A Snapshot of The Early Days

Below is a snapshot of the early days from the book, “The Jesus People; Old-Time Religion In The Age Of Aquarius” written by Ronald M. Enroth, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and C. Brekinridge Peters.

This snapshot is from pages 54 through 66.


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There is another voice crying in the neon wilderness of Hollywood Boulevard. More visible, though less thorough and less personal than the Children, are the omnipresent tract-pushers sent in a biblical two-by-two lock-step from the recently relocated Christian Foundation of Tony and Susan Alamo. Bristling with mimeographed slips of paper reading “Repent of your Sins! Jesus is Coming Soon!”, the young missionaries from Saugus, fifty miles from downtown Hollywood, work their way against the flow of pedestrian traffic warning of the impending apocalypse. The doom merchants from Saugus are in no way physically striking. They adopt none of the more spectacular affectations common to Children of God vigils. Hair is short but shaggy and not trimmed; clothes are plain, almost shabby, and quite colorless. Missing, too, are well-known Jesus symbols — fish necklaces, One Way buttons, and assorted Jesus clothes bearing different gospel messages. Unlike the Children of God, these witness teams do not look well fed and well kept.

The method is apparently designed to stimulate curiosity, not discussion. The home-made tract provides enough information to make conversation unnecessary. It tells of the disaster awaiting the unrepentant, a warning that is brief and to the point; it displays the address of the Foundation and the scheduled times for the eight meetings held there weekly; it announces free shuttle-bus service from the corner of Highland and Hollywood every day of the week. The transaction between missionary and mission field seems calculated to make conversation difficult if not impossible. The Alamo witness teams move so quickly through the sidewalk crowds that it is virtually sure they will be gone by the time the recipient realizes that he has heard the voice crying in the wilderness and not just another sales pitch (a distinction no doubt somewhat blurred to many by this time). The evangelism of the Alamo witness brigades is limited to passing leaflets as quickly and as widely as possible, nothing more. No persuasion, no attempt at conversation, but simply an almost mechanized routine: “Repent!” followed by a tract that tells where.

“Where” is a convened restaurant on the outskirts of Saugus, an hour and a half trip by Christian Foundation “bus” — actually a number of vehicles ranging from new Volkswagen vans to an older, dilapidated open-air slat-side truck. Though billed as a shuttle service for visitors, the chief function of the vehicles is transporting the three shifts of witnesses who barnstorm Hollywood during the day. The morning crew arrives from Saugus and is returned when the afternoon shift comes to replace them. The afternoon team leaves the streets at six-thirty with any curiosity seekers who have been recruited and returns to Saugus. When the visitors are returned to the street around 10:30, the third string hits the boulevard until 2:00 in the morning. Each team is armed with the same tract, peddles the same repent-or-be-damned message, arrives and departs on schedule, and returns the next day to repeat the process.

The presence of the Christian Foundation teams on the bus makes the ride to Saugus interesting (albeit unnerving) for the curious. As the few visitors settle into the cramped space, the truck rolls off. The riders have absolutely none of the trappings that are associated with the Jesus Movement. Even the smiles are missing. There is little conversation — none at all between the returning witness team and the curious, and only smatterings among the team itself. What little talk there is centers on topics like the nearness of the last days, the absence of a true witness to Christ in the established churches, and the ease with which young people could be persuaded to join the cause of Christ as opposed to the intransigence of adults. On our trip to Saugus we talked to one of the Alamo disciples for no more than half a minute. He could tell us little of the Foundation itself and would tell us almost nothing of himself.

There was plenty of Bible reading going on, not systematized, for everyone was at different points, but incessant. Those who had Bibles read them page after page, from the end of one book to the beginning of the next and then to the next. The trip was unusually quiet, considering that the truck carried an all-male cargo of twenty-five.

