“Do you want anything to eat?” my dad asked as I walked into the kitchen at 7:30 a.m., still half asleep. “No thanks,” I answered as I took off my Dodgers hat. I decided not to wear it since it might be a conversation starter. “No Man Left Behind” was the name of the mens Christian conference I had agreed to go to with my dad. He had shown me the flyer a few weeks before and asked me if I wanted to go with him. “I would really appreciate it if you could come,” he said in a way that sounded like it had been rehearsed a few times. I thought about it for a week and then said yes.
Ronald Reagan Library 8:00 a.m.
It was a cool summer morning and a thick layer of fog sat on the top of the hill. We stepped out of the car and the sound of the doors being shut echoed. A black sign with white magnet letters reading “VALIANT MEN” and an arrow pointing to the left stood at the front of the building. The sign was accompanied by a man in a white polo shirt with a name tag that said “Greg.” He greeted us both with an awkward half hug and pointed us in the same direction. We walked through a series of rooms until we finally got to the last sign that lead us down a staircase. As we got closer, I could hear the sound of a choir getting louder and louder. I quickly thought about giving my Dad the “Hey whats that!” routine, then bolting up the stairs and out the door.
“Do you want anything to eat?” my dad asked as he pointed to the long table against the wall. It had croissants, danishes, fruit, and pitchers of juice. “No thanks,” I answered. We walked to a table to the left that had a bunch of laminated name tags on it. There was one that said “No Man Left Behind”, and underneath it read “Brian Pratt”. My dad handed me the tag before he grabbed his own and I pinned it to my shirt. I then sat down at a table between my dad and Mickey Jones. Mickey Jones is a celebrity that lives in Simi and can sometimes be seen in local commercials promoting small business. He was Bob Dylan’s drummer in the 60’s but you would better recognize him from his work as one of Tim the Tool Man’s grunts on the popular show, Home Improvement.
“Do you want anything to eat?” my Dad asked as he started to get up from his seat. “No thanks,” I answered. He headed towards the table of refreshments while the choir started to disassemble. A man came up to the microphone about the time my dad came back to our table with a plastic plate full of food and a small glass of orange juice. I can’t remember his name but I referred to him as “Prop Guy”. He liked to bring out objects on stage that worked as metaphors for his lectures. He wasn’t really the speaker, more like the guy who hosts an open mic and gives a few jokes before the headliners come on. He had a flashlight in his hand. He pointed to the batteries and compared our faith to the light shone by the flashlight, and then compared the batteries to our practice in the faith. “Sometimes we get distracted by the sins of the world and our light grows dimmer and dimmer until. . . ” there was a pause as he took out the batteries, extinguishing the light, “. .our light goes out.” He held up the batteries and said, in the kind of commanding voice you would expect to hear from a general about to lead his troops into battle: “Today gentlemen, we need to recharge our batteries!” There were several Amens that followed this and one “That was good!” that came from a guy who I called the “That was good! Guy”.
He asked us all to join him in prayer. This must have reminded my dad that he needed to turn off his phone. He took off his glasses and stared at the gadget in his hand that rings about 8 times a year. He pressed a few buttons and a loud goodbye chiming sound went off for a long 5 seconds just as we had all bowed our heads and closed our eyes. As Prop Guy was praying, Mickey started to get up and walk toward the door. I thought this to be an odd time to leave the conference, especially when you are kind of a celebrity. Just then Prop Guy announced that Mickey would also be giving a small prayer.
“You may remember me from the popular television show, Home Improvement,” he modestly started. I would like to lead every man in here with a good Tool Time grunt before I start this prayer. Several followed him with this; I was not one of them. We then bowed our heads again and he explained how he hoped that the words spoken today would pierce the hearts of everyone in the room and that we would one day restore the U.S.A. to a Christian nation again. AMEN.
A bald-headed younger man in his mid-thirties with a goatee and button-up plaid shirt took the stage. This was the main speaker, an edgy, unorthodox Hollywood minister who specialized in converting the young non-believers of today’s society. I think this was why my dad asked me to come. He gave a kind of small intro as to who he is and what he does, then he started the sermon. His voice immediately changed to a much louder and commanding tone. He spoke in that distinct way that only ministers seem to. It has a format of: Shout a problem, rephrase and shout the problem again, then whisper the solution. It goes something like this, and I’ll use caps to indicate the shouting because he was in fact, screaming into the microphone: “PEOPLE THINK BECAUSE I’M A GOOD PERSON I WILL GO TO HEAVEN!!. .OR BECAUSE I’VE DONE GOOD THINGS I WILL GO TO HEAVEN!! . . . . but we know that Jesus is the only way. . . . Amen.”
