Angela Himsel invites readers to come along on her journey of faith in her memoir, A River Could Be a Tree (Fig Tree Books, 2019). She honestly and wittily describes the frustrations of being a young girl growing up in a religion that seemed to be from another time, and her choice to leave that faith looked and felt like. I was both excited and somewhat nervous to read and review this book, because I was raised in the same doomsday cult as Ms. Himsel did. Growing up in the Worldwide Church of God was a bit like being in Fight Club – first rule is, you don’t talk about the Church (or how much it sucks). To write a book about it is, as Mr. Spock would say, fascinating. Unlike my own spiritual journey though - which resulted in my turning away from religion completely - Ms. Himsel’s path took her to another faith. In a twist of fate, her plan to study overseas in her ancestral home of Germany became the experience of a lifetime to study in Israel and learn about Judaism.
The title, A River Could Be a Tree, comes from a conversation she had with her father; ever the inquisitor growing up, she had lively discussions with her father about their faith and her role within it. Her father would explain that, “God created a role for everything in the universe! Just think what would happen if a river thought it could be a tree!” In other words, in their conservative faith, women should know “their place”. But Ms. Himsel, like many women growing up in the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, subscribed to the notion that a woman’s “place” was anywhere she wanted to be. Her father called her stubborn. I would call her “brave”.
This uber-conservative brand of Christianity was known once as “Armstrongism” after founder Herbert Armstrong, but eventually became “The Worldwide Church of God.” He thought big, Armstrong did. My father introduced me to this new world, one of going to church on Saturdays instead of Sundays, a world of not celebrating birthdays or most Christian holidays. We were taught that Christmas, Easter and Halloween were “pagan” holidays (they technically are, but must we be so rigid?) and instead implemented ceremonies for Old Testament holy days like Pentecost and Passover. Not the most jolly of the holidays he could have picked, but Armstrong and his ministers seemed to enjoy seeing and hearing about the misery of its members; Angela describes the ten percent tithe all members were required to give every year - an amount of money that would mean new shoes for some families or food on the table. One point Himsel makes clear is that the church targeted low-income families by promising them “the meek shall inherit the earth.”
Tales of the Holy Land and the stories of the Old Testament played on heavy rotation in the Church. These accounts would spark Ms. Himsel’s interest in leaving rural Indiana to visit the very place where our pastors would tell us that the coming Apocalypse would eventually occur. Her expectations of being in a quiet “Holy Land” were changed the first day she landed in her new country, alive with new noises and song, not at all as pensive and reverential as she expected. She paints a lovely picture with her descriptions of the sights, sounds, smells, and people that filled her first foray into town, as if you are right there next to her. Following that first day, her journey takes on a more spiritual quality and less of a physical one. Each encounter in her life - from Sukkot spent with her Jewish academic advisor, Golda, to her Saturdays spent with her fellow American ex-pat friend Eve who is married to a Palestinian - opens her eyes to new truths about herself and her relationship with her faith. Then, as an adult, she decides to explore her faith’s roots and begins a new excursion which eventually led her to convert to Judaism.
Though I grew up in Michigan, my experience of attending church in rented school buildings and dated auditoriums was nearly identical to Angela’s description of meeting at a community center in Evansville, Indiana. Also similarly, my father and I faced some of the same rejections from family that are discussed in the book. In my case, my mother rejected my father’s beliefs and my willingness to go to church with him; in Ms. Himsel’s case, all of her grandparents warned their children to proceed with caution and didn’t see it as a church but as what it was - though we didn’t know then: a cult.
The Church expected dogmatic obedience to doctrine. Questioning her own faith was unnerving, she says. I could certainly relate with the questioning of her faith. Her traveling opened her eyes and caused her to look at faith with a more critical viewpoint. I had similar questions, though for different reasons. What I struggled with while reading, though, was why she felt the need to be “saved”. Multiple times, she mentions her desire to receive the Holy Spirit, but it’s not clear why the desire is so deep. Since I’m familiar with the Church’s doctrine, I do know the ministers drilled into us members that we needed to be ready for Christ’s return, that we were the bride of Christ, and He could come at any moment. They also explained why it was so important to be baptized, to receive the Holy Spirit. It seems as though this brainwashing must have worked on her, and as an invested and interested reader, I wish she had gone into a bit more detail about what drove this desire to find the Holy Spirit - was it Church dogma only?
Overall, Himsel has an incredible talent for detail, and the book provides a thorough description of the social-political climate of Israel at the time, pop culture references, and religious history. The book is broken into three main parts that helped shape her life – her time growing up in Indiana, her educational experiences in Israel, and her life in New York City. I felt like the side trip to Germany to find her ancestors made the story drag a bit, but it was still interesting. The book, while detailed, is an easy read as it’s written in a conversational style. I would recommend this to be added to your must-read list, for the honesty and humor throughout the book. I give it five stars for telling the story so many of us lived, the story of a fear-based Church that taught mistrust and bias, and how one woman overcame it and taught her children about a different kind of God.