My Fake Conversion
by Lewis J. Poteet

As a preacher and missionary's son, I was early aware of the importance of "getting right with God" in my parents' culture. Long before I reached the "age of accountability," I had seen innumerable people respond to the altar calls which ended every Sunday night service at our fundamentalist church, the Church of the Nazarene, in the little towns my father served as pastor, all over Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. And for five years (between the ages of six and eleven) I had seen my father work this magic on black and coloured (a local term for people of mixed race) people in South Africa, as a Nazarene missionary. I had once publicly, and many times privately, confessed my sins, prayed for forgiveness, and gotten up from my knees feeling cleansed and refreshed. I now see that I had become emotionally addicted to this catharsis, so that I depended on a cycle of sin and repentance for my pattern of feeling, even if the "sin" was almost always private, inevitable, and biological in origin, having to do with a healthy puberty.

Truth was, I had become a preacher myself. After we returned from Africa, traveling with my father as he raised money for Nazarene missionary work by performing special services across the American Southwest, I found myself asked to speak to children in Sunday School classes about Africa. I quickly developed a set of notes and a few talks, in which I would describe some of the things I remembered as a white missionary child. (For example, the green mamba snake at the side of the road that once looked me in the eye, causing me to throw down my bicycle and run a mile to call Dad). I would sing a song in Afrikaans or Zulu, recite the Lord's Prayer in Swazi (the local dialect of Zulu), and finish up with a tearjerker about poverty or superstition in that land more gripped by real evil (apartheid and more) than I at the time could even comprehend.

I was enormously successful. Even after my father had been let go by the mission board and his fundraising travel across the U.S. curtailed, I was invited to hold forth at special "Youth and Missions" services across the Southwest. I would travel by bus or train, stay with the pastor of the host church, and enjoy the prestige my father had lost. Sunday dinner was invariably fried chicken (the "preacher bird"), sometimes at the parsonage and sometimes a huge spread outdoors on the grounds, with jello salad, sweet potatoes with marshmallows in them, and pie. I was paid by a freewill offering, which was mine to keep; Dad's had been deposited in an account at church headquarters in Kansas City, to pay for new equipment if he returned to Africa. Along with my sermon notes, I still have my account books, little ledgers in which I kept track of every penny, even for candy bars and cokes at bus stations. At one memorable weekend service in Denison, Texas, my appearance drew 300 people. I had special engraved metal blocks of my photograph to send for advance publicity in local newspapers. I rode the Santa Fe railroad to West Texas, and the Katy (M-K-T-Missouri, Kansas, and Texas railway) to Kansas. Once, I held a week of youth revival in Tucson, Arizona. My father was immensely proud.

So it was that when I went to my father and mother's old college, Bethany Peniel College in Bethany, Oklahoma, in 1957, I quite naturally declared Religion as my major, even though I had been tempted by Chemistry. But I was quickly disillusioned upon discovering that most of my male classmates were also religion majors, and many had had experience. I was no longer unique. The way many of them talked about their work for the Lord was terribly unsettling to me. They bragged frankly about how much money they made. They seemed not serious about the doctrine or souls saved. One of my roommates classified churches as "good payers" or not; he and another sometime roommate teamed up, taking turns leading the singing and preaching and doubling their money. He was, within two years, kicked out of the college for secretly marrying his hot little girlfriend; within six months he was back in town for a visit, driving a Cadillac that had been given him by the grateful congregation of the big Assembly of God church in Atlanta to which he had become minister. I was sickened by all of this. And the more I read, in philosophy and literature, the more I was convinced that the world did not run by the rules we had been taught. I lost my faith, without saying so to anyone. My models became cynical or passionate upperclassmen, scholars, and men of the world. One of them was Gary Hart (then Hartpence), a senior when I was a sophomore.

My marks were always high and I moved easily into a Philosophy major, then on into English. I became editor of the campus newspaper and a member of the campus Kiwanis club, the Literary society, and the Honor society. And, away from campus, I sought out the experiences I had always denied myself in the real world. Breaking every rule in the campus handbook, except the one against marrying without permission, I went to movies and drank Mogen-David red wine, beer, and malt liquor, on back roads, leaning against the car. I tried unsuccessfully to lose my virginity. After the last issue of the campus paper I edited came out, at the end of my junior year, the Dean of Students, a Christian sociologist with a shit-eating grin he never took off, called me in, told me what he'd heard about what I had been doing, grimly grilled me about my off-campus sins, broke me down, and expelled me from school.

