Bill Finney was a machinist at the aerospace plant I worked at, between Bethlehem and Philadelphia. He was great at his work, but he wasn’t close to the rest of us in the unit.
I was the union’s shop steward for our unit. Bill never would join the union; he said, “I’m a Christian, I belong to God.” When I told him all the good things the union could do for him, he listened, and then said, “God takes care of me.” When I asked what his religion was, he said, “People of God.” He passed out pamphlets from his church to the guys in the shop; they would waited until Bill was gone, then they slipped them into the big green waste can with the lid on it. When word of a strike came up, Bill wouldn’t join in: “I’m a Christian, I work for a living,” he said. That didn’t go over well with the other guys.
One day, Bill got a call from his wife, Donna – his daughter, Rebecca, five years old, had an illness; he never said what it was. Bill ordered Donna to get the women from the church to the house and pray.
For a week, Bill and Donna prayed at the bedside of the little girl for her health – that was all they did. I asked Bill why they didn’t call a doctor, and he said, “I have faith in God, it’s up to God.” Women and men from Bill’s church came into the house, and there were yells and screams coming from the little girl’s bedroom, like, “Oh Lord, do Your bidding for us, please!”
A child welfare worker from the county came up to their house to see Rebecca. Bill yelled, “You’re not taking my daughter from me! She belongs to God and me!”, and he slammed the door on her.
Two hours later, the child welfare woman came back with two sheriff’s deputies. It was such big news that a camera crew for the TV station came by. Bill must have broken down then – the deputies took Rebecca to the hospital, and they found a tumor on her liver the size of a billiard ball. The surgeon said that if they waited an hour longer, she would have died.
But Bill sat in his living room wailing, “If she’d’a died, she would’a gone to God, but what about now?”
A day later, the same sheriff’s deputies came back with a warrant for Bill’s and Donna’s arrest, on charges of child endangerment. After arraignment, Bill faced the cameras and said, “I will not ask for legal counsel! I acted according to my faith, and I would go to jail, and die for my faith, and so would my wife! I will keep faith in God to deliver me from this evil!” Donna stayed behind Bill – they tried to interview her, but all she said was, “My husband speaks for me.”
It was Bill’s faith, his religion, which kept him from taking the girl to the doctor. What kind of religion was this? I found one of his old pamphlets that had on it “Church of the People of God.” The address of the sect’s main church was on the back – 173 Liberty Highway, Oxley, Pennsylvania. I knew the town, passing through it on the way to the Poconos for Deer Season.
I did some reading at the library, looking in the encyclopedia, about the Church of the People of God; it came out of the Jesus people movement-young hippie kids who stood on the street talking to everyone about Jesus, operating mainly in smaller college towns and small cities in the northeastern United States. But what were they like? I took a run up there, for my curiosity’s sake.
That Sunday, there were news vans from TV and radio stations all over the state – the story was that hot. The church itself was one floor, with a cone-like roof pointing all the way up from the center to a cross. I walked in, and people entered, dressed not in “Sunday best” but regular street clothes. I entered the sanctuary, and a woman with whitish hair and in faded jeans handed me an order of service. Moving into the sanctuary, people bobbed and danced to the rocking band up front, singing the lyrics “rockin’ to the Rock of Ages”. I saw Bill Finney and Donna-they were out on bond-and people were shaking their hands and hugging them, saying, “We’re praying for you, Brother Bill!”
On the stage, a tall, heavy man with gray-white hair, wearing black squire-framed glasses, a black turtleneck shirt with a gold cross in front, and blue sports jacket-looking like an aging rock star-stood at the Plexiglas pulpit. It was the Reverend Brother Franklin Crease, founder of the sect.
The band finished with a crash of the drum. Crease bared his teeth in a smile, held his right hand back, and called, “The blessings of God and his Son right to you!” throwing his hand forward, like he tossed a football.
The congregation pushed their hands back, threw them forward, and called, “The blessings of God and his Son right back to you!” and they cheered and sat.
Crease began, “Welcome, one and all, to the Church of the People of God. I wish to extend a special welcome to the news media, which have found a scandal to write about.” He sighed, shook his head and said, “Y’know, I tell you, isn’t it interesting, that the news media doesn’t broadcast anything good, but hunts down a scandal to write about? Since you just found out about our church, let me fill you in about it.
“I founded this church,” said Crease, “after the whole sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll scene in the sixties! Oh, I went through the whole nine yards of it! Then, I listened to the Word of God on the radio. I got me a bible, one of those big King James things, with the words of the Son Jesus in red. I read it and read it, and I thought, whoa, this is the truth! This is the real thing! This is the Word of God!” The congregation applauded.
“So,” concluded Crease, slowing down, “I accepted Jesus as my savior and friend. I went to bible school, studied to be a minister of the Gospel, and I kept going out into the street to preach the Gospel to each and every creature, like the Word says.”
