Ron Athey on the Universal World Church

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Ron Athey is an American performance artist. The following account is excerpted from the book Pleading in the blood : the art and performances of Ron Athey.[1]

I received a call: "Have you see today's LA Times? There's a full-page ad with a photo of a female evangelist in a huge yellow dress like a birthday cake. She claims to be unveiling the actual Tree of Life." "Miss Velma?" I asked. "Dr. Velma Jaggers," she responded. "It does say Miss Velma in parentheses." Miss Velma figured prominently but irregularly in my childhood, and I wondered if I could have imagined the fantastical details. My grandmother searched continually for the newest charismatic disciples, and her pilgrimages to find them took us from our home in Pomona, California, to far flung corners of the Inland Empire: to Chino, Ontario, San Bernardino, San Jacinto, Indio, Lancaster. The palace of the Lord that Miss Velma and her husband, Dr. Orval Lee Jaggers, had erected, the Universal World Church was in Los Angeles proper, off Alvarado and Beverly Boulevards, which made it slightly suspicious to my grandmother. It was unlike the other services we attended in storefronts, or old-fashioned tent meetings. In addition to practicing the traditional Gifts of the Spirit, Miss Velma and O. Lee performed their own unique miracle, 'cellular divine healing', a concept my grandmother–who was particularly drawn to healing services–found appealing enough that we journeyed to their church at least once a year from as early as I can remember.

Our wandering visits ended when I was 14 years old, with the death of my grandfather, who was the only family member with a driver's license. A few years later, I left home. Wanting to confirm a few fantastical things I remembered about these services, I tried unsuccessfully to find the Jaggers' church, but all I remembered was the name of Miss Velma.

In the full page advertisement in the LA Times there was the Miss Velma I remembered wearing a yellow hoop·skirted dress, her hands raised and gaze fixed towards something in heaven. Her hair, which she claimed had been pure white from the time she was born, was meticulously coiffed. The photo created the illusion she was levitating, and a red rose and sash referenced the wound in the side of Christ. Stacked, solid, all-capital headlines crowded the sides of the advert, shouting: "MISS VELMA IS ONE OF THE MOST CELEBRATED WOMAN (sic) IN THE WORLD... KNOWN AND HONORED BY KINGS, QUEENS, PRESIDENTS AND PRIME MINISTERS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD." But the message to citizens of Los Angeles, the ad announced, was the ultimate Christmas present to the world. Miss Velma was going to unveil The Golden Revelation Tree of Life and hold three anointing services. On Christmas morning, the ad promised, "ALL THE CONGREGATION WILL TAKE HOLD OF THE GOLDEN TREE OF LIFE—THE GREATEST OPPORTUNITY EVER AFFORDED THE HUMAN RACE ON EARTH!"

I was way out of the church loop, but without question I would attend. I needed to confirm the accuracy of my memories, and hopefully understand clearer why these experiences colour my life so intensely. I had been trying to make sense of the schisms of my religious upbringing by writing about them. In my first year exiled from home, I wrote an analytical memoir called 'Reinterpretation of False Prophecies', and a piece with more literary ambitions, 'Gifts of the Spirit'. As soon as I started devising performance pieces, these writings and memories were layered there, either in theme or structure. I had begun developing a persona I call The Holy Woman, performed either by me or by stand-ins, through whom I speak as a female 'illustrated sermonizer'. While the character was inspired by a variety of religious women, including saints and televangelists, it was most explicitly based on two people: Aimee Semple McPherson and Miss Velma.

Aimee Semple McPherson was the obvious model for Miss Velma's studies of the illustrated sermon! In the 1920s, McPherson constructed the silver-domed Angeles Temple, and attracted a huge following for her illustrated sermons, which included inquisitive Hollywood actors like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. Miss Velma arrived in the early 1950s, with a much stranger ministry that integrated the usual apocalyptic Armageddon with a contrasting miracle. After a vision, she had travelled to the Holy Land, and claimed that a Mamre oak tree opened up and offered her a vial containing waters from the Fountain of Youth. After the miracle, she set out to reconstruct the entire Book of Revelation in golden and jewelled form. By the 1970s she had embraced every new technology to create special effects for her sermons and altar: an echo box, strobe lights, suspension cables and holograms.

