A walk down Colley Avenue in Ghent will find you face to face with an old gothic-esque stone Lutheran church. Ignore it. The pubs are less than a block away. Another twenty blocks along Colley and things have certainly changed. No more pubs. No outside eateries. No old single-screen movie theaters. We have the reverse of Ghent. Here we have church after church after church. Sometimes they’re difficult to see, nestled between a seasonal tax firm and a barber shop, no marquis, just a window sign announcing services. But they are always easy to find. Just follow the music! It sounds just like this:
Across the street from these small gospel churches sits a moderately large mosque. Sometimes outside on sunny days the Muslim men sell their wares, and I’ll often stop by to see if I can find a good deal. But my attention is always pulled to that gigantic soulful music coming from that tiny church. It’s impossible to ignore, and it fills the neighborhood. I start clapping my hands and humming along to the tune. Sometimes I’ll even cross the street and go inside.
These are black churches, and I stick out with my cowboy hat and colorful tattoos, but they never shun me away. I’ll raise my hands in the air, dance, hug the women wearing funny peach colored hats, and sing praise to Jesus. Of course, I don’t believe any of it. That’s what separates me from the church. I’m there only for the music, the dance, and the human interaction. The lyrics are meaningless. My praise is merely to keep the cadence. I face no threat of being pulled into something that could potentially destroy my life.
In case you didn’t notice, the above Youtube video is of the Peoples Temple Choir, the stars of Jim Jones’ show in northern California, and the band that followed him to Jonestown, Guyana. They probably all died on November 18, 1978. About 920 people committed suicide in Jonestown. Of everyone present that day, only 35 survived.
One survivor was Deborah Layton, who had this to say:
Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organization, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.
When I’m in those churches along Colley Ave, I can’t help but see them in a cultish light. Although these churches have never been accused of sexual misconduct or criminal brainwashing, I can see the allure of a thumping gospel band flanked by charismatic leaders and an even more charismatic, finely dressed preacher, preaching about god and political and social issues.
The people who go to these churches want a family more than they want a sermon. Can we imagine a scenario where a young man takes control of the pulpit in one of these Colley Ave churches and asks his parishioners to sell their belongings and move into his compound? He’ll pay for your medical care. He’ll take care of your food. Anything you need, you’ll receive. All he asks for in return is total devotion to the church and to him.
This will probably never happen in these Colley Ave churches. I’m not making a slippery slope argument. I’m merely saying there are already similarities between these small gospel churches and Jim Jones’ religious movement. It’s possible — albeit highly unlikely — that some of these churches could suffer the same fate as the Peoples Temple. “Nobody joins a cult … You join a religious organization.” There’s a fine line between them sometimes.