The atmosphere changes somewhat when the truck arrives in the large dirt parking area that surrounds the Christian Foundation, Welcome to the Foundation is provided by a large sign that proclaims “This is Tony and Susan Alamo’s Christian Foundation.” Standing around are a school bus and a handful of recent model station wagons, all painted red, white, and blue and emblazoned with a hand-painted “Tony and Susan Alamo’s Christian Foundation.” The building itself is an old, rustic restaurant, made surprisingly spacious by the removal of a few walls. The changes wrought by the Alamos and their disciples have restored what reportedly was a ramshackle building on the verge of condemnation to a measure of respectability, though the Foundation itself is still somewhat seedy. Occupancy by the Alamos and their followers has disguised the structure’s former use; yet a few traces remain. Restaurant booths are now used more for Bible study than eating. A stuffed deer’s head still greets those who enter, although its charm is somewhat dissipated.

Half an hour before the scheduled 8:00 p.m. meeting, the Foundation is alive with activity, conversation, and Bible reading. At the front of the meeting room is a slightly raised stage covered with electronic gear — amplifiers, microphones, speakers — and musical instruments of all varieties — trumpets, trombones, clarinets, drums, guitars, a piano, an organ, a harmonica, and even a flute. The din of the makeshift orchestra tuning up, coupled with rather widespread conversation, stands in stark contrast to the quiet ride from Hollywood. Despite the increase in conversation, subject matter seldom varies and never strays from, the spiritually significant: the world is coming to an end, Jesus is coming soon. That message is repeated in conversation after conversation.

The meeting area is cordoned into sections by a wide aisle between two clumps of folding chairs. The back section is reserved for those who live at one of the Christian Foundation’s four communes around the meeting hall. The front section, somewhat smaller, is occupied by visitors arriving from Hollywood or, more commonly, on their own. The segregation is politely but firmly enforced by those overseers who have drawn ushering duty. The hall is filled to standing loom only fifteen minutes before the scheduled start. The crowd, however, is 250-300, rather than the 400-500 circulated by the Alamo witness teams. Though it is not unusual to see middle-aged adults and very young children, the bulk of the congregation is 16-22. The group is as varied as any gathering of the Jesus Movement, the most notable factor being the presence of Blacks, both young and old, on more than a token basis. The number of them is admittedly small, under fifteen, but the Alamo Christian Foundation seems more attractive to Blacks than any other group labeling themselves Jesus People.

Without a signal of any sort or the appearance of anyone behind the podium, conversation, musical practice, and Bible reading cease precisely at 8:00 p.m. The hall is quiet but expectant. Tony Alamo, a small, well-groomed, middle-aged man, presides over the nightly gatherings at the Foundation. On the infrequent occasions when he is absent, an overseer conducts the meeting. Alamo opens every service with a word of welcome mingled with warning:

Welcome to Tony and Susan Alamo’s Christian Foundation. We believe that this is the House of God and ask that you refrain from talking during the service. If you have questions, an overseer will be glad to answer them afterwards. If there are other Christians here, we ask that you do not pass out any literature. If you have literature that you want passed out, please give it to Susie or myself or an overseer. We will screen it, and if it is in accordance with the King James Version of the Bible, the only inspired word of God, it will be passed out on the streets of Hollywood.

Despite the authoritative tone of the remarks, no penalty was prescribed for violating the dicta, either by talking or handing out literature. (Alamo told us later in a private conversation that violators would be asked to leave.)

