they smelled our fear, I‘m not sure. Perhaps my mother had called them in, knowing I’d become a little obsessed with a Mormon girl whose smiley American brothers would force me to watch indoctrination videos as I sat on their sofa, eating their pizza. I was carted off to a Methodist Church, where I met Pastor Mike, who took me under his wing. And compared to "Mad" Bob "Blades," now a man with not one, but two threatening epithets to his name, Pastor Mike's wing was very comfortable indeed.
Pastor Mike was the coolest man I’d ever met up to that point. Before his acquiescence to Jesus, he'd been a bank robber. He had a glass eye (he lost the original one in a bar brawl), but he was undoubtedly a young, charismatic and handsome man—a cheeky Cockney with the gift of the gab, whose ocular impairment only made his fervor seem more real.
I listened intently as he told me how once, when on the verge of a long stretch, he’d begged forgiveness from Christ in his prison cell. The following day, the judge miraculously let him off and from that point on, he pursued his righteous path. I, too, asked Jesus for forgiveness, and although I’d probably not done much wrong aside from stealing some Penny Racers from Plymouth Woolworths, I threw myself into it with missionary zeal. I read the Bible from cover to cover and cleared all of the clothes out of my captain’s bunk wardrobe so that I could pray in there for hours on end. Nobody seemed to think there was anything wrong with this. I was 14.
Jesus, Mike, and I got along splendidly. Another of our friends was the Holy Ghost. I watched Mike perform in the pulpit, propelled by this enigmatic Holy Ghost dude, and I witnessed the power the pair of them had over a congregation. It was pure theater and I wanted in. Mysteriously, God started speaking directly to me, telling me that I should be a preacher, too. There were no actual words or burning bushes or anything, just a feeling that he was trying to get in touch. I decided to share this with some senior members of the fellowship, expecting at least some skepticism, but they all just cried, "Hallelujah!"
And, so my journey began. A holy man named John chaperoned me. He was a pig farmer by profession and an itinerant lay preacher on the Sabbath. His beard smelled of pig shit sometimes, but he was a very nice man, so I wish I hadn’t mentioned that. He’d pick me up on Sundays to tour the small Methodist chapels of West Cornwall. At the beginning, I took the opening part of the service, the mundane stuff, escorting people through hymns and reading notices, before John got to address the people. The resentment I'd feel as I’d sit listening to him bore on was palpable. Why was I waiting for my moment? I felt like Jesus to his John the Baptist, and I sometimes wished someone would chop his head off and put it on a plate so I could get up there myself and anoint the assembled with my divine words. In hindsight, these thoughts weren’t very Christian.
Then, eventually, after serving out my apprenticeship, I delivered a sermon. It was easy enough. Pastor Mike told me all you had to do was make sure your introduction and conclusion matched up and that you had three main points in the middle backed up with some scripture and a heart-wrenching story to make it really zing. John gave me advice, too, which I mostly ignored. He preached about all sorts of boring stuff: Tithing, being good to your neighbors, tricky laws from Leviticus. I wasn’t interested in any of that contradictory Old Testament bullshit; Only one verse really mattered to me. John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Jesus saves, and if you don’t believe me, you’re going to hell. Where you will suffer. For eternity.
The congregations rarely reached into double figures, and I was usually the youngest there by 40 or 50 years, but this didn’t distract me. Those little old ladies got fire from one barrel and brimstone from the other. At the end of my sermons, I’d offer to lay hands on anyone who wanted to give their lives to Christ. God, I was good, but these grannies weren’t biting.
“You don’t need to make such appeals here,” I remember one octogenarian church warden saying. “We’re all Christians here, you know.”
“But are you?” I retorted. There were no tambourines. Nobody spoke in tongues. The tired, old Wesleyan hymns trotted out on a dour organ didn’t fire up the soul like I could have done. This was stuffy, safe Christianity, and I suspected not one of these women had been washed in the blood of the lamb as I had. It was such a pity they weren’t listening, because they’re probably all in hell now.
Soon, though, I was preaching in the mother hub, a gigantic chapel in Penzance. On a good night the congregation could number a couple of hundred, probably because there was nothing to do in Penzance on a Sunday night other than take smack and watch Last of the Summer Wine. They came from all over the town to listen to me. Sometimes I’d speak very quickly, my flimsy, half-broken voice squawking for the Lord, then I’d slow down for emotional bits, pausing for longer than necessary. I’d relish that silence, savor the power, luxuriate in the knowledge that I had them in the palm of my hand.
“If you would like to give your life to Christ, then I urge you to come forward to the rail where we will pray with you.”
Agnostics and Doubting Thomases and people who believed they were Christian by virtue of being baptized now got it. And slowly, they poured forth.
From rural town, I headed next to the urban ghetto. I signed up for a month-long crusade called Street Invaders, taking the message to the kids of that sprawling metropolis, Sutton Coldfield. Many of my fellow Apostles were attacked in the street, but the Holy Ghost wasn’t looking out for them. Seven children gave their lives to God while I prayed over them; my nearest competitor managed just three. I wasn’t just Jeremy any more; I was Jeremy, the next Billy Graham.
When I returned, I met a girl. Nina was her name. She’d lived a bit and had even smoked pot. I can’t say I wasn’t impressed by this fact. She’d started coming to my church, and, quickly, we were going out. I saw her actual breasts, and even touched one of them. How could I repent when it felt so good? I waited four days before I told her I loved her, but it was OK. Jesus had brought us together.
After three weeks of our relationship, she called me up and ditched me. I was devastated. How could Nina defy God’s will like this? We were 17 and had our whole lives ahead of us. Who was she to derail our chosen path of procreation and bashing our kids into submission with scripture?
Soon, she was going out with my friend Nash. I went and got drunk. And then I did it again, and again. It felt pretty good, actually. Word got round, and I was the subject of an unholy scandal.
"My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?" I screamed rebelliously, though, in hindsight, it was probably just an inner monologue. I bought a pack of 10 cowboy killers and burned it over to Crowlas on my moped. I found a field and smoked three of those bad boys on my own and lay in a field for an hour, spinning and wanting to throw my guts up. I liked this new sensation. I’d not so much driven to Crowlas as taken the reverse road to Damascus. I stood up gingerly and the godlessness swam in my eyes. I’d seen the dark.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeres
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