It took me a month after coming home for the summer to tell my parents what had happened. Though I had fleeting impulses to throw myself in front of a car on the highway, I was also just well-informed enough to know that the world was not shaken by the deposition of the campus newspaper editor at that sanctimonious, self-important little school. My father got me back in on probation and I knew I could finish my degree without losing any time, but my credits for the junior year would be in suspension during the first term of my senior year, the exact time when I needed to show off my good record to scholarship-granting boards. I was condemned to do graduate school as a teaching assistant, a drudge, and at times I wasn't sure I'd get even that miserable subsidy. But with clenched teeth I returned for my final year.

In a calculated gesture of public self-humiliation I hired on as washer of pots and pans in the campus dining-hall kitchen, the honors student wearing sackcloth and ashes. The English Department soon caught onto my act and rescued me, hiring me to mark papers. But as the end of the first term, and the meeting of the college board at which they were to decide to reinstate my credits, drew near, I found myself nervous. I needed to do something dramatic to ensure my escape from that mean little world.

I found myself thinking of one of my old roommates' more cynical speculations. He had said, "Wouldn't it be fun to break loose, do anything you like, and after you'd made a notorious reputation as a heinous sinner, stage a fake conversion?" There was general shocked denunciation of this idea, in even our circle, but he chuckled over the dramatic impact it would have, knowing well "there is more rejoicing in heaven (and in any Church of the Nazarene) over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine that need no repentance." We had both preached on that text; it added considerably to the allure of sin and consequently had great entertainment value.

"It'd never work. They'd know you were faking it," one sophomore said. But I wasn't sure. I had never been an actor, my conversions had almost never been public and I had never before been any kind of open sinner, but I was relentlessly drawn to the idea. So it was that when the end-of-term campus revival meeting came, I deliberately stayed away until the last night, saying to myself that if I did it earlier, I'd have to attend the rest of the week. Then, at the final service, I sat near the center of the congregation, on the main floor, and listened to the sermon with rapidly increasing pulse. The preacher, Dr. Willie Noble King, was an old religion professor (and my Greek teacher), said to have been a French Canadian (!), a holder of the degree Doctor of Sacred Theology (S. T. D.), and, by reputation, an avid reader of Greek poetry in Greek. He was also, by the wildest of sheer coincidences, a lodger in my uncle James and aunt Maggie's house in the town. There was a rumor around that Dr. King, who was a lifelong bachelor and quite odd, had had himself castrated, to mortify the sins of the flesh following the Old Testament commandment "If thy hand (etc.) offend thee, cut it off, for it is better to enter the kingdom of Heaven handless than to burn forever, etc." He was actually a charming, well-read, passionate preacher, and I regretted the accident of history that had put him in that place that night. But I carried through my plan. After waiting for a few minutes of the extended appeal we knew as the "altar call," a sort of talking blues with songs like "Tell Mother I'll be There" and a highly dramatic full voice-over by the preacher urging sinners to come forward, I slipped out of my seat and threw myself down at the altar.

As I had expected, I caused a minor sensation. Ten or fifteen people knelt around and behind me, those close enough putting their hands on my head and back, all praying loudly. "Put your all on the altar!" "Take hold of the horns of the altar and don't let go till you get through!" "Lord, help this boy!" My eyes tightly shut, I mimed a desperate sinner breaking down and, after a reasonable time had elapsed, stood up, wiping away crocodile tears to cries of "Praise the Lord!"

Did it work? Well, it marked the end of my involvement with the church and with my caring either way. My credits were duly restored and I was awarded a teaching assistantship at the University of Oklahoma. The next summer I was in Norman, thirty miles away, happily drinking beer at the tavern just off campus and taking in the Wednesday night fifteen-cent movie at the Sooner Cinema, enjoying the forbidden pleasures for which BPC (by this time BNC) had given me such a thirst. The night of my pretend prostration, after I had gone to bed, my old friend George Kline came in my bedroom, without turning on the light, and cautiously asked, putting his hand on my upper bunk headboard, "Were you…was that…you weren't really…were you?" I had to reassure him that, no, I wasn't, I hadn't. And after graduation, five months later, one of the professors I had some respect for, a psychologist, Dr. Forrest Ladd, stopped me gently as I was putting away my cap and gown and said, "I hope you someday like us better than you do now." It was a kind, if so far fruitless, gesture.

I have only one reservation about the whole event. The next day I learned that on seeing me go down, Janice Brechbill, a very bright biology major and a free spirit (she had let my old roommate Paul Durham finger-fuck her once on the band bus), on looking down from the balcony, saw me go and said "My God, if he's going, so am I." And she did. I do not know what became of her, but if she's stuck in some frame parsonage in Bush's America, chained to some pinhead preacher because of what I did, then I have, in a strange sense, her life on my soul.

Lewis J. Poteet is retired from Concordia's English Department. He has compiled a half-dozen slang dictionaries, and written on language and culture.