Okay, Phil wasn’t there (neither was Bill), and Ted went on to do The Matrix and make millions of dollars saying the word, “Wooooaaaahh.” But I, Mr. Ryan Jeanes, was there. I experienced it. I lived it. I met some of the coolest people in the world and saw the positives of a religious community in action. To be honest, I did not see many, if any, negatives. This post will be a little bit different; it will be one heathen’s (okay, I’m not a heathen, but I’m not Adventist and I was going into a definite, definite Adventist community armed only with my wits and an open mind) account of what it was like to spend 3 days in the belly of the beast.
Phil knows I’m not religious. (He’s not religious either if you ask me. In fact, I believe in more esoteric, other-worldy stuff than he does! In fact, yeah! yeah! Phil, I’m more religious than you – Put that in your wineskin and drink it! :)) The plan all along was for Phil to accompany me to the Adventist community in Bangor, WI, a town very close to La Crosse, WI, located right on the river. Phil’s sister is dating a guy whose mother and father were more than happy to recieve us. Sans Phillip however, it would be me, who did not grow up in the religion like Phil did, walking into a potential firestorm. My anti-conversion dukes were up. Ain’t nobody converting me! I’m gonna believe what I believe to the day I die! I’m pretty content believing what I believe, and also was fearful my hosts would be a little leery of me. I was positive, to be sure, they would be nice and cordial and beyond kind; but, in the back of my mind I was thinking, Do they think I’m going to hell? Do they really believe that I’m a bad guy for not being… what they are? I didn’t know.
Jane Hallock answered the phone. “OOOOHHH, HIIIIIII,” she said. “I was wondering when you were going to call.” Good start. “Yeahh, yeahhhh, I can pick you up at a boat launch just north of La Crosse. Yeaaahh, yeahhh, this is great.”
I hung up. This was great. Maybe I won’t be converted after all. And then, the sky opened! And she picked me up! And there were choirs in the pick-up truck singing “DIEEEE, SINNNEERRRRRRRR!” and I was baptized in the Mississippi Riverrrrrr! Buuuaahhahahahhaha! Ahem, sorry. That didn’t happen of course. Jane picked me up and offered me a firm handshake. She was sturdy and tall and knew exactly how to strap the boat into the truck bed. I felt ashamed to be a man. 🙂 “Lon (her husband) isn’t here just yet,” she said. “He’ll be here Friday. Can you stay that long?” she said over the mrrrrrrh of the busted muffler. Aha! Here it is! I knew I was going to be converted. Here’s how they getcha! They invite you for one night; and that turns into two, and then they hold you down and make you drink the Kool-Aid!!!! I knew it! “Um,” I said, “maybe.”
Jane was extremely nice. She had her eyes wide open wanting to know all about what I did, what I was going to do, and where I was going to be. “Wowww, wowww,” she said. “You must have tons of stories!” I offered her my spirit canoe story. She looked distracted when I told her. I didn’t know if she found it offensive or what. I told her that Phil has had an influence on me and, for the most part, I’ve been pretty vegetarian on the trip. She seemed happier.
We pulled through the town of Bangor. “Oh,” she said. “I gotta tell you, my house is kinda junky.” I’ve been sleeping in a tent! I thought.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Jane. I mean do you know how I’ve been living!” She smiled.
“And this is the post offfice. Yeah. It’s little.” She seemed embarrassed. “This is our little tavern; I don’t go there obviously; this is the little road that goes to our community.” Embarrassed again. Maybe she thought I was a big-city rock star. I wish I was. I mean I’m only a filmmaker, but for some reason she seemed a little sorry to be showing me all this. “And my home…” she continued.
We got to the house and I walked in with my big pack. I guess one could consider the outside a little “junky” as she put it, but the iniside was immaculate, an amazing, old Wisconsin country home. “It’s not much,” she said. It’s everything! I thought.
“Here’s the computer room,” she said. “You have high-speed internet here.” Score! So, waiddaminute. You house is junky? not much to look at? and you’re sorry but you have this beautiful room! The room was mahogany with lots of clean, clear windows to let sunlight through. The computer was a Dell Dimension 2520. The internet? Faster than Robert Gibbs covering for a Biden slip-up. I was happy. “This is great, Jane,” I said. She smiled but didn’t believe me.
The Next Day – Worship over Breakfast
I had never been part of an Adventist or other -ist worship before. Basically one reads out of the Bible in the morning, reads a commentary by a member of the church, and has a short discussion. That is, at least, how it worked out for me. I asked Jane if I could film. “OOOhhhh,” she said. “I’m not… I don’t…”
“No, no, look Jane; this is important to me; this is part of my experience. If I don’t get this, well, yeah the movie will do fine, but my experiences here are part of the journey. This is part of the journey.”
