Signs and wonders at Pine Valley Bible Church
The first thing I knew about Pine Valley Bible Church was that it was somewhere near Sussex, Wisconsin, a small town an hour from Milwaukee that once made front-page news when the painters wrote SEX on the new water tower and waited a weekend before finishing the rest of the word.
The next thing I learned about Pine Valley was that its name was a metaphor. The cover of the brochure my parents brought home said:
The Holy Spirit is all around us
Like a fine morning mist in the pines
Of course, Sussex was flat farmland forever and had no pine trees. Just a dozen drywall subdivisions and a place that served “butter burgers” (an after-church perk).
My parents started going to Pine Valley because they heard there was a revival on. I was 15, homeschooled along with my brother and sister, and split my free time between skateboarding and Star Wars books. I didn’t have many friends and neither did my family.
Ever since we’d moved to Wisconsin from Illinois a few years earlier, my parents had been trying to get involved in a healthy Christian community. Revival meant promise to them — both devout, committed and well-intentioned Evangelicals. They met at a bible study in the 1970s when the ‘Jesus Movement’ boomed in the wake of counterculture left by Vietnam, Watergate and disco. But for my parents, the movement wasn’t sociology. It was Providence. My mom came from an emotionally abusive home with Jewish parents and my dad, the son of an assimilated Jew and a Christian Scientist, also came from a family unhappy in its own way. The hospitality they found in each other, and the Jesus of their new religion, instilled a deep sense of meaning in their lives, with a profound hope for what the Christian community could be.
In Christian lingo, my parents were “Acts 2 Christians,” referring to the very early Christian church described in the second chapter of the Acts:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. […] And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
While my parents were too Republican to go full Socialist and too well-read to go full Heaven’s Gate, they always sought this ideal Christian community, where people were passionate, committed and welcoming. My whole life my parents jumped from church to church, never quite satisfied with the politics here, the doctrine there, the narcissism over there. With their countercultural religious provenance and Semitic blood, their idealism was a tall order in Wisconsin, which is as inviting as bingo night with the Third Reich.
Despite the challenges of church-hunting in the Dairy State, my parents were committed to finding one that worked. As homeschoolers, we were untethered from the social institutions that keep people bound to place, like sports, schools…and sports. Church promised an anchor, so my parents were focused on both spiritual necessity and social need, if not for themselves, then for their kids.
After getting burnt by the first few churches they visited after moving to Wisconsin, my parents spent the next few years bouncing around with us from suburban megachurches to little Christian startups in homes, hotel conference rooms and rural auditoriums. Sometimes the congregations were as small as one or two dozen. I hated the weekly drag, going to dingy meetings with buzzing fluorescent lights and strangers in pastel polos. I wanted to stay home and watch cartoons, but to my parents, Sundays were sacrosanct.
When they heard “the Spirit is moving” at Pine Valley, they went to check it out on their own. I expected another dead end, but they came home glowing.
“I think this could be it,” my mom said. “Some people were even dancing during worship!” As a so-called ‘Charismatic Christian,’ she got excited by any kind of spiritual passion. It didn’t take much where we lived, because the state was built by Pietists and Catholics who set the bar for religious euphoria somewhere a yawn and a knuckle-crack.
My dad said Pine Valley had a big youth group, too. That’s what got me excited; I could finally make some friends. The past churches we’d visited were lucky to have three or four people my age, though they were usually drugged, autistic, or part of the cheer squad. With my skateboard and tattered denim jacket I usually felt like a goldfish at a puppy mill.
It didn’t help that my only other social connection outside of churches was with the homeschool co-op that met weekly in a rented park building down the road. This was an eclectic bunch of Mennonites, paraplegics and ex-hippies who mostly saw me as worldly because I was allowed to watch TV. I didn’t find many friends there. But apparently Pine Valley had a regular crowd of around 500 “ordinary people,” so the chances were good that there’d a sizable youth group, and maybe even another skateboarder.