The meeting begins with a rousing song service that would thrill any lover of the old-time religion. The music — said to be a fulfillment of the command to worship the Lord with singing and praises and accompanied by the orchestra and unbridled foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and dancing in the Spirit—is truly impressive. It is joyous; it is celebrative; it is nearly frenzy. And most of all, it is loud, almost unbelievably so. Thirty instruments and three hundred people singing at the tops of their voices in a space that would be comfortable for half that number make even shouting an ineffective means of communication. That is not enough for the Alamos. Though the natural amplification verges on the threshold of pain, microphones bracketed to beams in the ceiling pick up and magnify the uproar. The effect is that of a spiral, each voice gaining intensity in an effort to be heard over an ever-increasing level of sound. Volume, however, is a quality not confined to singing alone; it is foreshadowed during the invocation. The command from Alamo to pray evokes highly audible groans, moans, and plainly apparent speaking in tongues from nearly everyone in attendance. The prayers of the congregation are so loud that Alamo’s lead, always in English, can barely be heard, if at all. Though the congregation begins its prayer on command, it often takes several amens, each louder than the other, to restore the quiet seemingly so valued in the opening remarks.

Music at the Alamo Christian Foundation, despite the volume and exuberant audience response, has much in common with established church musical programs. Unlike most of the Jesus People, the Alamos do not transpose gospel lyrics to new and more popular musical scores. The music at the Christian Foundation is quite reminiscent of Pentecostal and evangelistic services in backwoods rural areas. The songs are the same — “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Nothing But the Blood,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “I Am a Pilgrim,” and a magnificent, rollicking version of the “Hallelujah Chorus” done by a 150-voice choir with full orchestra accompaniment, directed by a jitterbugging, blue-suited director. Solos too fit the model; the booming, gravelly, blues-y female voice sliding through the measures of “In the Garden”-— again, barely audible over the uproarious din. The music is rhythmic, exciting, and practiced. Audience response is somewhat mechanized: the congregation rises in unison and without command for the more martial of the gospel hymns and sits, likewise undirected but unanimously, for more soothing melodies.

Although long hair is not as prevalent at the Foundation as it is at most Jesus People gatherings, the Alamo disciples seem slightly incongruous against the old-time fundamentalist sound track. The words, the style, and the spirit of the Alamo brand of music would make even the most rigid fundamentalist beam brightly. The disheveled and often dirty and unkempt participants would, however, turn smiles to puzzlement. Most residents of the Alamo community show signs of what must be a Spartan existence. Shoes are worn to the point of obvious discomfort. Faces lack the vigor and the happy sparkle typical of more publicized versions of Jesus People. Levis are the common denominator among the men and are covered with the dust that surrounds the semi-arid Saugus area. The women are plainly and inconspicuously dressed, but are not markedly cleaner than the men. The mismatch is truly startling. The music and the mood are from the heart of “cleanliness is next to godliness” country; the appearance is distinctly from another world.

When the song service ends after an hour, the scene again is highly similar to old-time fundamentalist meetings. There are testimonies, brief, spectacular, and colored with the jargon of the Bible Belt, not Berkeley. Words like “sin” and the “pits of hell” are repeated time and again, as is the pitch to “come up and get saved.” The Jesus trip of the hip Christian is totally foreign to the idiom of the Christian Foundation. Following the testimony time (for which people are recruited by the overseers, who also recruit kitchen help, cleaning help, and witness team members), the main attraction of the evening, the appearance of Tony or, more often, Susan Alamo in the pulpit, climaxes the service.

The contrast between the Alamos and their disciples is almost unbelievable. Tony, fortyish and a few years younger than his wife, is a picture-book example of successful America, He and Susie live, not at the Foundation or even nearby in Saugus, but in the hills of Studio City overlooking Hollywood. Their daily circuit to Saugus is made quite comfortable in a new chocolate-brown Ford LTD, a means of transportation somewhat different from the gutted old truck in which we traveled, along with the witness teams, from the Alamos’ personally proclaimed (though they claim divinely commanded) mission field. Tony fits the image that his automobile demands: a nattily tailored suit of fine denim, white silk shirt with blue polka-dots matched with a carefully knotted silk polka-dot tie (blue on white), patent leather boots, pomaded hair gleaming with tonic, sun glasses, all accented by a fat, three-flap executive wallet thrust in the waist band of his pants, which already bulge with a stylishly plump potbelly. What Tony lacks in magnificence, his wife makes up in splendor. A platinum blonde, impeccably made up, Susie is as classy as Tony is flashy. Her clothes are carefully chosen — white skirt, contrasting blouse, and highlighting jewelry —- and create an image quite reminiscent of Lana Turner.

