Once Upon a Time, I Attended Bethel Church

It’s true. I attended Bethel Church for nine years: 1969 until 1978; age 12 until age 21, when I left Redding with my then-husband so he could attend college. I was pregnant with our first child, a daughter, who was later dedicated at Bethel Church – known then as Bethel Assembly of God Church on Bechelli Lane in Redding. Our second child, a son, was dedicated there, too.

I was 12 when I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and became a born-again Christian at Bethel Assembly of God Church. I had a total-immersion baptism by Pastor Earl Johnson in Bethel’s huge spa-like baptismal tank behind the alter. I sang in Bethel’s choir and I attended Bethel’s Sunday school, where I remember once debating an elder over the concept of healings.

If Jesus is so good at healing, why was this Sunday school teacher still wearing glasses? 

I was so into Bethel and so into being born-again that by the time I was a Nova 9th-grader, I was a full-fledged “Jesus freak” — as they were known then. I wore Jesus loves you buttons and carried fire-and-brimstone religious tracts that I left in school restrooms.

A 19, I walked down the aisle of Bethel Church and married my high school sweetheart.

Doni’s wedding, 1975, at Bethel Assembly of God Church in Redding, officiated by Pastor Earl Johnson.

But it was 1968 when I had my first official Bethel contact. I was 11, the year of the epic Redding snow storm that collapsed roofs of places like the skating rink and Wonder World department store. I walked home from Magnolia School one day to our Chestnut Street rental where I found my mother sitting at our round oak table with a stranger, a man. We never had company. This was unusual. He had a Bible opened on the table between them, and a cup of coffee in front of him. My mother was engaged in a heated debate with him about God. My mother introduced us: This was Pastor Earl Johnson. He’d given my mother a ride home from the post office when he saw her walking in the snow.

The last photo of the Chamberlain sisters with their mother, 1968.

Years later, as I reflected about Earl Johnson – Bill Johnson’s father –  I often thought about Earl Johnson’s character; the kind of man who was brand new to town, the pastor of a fundamentalist Assembly of God church, someone who saw a beautiful woman – a divorcee’, no less – trudging alone through the snow. He offered my mother a ride home, despite how questionable it might have looked to outsiders.

He was the kind of gentleman who once told me that his policy was to accept whatever refreshment was offered in someone’s home, even if he wasn’t hungry, and even if the refreshment didn’t look particularly appetizing. To me, he was a real-McCoy Christian; a man of God. I believed it then and I believe it now.

By 1969, I was 12 years old and my mother had taken her own life that spring.  That was also the year of my first official Bethel Church encounter, where I experienced the kind of old-time Pentecostal religion that brought a group of church elders into my new foster parents’ home to enjoy coffee and snacks and cast out demons that surely occupied my twin and me.

Backstory: At age 9 we’d been misdiagnosed with epilepsy. Decades later – in our 30s – we were correctly diagnosed with familial paroxysmal kinesigenic dyskinesia – an inherited condition in the dystonia family (think writer’s cramp, but along the entire length of your body).

Apparently, there’s a scripture about some poor soul who suffered “fits” (epilepsy?), so demons were cast out, and the person was healed.

So there my twin and I were in our foster parents’ grand living room inside that magnificent rock house that so convinced my mother these people would be ideal parents – and rich, to boot – that on the afternoon of her death she said that if anything should happen to her, I should contact these virtual strangers and they’d take care of everything: me, my three sisters, our dachshund, and all of our mother’s belongings. That’s exactly what happened. There was nothing legal about it.

Chamberlain sisters, in happier times. From left: Doni, Shelly, Bethany and Jaimie.

Anyway, back to the exorcism. Inside our new foster family’s opulent home my twin and I were surrounded by “elders” – all men, speaking in what seemed foreign languages, something I’d later recognize as tongues. Some men’s hands firmly held onto our heads, while other men clamped their hands on our shoulders as they shouted and prayed and gently shook us. They demanded that Satan leave our bodies, in the name of Jesus.

