I Spent a Decade Working for Churches (and It Was the Worst)
Before I started doing comedy and writing full time, I spent over a decade working for churches. Let me preface this by saying that I am not an angry atheist, or even someone who bashes organized religion. There are so many churches doing fantastic work for their communities and truly helping people with little or no attention from the media. I’ve worked for some that I’ve seen firsthand do tremendous work and even helped me with difficult times in my life. With that said, I’ve seen some of the most repulsive, sickening behavior you could possibly imagine by men and women claiming to be representatives of God. I worked with organizations in the smallest of towns and I’ve worked with some of the biggest names in religion, so I know what I’m talking about. I’m not someone judging from the outside. I’ve been a part of it, which, at times, felt like the worst thing that could possibly happen to me.
I worked with an organization called Master’s Commission, which is basically a Bible college that combines the educational part of ministry with actual hands-on work. I had been involved with the program in Cincinnati, Ohio, and in Orlando, Florida. A pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, named Tony had seen the work that Master’s Commission had done and contacted my boss in Orlando about starting one at his church.
The Dying Art of Belly Dancing in Conservative Egypt
At the Scheherezade club in Cairo’s downtown district, five paying customers and a dozen staff sat and gawped as the belly dancer shimmied across the stage, amid the peeling paint, chipped murals and dusty faux chandeliers of what used to be a very grand dance hall. The atmosphere is awkward and sad. When a member of the audience threw a handful of Egyptian pounds in the air, the club owner swiftly appeared and scooped it all up. When someone tucked a big bill into the dancer’s dress, she promptly handed it over to the aging pimp-like crooner on stage.
There’s no glitz or glamor in sight, only a tired and depressed-looking dancer doing one of the few things that might earn an uneducated woman a lot of money in Egypt. (Top dancers can earn up to $2000 to perform at a wedding.)
The past three years have been tough in general for most Cairo entertainers.
The Child-Rape Assembly Line: In Ritual Bathhouses of Jewish Orthodoxy, Children Are Systematically Abused
Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg—who is 63 with a long, graying beard—recently sat down with me to explain what he described as a “child-rape assembly line” among sects of fundamentalist Jews. He cleared his throat. “I’m going to be graphic,” he said.
A member of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim fundamentalist branch of Orthodox Judaism, Nuchem designs and repairs mikvahs in compliance with Torah Law. The mikvah is a ritual Jewish bathhouse used for purification. Devout Jews are required to cleanse themselves in the mikvah on a variety of occasions: women must visit following menstruation, and men have to make an appearance before the High Holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the devout also purify themselves before and after the act of sex, and before the Sabbath.
On a visit to Jerusalem in 2005, Rabbi Rosenberg entered into a mikvah in one of the holiest neighborhoods in the city, Mea She’arim. “I opened a door that entered into a schvitz,” he told me. “Vapors everywhere, I can barely see. My eyes adjust, and I see an old man, my age, long white beard, a holy-looking man, sitting in the vapors. On his lap, facing away from him, is a boy, maybe seven years old. And the old man is having anal sex with this boy.”
Rabbi Rosenberg paused, gathered himself, and went on: “This boy was speared on the man like an animal, like a pig, and the boy was saying nothing. But on his face—fear. The old man [looked at me] without any fear, as if this was common practice. He didn’t stop. I was so angry, I confronted him. He removed the boy from his penis, and I took the boy aside. I told this man, ‘It’s a sin before God, a mishkovzucher. What are you doing to this boy’s soul? You’re destroying this boy!’ He had a sponge on a stick to clean his back, and he hit me across the face with it. ‘How dare you interrupt me!’ he said. I had heard of these things for a long time, but now I had seen.”
The child sex abuse crisis in ultra-Orthodox Judaism, like that in the Catholic Church, has produced its share of shocking headlines in recent years. In New York, and in the prominent Orthodox communities of Israel and London, allegations of child molestation and rape have been rampant. The alleged abusers are schoolteachers, rabbis, fathers, uncles—figures of male authority. The victims, like those of Catholic priests, are mostly boys. Rabbi Rosenberg believes around half of young males in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community—the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world—have been victims of sexual assault perpetrated by their elders. Ben Hirsch, director of Survivors for Justice, a Brooklyn organization that advocates for Orthodox sex abuse victims, thinks the real number is higher. “From anecdotal evidence, we’re looking at over 50 percent. It has almost become a rite of passage.”
Living in the South, I see a lot of churches. They’re fucking everywhere. And they keep growing. There’s so much money coming in, it’s almost like they don’t know what to do with it. Some have grown so much over the last decade it’s like they’re alive, part of the sky.
The Church of the Apostles sits off to the side of I-75, the major highway running through downtown Atlanta. Every time I see it it’s gotten taller or wider, looming ever closer to the highway and knocking more trees down. I keep thinking one day it will encroach onto the road, making it impossible to pass.
I’ve never seen any lights on in any of the rooms. There don’t seem to be any people coming or going, no one there in any of the countless windows that dot the expanding flat stone face. It’s like the building is splitting and expanding by itself while no one’s watching. At night it seems to knit into the land, impossible to tell where it begins and ends.
