[Source: Times Educational Suppliment Published: Friday, 27 December, 1991]
Clare Jenkins meets the Mattacola family, members of the Jesus Army and “mainline Christians”
They’ve been called Christo-fascists, God’s guerrillas, theological storm troopers. When they’re on the march, they look not unlike a bunch of football hooligans, with their badges, their green and brown sweatshirts and their mock-fatigues. En masse they’re exuberant, clapping their hands above their heads, shouting, singing, occasionally flinging themselves upon each other or on to the ground. They’re the Jesus Army: “We fight for YOU!”
But on a Friday morning, in a large house in a posh suburb of Coventry, over cups of tea and slices of toast, one group of these Christian foot-soldiers seems anything but aggressive. There’s no denying their fervour – large letters spell HALLELUJAH over the mantlepiece, Jesus Army stickers plaster their car, in whose dirt someone has scrawled the name Jesus, and seven-year-old Michael is colouring in a book of Bible stories. But the atmosphere is warm and calm, tolerant and friendly.
In the room are most of the Mattacola family: Mum and Dad, Carol and Peter; daughters Becky, 18, and Helen, 13; sons Johnny, 17, Hugh, 11, and Michael. The only one missing is also the only one not in the Jesus Fellowship – of which the Army is the campaigning arm, Mark, 21, is in the “real” Army – he’s a signalman serving in Germany, “We pray for him,” says his father, “But we don’t force our beliefs on him.”
Forcing or not, the Jesus Fellowship is very much an evangelising movement. Its green and blue bus is a familiar sight in many city centres, Like the Salvation Army before them, members believe in taking their message out on to the streets, with enthusiasm, songs and uniforms. “It’s not really a uniform, ” they correct. “It’s just a jacket”; Army-style that proclaims “Love, Power and Sacrifice”.
Resemblances to the Salvation Army are hardly accidental. For a start, there’s that word Army -“it’s a biblical word. You find it in the New Testament, It’s an expression of part of our hearts and vision, that’s all,” Then there’s the uniform -“it gives us a distinctive image. It’s becoming a bona fide symbol to the street people. They know we’re there to help.” Then there’s the Streetpaper, with its Warcry – type logo, And the prayers on street corners so reminiscent of Major Barbara. But while the Sally Army has something of a staid, middle-aged image, the fellowship’s is determinedly, brightly youthful.
“It’s lively… not like the other churches…lots of young people… I like the friendship and love that’s around.” are some of the comments of the Mattacola children.
And Peter, a former teacher turned bricklayer, says: “We’re not Bible bashers, stand-on-a-box tub-thumpers.” None the less, the 1,500 members of the fellowship learn early how to knock on doors, “to bring the power of love to people”.
The Jesus Fellowship -nicknamed the Jesus People or Jesus Freaks – was started in the early 1970s by Baptist pastor, Noel Stanton, after a charismatic experience (what the fellowship call “baptism in the Holy Spirit) at his Northamptonshire Chapel. Not long afterwards, Peter’s curiosity got the better for him, A practising Anglican, he stopped off at the chapel one Sunday after service.
“I was baptised in the Holy Spirit that same night, It was an experience of real power and exhilaration, and a sense of God’s closeness, almost like a wind blowing away all the cobwebs.”
Carol was a later convert, “I’d given up religion some years before. Then my mother and brother kept talking about this baptism of the Holy Spirit, And I could see they were putting it into practice – they used to visit a sick man nearby. So I went along to the chapel, and it was very different from the Church I’d known before. What hit me was the love people expressed for God and for each other.”
As members, the Mattacolas pay a tithe to the fellowship, which has various commercial outlets – farming, builders’ merchants, wholesale wholefood suppliers – and a retail clothes outlet. Since being made redundant from his private school two years ago – after 13 years in the state sector – Peter has worked for one of the businesses as a bricklayer and plumber. He is also an elder, responsible for upkeep or the house in Stoke Park where the family lives, with some Malaysian students, a couple of nurses, a solicitor and a single parent family.
Communal living is a feature of the fellowship, under the title of New Creation Christian Community, Eight hundred “souls”, as Peter calls them, live this way. Others have separate homes but share meetings and meals with the 50 church-households scattered around central England.
The evening meal is the main focus of each community: “We spend it in fellowship and sharIng and beIng a family.” Every week, church members – that is those who have been baptised, into the faith – meet for prayer and discussion. Every Sunday, local members and their families meet for a service in community centres, tents, even theatres. Every month, all members and their families gather for a large service in Northamptonshire, still the fellowship’s headquarters.
Becky is the only one of the Mattacola children to be officially baptised. Like the Baptists, the fellowship practises adult baptism by total immersion, “It was a powerful experience,” she says, “I thought I. was in heaven, I was so overcome by joy and by the love of God and the love of people, I didn’t want anything else.”
Carol mothers not only her six children but also the strangers who take advantage of the house’s open door policy. There is no such thing as a working mother in the fellowship: men and single women (celibacy is prized) go out to work, mothers stay at home, taking responsibility for the childcare, religious education and domestic chores.
Growing up in a communal household has had its effects on the Mattacola children. On the one hand, they rely on this tight-knit, self-sufficient community for friendships – Becky refers to her “false” friendships with classmates compared with her “true” friendships within the community: “People at school were astonished how many friends I had.” On the other, they are growing up experiencing active Christianity: “We’re helping other people who come into the house find stability and love in the power of God,” she says. “I see how they have been destroyed, and I know I don’t want to be like them. I want to help people.”
They also regard their “apartness” from some of their classmates with equanimity. “My friends think it’s different.” says Johnny, “But at least I’m somebody who can be different, Becky agrees: “At school, people knew I was different, but they seemed to admire it, They could see what I stood for. They used to come to me with their problems.”
They are 100 per cent convinced that they are right. So, while they, profess themselves accepting of multicultural religious education – though Johnny finds it contradictory and Helen says it’s “boring” – they make it plain that “Christ is the only way”. Facts and figures are one thing, faith is quite another. And they look for that faith among the disadvantaged: the Streetpaper is full of first person accounts of drug-taking, alcoholism, broken marriages, loneliness. All with the happy ending of salvation through Jesus, thanks to the fellowship. What Peter calls “practising true Christianity with a pronounced social relevance.
“People are thawing out towards us,” he says. “They’re more realistic about us, less prejudiced. Some people still view us as controversial, but we’re not a cult. We’re mainline Christians. There’s nothing new about our Christian beliefs. It’s putting it into practice that’s different.”