Miss Velma and my grandmother shared similar convictions, but little else. Miss Velma was a precious white-haired queen who delivered her calm and dignified message as a goddess from on high. My fiery, red-haired grandma screamed and pulled hair; she starved herself and fell face down in the Spirit. She ruled three generations from a sickbed, using emotional blackmail to get the Lord's work done. Miss Velma was able to command her congregation through quiet charisma, basking in the adoration of the crowd. But at the centre of both women's belief systems was the notion of Judgment Day, the impending arrival of the Lord who would destroy all non-believers while saving his Chosen People. In my performances, I alternate between their two extremes, at times speaking with measured humility, and at others raging throughout self-righteous fits in the name of the Lord.

Yes, I would attend, like a pilgrimage, but I was nervous about attending the service. I know when Christians say 'all are welcome', especially in these smaller Protestant cults, what they really mean is 'all Christians and wannabe Christians', not an extreme-looking gay man with facial tattoos trying to understand the demented grandiosity plaguing his life. But I'm good at constructing personae, and I also found the perfect escort: Patty Powers. This would be the only time in my life I'd use a lady friend as a 'beard'.

In my childhood visits to the Universal World Church , I had no context for Miss Velma's spectacle. I was a young child the first time my grandmother and Aunt Vena took me. I know I was younger than 9 years old, because I received the Gift of Tongues at 10, in the back of a small wooden building, with Sister Crow's greasy vibrating hands laid upon me. My grandmother came from a sort of Grapes of Wrath tradition, having come to California during the Depression after nearly starving in the Dust Bowl. In my childhood, she would talk about having been lucky to eat the meat from the squirrels her brothers shot, as if it had happened yesterday. We were still very poor, but always ate. My grandfather was a labour union man -- the sole worker in the household of eight -- and his wage was supplemented by child support benefits. It wasn't until high school that I walked into theatres like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and saw oversized chandeliers for the first time. In suburbia, there were no buildings of public grandeur. It was not only lacking design, it was grim on all fronts. So when we walked in Miss Velma's Universal World Church that first time, it was fantasia. I had seen Catholic altars in movies, but that didn't prepare me for the glittering, glaring manifestation of Miss Velma's visions. It was holy, and it was beautiful.

Miss Velma's sparkling altarpiece was as wide as an aircraft hangar. A three-foot-tall statue of Christ, with hair made of diamonds, was displayed in a glass case near the centre. Christ appears in the Book of Revelation as a deformed white lamb, and Miss Velma was born with white hair, hence the symbolism ofJesus' diamond hair. Hanging above the statue, spanning the width of the altar, seven life-sized golden bejewelled angels carried the Seven Plagues to destroy mankind. Beneath them stood the seven small 'tabernacles', seven mounted gold, right fists of God, from which seven healing waterfalls of oil glowed, merging together in an anointing trough with seven automated spinning crowns, and a bridge. And above all these precious treasures there shone a giant sequined rainbow, adorned with seven spinning Ezekiel wheels. There is documentation of some details, but not the whole, so I am piecing together my memories of the Holiest of Holies.

Miss Velma and Dr Jaggers called the ministry a 'Revelation Revival' and their golden altar was a physical representation of the Book of Revelation, built according to Miss Velma's prophecies. Revelation reads as a hallucination full of monsters, and was interpreted thusly, in conjunction with Miss Velma's personal iconography. Some sections of the altar were concealed with silver Mylar fringe curtains, and it was only unveiled for services as important as the Transubstantiation of the Holy Spirit, which had its own pagan flair. Communion was prepared at the front of the room by Dr. Jaggers and 24 elders dressed as cardinals, who broke loaves of bread and compressed them into individual dough balls, and poured full glasses of dark red wine. Although her husband usually gave the main sermon, Miss Velma was the star. She appeared in different biblical settings, wearing costumes, for example dressed as the Queen of Sheba in a seashell throne. In another, perhaps trying to raise Babylon, I remember her perched on a crescent moon. But more well known were her Christmas extravaganzas, broadcast on cable access TV, which interpreted stories from the Bible in less camp historical fashions. In the church, however, she was the living centrepiece to the altar. The energy was grounded in her.

As prophets, my grandmother and aunt discerned I had been born with 'the Calling' on my life. According to their narrative, I was born in a force field of blue electricity crackling around me so strong that the doctors had to remark there had been phenomena. So I was to have a unique, powerful ministry, foretelling the Second Coming of Christ, who was going to be birthed immaculately by my aunt. Having this Calling, I was treated differently to my brother and sisters. My religious training included daily practices like Bible reading, dream interpretation, space-out time for mini-visions, and late night prayer meetings with my aunt and grandmother. They were building up my stamina. I was led to receive each Gift of the Spirit. My grandmother arranged for me to spend quiet time in order to seek divine inspiration. Late at night, I was taken to healing services, where I eventually received the Gift of Tongues. I was often the only child at these services, and I was so sensitive and open to gifts that I often cried with rapture. My disappointment was that I never received the Gift of Automatic Writing. I attempted over and over, but it just wouldn't come.