I often wonder what a church does with all those rooms. What do they keep in there? How many floors can god walk up? How many of the rooms are locked? How many of them have no doors? Are any of the rooms ever full? I get a low weird cold feeling thinking of all the people dressed up and praying the same words all at the same time in a building large enough to bury a small army.
Brother Thomas turns to me and says, “We’re shorthanded in the abortion room.” I’ve gone to work as a volunteer at a Hell House, an evangelical Christian haunted house in Cedar Hill, Texas, designed to scare kids away from sinning. “I’m either going to put you in the abortion room,” Brother Thomas says, “or the drunk-driving room.”
“The abortion room would be great,” I say, feeling mildly uncomfortable that I’m much older than the rest of the teenage volunteers.
“When the visitors come in,” Brother Thomas says, leading me to the room where a fake abortion performed by actors using grocery store meat to simulate a discarded fetus is supposed to scare kids away from premarital sex, “what I need you to do is yell in a strong voice, ‘Watch the steps!’ If we don’t say, ‘Watch your step,’ and they fall, we’re liable.”
At Hell House, Jesus steers kids toward the Lord. But he can’t prevent lawsuits.
What the hell is a “hell house”? If you’re not familiar, Hell House is a Christian alternative to the standard haunted house. Instead of Freddy Krueger, these costumed evangelists scare the holy Jesus into you—literally.
In this house of horrors, being gay results in dying of AIDS and premarital sex can lead the homecoming queen down a slippery slope of prostitution. Youth groups visit and are led through a series of “real life” horrific scenes designed to create terror and revulsion. Hell House outreach manuals include astute tips on creating authentic abortion room scenes, such as: Purchase a meat product that closely resembles pieces of a baby to be placed in a glass bowl.
What Do Women Who Wear the Niqab Think of the Niqab Debate?
While Muslim women wearing niqabs in Britain might be a constant bugbear for EDL types, it’s generally not something the rest of the population are particularly concerned about. But once every couple of years, a “niqabi” demands the right to keep wearing the veil in a situation where other people think it shouldn’t be worn, so it becomes a Big Deal for a while and the media kick up a grand, preachy fuss until it all blows over.
The past week-and-a-bit has been one of those periods, thanks to two incidents. First, Birmingham Metropolitan College told a prospective student that it didn’t allow the wearing of niqabs on campus for security reasons, only to perform a hasty U-turn following a storm of national controversy. Then a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court ruled that Muslim women giving evidence must remove their veil. Before long, Nick Clegg was hinting at a ban on niqabs in the classroom and columnists were going into op-ed overdrive.
It’s a contentious debate, but whether it’s non-Muslims telling everyone that it’s fine to wear a niqab, Muslims telling everyone that it’s not fine to wear a niqab or non-Muslimscastigating their fellow non-Muslims for not castigating the niqab enough, it’s a debate that hasn’t had a lot of input from the women who actually wear the veil. With that in mind, we thought we’d talk to some of those women and find out their thoughts on the whole niqab debate.
Siama Ahmed, 35, a teacher and blogger from Oxfordshire.
VICE: What do make of the recent controversy surrounding the wearing of niqabs in Britain? Siama Ahmed: My personal opinion about the recent [Blackfriars] court case is that it shouldn’t have been an issue. In Islamic law, if a judge asks you to remove your veil, you should remove it. And the judge correctly asked her to remove it. I can only assume that she is ignorant of the fact that she should have taken it off.
Do you wear you niqab all the time? No. I have two small children and I don’t want them to feel the hostility of me wearing it from others. But if I’m in the Middle East I will wear it, or if I’m in a gathering where the majority of people present are Muslims – but only if people aren’t uncomfortable with me wearing it. So the main thing is I’m not making people feel uncomfortable. I think the bad of wearing it outweighs the good of wearing it [in everyday public life]. In the Middle East, it’s not normal for men and women to have eye contact. But in this culture, eye contact is important.
Why do you personally wear it? In an ideal world, if we didn’t have any Islamophobia, I would consider wearing it all the, time because it’s really special to me. Part of the problem is that this country is deprived of spirituality, so it’s hard to explain why wearing the niqab is important.
Na’ima Robert, 36, is a British convert to Islam, author and magazine editor.
How does the niqab affect your day-to-day life? Na’ima Robert: As an author and magazine publisher, I haven’t found that the niqab has held me back. As an individual, I am outgoing, adventurous and ambitious – the niqab hasn’t changed that.
So people not being able to see your face hasn’t changed anything? It changes the way some people respond to me, as they’re initially disconcerted by my face covering. But I just work extra hard on those ones and grin like mad so that they can see my eyes smiling. But it’s more one’s demeanour that puts people at ease, isn’t it? After all, there are people who are “normally” dressed whose body language or attitudes are intimidating. A person wearing a niqab doesn’t have the same advantage as someone whose face is visible, I admit that, but you could say that someone with tattoos or piercings or an unconventional haircut is similarly disadvantaged, couldn’t you?
