Moses, Butterflies and the Washing Up
I said goodbye to Uncle Les and Aunt Betty and climbed aboard the Greyhound bus in Portland Oregon, bound for San Francisco. Such excitement, going off to find temporary work for the summer vacation with just a few hundred dollars in my pocket, the vague promise of a job and nowhere in particular to stay. Ah… but who could stop me? I was young and invincible as we all are in our early twenties.
Coincidentally, the chap on the seat next to me was from England too. Oddly dressed in a rough white shirt and holding a big stick and looking distinctly like Moses in a Cecil B. DeMille film. He was called Matthew and quickly made it clear that he was a ‘Born Again Christian’. ‘Ok’ I am fine with that I thought, since I was well into my own spiritual journey, had just read the gospels for myself. I was happily exploring other faiths in tandem. At university I lived in a kind of hippy commune with a number of Buddhists of the Nichiren Daishonin persuasion and found them to be particularly nice people with something good to say for themselves and everything around them. I was impressed. Impressed enough to chant with them on occasions but not so impressed that I wanted to join them. The gospels were a bit eclectic and confusing in part but I had discovered a Jesus that was far more impressive than my, simplistic primary school knowledge had ever suggested him to be. That said, as a young child I would never have thought him fake in any way. Back on the Greyhound bus, I must have looked ready for the taking by Matthew my new Mosaic traveling partner.
Matthew was from my home town and Matthew’s father was a Royal Marine like mine. Matthew was a student taking a summer break around the USA. Matthew had little money in his pocket and Matthew was looking for adventure (as well as converts). With so much in common, it was evident that we ought to stick together and keep each other’s back. He told me about the butterflies in his stomach whenever he got the chance to talk about Jesus but left the preaching at that. My conversion could clearly wait a little.
I remember little of the trip down the west coast of America. Just some reddish soil and some fairly biggish tress here and there, a lot of white wooden clad houses and the odd glimpse of the ocean. I cannot really remember driving over the Golden Gate Bridge if in fact we ever did? But I do remember disembarking at the central bus station and watching Matthew fall immediate prey to the Moonies! My guide book pointedly warned foreign travelers the dangers of talking to random strangers at the bus station. Cults were ten a penny in the city and the Moonies were growing fast. By the time I got my bags off the bus and returned to Matthew he had indeed been offered free accommodation and plenty of friendship out in the Californian countryside. I dragged him back to the mean streets of San Francisco and showed him his folly in the pages of my book. He was happier an evangelist and not an acolyte.
Our task for the day was to find suitable accommodation and this is where I witnessed the power of prayer for the first time. My guide book explained the youth hostel at Fort Mason was practically impossible to book any less than a month in advance, being as beautiful and as popular as it was. Matthew begged to differ and assured me that God would empty a couple of bunks and sort out the details. So we walked the distance to the park and he prayed as we went, one of us assured and one of us skeptical but willing to try. When finally, the wooden structure of the old hostel came into sight two travelers passed us by on the other side of the road and when we got to the lobby we discovered it was they who had just, unexpectedly vacated their beds for us to conveniently move in. One up for Matthew and his God. I remained open minded and accepting about this ‘miracle’ especially as it was a cheap bunk and I was too tired to look elsewhere.
The next day we split up and began our search for work. I quickly discovered, the job I already had partially lined up, riding a rickshaw around Fisherman’s Wharfe was hardly a job at all. I could rent the tricycle for a few hours and had to earn a set fee each time to prove myself worthy of the privilege. I declined and looked elsewhere. In the evening Matthew and I recounted the day’s adventures and compared notes. His were far more impressive and so they should be with such a great big God on his side. Indeed, he had found the most amazing and fitting role that anyone could imagine for a real life, travelling evangelist. He was hired as an actor in a Wild West Show, performing on one of San Francisco’s famous piers. His role was that of a mad preacher-man – the one in the films shadowing each and every bad character destined to die in the next gunfight – or is that the undertaker? For him this went on all day every day for the time he was in the city. He quickly gathered around him a bunch of very attractive young groupies as his charismatic personality effortlessly rubbed off on the great variety of people he met.
Work was easy to find. I soon secured myself not one but two jobs ‘bussing’ tables in a pizza restaurant and dishwashing on the Admiral Hornblower Luxury Dining Yacht, out of Pier 33. Both fine jobs paying excellent wages and even better tips and as many hours as I could keep awake for. I made friends with an English maître d’ on the boat and she kindly offered to put me and Matthew up for a few days till we could find a place of our own. So things were picking up nicely and we were greatly blessed. We were by now expecting to make good money, living rent free in a nice apartment, making contacts and enjoying the great city of San Francisco. What could possibly go wrong?
