Thursday, September 1, 2016

The World in Flames

The World in Flames by Jerald Walker
Beacon Press: 9/6/16
advance reading copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9780807027509

The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult by Jerald Walker is a highly recommended memoir.

Walker's family were adherents to Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, a religion which ruled its members by fear, intimidation, brainwashing, and threats.  This memoir basically covers Walker's life from 6 (in 1970) to 14, a particularly impressionable time for a child, especially when you are first taught that the world will be ending in 1972. (This was a date that Armstrong later rescinded and changed to 1975, after the 1972 date passed. He then changed the 1975 date to another new, nonspecific date.). He is taught that at this time his family is part of the chosen ones who will be taken to a place of safety during the great tribulation.

Worldwide Church of God was also a profoundly racist and sexist organization and encouraged segregation and male dominance. It is rather surprising that Walker's parents, both black, accepted the racism of the organization, but perhaps less startling during the 1970's the time on which this memoir reflects and because of their family circumstances. Both of Walker's parents were blind and the church promised their sight would be restored. Additionally, the family of nine who were living in a hard Chicago neighborhood was promised relief from their hardships and financial struggles. The toll the Worldwide Church of God extracted for these future hopes, however, was steep.

Walker writes about his childhood with his twin and family, and the strict guidelines they had to follow, such as no celebration of  birthdays, Christmas, or Halloween. There were other church designated activities in which they did participate. It was especially hard as a child to hear the prophecy of the destruction that was to come, and things like a plague of boils, when he had no real understanding of what everything was (like a boil) and had context in which to place this information. He did know that his friend Paul was doomed so he tried to get him to switch from his Baptist church to the Worldwide Church of God so he wouldn't perish.

At age 11, when the 1975 date passed, Walker began to thoughtfully question the Worldwide Church of God. When he is 14 he asks his brother "How do you un-believe a belief?" As his brother tries to help Walker with facts that will help him survive in the real world it marks his maturation and transition to realizing that Armstrong was a con men, a hustler taking advantage of people's faith, trust, and hope for a better future.

This is a well written coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a boy going through the experiences. His voice and recollections are clear and concise. This memoir should resonate with many people. It would have been nice to read about Walker's transition into adulthood after he realizes the Worldwide Church of God was a cult and that he actually does have a future he can look forward to rather than expecting the world to end.

Support page for Survivors of Worldwide Church of God

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher via Library Thing for review purposes.

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