After the casting out of demons, the elders told my sister and me that Jesus healed us, but there was a catch: In order for the healing to work, we had to believe.

Oh, and by the way, they also had a “word” for us about the eternal damnation of our mother’s soul, because sorry to break it to you, girls, but people who commit suicide go to hell, which means you won’t be seeing your mother in heaven.

The night of the casting out of demons, as proof of our complete healing, my foster parents took all the anticonvulsants my sister and I had been taking since age 9 – Mysolene, Phenobarbital and Dilantin – and threw them away. I suppose the greatest miracle of all that night is we didn’t die from drug withdrawals.

Apparently, we didn’t believe strongly enough, because without our medications, our “seizures” quickly resumed with a vengeance, which was distressing, especially through those self-conscious teen years, because those episodes were damn ugly, and difficult to conceal. Our particular genetic condition was triggered by a startle effect (“… on your marks, get set, GO!”), and in all its glory our muscles – from face to feet –  would twist like a wrung-out washcloth. Shelly and I are mirror twins, so my spasms were on the right side of my body, while Shelly’s were on her left. These spasms continued from 12 until 19 when I escaped the foster home and married, which is when, as my first act of independence, I went to the doctor and got a prescription for Dilantin. Taken in subtheraputic doses – a mere 100 milligrams – that did the trick and controlled the dystonia spasms. Thank God!

My sisters and I hadn’t been in our new home very long before our foster mother discovered that we could carry a tune (attribution to our cultured mother). Faster than you could say von Trapp fashion statement we were all decked out in matching green-clover patterned dresses, for not just us four Chamberlain girls, but all the kids in this house, including their one biological child, their four adopted children – one was just a toddler – as well as a bunch of new foster kids, including a pair of inseparable little brothers, a little girl who’d been sexually abused by her father, one boy with reactive-attachment disorder, one severely developmentally disabled girl (who truly did have epilepsy), and a hearing-impaired girl whose hearing aids squealed when we sang.

We were a motley group of children hauled around via Dodge van on the circuit of nursing homes and churches to far-flung places like Burney. We sang songs like “Sweet Jesus” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. Our foster mother selected the songs and venues. Our foster father drove the van.

Foster parents.

We kids not only attended Bethel Church, but we sometimes performed and spoke there, too. My twin and I were invited to the front of the church to read from 3-by-5 note cards – written by our foster mother – that shared our personal “testimonies” that spilled humiliating details of our tormented years with our troubled mother. Each testimony concluded with the same theme: … once we were lost but now we are found … and thank you, Jesus, that we’re blessed to be one of those 15 lucky kids to live with this generous, loving foster family.

Privately, I referred to us “lucky kids” as foster turds.

Looking back, I cannot for the life of me figure out why nobody at Bethel smelled a rat or recognized that these foster-parent Bethel members were impostors or that something wasn’t right inside that House-Beautiful-decorated home with food aplenty but not a toy out of place; so Mr. Clean-clean and library-quiet you’d never guess a mouse lived there, let alone 15 children. (Hint, look in the basement.)

Granted, as the song says, nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors, and I suppose the good Bethel folks – and there were many – couldn’t know what they couldn’t see. They couldn’t see all manner of abuse, some so traumatic that by comparison it made life with our mother look like June Cleaver in Disneyland. No, the Bethel congregants couldn’t see, for example, that the two times my foster father broke my glasses – once when I was 12, once at 17 – he did so with a closed-fisted backhand while the glasses were still on my face.

Doni Chamberlain, age 17.

I could go on and on with enough emotional and physical abuse examples to fill many column inches, but why? Suffice to say our Bethel-Church-attending foster parents didn’t subscribe to the How-Would-Jesus-Parent philosophy. In a word – or three – they were hypocrites.