In those first few days I watched Matthew with an intense fascination. The relationships he quickly forged, the speaking in tongues and the joy and zeal he exuded almost constantly. He left me with my own thoughts yet allowed me to watch his evangelical conquests one after another. One night I sat with Matthew and his groupies around a wooden table in Fort Mason Park wondering what he was really up to and whether my suspicions of him were acceptable within the boundaries of Christian morality. I was wrong. These young women spent the whole night thanking him for bringing them to Christ and each described in turn how they had seen the light. Literally, ‘seen the light’ when he had laid his hands upon them and prayed over them. I had not come to America to be converted to Christianity, certainly not this fast and though I never chose to deny what I had seen and heard, neither did I chose to join in, at least on that occasion. I would impose a much higher burden of proof.
Matthew and I were sleeping on the floor in our sleeping bags and two other guests, a couple, had made themselves at home in Sarah’s place. The boyfriend, whose name escapes me, was out at the time, working I imagine, when the door was kicked in. It all happened so fast I cannot remember how many agents burst in, what they were wearing or how many of them actually had guns. I just recall the one pointing at me, the agent asking for my passport and having to hobble around naked in my sleeping bag rummaging through my rucksack to find it. Fortunately, I had a valid visa as did Matthew. Sarah and her other friends did not. They were removed for questioning and were carted off at some point to Oakland Prison. The details were sketchy but we wracked our brains trying to think about what we should do. I learnt about the role of a public defender and got one lined up. We contacted Hornblower Yachts for their help and kept a vigil for the return of the boyfriend – imagining all the while that we were being staked out by the police department or immigration services. It was a tense 24 hours. The next thing I remember is standing with Matthew in a court room in the offices of the Naturalization and Immigration Service watching our host, Sarah, being thrust in front of a judge, handcuffed and frightened. A number of Hispanic immigrants were duly removed from the court and no doubt quickly deported back to Mexico. Life was simpler then! Sarah was given leave to remain while her case was looked into by her public defender and employer.
Eventually Sarah was released on bail and returned briefly to her apartment. She had been fantastic to us and we had done her proud but quite clearly she needed her space and we needed to move on. Matthew wanted to go further afield and decided to go south to Los Angeles. This was our last night together and I feared it was my final chance to receive the light of Jesus Christ, under his guidance. We prayed. He placed his hands on my head and spoke in tongues and warm treacle poured gradually down my scalp. I had a vision of a tiny light glowing an almost infinite distance away in the darkness. Then it happened but not as I expected it to. I felt terrible; sad and anguished, lonely and miserable; wretched.
I had always imagined myself as a pretty respectable character, genial and generous, worthy and dare I say righteous. I had never intentionally harmed anyone and if there was a heaven then I deserved to be there, surely? But now I felt awful inside, disgusting and filthy, shameful and reprehensible and the light shone ever more distant. STOP! Stop this I cried out aloud. I am not ready for this. I don’t understand.
In the morning I bade farewell to Matthew, found a book in Sarah’s bookshelf for later reading, packed my own rucksack and left. I had just enough money to rent a room on the intersection of Market & Seventh near the Bus station. Somewhere the guide book had explicitly recommended avoiding but the hotel was cheap. Things could not get worse and perhaps I could begin to understand my recent experiences with the ‘bright lights of Jesus’. (I knew that it was real – I just did not like what was on offer). And behold things did get worse!
The hotel turned out to be a Gay and Lesbian hang out. I had taken to drinking copious amounts of fresh coffee on my way home from work. Stupidly, it took me a while to work out why I was so tired, sleeping badly and why I was having trouble ignoring the almost constant noise of rampant sexual activity. These sounds echoed through the hotel’s air vents and reverberated grotesquely around my head well into the early hours. Added to this caffeine fueled insomnia my pay was late and I was running out of cash fast.
My bad luck was unending. On my day off I decided to get some fresh air in the square outside and I met a man who suggested I get a job on a building site. This was easy money if you had a union card he told me. Conveniently, he was the man to help me and as we walked back to his block of flats my last possession – my prized Minolta camera became the surety he needed to cover the cost of this prized union card. He knew how desperate I was. I had just told him of my recent run-in with the immigration department and how I was down to my last few dollars. And so, I watched him ascend the stairs with my camera and waited for him to return so that we could go down to the union office together. Of course he never did. I sat there for ages gutted and contemplating the utter mean-spiritedness of the man. I was skint, short of anything of value to pawn, living in a foreign land with just one paid up night left in a seedy San Franciscan hotel. I was drawing on reserves I never knew I had.
That evening as many a desperate man does, I turned again to God. I was serious. Yet I still wanted answers first. Two to be specific! On top of that I wanted to receive the Holy Spirit whatever that really meant.