Pine Valley’s building was brand new, still lined with survey stakes, faded orange tape and bulldozer tracks. The freshly tarred parking lot was surrounded by acres of farmland. With its rough-style cinder block walls, false steeples and interior decorating from Walmart’s home goods section, the building could have moonlighted as a Best Buy. But compared to the other lemons we’d visited, Pine Valley was a Mercedes. It had classrooms, offices and a sanctuary with double-high ceilings and a six-figure AV system the sound guys never kicked out of first gear. Built mostly on donations from the members and some sizable debt, the church wasn’t shy about its megachurch ambitions.
After checking out a few regular Sunday morning services, my family got more involved, including Sunday School, which started an hour before everything else. There were options for kids, adults and teenagers. While my parents sat in the big conference room with the grown-ups, I headed to the windowless room next to the nursery for the teen group (different than the youth group, which met on Wednesday nights). The Sunday School teacher was Brent and he was a weightlifter, volleyball coach, father of three young daughters and owned a small graphic design shop. The index finger on his right hand was missing from a past drunk accident involving a shotgun. Despite his massive upper body he was always one-fifth short of a good handshake. His elderly father was a deacon at the church and his wife a backup singer for the worship band along with a permanent frog in her throat.
Like most meatheads, what Brent lacked in wit he made up for in pep. He usually started his class by asking everyone what they did to “show Christ’s love” to a stranger in the past week. Mowing an old lady’s lawn or returning a lost wallet earned moderate praise. But if you really wanted his cheer, you needed to “share the gospel” with someone or get them to come to church with you. And if you came to Brent’s class with nothing, he’d get angry.
“Jesus wants us you to do better than this, you guys,” Brent would say, pleading with us. “He gave everything for us; this is the least you can do for him, you guys.” That was his favorite way to end his sentences — you guys — usually in the yell-whisper motivational speakers use to mask their rage. One gray morning he wept as he lectured us about how driving above the speed limit was tantamount to murder.
“Unless it goes against the Word of God, Jesus wants to obey all laws, you guys,” he said. “Laws are the rules Jesus puts there to protect us!” With his scarred, broken hand he wiped the tears from his eyes. Anyone with jokes about riding shotgun stayed quiet.
While Brent had free reign on Sunday mornings, one of the youth pastors would run Wednesday nights, which had about two dozen teenagers on average. Pine Valley ran through a handful of youth pastors in my three-or-so years there, starting with Justin. Fresh out of a Confederate bible college, he was a lanky, virginal farm boy from the area, soft-spoken and totally square. His was a legacy appointment because he was the oldest of seven siblings and his dad was a senior elder at the church, and believed oldest children had more God-given responsibilities.
Justin ran Wednesdays like pared down versions of whatever came the Sunday before. The worship team was mostly marching band geeks on guitar and a drummer a couple of years too old. After they played Justin would practice his sermonizing, usually about the evils of Premarital Sex (always said with a fearful reverence). Sometimes he’d break the guys and girls into separate groups to talk about how masturbation was evil, too, because it was still sexual, and still before marriage. Afterwards we’d eat cookies or play games in the parking lot while the brave ones flirted with each other in dark corners before going home.
I was just starting to get used to Justin’s lineup when he left a few months later to evangelize a remote Pacific island. That’s when Will came in and shook things up. He was fresh out of out of Bible College too, and he was part of another family that had been involved in Pine Valley for decades, including a cousin connection with Brent. But unlike Justin, Will was married, better dressed, and was apparently into punk rock and skateboarding in the ’90s. He was sincere and compassionate and after only a few short weeks I came to see him as a friend. But he was serious when he needed to be, especially when it came to talking about Premarital Sex, which we must avoid at all costs. Also, no pornography. If you watch or read porn, you might as well be asking God to send you to Hell. Will was even transparent about his own sin, that sometimes he was “tempted” by pornography, which made his prayers that much more purple: “Jesus, we fall to our knees before you, fill us to overflowing with your Holy Spirit, may your good works always be on our tongues.”
Despite his naïveté, Will was one of the few people who didn’t dismiss my eccentricities outright. Sometimes he even skateboarded around the parking lot with me, my brother, and the friends we were starting to make. There were usually a few suburban kids who mostly skated Walmart boards but had cash and other cool toys. There was another kid who didn’t skate but liked to swear, so we were his best audience.
