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September 04, 1975 - Image 62

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
Michigan Daily, 1975-09-04

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1Four

THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Thursday, September 4, 197

1Four THE MICHIGAN DAILY Thursday, September ~, I91~

The

Word

of

God:

A

community.

a

life

0E

By PAUL HASKINS
It's Thursday evening on Ann Ar-
bor's West Side and hundreds of
townspeople converge on the social
hall of a local junior high. Friend-
ly and collected, the crowd is over-
stated neither in appearance nor
behavior, the kind of demographic
cross-section that would do a
soft drink -commercial proud:
As the group files in, another
equally affable, though somewhat
younger, assemblage enters the
gym of a high school a few miles

Word of God was spawned in the
infancy of the Charismatic Renew-
al, a nationwide movement of dis-
gruntled Christians away from
what they considered to be the
stagnant entrenched ritual of es-
tablished churches of the day, to-
ward a more experiential approach
to prayer and religious service.
IN EIGHT years, the group has
grown from a core of six mem-
bers meeting in a dingy flat above
Campus Corners to the largest sin-
gle charismatic community in the
world. In that time, the community
has seen entire families pull up
stakes from as far away as Penn-
sylvania to join their ranks.
Though predominantly Catholic
in makeup, WOG claims members
fromnpractically every major de-
nomination.
The four hours per week set aside
for weekly prayer meetings and
Sunday gatherings in no way ac-
curately reflects the time and serv-
ice commitment of WOG members
to the community. Most members
live in community houses, either
in family settings or in groups of
single people segregated by sex. The
community is encouraged to eat
meals and recreate together as of-
ten as possible.
WOG members will tell you that
a Christian life for them is a full-
time experience, but nothing tops
their reserve for religious fervor
more than the midweek prayer
meeting, climaxed by prayer in
tongues-a practice that has been
described as diabolical by some,
and inspiring by others. But for the
secular majority who has never be-
fore witnessed it, it can only be
viewed as bizarre in the extreme.
AT A RECENT Thursday evening
get together at Forsythe Junior
High, a predominantly older group
of WOG members began to congre-
gate a few minutes before eight.
At first glance, they appear much
like any other group of their size-
maybe a bit friendlier and more se-
rene than most. They exchange
sincere hugs and professions of
how happy they are to see one
another. They mill about, their
chatter criss-crossing the room as
seats fill. By 8:15, over 400 are on
hand, and they settle into their
places, the banter grounding to a
halt as Tony Redente, the evening's
leader, begins the meeting: "I'd

like us all to be attentive to what
the Lord has to say tonight-with
our ears, but more importantly,
with our hearts . .."
His opening rap completed, Re-
dente directs his audience's atten-
tion to the yellow song books rest-
ing on each seat.
Pages fly open to the appropriate
number, but most seem to need no
assistance. The lyrics virtually leap
out of them. Clearly a pleasurable
experience, with almost everybody
joining in. The few whose anxious
strains jump ahead of the group's
are soon overtaken by a din that
resonates off the high ceilings and
distant walls of the auditorium.
The first hymn soon fades, but a
second is fast on its heels. Voices
mend into one resolute force that
sweeps the participants away to
another level of consciousness.
Their features are animated, their
actions excited. Some reach to the
ceiling, heads arised, eyes closed.
Others rock back and forth, a
nervous energy moving their feet
in double time to the music. An
emotional staging ground has been
reached. They are ready now.
A N OVERWHELMING percentage
of the community are practic-
ing members of other religions.
They carry their spiritual devotion
into their daily lives, rarely speak-
ing in angered tones or using lan-
guage a clergyman would cringe
at. Many Word of Goders come
from tightly knit, God-fearing
Christian families. But for a sig-
nificant minority, conversion to the
Ann Arbor group represented a rad-
cal break from a sordid past life
that left little room for spiritual
considerations.
Bob Rodriguez, a 27 year old Viet-
nam veteran, was born in Detroit
and raised a Catholic. At some
point Bob got into drugs a bit more
than he could handle. A heroin ad-
dict, he skipped through a number
of methadone programs in north-
ern Ohio and southeast Michigan.
By early summer of 1973, he found
himself in a local rehab clinic. It
was there, as he tells it, that "I ba-
sically came to a point in my life
where I had to settle the whole is-
sue of God." As his story unfolds,
one is reminded of the Cheech and
Chong bit from a few years back
"I used to be all fucked up on drugs
... now I'm all fucked up on the

Daily Photo by STEVE KAGAN

Daily Photo by STEVE KAGAN
to the east, maybe a mile north of
the University campus.. Though
separated by distance and years,
the two groups are about to com-
monly experience a phenomenon,
the likes of which most Ann Arbor-
ites have never fathomed.
TRE TWO groups, gathering for
their weekly Thursday night
praper meetings, together comprise
the Word of God Community, a
charismatic Christian prayer group
claiming over 1,400 members from
Ann Arbor and surrounding areas.
The group can be located under
"Word of God,, The" in the Ann
Arbor directory, and its leaders and
full-time staff can be found work-
ing at Harris Hall behind the door
stenceled "Charismatic Renewal
Services, Inc." But for all its busi-
nesslike efficiency and organiza-
tion, the Word of God can't be
characterized as just another tra-
ditional denomination.