“But, I’m not really photogenic!”
Haaaaaaaaaaaa! That’s what she was woried about! I thought there might be some religious objection. Nope! In fact, I filmed in the church, I filmed in the community activities; they were more than happy for me to share the love via the power of the lens. I turned the camera on. “You just do your thing, Jane,” I said. She smiled… still embarrassed. Ohhhhh, Jaaaaaaaanneeee.
Jane reads out of a book called a devotional. It is the Good Shepherd story. The shepherd leaves his ninety and nine sheep in search for the one stray. “I’ve always liked that story,” Jane says when she finishes. I don’t think she’s ever been filmed before while reading out of a devotional. The story sparks conversation.
“So do you usually read from a devotional in the morning?” I ask.
“Usually. We might have a short discussion…”
“I like the story too. I think it’s cool how the shepherd will sacrifice what he has for the love of the one.”
Jane offers a more doctrinal point of view of the story; mine is more broad: “I think love is something we as human beings all share. It’s kinda like when Abraham Lincoln waded in a bog to save a drowing pig. And they asked him why he would get all wet and muddy to ease the suffering of a pig that was going to die anyway. And Lincoln said, ‘I didn’t save the pig to ease the suffering of the pig. I saved the pig to ease my suffering having to watch the pig suffer.'”
Jane nods but I don’t know if she agrees or finds any use in the story. I, in general, am pretty inclusive. I like Muslims, Jews, Christians, Adventists, Nihilists; Communists are even cool as long as they don’t try to hand me pamphlets. (Freaking get a life, University of Texas Communist Party! You guys are retarded! :)) The whole time I spend with Jane, Lon, Doug and the rest of the gang is amazing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything; but, there was always this tiny spec in the eyeball, an irritation that doesn’t quite leave you alone. It could have been in my head or it could have been real, but the question that reverberates softly in the background the whole time I’m there is… Do these people accept me even though I’m not Adventist? Do they believe I need to be saved or that I’m not going to receive Eternal Life if I don’t throw down and shout the praises of Ellen G. White, the founder of the church? I hope they don’t. I certainly don’t think they or anyone else for that matter is going to hell. And if there is such a place as Paradise, I would hope that most people, believers or no, are going there. That’s how I would run things anyway. 🙂
I’m get little more bold in my questioning now. “So, Jane, do you have to read from the devotional in the morning? I hope you don’t mind me asking you this; I know nothing of the Adventist Church…” She thinks you’re different – you’re not one of them! my mind starts again. Shut up, mind! “…I mean, is it a hard and fast rule that you read from the Bible every day?”
“No,” she says. “That’s kind of legalistic…” Whoa, what’s that word? “…to think that way. You don’t have to do anything.” Hmmmmm, starting to like this religion.
“So you don’t have to read from the Bible?”
“Hmmmm,” she pauses. This is a difficult question. I know I’m kind of putting her on the spot. She can’t speak for an entire organization but she does her best. “I think legalism is a problem in any church.” There’s that word again. “Legalism is where you follow the letter of the law… So like with Adventism we are mostly vegetarians, but you don’t have to be vegetarian.” Hmmmm, I really like this religion. “You’re supposed to be though,” she adds. Uh oh, do I like this religion? Here, ladies and gents, is where we have the delicate balancing act of any religious organization: How do you tell people what to do without telling them what to do? Jane goes on to describe how she used to be very legalistic. She was more into the codes and conducts offered by Ellen White and other Adventist authority figures than the spirit with which those codes and conducts were conceived. “I’m not like that anymore,” she says. “I can wear shirts, and I don’t have to wear long dresses. As long as I have the spirit of the Lord, that Love, in my heart, then…” she thinks, “that’s what’s important.” AMEN BROTHA! Finally someone with some sense!
I prod a bit deeper. “So here’s a question that’s a bit difficult,” I say. (Like I said, I’m getting bolder.) “Okay, I’ve always had a problem with this: A guy on say some island… He’s a native who’s never heard the name of Jesus. He doesn’t know who Jesus is, never formally declares him as his saviour; but, he lives a pious life. He gives to charities. He helps the needy. He’s an all-around, stand-up guy and lives the Ten Commandments though he has never heard of them. Is this guy going to heaven?” The room was silent. I did not know if I had gone too far. This is a difficult question, but I think it’s an important one for all members of all religions (especially the ones who believe that if you don’t subscribe to their particular brand of Christianity, you’re in trouble) should answer. Jane pauses. I feel really bad now, but she speaks. “I don’t know… well… the Bible does say that Jesus is the way… but…” Jane suddenly takes a stand – it’s that scene in the movie where our fallen hero gets up, brushes himself off and takes a stand for truth though it not be accepted by the group; she perks up, and her eyes narrow: “But I’m not gonna say that if a man has never heard the name of Jesus, or proclaimed the name of Jesus that he’s somehow not going to receive Eternal Life. I can’t say that and I won’t.” Amen!