So I attended Bethel Church during those formative foster-home years, and while there I grew from a girl to a woman. I knew and admired the entire Johnson family, not just Pastor Earl Johnson, but his lovely wife, their two beautiful daughters and their two handsome sons. I admired the way, when Earl’s wife – so beautiful, so elegant and fashionable – drew criticism from the Assemblies of God diehards for departing from the stereotypical drab-and-dowdy church-lady look, that Pastor Johnson defended his wife and her right to wear makeup if she wanted, and her right to wear beautiful knit suits that didn’t hide her figure.

Sometimes, I swear I could feel the spark between those two: Earl at the pulpit, a man so earnest he’d sometimes weep as he spoke; his wife at the piano, those huge eyes glancing toward her husband over the sheet music. Theirs was an incredible, enviable love story.

Happy times at Bethel

My time at Bethel Church from 1969 until 1978 held some positive highlights. The good parts included being in Bethel’s Christmas Cantata, which was fun, and took weeks’ of practice. And as a young-married couple, my husband and I met other couples with whom we formed life-long friendships, some of which exist for me to this day.

At our wedding reception, the Bethel group Wild Olive performed, whose members were my brother-in-law Jeff Shively, Bob and Cindy Kilpatrick and Bill and Brenda Johnson.

Wild Olive, from left: Jeff Shively, Brenda Johnson, Cindy Kilpatrick, Bob Kilpatrick and Bill Johnson.

I remember when Bill Johnson, Pastor Johnson’s eldest son – older than me by a few years – was viewed as a rebel who endured finger-wagging from some of the elders, who said Bill looked like a hippie. There was one time in the small sanctuary, which was where we young folks worshipped, and Bill played “Spirit in the Sky” at full volume, which garnered scorn from elders who said it wasn’t proper church music. As Pastor Johnson had done when he defended his wife, Pastor Johnson also stood by his son and defended him, too.

My husband and I were friends with Bill and Brenda (as she was then called) Johnson. We’d have each other over for dinner, simple stuff, like soup or chili for dinner and ice cream or popcorn for dessert. We were all young and poor, and a big deal in those days was going out and sharing one large pizza between four couples. Everybody’s furniture consisted of cinder-block-and-board bookshelves, and barbecued chicken was grilled on tiny back-step Hibachis.

To me, Bill Johnson the son was a more groovy version of Earl Johnson the father. Both were soft-spoken. Both seemed earnest, kind and authentic.

Bethel’s dark side

When I think of my Bethel relationships and friendships formed in my youth, that’s when my reporter self slips quietly into the back seat to fall asleep, and my former Bethel member self takes the wheel and wants to steer this story away from some uncomfortable truths and toward a place of silence, perhaps out of a sense of blind loyalty.

I remember those early years at Bethel Church and seeing the young Williams brothers running around in the foyer with other kids after Sunday school, sons of Ben and Sally Williams; cute little boys with sweet faces, bowl haircuts and round eyes. Those boys would later grow up to murder my friends Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder for being gay, as well as torch some synagogues. For good measure they wrote and mailed me death threats from jail, back when I worked at the paper, because my last name was then Greenberg. I still remember one notation on an envelope: “6 millions Jews. A good start.”

I remember healing services at Bethel where people lined up for prayer,  which included the “growing out of limbs” healing specialty. What always perplexed me was the person who needed the leg-lengthening might have coke-bottle glasses, hearing aids and a cane, but instead of addressing those obvious maladies, the deacons would have the guy sit down, stretch his legs out, and point out that sure enough, one leg was a few inches shorter than the other. They’d pray for him, and wonder of wonders, his leg would miraculously “grow” out. It felt gimmicky then, which is the way I see it now.

The truth is, as far back as even my early born-again experience, I believed in God, but I was a skeptic at heart. Even as a young person, I questioned Bethel’s extreme focus on some sins (adultery, fornication, idolatry) while ignoring others (no eating shellfish, no tattoos, no wearing mixed fabrics, etc.). It defied logic.

While I attended Bethel, I witnessed some bizarre, punitive practices, such as the time a well-respected married man – a deacon, for Pete’s sake – was guilty of having an affair. Apparently, it’s biblical that when someone commits a sin of that magnitude, the offender has to come before the church, confess and ask for forgiveness.