Lord." But the stereotype just won't
apply here. Easy-going, articulate
and engaging Rodriguez comes on
cocksure of where his life in head-
ing.
The day after he left the metha-
done clinic two years ago, he
walked into a Word of God meeting
at Forsythe. He's been going back
ever since.
r
1JESPITE Word of God's incred-
ible growth rate, its members
are not encouraged to go .out and
solicit new converts, a practice
widespread among certain other
campus Christiancgroups and a
source of annoyance for most of
their targets.
Though Word of God may not be-
lieve in the hard sell, they will us-
ually tell you all you want to hear
and then some if you reveal the
slightest interest in the community.
At the Forsythe meetings, non-
members are required to wear yel-
low name tags while in the audi-
torium. The bright patches are us-
ually a ticket to a torrential show-
er of friendly greetings and endless
introductions. Newcomersnare urged
to return; if they show interest,
they may be asked to join the Life
in the Spirit seminars, a seven-
week beginners' course designed to
prepare newcomers for active mem-
bership in the community. No for-
mal vows are taken, but members
who complete the seminar are ex-
pected to pledge an "underway
commitment" to attend meetings
and gatherings. A few years later,
if successfully entered into a life
in the spirit, they may be ready to
make a public commitment before
the entire community. The pledge,
Rodriguez explains, is twofold:
"making a commitment to Jesus
Christ, and bringing that commit-
ment out in action."
Though its membership is limited
by design to people within commut-
ng distince from Ann Arbor, the
communty has grown in numbers
so quickly that a third weekly pray-
er group is already being organized
on the east side of town.
Any skeptics in search of a sci-
entific accounting for the rapid
expansion rate might find their
eyebrows raised a notch by Word
of God librarian Phil O'Mara's an-
swer: "It was simply an idea whose
time had come."
DR. DAVID FREEDMAN, director
of the University's Religious

Studies Program, prefers to place
the Word of God experience in a
less apocalyptic setting. "I think
you have to look at this thing in
terms of meeting psychological
needs, of countering disillusion-
ment at science and technology,"
Freedman says. "If you wonder
about the success of totalitarian-
ism in the world, this has a certain
affinity for it.
"Religion is mystical in the high-
est sense. Too often this is a group
phenomenon. In many ways it's
like a rock concert. I think one
thing it shows is that- no matter
how sophisticated we are, our emo-
tions are right at the surface. And
in some cases the more science-
oriented we are, the more likely
Their features are ani-
mated, their actions ex-
cited. Some reach to the
ceiling. . . . Others rock
back and forth, a nervous
energy moving their feet
in double time to the
music. An emotional stag-
ing ground has been
reached. They are y, ready
now.
we are to be taken, because in this
area, most of us are a little sarved."
Though Freedman raises ques-
tions about the nature of Word of
God's appeal, he nevertheless feels
that the group's beliefs and actions
are more of an asset than a detri-
ment to the Ann Arbor community:
"I think they serve a very impor-
tant function. They shape people
up. It could be argued whether
anything less dogmatic could have
as significant an impact."
r[HE OLD auro surrounding Word
of Gods experiential, funda-
mentalist approach to worship and
prayer is compounded by its pres-
ence in Ann Arbor rather than
some backwoods hamlet. For many,
the contradiction between the
Bible-toting prayer group and its
cosmopolitan setting is immediate-
ly obvious and compelling. Con-
fronted with this notion, O'mara
pretends to jokingly dispel it. "We

had a woman member who once
suggested that since SDS (Students
for a Democratic Society) started
here and Word of God started here,
Ann Arbor had to be the spiritual
center of the universe."
Religious scholar Freedman dis-
counts the notion of a basic con-
trast between Word of God and the
larger Ann Arbor community. "This
is a Midwest University," he, ex-
plains. "There's hardly a university
worker or faculty member who isn't
a first or second generation
churchman."
The opening songs completed,
the beat is maintained, the energy
sustained by diffuse handclapping,
body shaking, arm-waving. The vis-
itor takes it all in, then notices a
barely audible muttering rising
from the other side of the room.
The sound draws closer, its points
of origin multiply, and words be-
come discernible as those seated to
either side of him join in, each im-
provising:
"I ORD, we love you and bless you.
Praise you, Lord. Praise you,
Lord. Jesus, our redeemer, pour
your spirit out more fully into all
of us..."
The words are spontaneous;
nothing is read, though everybody
seems to fall back on a few old
standby phrases. The beat picks up,
as does the volume. Witihout warn-
ing, from any side, syllables begin
to disintegrate, intonations take on
a roller coaster qualty, and the di-
alogue assumes the sound of a
taped political speech being played
in fast reverse.
Though Word of God members
try to downplay its significance
and emphasize the other prayer
and service activities of the com-
munity, prayer in tongues is the
emotional mainstay of the group
and the larger charsmatic renewal
movement which started in the
mid-sixties. Manifestation of spir-
itual energy, a temporary escape
from the human order, "Tongues"
stands as the most formidable bar-
rier between Word of God and the
traditional churches of the area.
CHURCH leaders have generally
expressed an attitude of he-
served tolerance toward the prac-
tice. St. Thomas Parish, many of
whose Catholic members belong to
Word of God, offers the community
the use of its facilities each week.

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