The conference was called “No Man Left Behind” and it had a battleground theme. After his first lecture they showed a video on the projector with heroic images of soldiers in battle accompanied by music that might possibly have been the soundtrack to the movie Glory. Inspiring phrases like ” Don’t talk it, live it” popped up on the screen. Then the “This is my rifle. . ” speech from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket played while the image of a bible was locked on the screen. When it ended, the lights slowly turned on, revealing Prop Guy standing behind the podium holding a bible in his hand. “To protect your family. . and yourself . . THIS! (he held up the bible in his tightly clinched hand) is your number one weapon!” “AMEN.” “amen.” “Amen” . . . “That was good!”
Lecture 2 started. Losing interest, I stopped taking notes and went back to my old methods of passing time in church. I doodled and sketched on the handouts that were passed out. I filled in the open spaces in letters like O or D with a black ballpoint pen. I counted the number of shirts that had bible verses on the back (5). I counted the number of socks/sandals combinations (7). I counted the number of bald men (26! lose hair, find Jesus?). I gave an award for worst shirt in the place. I didn’t read the front but the back said “Got Integrity?”
“Do you want any dessert?” my Dad asked, pointing to the piece of cheesecake he had on his plate. ” No thanks,” I answered. We had just finished lunch and the third installment of this lecture was about to begin. But not before a group of middle aged black men with peppered hair took the stage. They were dressed in army green camouflaged shirts accompanied by cargo pants and black leather boots. They called themselves the Salvation Soldiers. They took traditional hymns and sang them in a soulful R&B kind of style. This 10 minute concert was by far the best part of the day. For the first time in 4 hours, I wasn’t taking notes, drawing pictures, or re-writing the names of all the U.S. presidents in an attempt to memorize them all. I just sat back in my seat and watched. Their humorous appearance and silly name was forgotten once they began to sing into their microphones. They swayed left and right to the rhythm like they were doing back up vocals for Diana Ross in the 60’s. Their heads were tilted back facing the sky and their arms were raised. At one point, the song had a break down in which the biggest, deepest voiced man started speaking to the lord with the harmonious humming of the rest of the group set as the background. It was kind of like a Boyz ll Men song but replace the word “baby” with “Jesus”. After he begged Jesus for forgiveness and asked Jesus to come back into his life, the remaining 4 burst out into chorus again. It all ended in a climactic, passion-fueled a cappella performance that was quickly followed by an uproar of applause and several amens. “That was good!” I said to my Dad.
Prop Guy took the microphone and then introduced a member of the congregation that wanted to share a few words with everyone. I referred to him as “Douche Bag Guy”. He was in his late 40’s and had one of those body types that looked like 75% percent of his weight was from the waist up. His story was one I believe to be very similar to most Christians: I was young and I used to go out and drink and party all the time, but now I don’t. I go to church instead. If you follow me, you too can experience the joy and fulfillment one gets from not partying, drinking, or having pre-marital sex. I tried to imagine the inner monologue going through the pastors head when Douche Bag Guy asked to speak at this conference. “Your voice should never be amplified in a room full of attentive ears” is what he might have thought, but instead what came out was “Thats a great idea”.
He told a story about a friend of his in the Christian community. The man was currently going through a rough divorce, and being that he had been through one himself, he was able to offer advice. The man’s wife was leaving him because he had an alleged addiction to porn. I attempted to hide my disbelief as best I could when he said this. I tried to imagine a scenario in which beating off was grounds for divorce. Was it barely legal porn? Was he hiding some creepy blow up doll? Was it girl on girl? Girl on machine? Guy on girl? Horse on girl? Did they have any kids together? Like maybe a 15 year old son? Would she disown him if she found a Playboy magazine in his closet? I started to daydream about this man calling up his long lost friends from high school, briefing them on the story, then being dragged to a strip club against his will. I made a silent prayer that he would have at least one friend that would do this for him. Amen.
Douche Bag Guy related this to his own struggles with addiction. “After my divorce, I found myself sitting there at night, staring at a bible and a bottle of whiskey. . . the bottle would always win” he regrettably admitted. For the first time in my life, I desperately wanted to shout out “Git’er Done!” Instead, I scratched on the tiny piece of paper I was taking notes on: “D bag – bible – whiskey”.
Finally the main speaker came back on. It was a relief to see him back up, kind of like in American Idol when you get sick of watching all the bad auditions and they finally bring in someone that can sing. After the closing prayer he invited anyone who wanted to re-dedicate their lives to Jesus to stay behind. Sort of like a pseudo baptism. Look for a volunteer with the words “Stephen Ministry” on the name tag and they will give you the guidance you need to get your life back on track. “Ready to go?” I asked my Dad. We left and I thanked him for taking me as we drove home, listening to oldies on the radio. Later that week, I rented Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous. After rehearsing it a few times, I put the DVD case in front of my dad and said “I would really appreciate it if you could watch this.”