If I live to be 200 I will never forget the look of humiliation upon the face of that man and his family, standing in front of hundreds of us, sitting in pews (surely, all without sin ourselves) for this special service to witness this man’s public shaming.

Gay as can be

Most recently, with the mess that Bethel leader Kris Vallotton has stepped in with regard to pro-gay bills and gay clobber scriptures, I recall my early years at Bethel and one unforgettable guy. He was a handsome, smart, kind and funny young man from a prominent Bethel family. His “true nature” – his attraction to men – was an open secret. Despite that, he did what was expected of all young, virtuous Christian men. He found a good Christian girl from an equally prominent Bethel family. They married. Two lives, two lies.

Over the years stories emerged about this guy’s love of skinny dipping with other men and teenage boys, and at least one instance where he’d had a couple of glasses of wine, made a pass at a straight guy, and had the crap beaten out of him.

Fast forward to Bethel Church 2018 and it has a solution for that guy (for a fee): conversion therapy.

When I think of that sweet, wonderful man undergoing any therapy to change him from the amazing guy he was, into anyone else, it breaks my heart. For all I know, he’s participated in that “therapy” –  and if he has, who am I to say whether he should or shouldn’t? It’s his choice; sort of. OK, not really. The fact is, he was raised in a church where, despite all the talk of Jesus loves me this I know, when it comes to deviating from the fundamentalist heterosexual script, you’re a sinner who’s unacceptable in the eyes of God unless you’re straight.

The new Bethel

Having the bit of the historical insight that I do about the Bethel mindset, my hunch is that our coverage of Bethel here on aNewsCafe.com during these last five weeks, led by journalist R.V. Scheide’s columns, will only solidify its leaders’ resolve that they’re doing God’s noble work and are on the right path. They’re not embarrassed or conflicted. Quite the contrary. They’re righteously indignant martyrs who believe that they are God’s saints and prophets being attacked by Satan, the enemy.  By the way, Christians who criticize Bethel Church fall into that enemy camp, too, you know.

Make no mistake: The stories we’ve published in which we’ve examined Bethel’s stance on the LGBTQ community will not cause Bethel leaders a moment’s discomfort. As the good book says, they are in this world, but not of this world. Frankly, they probably see me as a back-slidden non-believer.

They’d be half-right.

I knew the old Bethel, back when it was still part of the Assemblies of God denomination. The new Bethel I barely recognize, a place famous for such bizarre things as gold-dust glory clouds, feather droppings, tunnels of fire, Destiny Yoga Pants, grave-soaking, the supposed raising from the dead, plain fillings turning to gold, jewels scattered throughout the sanctuary, being drunk in the spirit, and people paying Bethel $1,200 to learn to dance with the Spirit, and thousands and thousands more to attend the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, and on and on. Many of these things fall under the signs-and-wonders category, or, as Bill Johnson likes to say, signs that make you wonder.

I realize that even my calling these signs and wonders into question would qualify as blasphemy in some Bethel circles. In my defense, I say if it’s truly from God, then these spectacular signs and wonders can withstand some human scrutiny.

Lately, as part of our coverage of Bethel Church in these last weeks, I’ve watched lots of Bethel video sermons, many of which feature Vallotton, and not just his controversial Palm Sunday video, either. I’ve noticed that if Bill Johnson is sitting in the front row while Vallotton is preaching, Vallotton continually glances in Johnson’s direction. I know that look. It’s one of an anxious little kid who’s learning to swim, hoping to catch his dad’s eye for a sign of approval.

It’s kind of sad, really.

Speaking of dads; lately, as I ponder the 2018 mega-church that is Bethel, my mind returns to Pastor Earl Johnson; that wise, kind, humble man of God who sat at my mother’s kitchen table in 1968 with an open Bible and a cup of coffee, sharing the gospel of Jesus.

What would he make of what’s happening at his old church? How would these signs make him wonder?

We can only wonder.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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