It was no secret that my grandmother's and aunt's religious practices were often more spiritualist than Pentecostal, but no explanation was ever given. One scried in a crystal ball, the other studied astrology and interpreted dreams. They both paid visits to psychics. Through automatic writing, my aunt channeled messages from my dead great-grandmother, Audrey, from whom piles of letters were collected and stored in a wooden box. These letters established an esoteric relationship to the Virgin Mary, and laid out the plans for my Aunt Vena's prophesied marriage to Elvis Presley after she bore the Second Coming of the Christ Child. Unfortunately, being talented and inevitable wasn't enough, and the prophecy was void.

My grandmother very much believed that our family was being persecuted like Job, and that we should expect to face tribulations, such as painful diseases, or gaining huge amounts of weight without eating, or suddenly receiving uneven legs - and, of course, psychic warfare with demons. My mother's schizophrenia, for which she was institutionalized most of her life, was another sign of our persecution, though somehow the fault of my mother. My sister's overbite and crooked teeth were another sign, one that caused my grandmother on occasion to lament how beautiful my sister could have been, and then slap her for becoming ugly. But she also believed that one day we would have suffered long enough, and when Deliverance was at hand, my own ministry would take form. Most of the world would be listening. Christ would be born and Elvis would enter, and we would finally come into our power and God's graces.

I'm not sure what my grandmother thought of Miss Velma's church. She did believe in the hierarchy of beauty - both her daughters had a glamorous sense of style, overseen by her–but otherwise she made no concessions to the pursuit of opulence. I have always assumed that she was one of the few that came to Miss Velma for cellular healing, and the guaranteed anointments in holy oil, but she eventually condemned every minister as misguided, if not worse. Maybe she just fancied an annual show. Regardless, she voiced neither too much enthusiasm nor criticism.

The phrase 'never a dull moment' was coined for the spirit-filled churches we visited, and for the kind of Christianity my grandmother practiced. Miss Velma's was the only church we attended that broke the pattern of following an evangelist. By its nature ephemeral, evangelism and vaudeville have plenty in common. The Apocalypse would be here either today or by next week. The Antichrist is not just some clovenhoofed devil: he is often named as a popular televangelist, like Billy Graham or Oral Roberts. Cancers would be vomited up into special bowls, and demons rebuked, with sound effects like the lowing of an injured animal. In one of my favourite duties to witness, a sister would hold squares of fabric that functioned as modesty cloaks, so that when a woman in a dress danced in the Spirit and flopped out on the floor, she could be confident she wasn't flashing a beaver shot while convulsing, because the sister was ready with the fabric to cover up her indecency. The Pleading in the Blood, the chaotic Tongues, the dramatically delivered Prophecy, all this was heaven for showboaters. But it could also get personal and ugly. Like the original Pentecostal church origin from 1911 with a 'one-eyed black minister and multiracial congregation', these groups we attended were usually mixed, but not always harmonious.

The congregation at the World Church practiced the Gifts of the Spirit–if they didn't we wouldn't have attended. But it was lukewarm compared to the charismatic movement we followed around the region. The speaking in tongues was only done as a solo by one of the 24 elders, then immediately discerned by another. Neither Dr. O. Lee nor Miss Velma was great at delivery, so the performance of their sermons lacked fire. But I was excited by the special communion ritual, and the altar, which always had a new element like a flaming angel with a neon sword.

Fashion is unique and of utmost importance in the old timey Pentecostal church. Think of Grand Ole Opry stars bumped up a few notches: big hair, wigs, angel sleeves, layers and layers of vestments. But Miss Velma's approach to fashion was beyond precedent. Her elders wore floor-length blue and gold vestments, hemmed with chunky bells. She was clearly the queen: according to the poster, Miss Velma 'honors the Lord Jesus Christ with the most beautiful robes and gowns made by leading fashion designers, which she wears in the pulpit to honor the beauty ofthe Lord Jesus Christ'. And she is confident in her fashion sense: 'She is called by a leading fashion designer one of the 12 best-dressed women in the world'.

