The Jesus Rap

Sometime in the late sixties and early seventies, a religious phenomenon occurred on the west coast of the United States that revived a charismatic Christian expression of faith and practice. It was popularly known as the “Jesus movement”. Lots of young people, long hair, tie-dye, high-waisted bell-bottom jeans, beads, and guitars. Jesus People, they were called. Musicians sprung up – Barry McGuire, Larry Norman, Keith Green, and such added a singular folk-rock styling to what was admittedly a moribund and beige Christian religious scene.

Of course, it expanded into Canada, especially in Toronto through what was then called the Catacombs ministry with Merv and Merla Watson. Various centres sprung up, and some religious leaders, especially of the conservative evangelical stripe, called it a revival of the spirit. There were some clergy from both ends of the theological spectrum who mistrusted the youth and inexperience of the leaders and the mental health of the participants. Others would see it as a reaction to the vacuum of disillusionment left by the Watergate scandals, the Kent State shootings, the invasion of Cambodia, the end of the Vietnam War, and Nixon’s (I am not a crook) resignation. In Canada, we were more focused on the October crisis, Quebec independence, Trudeau’s (Pierre, not his son Justin) War Measures Act, the burgeoning and necessarily vocal women’s movement, the economic crisis, and such.

The Jesus Rap at King Street United Church in London, Ontario was part of that Canadian outgrowth of the Christian youth revival in the early and mid-seventies. At fifteen I became part of that movement when at a bible study I reluctantly decided to follow this Palestinian rabbi. I had tried to kill myself earlier that year (another story), so I figured things could only get better from here.

I had started to learn how to play guitar and sing, something which came in quite handy. I became a ready-made part of the group.

The thing was, psychologically this group played the part of a surrogate family during an extremely difficult part of my teenage life. Home life was shit and I preferred to be more away from the family than with it. The Jesus Rap became, at the very least, a more healthy substitute than the streets.

That was fifty years ago. Half a century. Two years ago I received an invitation to join a Facebook group of people who had been alumnae of the Jesus Rap. As some of my readers know, a lot of changing waters have flowed under that bridge. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. Having my picture as part of the music team at the time as the cover photo for the group impelled that wistful curiosity. That's me in the centre. Yes, I had hair, and yes, my fashion choices were questionable.

I no longer believed in any god, but I could not resist the invitation. I accepted and wrote a letter to the group’s admins to be posted. The rest of this blog is part of that letter.

“I will be forever grateful to Jon Johnson from my high school history class for introducing me to the Rap. You became friends who welcomed me and helped me grow the musical gifts I was just starting to play with. Thank you to the Mack family for taking me in when I had nowhere else to go. You gave me a start to explore, at the very least, a version of a spiritual side of living. Participating in the music ministry of the Jesus Rap and eventually in the King St United congregation gave me a purpose for my musical gift and eventually provided the groundwork for what I then perceived as a calling into the United Church ministry.

I am grateful for your part in my journey. And all those old photos bring back poignant memories.

Three years in Quebec City. Got married. Back to Toronto where I spent my post-graduate at Emmanuel College at U of T. Elaine, my spouse, trained as a teacher. Summer internships in New Brunswick and Papua New Guinea. Ordained in 1984. Off to Denbigh, Ontario where our first son, Simon was born. Then Minden, where our second son Stanley saw the light of day. Brockville, burnout one. Cookstown (South of Barrie) burnout two and this time I listened more carefully to what my body and soul were saying.

In the early to mid-aughts of the new century I left the ministry, the faith, and the marriage. Trouble had been brewing for some time and it very nearly killed me.

At the time I put it this way:

“The deity had had a long-running argument with me: she wanted me to follow music. I played at the clergy thing until she had enough of that foolishness. She gave me the unusual gift of serious and chronic depression and put me in a soul lock until I relented.”

That was almost two decades ago. Three heart attacks since. (I can thank bad habits and my father’s genes for that) I worked as a special education teacher and music instructor. Another marriage, another parting. I just retired from being a receiver at a health food store.

I’m now playing more in the fields of the Buddha than the congregations of Christ.

I’ve recorded two albums of original music, still writing songs of dark and light and humanity, working on a semi-fictional book about the effects of cross-generational trauma, and teaching English online to international students.

I do not regret having left the household of faith. It’s like I wandered out the back door, into the yard, through the gate, and vanished beyond the western mountains and finally found the sea.

I am vertical, ventilating, and grateful.

I am atheist, and that simply means I don’t believe in deities Christian, Jewish, Muslim, the “Universe” or any other gods malevolent or benevolent. That is a good thing. I don’t need a god or any kind of exterior supernatural referent to make me a good person. If I did, that would make me a bit of a psychopath on a leash, wouldn’t it?

So I dedicate this post to those who left, those who wandered and didn’t return, those who some might consider lost, those who felt their faith “wasn’t strong enough”, and those who might be ashamed to say they don’t believe anymore, but still find the strength to keep on living and loving.

And to those of you, my friends, who may say I should give glory to God for God’s goodness and providence, or who might be tempted to pray for me, well, I appreciate your intentions – after all, I used to think like that, too – but no, thank you.

Waking up to sunlight is all the heaven I can bear. I don’t need much else.

Thank you for reading this far. I remember you all with fondness.”

And though the memories are fond, I have acquired a deep and lasting disgust at the way fundamentalism of any stripe twists and distorts humanity's capacity for love and cooperation. I will no longer be a part of that again.



Leave a comment