I spoke directly to God and explained my problem with Christianity; firstly, regarding its harsh and uncompromising views on homosexuality. As seedy as this hotel was, my liberal university education questioned why any two consenting adults could not legitimately enjoy a loving relationship with each other without censure. Secondly, I found it hard, if not impossible to believe that Jesus was the ‘only way’ to the Father, leaving more than half the world’s population without hope of salvation. Good people and true – and I really loved the Ghandi film and everything the great Mahatma stood for!
Giving God a fighting chance – and very gracious of me – I turned to bibliomancy. My finger landed squarely on Romans Chapter 2, Verses 12 through 29. And there it was; the great and the good of India and the Middle East had every chance to join their Christian brothers in heaven. A tougher route in but none the less - in – in with the rest of us. (Well, I still had a long and arduous way to go). No word on those pesky homosexuals yet.
I then turned to Luke chapter 13 verse 11 and took an all too literal take on the words;
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
I took a deep breath and told Him I was ready. Give it to me now, in full measure as this is your last chance! I did indeed experience something akin to the treacle episode but only for a second or two as once more I bottled it. This was all too spooky and all too real. And with an ego the size of mine, I quickly realized if I was going to be a Christian then I was destined rapidly for a number of Wembley appearances along-sides the likes of Billy Graham. I had never done things by half and was hardly likely to start now. So crucially this would all have to happen well before my mum had had chance to get used to ‘Gary - the internationally, world renowned evangelist’. And what of my friends, relatives, house mates, team mates, fellow officer cadets and university chums? They would be counting on me. Looking forward to my triumphant return from the US. Spending endless riotous evenings swilling beer, playing rugby, judo, and generally being the good old egg that ever I was. This was all a bit out of order and just a bit too fast. I realized for the first time perhaps, that I was an inveterate coward at least in the presence of a God who was just too big and powerful for me to even imagine and it was He who was calling the shots and not me. I stopped the whole thing sharpish and pondered my options for the second time in a week. In the morning I woke up and started reading the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ by Leo Tolstoy – the book I had borrowed from Sarah, and just for good measure God had pre-empted my first question. In the middle of those page I found the answer to my first question – a treatise on sexual lust. Job done. God had proven his point 100% and I was on the very slow path to redemption. [There is no doubt I am still on it, a sinner still, learning to trust a little more each and every day].
Over the next few days I reported my camera missing to the police, moved to a quiet spot in the park close to the Youth Hostel and shame facedly called uncle Les to lend me a few hundred dollars to get me out of a jam. He was gracious and I was able to pay him back later. Eventually I got paid and moved into an apartment in the Marina District with an Irish immigrant, the friend of a colleague. Then, working both jobs and racking up endless hours on the industrial washing machine, a pile of small dollar bills grew in the corner of my bedroom until I decided to move in with Nancy Jo. She was a kind and generous hearted American Italian waitress who worked with me at the Pizza Restaurant and took a shine to the innocent, half dazed, crazy Christian convert who was just starting to find his feet and have a ball in this amazing city. My head spun every day with the joy of youthfulness, Christ in my heart, money in my hands and the love of a beautiful woman. I was still far from being a good Christian but I prayed a lot and things happened. Rusty who lived upstairs and was dying from HIV AIDS was very sick one day and after praying earnestly for him he miraculously recovered – at least for the time I was there. Jesus Christ was a force in my life yet I was frightened to death by this Holy Spirit gig. The thought of being Billy Graham’s replacement before I had finished my degree and done some other stuff just did not sit well with me – especially as I was exploring my feelings for, and enjoying a bit of a relationship with Nancy Jo. Eventually we cruised south to Los Angeles via Palm Springs where I stayed with another Aunt and on through the Joshua Tree National Monument. We frittered away my huge pile of cash and had a blast finally staying in a fabulous Malibu beach home with friends of Nancy jo’s who in turn were friends with Timothy Leary the man who manufactured and promoted LSD across America. I never tried drugs of my own volition, but I spent an awful lot of time around people doing a shed load of the stuff, observing the damage. There were plenty of drugs going down in that particular house. I was convinced that night, for some reason there was evil in the house and I watched Nancy Jo carefully as I imagined her tripping down to the beach and committing suicide! I also found it difficult to sleep on the magnetically aligned mattress which was ridged like a giant egg carton. Nancy Jo explained to me in the morning why I had slept so badly. Like an idiot I had been sleeping the wrong way round! East to west instead of north to south or something. As the revelers arose and went home the owners of the beach house lit some incense in a large shell and wafted it around every nook and cranny; apparently an ancient native American ritual called ‘smudging’ practiced to chase away evil spirits.
Leaving Nancy Jo and returning to Loughborough was tough and I walked away from a woman who was all the more distraught for smoking crack cocaine the night before I left. I did see her again a few years later and she was thankfully doing well and I know she was happily married some years later.