Isolation played a big part in enabling the lie I lived as a child; the lie that allowed me to believe fervently in the teachings of Miss Velma and the others. We lived in a neighbourhood that was half African American, and half Chicano, and my family were passive racists. They proclaimed all as God's children, but couldn't quite allow us to bring 'coloured' friends home. Also, because of their fanaticism, extended family steered clear of us, so it was a rare occasion to meet a relative. But, inevitably, I became socialized.

When I was 15, my commitment to the prophecies started to unravel. It all came to a head one night in a bowling alley, when I described my spiritual life to a new friend. She was dumbfounded by my story, looking at me with a mixture of embarrassment and concern for my sanity. The telling aloud of my history made clear what I had probably known for years: my life had been based on pure delusion, on fear of the devil and the promise of grandeur. I put my head on hold until I got home, and I locked myself in the bathroom (my only private space). I cried convulsively and let the delusional reality and all its comforts crash, until I had nothing left but a painful emptiness. I started to pray for His comfort and rejected the idea, and got caught in that loop. I couldn't stand the feeling of not being in my body, and slammed my head against the floor. I was, at the least, still a piece of animated meat. It was a pathetic excuse for an awakening.

I became more sophisticated during the next round of feeling hollow, by performing Christ aversion therapy on myself. Each time His name entered my pleas, I stuck a pair of tweezers into the electrical outlet until I emptied myself of my God yearnings. No Jesus, no sweet fairy tales to make life less harsh. I opened myself to the reality that my mother was in the nuthouse, and I was unwanted yet messianic, and nothing but another headache and expense. No God. No family.

That near breakdown was not the first sign of my emotional problems. At 10, a neurologist prescribed me Valium for nervousness. After my awakening, my abuse of the pills accelerated. My family was aware of my Valium use. What is ironic is that if I had been caught drinking a light beer, I would have been kicked out of the house.

Somehow, through all this, I was an exceptional student. I excelled in science and particularly focused in lab experiments and dissection. I was encouraged by my physiology and chemistry teachers to pursue a career in laboratory work, and was offered a spot in a gifted minors program for two summers during high school, to intern at the Jonas Salk Institute in La Jolla. I avoided telling my grandmother until a month before leaving. But nothing escaped her. I was no longer 'spiritfilled', and she finally confronted me. I told her I wanted to work in research science and find cures for diseases. (At the time, the irony escaped me that we were both so interested in healing.) She could not accept my scientific ambitions. She screamed and badgered me at the dinner table, to the point of throwing plates of food at me in fits of rage. She bemoaned my refusal of the Calling. She accused me of being bisexual and using heroin, which at the time was correct. She had psychic hooks in me that took years to shake. After the science program, I had lost my faith entirely and understood I couldn't allow my fundamentalist family to judge me. I never felt wrong about my sexuality, and they were the ones who had started me on drugs. I made a commitment to myself that I would die before I returned home, and I stuck to that.

18 December 1994. I wake up bug-eyed and trembling. Can't back out. I put on a turtleneck, roll it up all the way to my chin, and remove the jewellery from my visible piercings. I don an old brown suit with pinstripes, a cap and fake prescription glasses. I look ridiculous. I wonder if I'll have to take the cap off out of some formality. Just go.

Eastbound on Beverly Boulevard, I made a left turn just before Alvarado, and there it was, white with painted globes on top. Inside, I was surprised at the accuracy of my memory. I could not see more than 20 per cent of the altar, as most of it was draped in gold lame and silver Mylar curtains. The one small section that was exposed was beautiful. I could see a jewel-encrusted angel, an ark, and a valve from which anointing oil was dispensed. The stage was adorned for Christmas with seven white Christmas trees, and a seven-point star mounted on the wall that rotated when the Miss Velma Singers sang. The female choir members wore cheap nylon muumuus with a few sparse sequins. A huge lumpy curtain hid the Tree of Life from view.

The service started with hymns, most of which I believe were World Church originals (one contained the line 'Miss Velma holds the key to your eternity'), after which an elder gave a tedious account of the mathematics of the Tree of Life. According to the church flier, the Tree has '60 main branches built according to biblical measurements - twice 24 plus 12 - there are 432 smaller branches - 3 times 144 - there are 1,296 yet smaller branches - 9 times 144 - the 144 fruits of the Tree of Life, in 12 manners or varieties, are made of 144,000 jewels set one at a time ... imported from Europe'. After a song by "special guests' from the church's fellowship in Hawaii, the congregation was asked to walk around the room and greet each other.

