Stumbling into Zion – The Confessions of a Redneck Priest

by Fr. John Moses

A strong testimony of the healing power of Christ and his Church, Fr. John Moses’ story is presented to give hope to those trapped in darkness.

“I’d rather you were dead.”

I stood in amazement because my mother, who had just spoken those words, clearly did not understand what I was saying to her. I assured her that I was not converting to Judaism. Even so, it would take some years until she understood my change in life and warmed up to Orthodoxy. I asked her once why she remained a Methodist. Without a pause she replied that the Methodist Church let her think whatever she wanted. I thought that this was precisely the problem. You can only imagine what my hard-shell Baptist mother-in-law thought about it.

I spent 10 years in higher education focusing on history. I learned this axiom: to write history is to distort it. I think this must be especially true when you write your own biography. Memory is a precious and mysterious thing. Why do we remember some things and not others? My ego surely dictates to my memory, trying to make me the hero of my story. The truth is that I am not a hero. If anything, I am Charlie Brown. My perspective is also affected by the fact that I have been Orthodox for over 20 years. I see my life from an Orthodox perspective. The way I used to understand my life has passed away. Because of these things, I ask you to forgive any unintended distortions, errors or flights of fancy. I will be as truthful as I can. This account is not linear so do not try to construct a timeline.

I have only one hope in writing this biography. I want others who suffer or have suffered as I have and have remained in darkness and silence, doubt, depression and shame to find some solace and encouragement in this accounting of my life.

I was born in a funeral home.

We sometimes muse about the fact that we are born to die. I was born in a place of death. At the time it was a small hospital, but later became a mortuary. It would be ironic if I went out in the same room where I entered the world. Life and death – the poles of reality. I pursued many things thinking that they would bring life but they brought death. Socrates maintained that no one chooses evil. What we choose may in fact be evil, but we choose it because it seems good. I pursued evil because it seemed good to me. That does not excuse me for the things I did, but because of my error in judgment, I passed

“through many dangers, toils and snares.”

Whenever I tried to walk a straight path, I stumbled and fell. I fell into deep pits that almost overwhelmed me

Stumbling into Zion – Family

I was born into a lower middleclass family, the second oldest of 5 children. We lived on the eastside of town, an area known as the blue collar area inhabited by the less prosperous. My father worked in a factory and my mother was a school lunch lady. The money was tight, but adequate. These days it seems trite to say that my family was dysfunctional, but it is the truth. I could tell so many stories, but I do not want to shame those who were innocent victims. There was pain-mental, emotional and physical-but there were also good memories. A family may be dysfunctional, but it is still a family. This is why those who suffer abuse live with so much confusion.

My family expressed love and even fun and nurture; then they caused a lot of pain. My father had no parental skills. He was a broken man, but his brokenness was expressed in dreaming and ambition. He was a sniper in WWII and fought in the Pacific war and was blown off of an anti-aircraft gun. The shell shock broke him psychologically. He did not become fully conscious until he woke up in a hospital in San Francisco. He never returned to combat, but came home where he met my mother. My father was handsome and my mother fell for him. Only later would she come to regret that decision. As their troubled relationship went on, my mother emotionally retreated into her own self-destructive world. Somehow, she managed to care for her five children and provided some happy moments.

Here is the sad fact: some who were supposed to love me sexually abused me. This involved extended family. Over the years, memories and scenes have come back to me. Can you trust your memory about these things? Whatever the answer, my first memory is very clear. I was 7 years old when the first adult climbed into bed with me. I was sent to sleep in an isolated room in the upper part of the house. I was nearly asleep when the adult came in. I had been frightened because I was alone, but felt relieved when my relative came into the room. What followed was an introduction into the world of adult sexuality, a world that I had no ability to comprehend. At that age, how do you reconcile fear, confusion, and pleasure? 7-year-old children have no sophistication about these things. Pedophiles do not seem to understand this and so cause great harm. This experience would not be the last. The future would involve both men and women of various ages. This situation went on for about five years.

In the 1950s, these things remained hidden and unspoken. How does a 7 year old speak of such things? Who would listen and who would believe it? Pedophiles are expert in the use of promises and threats to keep silence around their acts. As a result, my little heart and soul twisted in silence and darkness and fear. I was emotionally shattered into many pieces. I began to hear “the voice of the dragon.” This voice would constantly shame me with accusations of inadequacy and the fear of failing. It was a voice of extreme self-hatred that lead to self-abuse, anger, depression, obsession and a twisted sexuality. Life goes on and so do dysfunctional families. Abuse is not the only thing experienced and there were moments of happiness in the family and in the outside world. That is the confusion that surrounds the whole experience.