Notwithstanding Tony’s control of Christian Foundation services, his swagger, and the bevy of followers at his heels as he struts through the meeting hall, it is clear that the power, the dominating personality, the charisma, the cohesive force of the Alamo Christian Foundation are Susie’s. She is cheered upon her late arrival at a Friday night meeting; her voice is commanding, her stage manner polished. She is the Foundation’s resident theologian; her views are the views of the Foundation from her husband on down. Word for word, phrase for phrase, example for example, the teachings of Elder Susan are repeated by all.

Tony is, however, not without his impact upon the proceedings. His testimony, known throughout the Foundation, is a classic adventure story that combines elements of Horatio Alger and the Apostle Paul. Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman in (of all places) Montana, he was, according to his own claim, an incredibly successful Hollywood impresario. His promotional work for Sonny and Cher, P. J. Proby, and Earl McDaniel, made him widely known and rather wealthy. He had his own recording label (“Talamo”), which reached the heights of financial success when, in Tony’s words, “I had the Twenty 60
Original Hits, twenty smash hits on one album, Oldies but Goodies for $2.98. I made loads of money. I was making more money than General Motors, and I was banking it in New York.”

At the height of his success Tony “used to run around with a little dame and six motorcycle escorts,” until one day during a business meeting he received an audible message from God threatening to kill him unless he gave up his lucrative business and began to preach the gospel. The impact of that voice has colored the Christian Foundation in every phase of its operation. Tony’s conversion was the first step down the primrose path to Susan. The flamboyant career of a West-Coast promotion man apparently held little charm for Susan. “She’s a dignified woman. She would pay no more attention to me than the man in the moon.”

Unlike her husband, Susie has been both a long-time Christian and a long-time evangelist. Reared in a Jewish home (as was Tony), she had what Tony describes cryptically as “a very supernatural experience with the living God” at age nine. She lost some of her youthful enthusiasm through the routines of an established denomination and dabbled in a career in motion pictures with more guilt feelings than success: “She never really could get away from the love of the living God because it was written on the tables of her heart. She knew that it was just like the Lord letting her get a first insight into what sin was really all about.” The anxiety led Susie out of the movies and into Pentecostal evangelism, where she has spent the last twenty years of her life. Her courtship with Tony is shrouded in evasive spirituality: “The Lord actually put us together, and it was a very natural way that he did.” The miracle occurred in the mid-1960s, and the Christian Foundation was begotten in 1966.

There was some hesitancy about beginning the Christian Foundation, “We didn’t ask for this work. . . . We didn’t come in after somebody. God called us into this work.” The Alamos began their first ministry as a pair of itinerant evangelists occupationally engaged full-time, but only after Tony obtained a heavenly dispensation permitting him to promote one final performer in order to demonstrate his sanity to his now doubtful (following his dramatic conversion experience) acquaintances, Susie soon began a persuasive campaign to convince Tony to accompany her on tract-passing treks from their comfortable Santa Monica home to the streets of Hollywood. Tony finally gave in to the pressure: “. . . finally she said, ‘Look, I’m going on the streets tonight, and I’m going to pass out gospel tracts. You can stay home. I told her, ‘Well, you don’t think a red-blooded American man is going to let his wife go on the streets with those narcotics addicts and knifes,’ and I said I’d go. I went out with her.”