Back in the UK I went back to my studies and continued to explore my faith, though only at a snail’s pace. It was easy living in Knight Thorpe Lodge with all my hippie dippy friends as they were always ready to discuss anything spiritual, especially when high on mushrooms or dope. I did not go to church as I remained the ultimate authority on God – but was always ready engage with Christians of any denomination and perhaps visit their church if invited. Naggingly, the gaping hole that clearly needed to be filled by the Holy Spirit screamed at me endlessly to be filled and I was in desperate awe of those born again Christians who had the courage to accept the Holy Spirit into their lives. I was also slightly surprised that once filled they seemed pretty bored and unaffected by the whole thing.
Over a year went by and I finally cracked. I needed this more than anything. More than any of the drugs I had seen being handed around the Lodge and more than any booze crazed student pub crawl through the town. One weekend I decided to find Matthew and to finish this this off once and for all to bite the bullet and book my place at Wembley! I had no clue where Matthew really was and remember in those days there was no google search ready to find him for me. Plymouth seemed the obviously place to look with all our obvious connections.
I travelled once again by coach – National Express this time – the long journey from Loughborough to Plymouth and crashed at my brother, David’s digs. He was none too happy but alas I was on a mission from God so he had little choice. Besides this he had started attending an evangelical church in town drawn in by all the crazies speaking in tongues and preforming miracles. Was something going on in the family? We had never been a church going tribe but perhaps some cosmic collision had happened in our stars! We could do a double act at Wembley. The only information I had about Matthew was gathered during those first few days travelling from Portland Oregon down through California to San Francisco and up until the raid. He was or had been a student at Plymouth Polytechnic and that was my first port of call. I asked around; student services, halls of residences, the library even and just hung around the university precincts in the forlorn hope of bumping into him on the way to a lecture. Nothing. I mooched around the city center hoping for a sign, a miracle or whatever God does in these type of circumstances until Sunday evening arrived. I had to leave in the morning and I was desperate. Does God only give one, or at most two, chances – if so I had blown it a long time ago in America. I prayed and decided that Matthew would be, had to be at the Elim Evangelical Church, evening service; the church David attended. I went alone and sat high in the gallery listening to little, if anything that was said, scanning the hundreds of worshippers distracted only by the odd exorcism, healing or side conversation in tongues of angels. I did stand up when the call went out for those who believed that ‘Jesus is Lord’ to rise from their chairs. I thought it a call to all but rapidly realized it was specifically made to those who had come to Christ that very moment. I was cornered. And then the miracle occurred. Matthew, his curly hair, and wiry frame, spotted right of center, middle pew close to the front. I was joyous and this was clearly spotted by my newly appointed handlers. At the end of the service I was asked if I wanted to go to the back room and pray. I had to say ‘No – I have something better to do!’ That was clearly not the answer my handlers expected and showed an infantile approach to conversion in the spirit. I was ushered into the backroom anyhow and I must have made the quickest profession of new faith and ran out in a panic. I had a destiny with fate and thankfully found Matthew loitering outside. I can hardly remember the scene now but I must have blurted out my desperate need for baptism in the holy spirit and an end to this half-life. ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived’ I have heard it said and I wanted it in full. So the next thing I recall is kneeling on the carpet in David’s front room, Matthew’s hands on my head yet again and calling on the holy spirit once more, as we did on that last night together in San Francisco. This time I received the unquestionable truth into my heart, the word of the Lord in precise and unequivocal detail. I was amazed, relieved beyond all expectation, joyous in His revelation…still no lights! He told me simply and clearly to do the washing up! Honestly! That was it and that was everything I needed to hear. If I was to go to Wembley it was not to preach the word of God to one hundred thousand souls but to wash up for them. My ego perfectly sidelined.
Epitaph; there are many epitaphs to this story as there are many lessons to be learnt on the journey of life. Some lessons are learnt quickly and some take time. Washing up for my hippy friends was a chore to behold and I found it almost impossible. It had always been easier to hire kids off the local estate to pop into Knight Thorpe Lodge when there were absolutely no pots, pans, cups, plates or bowls left in sight that were not covered in fungus. We did not like to pay since organizing a fair and equitable collection of funds was equally trying and the will was just not there. Being a student and having no parents available to handle the minute details of life was tough and almost unreasonable. For many months I failed desperately as a Christian zealot. Then returning to university after yet another summer and taking up residence in Faulkner Eggington Halls on the campus, there was hope. I shared a kitchen with only seven others. The perfect number in Judaic circles! They produced just enough washing up for me to handle each and every day and messed it up again at a rate that raised my hackles - just below red. Over that year I learnt to do the washing up thanklessly. To do it relentlessly. To do it with no thought of return. To do it lovingly. To do it as God would have me do it. It is a lesson I continue to struggle with and will do until I die.