And then there were the Nowalski brothers, part of the largest family at Pine Valley. With two parents and 16 kids split evenly between boys and girls, the Nowalskis were easily large enough to overthrow a foreign republic.
What they lacked in intelligence they made up for in pure anarchic energy. No matter the time, the Nowalskis were always down for good, clean havoc. Blonde as vikings and rude as wolves, they picked up skateboarding after me and my brother gave them a few turns. Through sheer recklessness they surpassed our skills in a few short weeks. They had no interest in movies or music but came to punk shows with us, drawn to the violence and noise like moths to a mosquito zapper. We always played by the rules at Pine Valley, sometimes even prayed together, but once we left the parking lot, the fun started.
Usually I was the chief mischief strategist while Nowalski 1, the oldest, provided the wheels. Nowalski 2, a posterboy Aryan without a brain, was closest to me in age and became a de facto friend. Nowalski 3 was closer to my brother’s age and born a twin, a few minutes after his sister, who apparently got first dibs on nutrients in utero. Always a little off, he was our weapon, willing to do anything for a laugh. Usually hurting himself or breaking minor laws. He could make himself barf just by thinking about it and downed blue Slurpees to destroy pay phones, drive-thru windows and grocery store bathrooms like a terrorist from Vomitoria. Sometimes Nowalskis 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 came along, too. Their dad played bass in the worship band and owned a nearby body shop, where we’d sometimes hang out after church, eating Taco Bell, playing with a potentially loaded revolver “hidden” in the front office and spending way too much time in the paint room.
The Nowalski brothers were old family friends with Will, so Wednesday nights were usually an excuse to hang out and get free food, and then later laugh at Will’s pornographic prayers. But after a year-or-so, Will got his wife pregnant and announced they were moving back to her home in Minnesota. We were all bummed by the news, especially because none of us liked the guy that was stepping in to replace him. His name was Cole and he was just a few years out of high school, training to be an electrician. Like his bearded, obese and diabetic father who played piano for the worship band, Cole had the loud, self-loathing disposition of a mattress salesman. He wore gray sweatpants and a Got Jesus? t-shirt and the leaders at Pine Valley believed he was “anointed by God to lead the youth.”
Like Justin and Will, Cole spent a lot of time talking about Premarital Sex, but he was obsessed with demons, too. “They’re real, and they’re out to destroy us,” he’d say.
He told a story about how he once tried to set fire to his Magic: The Gathering collection during a religious purge, believing the cards were cursed. No matter how many matches he used, the cards wouldn’t burn. These weren’t just mass-produced and coated in plastics chemicals with an extremely high ignition temperature. They were possessed by demons.
Other times, Cole bragged about the dark places these demons brought him in high school — the parties, the alcohol, the drugs and, of course, the sex. He had a lot, he said, but it was unclear if this sex actually involved other people.
“Jesus made me a changed man,” he said. “No sex before marriage for me. Not even masturbation, which lets the demons in.”
He also talked a lot about masturbation — at least until he quit youth group after another year so he could go public that he was dating one of the students. I heard later that he married her when she turned 18 and then impregnated her multiple times.
While Cole’s carnal proclivities were a sore spot for the church administration, his fascination with the demon world fit right in. While Wednesday nights were pretty low-key, everything else at Pine Valley was peak Willy Wonka. Because my parents were well involved with the administration at this point — my mom oversaw communications and my dad was an elder — we were obliged to come to the twice-monthly Saturday worship services, weekly Sunday morning services and everything else.
The church leaders scheduled all the programming, with a caveat that the congregation be open to “how the Holy Spirit moves us.” The whims of the Holy Spirit weren’t arbitrary, either. They were deliberate and based on “God’s Grand Plan,” which meant that sometimes the worship band was compelled to play killer guitar solos. Other times God’s Grand Plan told a deacon to give angry lectures about how people weren’t leaving enough cash in the collection plates. And usually the Holy Spirit made the services go an hour or two longer than they were scheduled, unless there was a Packers game on.