Quickly the Alamos attracted a following, and soon they were filling a rented house with nightly crowds braving cramped conditions to hear Susie preach. According to Tony, their following in the early years was (he claims it still is) ninety percent reformed, converted, and cured junkies. The figure may, like much of Tony’s rhetoric, be a bit of hyperbole, but the claim of reaching the drug culture seems a valid one. With the help of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Association, Tony and Susan moved the fledgling Foundation to new, more spacious quarters. That house-made-church, too, was quickly outgrown. After some serious trouble with the police in a quarrel over the right to assemble, and in the face of local residents’ suspicion of the growing collection of former drug users meeting in their neighborhood, the Christian Foundation, once again with the aid of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Association, pulled up stakes and reestablished itself on the present Saugus property in 1970.

Apart from the intellectual domination of the Foundation by Susie’s old Pentecostal theology and jargon, Tony’s thespian is directly responsible for a good deal of the dogma of the Christian Foundation. The hell-fire and damnation message of their tracts and preaching stems from the supernatural extortion Tony claims is responsible for his conversion:

I knew that God was not just a God of love because he threatened to kill me, and I saw these God-is-love people, little cats running around with their phony little messages, not messages from the Bible, and I heard that God drowned the whole world and that didn’t figure out to me. And that he barbecued Sodom and Gomorrah and that he was going to come back and fry everyone else that didn’t get right. So I figured, who’s kidding who?

The ceaseless hammering at the fear of God is an obsession in Saugus. Tony castigates other Jesus People in no uncertain terms: “I don’t like what they’re preaching. They’re preaching God is love. It’s not true, and it’s throwing a lot of people into the pits of hell.” Though he refuses to disassociate the Christian Foundation from the term “Jesus People” (in fact, Tony claims to have started the movement), his remarks about the movement are highly contemptuous and reveal a lack of any true understanding of its characteristics: “All they [the Jesus People] have to do is confess the Lord Jesus Christ and you can smoke dope, you can commit adultery, you can do anything you want. It’s a lie out of the pits of hell.”

Tony’s fear of the freedom granted by the doctrine of God’s love is the basis for the numerous rules enforced at the Christian Foundation. He rejects the “Christian commune” label, for it is associated in his mind with lurid images of sexual orgies following devotional prayer. Segregation along sexual lines at the Foundation is total. Men and women live not only separately but far apart. Contact of any sort is strictly forbidden. Lewd clothing, a judgment made by Tony’s trained eye, is outlawed, as is talking to members of the opposite sex except at meal time, and then only with a female-male ratio of three to one. Marriage is permitted with the approval of the Alamos, but only after a total separation of ninety days reserved for praying and fasting.

As would be expected, drugs, drinking, and social dancing are prohibited. (Cigarette smoking is not on the list of forbidden fruits. The exception can be traced to Tony’s post-conversion experience of scorn and ridicule by an established church for his tobacco habit, in spite of his supernatural encounter with God. The sin is admitted by Susan but dismissed conveniently as a “sin of the flesh not of the soul,” quite like overeating.)

Daily life is governed by “a very intricate system” of overseers and their underlings developed, hand-picked, and headed by the Alamos. The “best elders on earth right now,” as they are affectionately known by their followers, are always just a long-distance phone call away, should any problem arise that exceeds an overseer’s authority to handle. None of the members work outside the Foundation; neither do they attend school. Money to the tune of $15,000 a month is supplied by donations. The Holy Spirit is said to supply wisdom enough for all — to the extent of miraculously teaching the illiterate to read.

The King James Version of the Bible is the one inspired version of Scripture for the Alamos. Oblivious to its problems and ignorant of the strengths of some modern versions, the Alamos oppose adamantly any contemporary revisions — especially good News for Modern Man —- as “right out of the pits of hell.” When questioned about the errors they allege to exist in modern translations, Tony spiritualizes vaguely:

I can’t really tell. The Spirit inside tells me that it’s wrong. In several instances I have gone through a particular experience that is related in the King James, many times I’ve done it, and you take the modern-day version and the way it tells it there are so many mistakes it’s unbelievable.

