December 31, 2005

Dr. R. L. Hymers

. . . 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.

Bob Hymers' preaching is a sort of Protestant pastiche; he loves to use stories about Martin Luther (though he never quotes the man's anti-Semitic rants, of course), the Wesleys, and John Calvin.

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.

Posted by Attila Girl at December 31, 2005 11:54 PM | TrackBack

There is an old Eastern saying. "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him." ANYONE proclaiming to "the enlightened one," who is preaching the means of salvation as it were, is doing more harm than good.

(Actually not meant - like so much Eastern teaching - to be taken litterally. Have to point this out for a lot of prosaic Westerners.)

"We're on the road and we're gunning for the Buddha
We know his name and he mustn't get away
We're on the road and we're gunning for the Buddha
It would take one shot - to blow him away..."

Posted by: Zendo Deb at January 1, 2006 05:53 AM

I had a spiritual conversion a few years ago from agnostic to "belief in a power greater than myself". My life is much better now. Not perfect, no. I still have neurosises. God gave them to me, he can take them away (I guess). 2006 is different. I saw John Bogel on Fox News Sunday a little while ago. That's never happened before!

Thanks for telling me what TW: means.

Posted by: klrfz1 at January 1, 2006 08:01 AM

That's why I love 12-Step programs: there is an acceptance of the idea that it's more important to achieve a connection to the divine than to obsess over what form, exactly, that connection might take.

Zendo, I used to refer to that sort of self-assured approach to religion when I declared that it was important to ignore those who claimed they had a Bat phone to God. (From the TV series with Adam West: that red phone that was hidden away under, IIRC, a bust of some public figure.)

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 1, 2006 12:48 PM

"God has shown an extraordinary loyalty to me"

For Him it is not extraordinary--it is who He is. But in human terms, yes it is most extraordinary.

You appear to be one of the fortunate ones who, having once been prey to a cult, left the cult without leaving your Savior.

Y'know what is most disturbing to me is that much of what this leader does and says sounds legitimate, and in the context of a normal evangelical Christian assembly, would not raise too many eyebrows. But it only takes a little poison to spoil the whole pot of soup.

I have a streak of skepticism a mile wide when it comes to leaders who exalt themselves over their congregations. Jesus said whoever would be greatest in my kingdom will be the servant of all, and he showed the way by example first when he washed the feet of his disciples, and then a few hours later when he died to open the door to us. It is the inverse of the temporal authority structures we are so used to seeing. How few leaders really walk in that path!

Those who would lead in the kingdom must be those who are willing to lay aside their own concerns and "rights" for the sake of the people they are serving. They will have a greater accounting before God for their words and deeds. And the fruit of their own lives is everything, as you noted.

Thanks for writing this. I'm bookmarking it for future reference.

Posted by: Desert Cat at January 1, 2006 04:29 PM

Not to sound like a 12-step "big book thumper," but there's one interesting little snippet of 12-step tradition (actually, right out of the official "AA Traditions"): "our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern."

Any spiritual organization should embrace that concept. Certainly, there are decisions to be made, but they should be made on behalf of the congregation/group members, rather than foisted upon them.

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 1, 2006 04:36 PM

Hey, I just found your blog after googling Robert Hymers. I met one of the Hymers' recruiters at UCLA during this past finals week, and I gave the guy my number. I got couple calls from Mrs. Hymers, and I had decided to go to their "Christmas Party" only to change my mind when they told me I couldn't bring my cell phone on top of being picked up from my house. Later I found out that a friend of mine had been to one of their "parties" and told me it was a complete waste of time. I wrote all about it on my blog if you're interested. Thanks for sharing about this! It was very informative and helpful.

Posted by: doxa at January 2, 2006 02:19 AM

Interesting and well-written piece, LMA. I've known you for nearly 30 years, and although I had heard rumors you were in a "cult" during your teens, I never got the full story from you or your family or friends.

(Oddly enough, I have a close friend who was also "saved" from a cult because of a spell of bad health. She had been involved in the LaRouchites, and was unable to break free from them until she got hospitalized, and her mom grabbed her from the outpatient ward before her "comrades" could.)

Posted by: Mikal at January 2, 2006 03:36 PM

Thanks, Mikal. I don't know why I haven't been able to write about it before, but I'm glad I did. That era, for me, is part of my life as a throwaway kid who virtually lived in Westwood Village. I just went home to sleep.

So for two years the church was my substitute family, as my biological/household peeps were unavailable. And as 12-14 are formative years, there's naturally a Pandora's box of emotion associated with it.

Posted by: Attila Girl at January 2, 2006 04:48 PM

Wow, I had forgotten about Maranatha until now - two friends at Pepperdine started going to services there in the mid seventies. I lost touch when I moved south to UCSD so I don't know how they turned out. At the time I was uncomfortable with the cult but didn't know enough to be really concerned about my friends. And then I remembered a bunch of the other cults flourishing in Southern Cal around that time, some obviously loopy and exploitative, others appearing more "mainstream." Cult leaders were living in huge houses in Palos Verdes while their followers were rummaging around in dumpsters for food. And that is NOT an exaggeration.

An old friend lived in LA for some years and I always loved watching public access TV on weekends during visits. It was vaguely disturbing to wonder how many people were seriously watching what my friend and I tuned in to for entertainment. Maybe somebody in the next apartment? When my friend lived in Brentwood we'd sometimes see the Archangel Uriel drive by in her Cadillac adorned with planets and stars. It was more fun, and less thought provoking, to regard it all as innocent entertainment - after all, not everybody in such groups was drinking Kool-Aid or killing themselves for a comet ride.

Posted by: Steve Skubinna at January 2, 2006 05:10 PM

Oh, and Zendo, that bit about killing the Buddha not to be taken literally?

NOW you tell me, Thanks for nothing, pal.

Posted by: Steve Skubinna at January 4, 2006 06:50 PM

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