Jane did offer a few more doctrinal beliefs from the church that I did not subscribe to but at no time did she try to convert me. I think, secretly, that she and other members of the church I met during my 3 days there hoped I would be open to the idea of batting for their team; but, I know they knew that wasn’t going to happen. What was important was that I was a man, a traveler, in need of hospitality; and, they were going to give it to me, my immortal soul saved or not.
Phil Forgets His Brain and Ryan Cleanses His Soul
I was staying with the Hallocks for so long because I was waiting on a part I needed to blow up the boat. “Phil,” I asked on the phone, “did you send the part to the Hallocks like I asked?”
“Okay, when? It’s not here.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said.”
“I (head explodes) did not; I said to send it 4 FARGING DAYS AAGO!”
“Well, I didn’t, so looks like you’re gonna have to go to church on Saturday.” (Click.)
That bastard! This is pretty much how the conversations between me and Phil go. I accuse him of being a moron; he accuses me of being one; we say “F it, there’s nothing we can do anyway” and we move on. Case closed – I was going to have to go to church.
Adventists go to church on Saturday. Ellen White, I believe, said that the big, bad and scary Catholic church (Phil’s dad, Phil, Bryce, and anyone else reading this who’s more versed than me, correct me if I’m wrong, please) made the day of worship on Sunday because… I don’t know why she said they did it, but apparently it’s the wrong day. So when White started her church, she put it back on the right day – Saturday. (Seeeee? The Jews had it all along. :))
I walk through the door with the camera rolling. I have no idea if this is okay or if people are going to get mad about this. Nope. They all seemed cool with it. Doug, an amazing man who has done more adventuring on one afternoon than I have done in my entire life, is giving what can only be described as a class. He’s standing up in front of the room reading out of a book. “Sit down, Ryan,” he says, “sit down.” I do. I wave to people and am smiling. Some wave back. Some smile back. Some, I think, are not too happy to see me there. “My father,” Doug says, “would be so disappointed if I ever did anything to offend him,” Doug says. “And that’s how it is with God! We don’t worship God because oh if we don’t there’s going to be some bad thing that’s going to happen to us. No, no, no,” he says empathetically. “We do it because of our Love.” I really like this church. “If we’re just coming to church because we think we have to, or because we’re supposed to, then we’ve missed the point. This is Devotion,” Doug says. The next morning I will be leaving. Many members of the church will be gathered around in Jane’s kitchen to see me off. I will mention Doug’s “sermon” saying how much it meant to me. I will go out on a limb and say that as far as organized religions go I believe that the “devotion” that “you, the Adventist community here in Bangor, live” is spot on. That “you are what religion is supposed to be.” I will pause for a moment and get very very scared. I will be scared to say what I’m about to say, but I will say it: “I think many people are turned off by religion.” Then I will be even more scared to say what I’m going to say next: “I think condemning others to hell is wrong; I haven’t seen any of that here.” That will be the truth: I never saw them do it when I was there; but, I feared that it might go on. I didn’t stick around long enough to hear one of those sermons – the sermon I hoped I wouldn’t hear, the sermon that says ‘if you’re not Adventist, you’re going to hell.’
Doug finishes, and the children start filing in. I can always tell the health of a church or community by the look on the children’s faces. These kids are happy, healthy and wise. I am, therefore, happy, healthy and wise. They smile as they take their seats. A young minister takes the podium. I think she’s Brazilian because of her accent, but I find out later she’s a Spanish speaker. I don’t show off my Spanish later when she asks me who I am. “I’m a filmmaker,” I say. “Oh, what kind of films?” she asks. “Adventure documentaries,” I say. “Oh,” she says. Am I offending the minister by not making religious films? I think. Shut up, mind! An older gentleman who had introduced the minister comes up to me when we’re all eating in the cafeteria after the service. “Hi! he says and offers me his hand. “Hi!” I say back. He tells me he’s an avid sailor, and gives me some tips on how to sail my boat better. “Are you sure you’re not the minister?” I say. “No,” he says, “I’m the carpenter!” I laugh. He laughs.