The popularity of the heretical modern Bible translations is a keystone in the Alamos’ belief that the return of Christ is imminent. These are the very last days, although the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem, says Tony, must be achieved before the return of the Lord. That removes none of the urgency. The problem is explained through the wonders of prefabricated buildings, or by a story concocted by Tony claiming the discovery of the temple by rabbis in Jerusalem. He admits that no man can know the hour of the second coming, but Tony gives the world twenty years at the outside.

The nearness of the return of Christ is the very reason for the existence of Tony and Susan Alamo’s Christian Foundation. Claiming to be Joel’s Army and a fulfillment of the prophecy of old men dreaming dreams, young men seeing visions, and handmaidens prophesying, the Foundation fully expects persecution to begin shortly. Plans are already afoot to move the Saugus remnant further toward the wilderness in order to escape the torment of the Antichrist, who, according to Tony, is already on earth and will be raised up shortly. The Jesus People, with their God-is-love jargon, are going to be deceived, as the established church already has been. The Foundation, with perhaps a few others, will be martyrs for the faith.

In the face of the foreboding signs of the end — smog, pollution, and the tension in the Middle East — business goes on as usual in Saugus. Witness teams depart, services continue, as does the twenty-four-hour prayer chain. Tony and Susan have the message-— Repent, Jesus is Coming Soon. As for the rest of the Jesus People:

Ones that are not of the Lord will fall, will fall flat. This God-is-love movement is nothing new. That’s been around since the Garden of Eden. “Thou shall not surely die. God is a nice God. Do you think he’d put a nice tree like that in the garden and not let you eat from it? He’s a God of love. Eat from it. Eat it.” They ate it, and they did die, because God is the truthful one, and Satan, who preaches that God-is-love message, is the liar. They’ve got to fall. Who is God going to keep on this earth doing his strong work? Is he going to keep this God-is-love movement, or is he going to keep the bulldog who says, “I’m not afraid to tell the truth”? I could care less what you think about our message. 1 didn’t write it, I preach it. My wife and I preach it.

Although the Children of God and the Christian Foundation are the most notable of groups deserving the title of “doom-saying exclusivists,” there are smaller movements similar to these. A commune in Fresno, California, which goes by the name of “Christian Brothers,” includes men and women who dress in white and usually carry a cross, either around their necks or in a holder like a sword sheath on their belts. They believe that salvation requires a distinctively anti-establishment life style. For them, too, the King James is the inspired version of the Bible, and they spend long hours memorizing it. The structure is very authoritarian; women in particular are most docile. Unlike the Children of God and the Alamos, the Christian Brothers hold regular nine-to-five jobs. They are as strong as any group on the preaching of judgment and damnation. In fact, though they occasionally give concerts as an effort to spread the gospel, they do relatively little in the way of evangelism, at least in comparison to the two groups previously discussed in this chapter. When they do witness, they are quite cold and unfriendly. They emphasize the doom and judgment which will befall everyone but themselves.

A similar group is located in Montana. To our knowledge, this group has no official name. They are reported to be even more gloomy and somber than the Children of God, who are quite capable of expressing an infectious joy on occasion. They, too, see themselves as the only ones who are truly the remnant.

And then there is Leon, Leon heads up a small group — at last count, thirteen — who have traveled nomadically throughout northern California, but who have now stayed for a whole year in Eureka. Leon used to belong to the Children of God, but they say that he drifted into heresy and left. The Children consider him farther out than themselves. Some Jesus People who consider the Children of God far out view Leon as a “good brother,” but they admit that he is a little “trippy,” Specifically, Leon apparently has more than one woman as his bed-partner, but whether this is a case of polygamy or serial monogamy is unclear. While his legal marital status is unknown, all agree that he “has a thing about women.” Leon practices something akin to the smiting by the Children of God. He has been known to break up meetings in rural churches by standing up and speaking without being asked to. His denunciations are usually phrased in florid King James English, We have been unable to confirm rumors that he and his followers have engaged in vandalism of these churches.

In: Timeline

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