And increasingly, the Spirit was leading the congregation headfirst into the bizarre. When services got really hot, people on stage started speaking in tongues, spouting prayers in horrifying, unknown languages. Other people shouted and trembled with faces wet from tears. Others held themselves tight and rocked back and forth mumbling “Jesus” over and over. At the end of each service, someone on the stage would invite curious people to speak with the ministry team and learn more about “what the Spirit wants for you.” My dad was a regular part of this team, which did everything from spiritual guidance and prayer to healings and exorcisms.
The exorcisms were straight of the movies you used to find on the discount shelf at Blockbuster. On any given week, you’d see everyone from ordinary stay-at-home moms in Packers sweaters to overweight accountants in pleated khakis writhing on the floor, talking in deep, guttural voices hurling profanity and sexual moans. It would take four or five full-grown men to hold them down as they sighed and contorted and tried to push out the dark thing they believed to be inside them. They retched until they were red in the face, bursting capillaries and drooling like camels. My parents said it was Satan. All I knew was that it made me sick.
“Satan makes people feel sick,” my parents said. “He’s like a negative force that drains the spiritual oxygen from the room.”
It didn’t really make sense to me, but they said this shouldn’t worry me. Us mere humans aren’t meant to understand the spirit world. “If you believe in Jesus, he will protect you,” they assured me. So all I really knew about Satan was that it was male and dangerous. That’s why my dad took exorcisms so seriously, filling an entire bookshelf at home with arcane literature. My mom, on the other hand, believed Satan could manifest in multiple ways; through people, objects, symbols and even words.
Together, their occult fears delineated a major section of the parental approval spectrum. Because of Satan, we never celebrated Halloween. We couldn’t read Goosebumps books or watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? We couldn’t own anything with 8-balls (fortune telling), five-pointed stars (Satanic symbol), skulls (death) or any non-Christian religious symbols. No Harry Potter, no Buffy, no Dungeons and Dragons, no Black Sabbath, no ACDC and obviously no Slayer. I got into the Christian versions of these things instead, becoming a youth statistic in a Holy market worth a few billion dollars to someone. Seeing how serious my parents were about Evil, I decided it wasn’t worth trying to convince them otherwise. You can’t argue with Satan in the room.
The more our time went on at Pine Valley, it was clear that you couldn’t argue with God in the room, either. God was always invoked when someone had to make a point. Sometimes the person on stage would say, “We feel his presence at some times more than others,” blaming the congregation when the room seemed dead. But there was one man who always brought God into the room, regardless of time or if the Packers’ were on. His name was Paul. He had a Santa Claus body but with a better haircut and shorter beard. His official title was Senior Elder, though he had no direct reports and reported to no one. With his beige Dockers and faded golf polos he was a suburban shaman straight off the sale rack at JC Penny.
Paul tended to take the stage when “the Spirit led him.” With his eyes half-closed he’d launch into meandering prayer-sermons, full of indictments and blessings and warnings of struggles to come. He saw angels in the room and interpreted their messages for us. Usually the angels wanted to remind us that we were sinners.
“The angels are in this room, but they aren’t smiling today, because they know the sin in this place,” he said. “Especially the sins nobody sees but you and God.” Then he’d look towards us in the youth group section, towards the back corner. We’d all look down at the ground full of guilt, because it felt like he could see through us and know we’ve been masturbating again.
Sometimes Paul brought random people on stage to pray for them. Some people claimed to be healed, saying their shortened limbs grew back, tumors shrank and headaches stopped (though there was never any followup to see how long the spells lasted). Other times, overwhelmed by the power of the Spirit moving through him, people would lose all control and fall to the ground when Paul touched them. “You’ve been slain in the Spirit,” Paul would say, making a whooshing sound though his impeccable white mustache.
Unlike most Holy Men, Paul had a wife, though she lived somewhere in deep space. If you happened to end up in a conversation with her, she’d look through the roof of your skull. She led a small troupe of old single and widowed women who followed Paul like country club cheerleaders with an AARP discount. Whenever he got supercharged by the Holy Spirit, they made zoo sounds. Literally. One meowed loudly, like a feral cat. Another clucked like a chicken. Another pretended to be a cow, sometimes even getting down on all fours. Whenever Paul noticed people disturbed by his bestial coterie, he’d chuckle and say, “God speaks His praise through us in all languages.”
