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Sunday afternoon in the Catskills in August 1969. An irregular column of young people straggled along a road half-blocked by abandoned cars in the tired, haze-filtered sunlight.
I was one of them, a slender 21-year-old clad in a pale blue chambray shirt and jeans. My eyes, as pale as my shirt, took in the sight through plastic tortoise-shell glasses. My shaggy light brown hair was shorter than that of many ambling alongside. A canvas backpack from an Army-Navy surplus store held a new Nikon camera, which served as my ticket to the event, my reassurance that I was merely there to observe; I was in the midst of what was happening yet not a part of it. In addition to the camera, the pack held a second lens, a few rolls of film, and two steak sandwiches on rye bread.
My press pass for the festival was good for the entire three-day weekend. Why then was I among the last arrivals, shortly after noon on the last day?
The day before, I had been in my home state, New Jersey, attending Sabbath worship services of a strict, Bible-believing group living in expectation of the end of the world. A group into which I had been baptized less than four months earlier.
What was a member of a fundamentalist sect doing at Woodstock? Or, to turn the question on its head, what was a baby boomer rock fan doing in a conservative apocalyptic church?
To approach an answer to this two-sided question, let’s go back six years, to another event that helped define the young lives of those born in the U.S.A. in the aftermath of World War II.
Chapter 6 (excerpt)
On the following Saturday, a married couple with two boys arrived at the dorm to pick me up and were disconcerted to find Sian there as well, intent on accompanying me. They were momentarily flustered, having been told only to bring me, but when she assured them that she had met the ministers as well, they figured it would be all right. The two of us arranged ourselves in the back seat with one of the two small boys, and we set off for the drive to services in Manchester, New Hampshire, an hour away. The church may have been “worldwide” (it had only recently changed its name from Radio Church of God), but their congregations were few, and widely scattered.
We arrived and found that services were held in the Odd Fellows Hall, a name that seemed appropriate as we entered the auditorium. The people we met were friendly, but shabbily-dressed, and seemed, for the most part, ill-educated. It was nearly time to begin services, so we found seats near the back. A mother sat in front of us with her small children; their frequent squirms were answered with sharp swats. Even though I had accepted what I had read in the book on child rearing, I found this disturbing, but it was more upsetting to Sian for the memories it evoked.
There was a buzz of excitement in the hall. A leading minister, called an “evangelist,” was visiting that day. Raymond C. Cole was there to give the sermon; he pastored congregations in New York and Newark, close to my home, and oversaw the churches throughout the northeast as district superintendent. He occasionally contributed articles to The Plain Truth, and I was impressed that, on the occasion of my first service, I would see such a personality. It took a while, however, to hear from him. First, there were hymns, more like the Baptist hymns I had heard on visits down south than the Lutheran hymns more familiar to me. Many of the melodies were written by an Armstrong; it turned out that Dwight was Herbert’s younger brother. There was no organ. Again, like Sunday morning down south, the accompaniment came from an upright piano in the corner.
After three hymns and a prayer, Platt came to the lectern for what was announced as a sermonette, something I had never heard of before, although it was clear that the word must mean a small sermon. “Small” was a relative term, though; it was certainly shorter than the message that followed but was longer than sermons I was used to. Apparently, he had spotted my uninvited fiancée, and he peppered his message with what seemed to be gratuitous impromptu anti-Catholic remarks. The discomfort level rose. There was another hymn, but still no sermon. Instead, Cole was introduced for what were called announcements. Cole spoke of various events in the news, to which he assigned prophetic significance, and developments in “the Work,” which turned out to be the term used for what the Worldwide Church of God was doing. Although he rambled, the tone of these remarks, as well as the lengthy sermon he eventually gave, was on a more refined level than the first message. More than two hours, and many squirms and swats later, a closing hymn and prayer ended the service. Sian and I were eager to leave, began gathering our things, but the sidekick from Platt’s first visit tapped me on the shoulder and told me that Mr. Platt wanted to see us in the counseling room. We joined a line and waited for our turn. He may have planned to interrogate me about why I had brought Sian, even though only I had been invited. In those days, the church expected persecution, due to be part of the “Great Tribulation,” which at the time they were sure would begin in five years, in 1972. Services were closed to outsiders, the time and location not published; those who were curious were told about the gravity of hearing things they were not spiritually mature enough to understand. If they heard them anyway but failed to act on them, they could be held accountable in the judgment. For this reason, church members and ministers spoke of “dangerous knowledge.” This is what I assumed Platt planned to say, but he never got the chance. Not only had Sian been disturbed by what she heard and saw, but I was agitated as well. We were both ready to burst, and our question was urgent: “Where is the love?” Platt mumbled something about how we express love by keeping the commandments, but the conversation had the feel of a stand-off.
Perhaps the question was provoked in part by the fact that this was summer 1967, the media-acclaimed summer of love, the height of Hippiedom, a movement in equal parts non-stop party and spiritual yearning. But even without this, it was clear that a vital aspect of what we read in the Bible was missing. The protagonist of the Bible, God, is spoken of with many attributes, but only once does it say what he is: love. While it was impressive that the congregation, in addition to being multi-racial, was multi-generational, more so than most worship services we had attended, the display in the row in front of us, as well as the steady stream of parents with a child in tow for a short visit to the “family room,” the room that after services became the counseling room, had seemed hard to reconcile with that definition of God, as was much of what we heard from the lectern.
The interview ended, with both Platt and I convinced that maybe I wasn’t quite ready to attend services.