Miss Velma appeared for the first time during this distraction. She was wearing a trademark couture gown with full skirt. Though quite a bit older-looking than her picture in the advertisement, she was the manifestation of radiance. Her pure-white hair was pulled back from her strong face in girlish ringlet curls. Though she was well into her 70S, her complexion was rosy, her waist tight. .

I looked around the room and noted the undercover hipster faction. Most were trying to be invisible like myself, but others were snickering. This made me oddly angry and embarrassed. Despite my lack of faith, I felt protective of the church. I was still respectful and even had a certain amazement at what had once been my life. But of course people came who were curious. She had bought a full-page advertisement in the LA Times after all, so I'm surprised the congregation wasn't even more mixed.

Sitting in the solid wood pew, I was overwhelmed and disoriented. Then came deep sorrow, the part of me that never knows how to identify being lonely, so achingly empty. Absence again. Dissociation. Suffering a 'chosen one' complex, I find it difficult even to just sit still and feel like part of the crowd. I began fantasizing about having an aura oflight that radiated around my body, and then levitating, nude, above the lighting grid.

For the sake of being present and functioning, I tried without cynicism to surrender to the realm of Miss Velma. But it was a blur until we lined up to partake of the Golden Revelation Tree of Life. It was like a fairground ride, with 12 mini-trees each corresponding to astrological star signs. I was the Flaming Sword Tree. I walked over the hologram bridge, and an elder in an Elvis wig instructed me to hold the 'horn' of my tree. I watched my little tree turn within the Tree of Life, which was expelling scented oils.

The next week was Christmas, and I returned to visit a morning service with my friend Scott. I knew what to expect this time, but I was more paranoid. It is as if there is a groove in my brain reserved for spiritual feelings, and I was touched deeply in that place on Christmas morning. I was losing myself to the Holy Spirit. Inside I felt a deep yearning. 'Oh Miss Velma,' I pleaded silently, 'can you feel me here? Can you remember a spirit-filled boy, who felt the vibration of your altar?'

The first Sunday I had not held on to the horn of the Tree long enough for Miss Velma to get all the way around to anointing me (the tree holds 12 people at a time). At the Christmas service, I stood still while Miss Velma anointed my head with oil. I thought maybe she would be frightened by my facial tattoos, or become angry that a sinner dared to take hold of a horn of the Tree of Life. This was not the case. She gave brief but equal attention to everyone she touched.

Earlier in the Christmas service, tithing envelopes had been passed around, and we were led down the aisles to a gold treasure chest that sat below Miss Velma. She said that at the Universal World Church, gifts to God were offered, not collected. I put my money in an envelope that said 'My Offering Made By Fire To The Lord Jesus Christ', took off my shoes, as one must do to walk near the altar, and threw my $20 into the pirate chest. Miss Velma beamed at everyone. As I walked away, the elders directed us the long way back to our seats - all the way across the front row around the side to the back of the church. I suddenly became panic-stricken that my grandmother and aunt might be in the audience. What if they had come to see the Tree? The thought had me close to hyperventilating. Of course there was a possibility that they would be there; why had I not thought of that? My grandmother was old and sick. She would hope to experience a healing when she touched the horn of the Tree of Life. I now know she was not there that day.

Several months after my visits to Miss Velma's church, my sister called to tell me my grandmother had died. I cannot say I felt heartwrenching grief. But neither did I feel the relief I imagined would come from her death. I have thought a lot since then about my history with her, and my rebellion against her, through much of which I came to be what I am. My grandmother and I shared more than just our religious bond. We gardened and baked together, and I know she loved me when we did those things. When I wrote 'Holy Letters', she nearly worshipped me. My family was so poor that my getting a Boy Scout uniform was almost out of the question; yet we lived a life of mystical power and grandiosity. The connections have been hard to break.

As a child, I was anointed and prayed over by screaming women until I received the spirit, whereupon thunderous voices and wild dancing poured out of me. I witnessed healings in the name of God. Some were hokey sideshow tricks, but during others it seemed real shifts took place. Since becoming HIV-positive, I have drunk water at Lourdes, I have eaten the holy dirt from El Santuario de Chimayo in New Mexico. Under the right circumstance, I can still feel the tamping of the tongues on the roof of my mouth.

  1. Johnson, Dominic (2013). Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey (Intellect Live). Intellect Ltd. pp. 248. ISBN 1783200359. Retrieved 2014-03-04.