I guess so. What do you think of the idea that it’s inappropriate to wear the niqab in some situations, like in court or if you’re teaching children? As a teacher and as a Muslim, I would like to know that I am not disadvantaging my students in any way. If my covering my face is clearly doing that, I will do one of two things: reconsider my decision to cover, or reconsider my position. That being said, I have conducted workshops in schools with my face covered, but I made sure to let my personality shine through so that I could engage the kids. And I would find a way to “flash” the girls, if possible. But seriously, the question is this: who gets to decide when wearing the niqab is appropriate or not?
What do you think of Muslim women who don’t wear it? I think they’re missing out! No, really, I don’t think anything of them—they are free to choose their path to God, you know? One thing I have learned over the years is to cultivate humility.
What do you think of those who are freaked out by not being able to see your face? As a writer, it’s my job to empathise, so of course I get it. Look at the image of masks in our culture: Darth Vader, ninjas, robbers, those with something to hide—it’s all overwhelmingly negative. Add that to the fact that images of veiled Muslim women have been used to illustrate the alleged oppression of women in the Muslim world from the time of the Orientalists to today’s front pages. It’s hard, I tell you, for a niqabi out there.
Sorry Religions, Human Consciousness Is Just a Consequence of Evolution
There’s a goofy neurological trick you can play on your brain that makes you feel like you have a super long nose. It’s called the Pinocchio Illusion and all you need to make it happen is a vibrator and a friend.
Here’s how it works. Person A closes her eyes and places the tip of her finger on her nose. Person B applies a buzzing vibrator to the tendon that connects the bicep to the inner side of the elbow of the arm that’s touching the nose. The vibration on the tendon stimulates the muscle fibers in such a way that tricks Person A’s brain into thinking that her arm is extending, but since Person A’s index finger tells her brain that it’s still connected to the tip of her nose, the brain does a quick and dirty calculation (in the absence of visual data) and concludes that her nose must be growing super long. It’s fucking crazy. Try it.
According to Princeton University neuroscientist Michael Graziano, this phenomenon is indicative of the key aspect of the human mind. Our brains create models of the world around us, including our bodies, in order to be attentive to the various signals we get from our senses. So in the Pinocchio Illusion, your brain creates a model of what your body looks like and the model falls apart due to the conflicting stimuli. Our brains might be exceptionally good at making models, but they’re never perfect replicas of what’s happening in the world, just fast and loose sketches to make sense of things.
When I started reading Endtime, I thought getting a magazine devoted to the end of the world every two months would be fascinating—I’d get loads of insane theories, wacky photoshop jobs, and far-out interpretations of news stories from the Middle East. I was right about the photoshopping (get a load of that cover!), but wrong about everything else. As I learned from previous issues of this publication, publisher/editor/company founder Irvin Baxter believes that there is a war coming that will wipe out a third of humanity; that a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine will result in animals being sacrificed on the Temple Mount for the first time in 2,000 years; that a global government, led by the Antichrist, will emerge and persecute Christians and Israel before a big, end-of-the-world fight between good and evil. These are fairly nutty things to believe, but as it turns out, hearing about them makes for pretty mind-numbing reading.
After the letters to the editor section—where Irvin answers questions such as, “Is a third of the world population really going to die in that big war?” (yes) and “Is there really going to be a river of blood five feet deep at the Battle of Armageddon?” (yes, but it won’t be that deep all the way from the Plain of Megiddo to Jerusalem)—the July/August issue of Endtime features a long, somewhat meandering story on the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations organized by US Secretary of State John Kerry that concludes casually by saying that there will some day be peace in Israel because the Bible says so, “but probably not now. The Sixth Trumpet War that will kill one-third of the human race will probably happen first.” Oh, that clears that up then, I guess.
A while back I was looking for a series of things to vandalize and post online for laughs. I started with photos from magazines and wrestling cards, and they were OK, but I wanted something a bit more unique. Then I discovered a few Chick tracts stored away in my drawer. For those of you who don’t know, a Chick tract is a tiny religious comic made by Jack Chick designed to scare you into becoming Christian. Jack has been cranking these things out since the early 70s, and you can find them in bus terminals and public bathrooms across the country.
The design of these tracts is pretty uniform, and perfect for fucking with. The first one I used was titled Who Killed the Dinosaurs? I posted it on my Tumblr and it got a pretty good response, so I kept going. I just used a little white acrylic paint pen, and sometimes markers, and voilá! I’d have a new and improved tract.
For a good two months I was posting a few every day. People were asking me what I was going to do with all of them, and I had no idea. My buddy Greg has a clothing store called Mishka in LA (and NYC) and was opening a small gallery in the back. He asked me if I’d be up for doing an art show, and I told him I didn’t really have time to do anything new since I was in the middle of working on my book, Prison Pit V, but I did have about 80 of these Jack Chick tracts that I had ruined. Surprisingly, he thought it was a cool idea for a show, so that’s how the world’s fucking stupidest art show was born. Oh, and there’s also going to be a book collecting all the tracts coming out soon from Monster Worship.