Stumbling into Zion – Religion and Education

In my dysfunctional life, religion played its part. Mother took us to Sunday school in the United Methodist Church and we attended until I left home. As I look back, it seems to me that the Methodist Church was spiritually schizophrenic. It was an odd mix of evangelicalism and liturgy. Some preachers preached hell fire and salvation while others preached “three points and poem.” Even though I was a troubled teenager, I went forward on an altar call. What did I want from this? I wanted to be free from the voice of the dragon. Though officially “saved”, the dragon continued to speak. I sang in the church choir and took part in the youth activities while living a secret life (all teenagers have one, I realize). I served as an acolyte and learned to love the language of the communion service of Cranmer.

One Sunday, the minister placed a stole on the altar and said that someone from the Church would take up that stole and answer a call to ministry. I went forward to pick up that stole, but it would be many years of wandering before I realized the promise I made that day. In later years, I went to seminary at Duke University and served as a minister in the United Methodist Church for 20 years (I never was a hell fire preacher, but I didn’t do the three preaching points either).

In religion, I have walked down many paths, met many people, and had many different experiences. My father was a member of the “C and E church,” or Christmas and Easter, which is the only time he attended. He told me that he believed in Jesus and God was his Father, so

“his ticket was punched.”

There was little need to go to church. My grandparents were members of the Pentecostal Holiness Church. I had many experiences of watching adults speak in tongues and fall out when they were “slain in the spirit.” You can imagine the confusion this caused me and I hated going there.

I was a senior in high school when I met two young evangelists, Dan and Mike, who advised me to go to Atlanta where I lived in a religious commune (it was the time of the “Jesus Freaks”). They were sharp enough to see that I was one messed up teenager. I moved to Atlanta and learned to speak in tongues and have charismatic experiences (grandmother was so proud). The ministry had three houses, a restaurant in downtown Atlanta, and a nightclub close to Underground Atlanta. We would hire out for day work and then give all of our money to the ministry to help pay the bills.

Being musical, I played the electronic organ in the house band for the club. We would walk the streets around “the Strip” trying to make converts. My close friend, Alan (a converted Jew) and I even had success converting the prostitutes that hung around the Underground. I still have strong memories of the scene in Piedmont Park on Sunday afternoons. Hundreds of young people came to meet and to sit with the hippies, Jesus Freaks, the followers of Krishna, and so many others while rock bands would perform. Of course, the smell of marijuana was always present (hippie incense!)

With such a lifestyle, I had some inner peace, but eventually the dragon returned. I thought I had found freedom, but it was not real freedom. After almost two years there, the ministry was taken over by the Children of God (COG), a true cult in every sense of the word. After a long absence, our elder returned and announced that he had met this group and we would be joining it. Things would radically change. We would no longer go out and work jobs to support the ministry. We would trust God and only do evangelism. The COG had chapters all over the world so some of us would be travelling. It all seemed wonderful.

Why did I leave? One night, all of the house churches gathered in the main house (called “The Temple of Still Waters”). We began a praise service and all went as usual. Our elder told us more about his journey and then he taught us a group dance that the COG do. We all linked arms and danced with a sense of joy and laughter. Then, God threw me a life preserver. I got winded so I went to the stairs to sit down and catch my breath.

As I watched the festivities, suddenly it was like an invisible hand slapped me in the face. It’s like I woke up from a deep sleep. The faces no longer looked joyous but demonic. I physically shook with fear. Then I walked to a back kitchen to get a drink of water. When no one was looking, I fled to the other house, picked up what I could carry. I ran to the Interstate highway and hitched home. Of course, the devil was not done with me. My first ride was a homosexual man who proposed a sexual encounter. When I refused, he dropped me off at a rest area. I began to hitch again, when a State Trooper pulled up. He informed me that I was breaking the law, but when I told him what happened with my previous ride, he smiled and said,

“God bless you, son. Have a safe journey.”

God’s life preserver!

There were other theological detours from my Protestant faith. I ran into Francis of Assisi and read the Fioretti with great interest. This spirituality intrigued me because it was not like the piety of the Methodist Church. Francis’ lifestyle was a direct challenge to the materialism of my culture. I contemplated the Catholic Church, and even today, I wonder what kept me from it. Why did I not follow Francis? How do you copy such a spirituality? At the time I was too broken to even try, as the voice of the dragon would remind me.



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Stumbling into Zion – The Confessions of a Redneck Priest

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