. . . used to run a “Christian” cult in Los Angeles in the 1970s. It was a very odd phenomenon: a church whose doctrines aped those of classic mainstream Christian denominations—albeit with a sharp fundamentalist edge—yet operated for all intents and purposes like a cult. His “church” first called itself Maranatha Chapel, and then changed its name to Open Door Community Church, on the theory that this would give him and his “church elders” a quasi-mainstream aura. Later, I heard that he’d gone in the other direction, labelling his followers The Fundamentalist Army.
When I was in Hymers’ cult it preyed on teenagers, and the lonely. His followers went door to door, flushing out those who might have any sort of emptiness in their lives, and offering human companionship at what probably looked like a real church. He rented houses and apartments under the church’s name and let teenagers and twenty-somethings live in them dorm-style for very little in rent—paid weekly. It made it easy for these young people to leave their familes and practice the “total immersion” 24/7 approach to Church life that made it less likely that anyone—especially impressionable youths—would pull away. This brand of “Christianity” separated the individual from his or her work, family, studies, or other commitments. When I lived this life I was in a prayer meeting or Bible study every single night of the week. As the weekend began we had a large, rowdy prayer meeting on Friday night, followed by door-to-door prosylytizing on Saturday, and a marathon of services on Sunday: one on the Westside in the morning, one in Hollywood around noon, and one in Echo Park in the evening.
How did I pull away? you ask. I got mononucleosis. Without the indoctrination, I could see very clearly why this organization was an unsuitable place for me to spend my time and money at the age of 14.
His style is simple, and that is deliberate: when his book UFOs and Bible Prophecy was published, he bragged to his congregation that it was written in the style of The National Enquirer. (I believe that was the first book, though he tossed off two or three of these glorified tracts in the two years I was in his “church.”)
No matter the vocabulary he uses, that Bob Hymers egomania always shines through, as it does in this passage from the sermon linked above:
I realize that the Communist governments in China, Vietnam, and other places, filter out the message I preach on this website each Sunday in six languages. They say preaching like mine is dangerous to the Communist cause. And they are exactly right. Nothing is more dangerous to the security of an atheist state than the simple preaching of the gospel of Christ.
Note that the governments of China and Vietnam are not just blocking out Christianity: they are specifically blocking out Robert Leslie Hymers, because he is personally such a threat. I’m actually wondering how much Ronald Reagan or Pope John Paul II had to do with the dissolution of Communism in Eastern Europe: those advances were more likely achieved by a lunatic preaching fire-and-brimstone sermons in Southern California. A man with a little run-down crackpot web site. A man who operated a cult in what he cast as an effort to “take the L.A. Basin for Christ.”
And his fun techniques for exploiting others have continued to the present day: there’s the fact that when I was at UCLA, his group (by then called The Fundamentalist Army) would actually recruit during finals week, exploiting the emotional vulnerability of students during this stressful time.
There was his mid-80s appearance on The Wally George Show, including that moment when the two of them began laughing as old frauds do when the jig is finally up: whatever they were “debating” was cast aside, and it became clear that both of their lives were pure theatre.
And what watcher of dumbed-down quasi-religion can forget this incident many years later, in 2003?—
In Los Angeles, R.L. Hymers Jr., the pastor of the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle called on his 400 member congregation in a prayer for the death of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennen, Jr. because he supports a woman’s right to have an abortion. He also ordered up an airplane to circle overhead trailing the message “Pray for Death: Baby-Killer Brennen.”
“I think it may be that we’re on the avant garde: we’re doing something that others will do later,” said pastor Hymers.
Bob Hymers’ status as a former cult leader really doesn’t show very much in his writing, or even his demeanor among some mainstream ministers: you must examine his actual methodology to understand his “contribution” to Christian culture. A cult is defined—to my way of thinking—not simply by its beliefs, but by actions such as going door-to-door in an effort to lure the lonely and disturbed into your flock; declaring that once someone has joined your particular church, they cannot be “saved” anywhere else; proclaiming that you alone can spot that special something that distinguishes the “saved’; by excommunicating people from your “church”(cult) and declaring that if they ever want to be “saved,” they must go back through your own church—and no other.
You do it by maintaining a level of control over your followers’ lives that would make Joseph Stalin take notes. (Yes: when I was in this group I was told how to dress.)
What I concluded from my experience with Hymers’ cult is that when you evaluate someone’s approach to faith, you mustn’t simply listen to their words. You look at their deeds as well. Even a few years after I left the R.L. Hymers cult of the 1970s, I had a strange, narrow view of religion—one that would have appalled Jesus Christ. It did, in fact, appall Him when he saw a different version of it among the Jews of his day. Those that see religion as an external measure of a man. Those that proclaim their faith to the rooftops and yet are unable to show compassion toward a fellow human being.
This experience has left me with a deep distrust of those who speak fondly about “the Lord,” or those who quote scripture excessively. I love my family members who share this brand of belief. I adore some other bloggers whose beliefs are passionate, and every bit as Biblical as any faux-fundamentalist’s. Yet most of these people are clearly aware that the strongest witness anyone can make is through his or her actions—a fact that appears never to have crossed Dr. Hymers’ mind. (If it did, he took two aspirin and went to bed early that night.)
Action lies in individual moments of faith and mercy and decency. In doing the work. And, very often, in having the courage to be happy.
What does this mean to me? Well. We are not all called to suffer. Some of us are called to show the power of God—and the power of love— by being a living witness to the world. Those who are called to suffer do it with grace.
And part of my witness, to the degree that I’m entitled to call myself Christian despite my doubts, my scientific upbringing, and my extreme vulgarity, is my ability to triumph over where I’ve come from.
If I can do this in a way that furthers my personal and spiritual growth, if I can continue to learn kindness and love for my fellow humans—and still slay the dragons in my own psyche where they crop up, I will have done my duty. Done it, I hope, with joy.
And the God I worship is the same God my Jewish friends worship (or at least, in most cases, have a nodding acquaintance with). My relationship with Him depends upon the fact that He likes to use broken vessels. And since parts of me lie around in tiny shards, I feel I qualify, all my doubts and neuroses notwithstanding.
God has shown an extraordinary loyalty to me, and as I get older I’ll return the favor in a more and more consistent fashion. And I will pass it along to my children.
More on Robert Hymers’ church, along with other “fringe” churches that appear to operate in a similarly cult-like fashion. And here is what a few of his followers have said, upon leaving. (And, yes: I knew some of these people personally from my stint in the “church” at ages 12 to 14. That was, um, months ago.)
Apparently, some of those who engage in theological squabbles with this person refer to him as “Hot Dog Hymers.”
My fondest memory of a sermon by R.L. Hymers? That moment when he confused the words “fetid” and “fecal.” Loudly. From the pulpit. I should have bought him a dictionary after that. Instead, I got mono and left.
For copy editors only: go here and play “count the typos”! How high can you count, by the way?
Have a snarky little New Year. And, uh—keep the faith.