Jerald Walker grew up believing the world would end when he was twelve. His parents—both blind—had joined the Worldwide Church of God at its height in the 1960s. The Church would later prove to be a fraud, its leader collecting hefty dues from its parishioners and using them to fund a lavish celebrity lifestyle. But before Jerald Walker understood this, he came of age believing that The Great Tribulation would transform him, his family, and all believers into gods, and that his parents’ sight would be restored, and so for years, the stringent rules and deprivations within the Worldwide Church of God seemed worth it. When the Great Tribulation did not come, and the family’s faith began to unravel, Walker was left with a life that had no order. The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult is the story of Walker’s childhood journey through believing, ending in the realization that he will now have to erect an understanding of life from the ground up.The World in Flames is as hilarious as it is harrowing. Walker’s accounts align so faithfully with his childhood point of view that the reader can see how he managed to believe that a dog bite was a direct punishment from God for wanting to celebrate Christmas, or that “integration”—something the Church forbade—was as bad a sin as “fornication.” And oh, yes, the Church preached slavery as ordained by God, and supported racial separation. How does the black Walker family make sense of that? The dissonance between what young Jerald understands, and what we know he understands later in life, creates instant comic friction.--------
Rumpus: Your childhood religion was the Worldwide Church of God. Can you tell readers unfamiliar with the Worldwide Church of God what it was all about? Is it still around?
Walker: The Worldwide Church of God was founded by a man named Herbert W. Armstrong in 1933. At the height of its success in the 1970s, it had a membership of over a hundred thousand and annual revenues of eighty million dollars, more than Billy Graham and Oral Roberts combined. Composed of a hodgepodge of religious beliefs, including Levitical dietary restrictions, the observance of “Holy Days,” literal Sabbath-keeping, and the rejection of medical treatment, the underpinning tenet was British-Israelism: the view that Western and Northern Europeans, as direct lineal descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, was God’s chosen race. The membership was ruled by fear, intimidation, and threats, such as the assertion that anyone who dared leave the church would endure hardship for the remainder of this life, and eternal suffering in the next. And the next life, according to Armstrong, would arrive in 1975, three years after the start of The Great Tribulation.
When Armstrong died in 1986, leadership of the church fell to Joseph Tkach Jr., who began to move the church away from Armstrong’s teachings to mainstream Christianity. The name of the church was changed to Grace Communion International, and ultimately Armstrong was declared a “heretic” and “false prophet.” Needless to say, many members rejected these changes, and a dozen or so splinter groups formed, some of which adhere to Armstrong’s original teachings.
Rumpus: One thing that differentiates your experience from the experience of a childhood in some other extreme religious communities is that the reader gets hints throughout the book that this religion is not just restrictive and fear-inspiring, but might also be an enormous monetary scam. You and others who grew up within the church and later left it had to come to grips with reevaluating pretty much everything that had previously ordered your life, including the possibility that you and your entire family had been taken advantage of. What role did writing play, if any, in your process of understanding the world after your youth? When did you realize you would be a writer, and when did you realize you would write about your childhood in the form of memoir?
Walker: Writing helps me to understand most everything; in a very real sense it’s how I process my world. My view prior to writing the memoir was that my parents’ decision to join a church run by a con man was inexcusable, and I harbored a bitterness toward them about it that lasted for decades. And so when I began writing the book, I knew there was a real possibility that this bitterness would taint, if not largely shape, the narrative. But I also knew that something else could happen, because for me the process of writing is the process of thinking and learning, of acquiring knowledge more than dispensing it. I wasn’t entirely surprised, then, that by the time I’d completed the book, my bitterness toward my parents had given way to sympathy, understanding, and a deepened respect.
Though I’d been writing stories since I was a child, I didn’t realize I’d be a writer until I took a creative writing course in college. Fiction was my genre of choice, but my stories were always thinly-veiled works of autobiography. My MFA degree is in fiction writing, and for more than a decade after completing the program I continued to write fiction. It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I tried my hand at writing nonfiction, and I fell in love with the form, particularly the essay because it requires the writer to think on the page, which, as I noted, is my wont. I had no intention to write about the cult because I didn’t want to think deeply about it, to reopen those wounds. But the honest truth is that I’m a writer, and my experience in the cult is rich material. Sometimes you have to put the work first, even at a high emotional cost.
Read the entire interview here: The Rumpus Interview with Jerald Walker