I read about Crease’s work in the ‘seventies, organizing coffee houses, walking up to any group of people he found, baptizing addicts in public fountains-the cops didn’t like that-gathering young people around him, on the streets and college campuses.
Crease continued, “But, the old denominations weren’t working for bringing in kids to the Truth of God. None of these kids on the street, kids that’re hurtin’, kids who went the wrong way in life and they want to straighten themselves out, none of them wanted to deal with what John Westley said, or what Martin Luther said, or what that ol’ faggot in Rome says, they wanted what God says, they wanted it from the Source! That why I named our newspaper The Source, to reach out to these kids with the Real Word of God!
“It came to me-literally-like a bolt from heaven!” added Crease. “All the old denominations, Methodist, Protestant, Catholic, Lutheran-all were bunk! All were fake! All were too much-they were from Man! They were from the world system that oppresses spiritual people! Man doesn’t know what God wants! How can he? I knew then it was time for a new awakening-a new start for Christians! A new way to bring God to Man, and Man to God!
“So, I decided to organize true-believing Christians, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, all of them, into one church that doesn’t deal with theological or philosophical junk, no doctrine but the plain ol’ Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son and Savior, ah-men.”
Applause splattered from the congregation, with the occasional “Ah-men,” and Crease went on:
“It’s better this way, just to accept and believe what the Bible tells you. It’s the path to happiness for all people! Denominations, they’re from Man, but the Bible is from God! Just read and accept what the Bible tells you, and you’ll be happy in life. It’s just so simple. I believe that God sent His Son Jesus on the Cross, to die for our sins! It’s just the greatest thing, to know you sins are forgiven, and you can live past them.
“I believe that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the light, and that no man can come before the Father but by Him. I believe that prayer is the only effective means of healing wounds of the body and soul.
“I also believe in the old-fashioned marriage, man, women, married, with children, till death they do part. That sounds old fashioned, but it goes against the world system-the world system that steers you the wrong way, the way against God. We don’t deal with the world system, that’s so corrupt! We don’t want anything to do with the world system, except to leave us alone to live as Christians! I believe that the man is to be the head of the household, and that the woman and children must obey. The world doesn’t go with that, but it’s God’s way! That’s the most revolutionary thing you can do in the world, to go with God rather than Man!”
That was what happened to Crease’s group after the Hippies and counterculture faded, I read; they settled into permanent groups, formed into congregations and got regular jobs and families.
Crease added, “Maybe it’s best this comes out the way it did. This is a sign that the old-time religion of the people of God came about. We need to get back with God! We need to return to the plain ol’ true, unsullied teachings of the Bible, of God, and Commandante Jesus.”
“All hail Commendante Jesus!” the congregation roared-like they’ve done it before, like a ritual, but there was applause, whistles, and hand-waving.
Crease said, “Brother Bill Finney, wanna stand up, please?”
Bill rose; would Crease want to commend Bill for being so faithful? for choosing jail instead of giving up his faith?
Crease sighed, shook his head again, and announced, “Brother Bill, you attracted some bad media attention to the church. You made us look like small-minded fools, and it’s made you a big TV star, hasn’t it? You enjoyed it, right?”
“Uh, no, Brother Crease,” stuttered Bill, “I didn’t like it, I was just being loyal to the church.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you did enjoy it,” stated Crease. “So, you and your family have to leave the church and never come back, and that church members have nothing to do with the Finney family.”
“But, Brother Crease,” cried Bill, “I’m not seeking attention! I just was going by my faith!”
“You were seeking attention!” proclaimed Crease. “I’ve always said the only time a man shows up in the newspaper is in the obituaries!”
“But I need help, Brother, please!” wailed Bill.
“You proved it, Brother Bill!” barked Crease. “In this church we’re in a spiritual revolution against the world system! We can’t have weak people like you with us! Commandante Jesus says, in the Book of Matthew, ‘If your right eye offends you, tear it out. For it’s better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be sent to Hell.’ Is the Word true?”
“The Word is true, forever, amen!” the congregation called out, again like they’ve done it hundreds of times before.
“But I need help, Brother, please!” wailed Bill.
“You can help yourself!” barked Crease. “Bill, you and your family offend the body of this church! Now go and don’t come back!”
Bill Finney and his wife walked out of the church, both of them crying. The people in the pews, members of his faith, turned their heads and shoulders away from them. Their church, their faith-the same faith they would go to jail for and die for-abandoned them.
After the service, I saw in the lobby of the church a portrait of Crease, in his suit and glasses, smiling. The book store on the side sold-for a “donation”- What Say The Bible?, The Real Word of God, and other books by Crease-along with the newspaper The Source, and pictures and t-shirts with Crease’s face on it. I heard a woman’s voice say, “Brother Crease says the truth.”
The next day, Bill came to me at the plant and said, “Could I still join the union?”
I had the application ready for him.