As Paul’s voodoo sent the church’s rhetoric in a dark metaphysical direction, the administration started to go sour, too. My mom worked in the offices to facilitate more creative programming and actual community outreach and engagement. But the other staff had more pressing concerns, like deciding between silver and gold paint for the new Bible verse in the lobby. Leading this cause was the administrative director, Kate, a Stepford-style mom-bot with cat sweaters. To support her case she hired a new office manager, who happened to be her sister-in-law, whose son happened to be dating the pastor’s daughter. Soon they started holding staff meetings at family gatherings, which conveniently excluded my parents.
As part of her Suburban Supermom artificial intelligence system, Kate also volunteered as the interim youth pastor once Cole dropped out to pursue his statutory fantasies. Like most mom-bots, Kate was clueless about teenagers. Hers were tall and athletic and perfectly blonde and still called her mommy. Everyone else was less-than. Especially me and my brother, who she found “interesting” in the same way that it’s “interesting” when a dog shits in your front yard. She ran the youth group like a babysitter’s club. Whatever micrograms of fun were left after Cole, she snuffed out with a monogrammed pillow.
The administrative acrimony fed back into the regular church services, too. Pleas from the stage for money and repentance grew more desperate. The programming became increasingly unpredictable and confrontational. My parents’ excitement from a few years earlier was slowly replaced at home with hushed disagreements and long phone calls. Meanwhile, my high school “career” was coming to an end and I started to wonder about what was next. Church seemed like a chore and I spent most of my time at Pine Valley sitting in the back row, listening to the zoo ladies, watching assistant managers throw Jesus fits, and doodling Golgotha on scrap paper. I wanted to stop feeling “interesting” and to just find people like me.
Despite my growing depression I still wanted to be a good Christian, and to use my faith to make a difference in the world. Two airplanes had just crashed into the Twin Towers and God’s other son sent America into a war with no end. I wasn’t sure what being a Christian actually meant in this new world, or where I was supposed to fit. Especially at Pine Valley, where it seemed like everyone but me understood God. I even sought counsel from Paul, who after minutes of murmuring silence said, “Follow God and you will accomplish great things.” I would have better chances with a magic 8-ball, if I was allowed to have one.
I turned 18 a few months later. I had a summer job lined up painting houses with a small crew managed by the drummer from the church worship band, who was also dating Kate’s daughter. But otherwise my family was growing distant from Pine Valley. The few friends I’d gotten to know along the way either stuck with the Pine Valley clan or went off to better things. Except for the Nowalskis, who got sucked into the misdemeanor circuit or started having multiple babies of their own.
It was a long summer. I worked and I slept. I went to Pine Valley less but read my Bible and prayed more, partly out of habit, and partly out of fear for the future. By the end of the summer I was accepted to a new “discipleship program” for a Christian youth-centered nonprofit organization near Chicago. I didn’t know anyone in the program, but at least it would get me out of Wisconsin.
At the end of the summer, my parents put together a going-away party for me. I couldn’t think of anyone to invite, so they set out Doritos and cookies and a few acquaintances from Pine Valley showed up. One of them, a human golden retriever and father of seven, greeted me with his usual tinnitus-inducing enthusiasm: “Great to see you, buddy! What’s God been doing in your life lately?!”
This was his Christian way of asking “what’s up bro,” except it was always a serious question. Usually when he cornered me I deflected with a joke, but this time I took the bait and answered honestly. “I don’t know what God’s been doing in my life. And I don’t know how to know it, either,” I said.
He put his hand on my shoulder and pursed his lips. “I get that, buddy. We’ve all been there!” For a second I thought I saw him panting with his tongue out.
“How does anyone know what God wants?” I said. “What if this whole time God is something we use whenever we can’t explain ourselves?”
“That’s a tough one,” he said, looking deep into his left brain, and then the right brain, and then the ground. “I think we’re all just guessing here.”
(Except for the town of Sussex, all names and places in this essay have been anonymized.)