“You’re the carpenter?”
“I mean I’m a carpenter. I have been an assistant pastor of this church for 20 years. I love it here.” He smiles. I can see that religion is a positive force in his life. Legalism is nowhere to be found. He does it because he loves it; he’s not forced; he is… inflamed with the spirit of the Lord. “Yes!” he bellows. “And I think what you’re doing is quite amazing!” At no time does he try to convert me. I’m happy.
“More people come up to me and ask me what I’m doing. That afternoon we go to an old train tunnel that the city of Sparta, WI has turned into a bike trail. It’s cold and wet and beautiful. The entire church community is there. It is fun and one man has his foster children there – four African American kids from the inner city. We drive to a park. Jane says she wants to find some geocaches with her GPS. I pull out my GPS and try to help her find the treasure. Lon, her husband, who had driven in the night before, finds it first. Everyone – smiles. Doug is showing Curtis, one of the African American foster children, how to do a flip on the monkey bars. Other kids are eating cookies. I see one of the kids wearing a Packers hat and tell him there’s something wrong with it.
“What?” he asks.
“It doesn’t say BEARS.”
More children running now and playing. Everything is wholesome and wonderful. Doug pulls in next to me with his arms folded. “Thanks for visiting my shop yesterday,” he says. I’ll have to devote an entire post just to Doug, but I can tell you his metal shop had the following projects (you’ll actually beg me to write a post after I tell you this):
- a submarine he was building
- an electric bicycle car
- a cache of boomerangs
- rope swings
- zip lines
- at his home he showed me whispering dishes, parabolas made of metal spaced 100 yards apart where you could whisper into one and someone on the other end could hear you as if you were next to them
The man was a whirlwind of projects and innovations and beauty. He showed me his home where he had designed secret chambers into the walls for the children, his shower with double shower heads for him and his wife, the apple tree he claimed was the most travled apple tree in the history of the world since he had moved it 7 times. He was an amazing gentleman. Soley by looking at his inventions I knew that he was “inflamed with the spirit of the Lord.”
“You’re a pretty amazing guy, Doug,” I say. “I mean that playground you build for the kids with the rope swings and that crazy seesaw that didn’t just go up and down; it went side to side where we could play catch, was awesome!”
“Yeah, I sure love it here. I almost wish I could come back to the Earth a second time. There’s so many projects I want to do. I’ve go so many in my head, you know!” Before I leave, Doug will help me build a sea anchor for my boat out of some old string and one of my trash bags. He’s a regular blue-collar Da Vinci. ‘
“Well, how do you know you won’t be back?” I say.
“Oh, no, after we die, we have Eternal Life.”
And then I am silent. I can’t relate 100%. I can’t say myself whether I will receive eternal life or no. I can’t say anything they believe is true or not; and for this reason, it becomes clear: These people are not rejecting me. I perhaps am rejecting them. I’m rejecting them for their certainty.
During worship the next morning, a young man who had arrived the day before hands me a book. It’s called The Ministry of Healing. It actually had some really good ideas in it. I thank him. Though scared, I give my speech where I tell them I am happy to have come, that I am not an Adventist, and that many are turned off to religion because of the abuses. I have no idea why I’m saying all this, but I do. I tell them that they are what a religion should be: A community of people living in Joy. I hoped they like what I said. I really did.
At the river, the news crew has come to meet me. My friends are hanging in the background. I’m more worried that they’re bored than if I’m being interesting on camera. I secretly hope that they think I’m a good guy. I hope, and yes I think this while I’m being interviewed, they accept me as part of their community despite thier beliefs about who is going to end up where depending on who believes and does what. I feel like reaching out to them and saying, “Look guys, I know we don’t come from similar backgrounds, but I love you guys. I don’t want you guys to send me to hell. I mean I don’t want you to think that if I eat meat and don’t do devotional every day, and don’t believe the same things as you, that I’m somehow going to some horrible place, or at least wont receive this Eternal Life. I hope you don’t find me offensive. I like you; I want you to like me. I just want us to get along and Love eachother. I hope we can do that. I hope beliefs never get in the way of who we are – human beings.” I want to say this but I don’t. I want to hug them but I don’t. I finish my interview. I tell the reporter that her next story should be Doug, but Doug retreats in the background.
It’s time for me to go.
Lon helps me shove off. Tristen, the kid who had the Packers hat, is smiling. “I’m still gonna get you a Bears hat,” I say. He just smiles shaking his head. The men shake my hand. The women hug me. I am off, and I hope, wherever I am going, my new friends will be there.
Love and Devotion and… Peace