I attend a C of E sixth form and in the past my friends from other colleges have heard with horror my stories about Muslim girls forced into communion, assemblies to remind us we will probably go to Hell, and compulsory anti-evolution assemblies - but today, oh my sweet Lord today, one particular Mr. Christian RE teacher has fucking outdone himself.
Last day of Easter term, ready for the awful hour-long communion and “unconventional retake on the traditional story” the organiser of assemblies in the main school is so fond of (which in the past has included a powerpoint titled “Why Radicalisation Can Be Positive (if it’s spreading the Christian message)”, and a detailed explanation as to why Hinduism is one of the greatest evils on the earth), we trek our way and line up and sit down and say a prayer and sing a hymn. And everyone’s favourite Mr. Christian (his first name is Christian. He might have had it changed legally; we’re not sure) stands up at the lectern in his eye-watering electric blue suit and claps his hands and thanks us for being so lovely - but then he introduces his friend. He doesn’t explain who this friend is or why he’s here. We accept it. We prepare, internally, for what must surely come.
This friend proceeds to wheel a train set to the front of the stage. It’s a nice train set. It has lots of greenery and painted mountains and small houses. On the left of the train set is a box covered by a black umbrella with splashes of artistic red-blood paint and draped black netting; on the right of the train set is a green wooden box with, as far as we can tell, an air vent from the wall glued onto it.
I can’t remember the specifics of how it started. We all tuned out. We were ready for as much of a nap as we could get in until we had to stand up for another hymn. Our attention was soon to be brought back, sharply, to the front.
In this assembly was not just sixth-formers. It was Years 7, 9, 11, and 13. That means that some children in this room, listening to this man speak, are eleven years old. They are new to the world, fresh and bright and lovely. They have only lived through one service at this school before and this was Christmas and they are yet to learn the true horrors of what is in store for them - but truly, none of us could have prepared ourselves for what was to come. What was to come… To be delivered to school-children. Impressionable. Innocent. Eleven years old.
Quickly, the friend of Mr. Christian sets up a small train on the train set. He does a comic scene with the audience, asking for name suggestions, and pulls out a pre-prepared name tag that reads “LESLIE”. We laugh politely. He sets Leslie rolling jovially around the train track. Small, innocent, harmless little green-painted Leslie. Leslie wants nothing more than to cruise this train set in peace. Friend of Mr. Christian quickly picks out several small children from the audience. He brings them up to the stage and gives them a small sheet of paper. The whole audience is then asked to shout at poor, minding-his-own-business Leslie “JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS. DO YOU ACCEPT JESUS INTO HIS LIFE?” The first child, at threat of this strange old man with a train set, tremulously reads out from her sheet of paper “No, I want a new football.” We repeat the shout on command. The second child hesitantly declares “No, I want a girlfriend.” This continues while poor, innocent Leslie - Leslie who is a nice train, who treats the other trains well and does no harm and simply wants to chug along this train set - repeatedly refuses to accept Jesus into his life.
Then Friend of Mr. Christian sends the children off the stage, flicks a switch, and sends Leslie careening into Hell.
“Leslie was a good train,” he intones, “but he did not accept Jesus into his life. Leslie has gone to Hell.”
There are hesitant giggles from the sixth formers. We’re eighteen. We’ve lived with this shit. It’s somewhat full-on, but we don’t know really what to do. Poor Leslie. Leslie is practically a meme already and we’ve known him five minutes.
The small, small, so small, eleven year-old children are silent. They stare at this tiny train, cast onto his side beneath a black umbrella spattered with fake blood and draped in black netted cloth, wheels still rolling sadly as his batteries run down to nothing.
Friend of Mr. Christian proceeds to call up an older boy from the audience. “Now,” he says, “we’re going to imagine that P. here has gone to Hell, just like Leslie. He didn’t accept Jesus into his life, just like Leslie. Do you think we can protect P. from the torment of Hell?” P. is made to put on a high-vis jacket, safety goggles, a hard hat, and oven gloves. He is given a fire extinguisher. A bright, spirited lad, he grins hesitantly out at his teachers and peers, unsure what to make of this whole venture but not displeased to be out on stage. There are nervous titters of laughter. He looks so funny. A high-vis jacket. A fire extinguisher. So strange.
“This is useless,” Friend of Mr. Christian says solemnly. “Nothing can protect P. from the torment of Hell.”
P. is removed of his protective gear and sent back to his seat. While everyone sits in uncertain silence, another small (so innocent, so young, so untarnished by the world and its horrors) boy is summoned forth and brought up to the lectern to read a passage from the Bible, laid out ominously on the panel before him. He cannot reach the microphone. He is too young, They are all too young.
The passage describes in graphic detail the torment of a sinner suffering in Hell. The sinner pleas to those who has wronged, who have also died and are now in Heaven, to go back as ghosts to his brothers (who also live in sinful ways) and warn them of what is to come. They refuse.
“We don’t get second chances. There is only our one life, and it could end at any minute. And if we don’t accept Jesus into our lives, if we continue to live as sinners…”
He gestures at Leslie.
Leslie, on his side, his wheels now still.
Leslie, who just wanted a football and a girlfriend and a job and a house and grandchildren.
Leslie, who now suffers the infinite torments of Hell.
The band plays a hymn. The trumpet is too loud and out of key. The solo singer is nervous and keeps glancing at Friend of Mr. Christian from the corner of her eye. We can see her thoughts, hear the hitch in her voice. Is she going to die now? Is she going to suffer infinite torment as poor little Leslie does? Is it too late?
While the hymn is sung, Friend of Mr. Christian procures another train. He does not ask for names, simply pulls out the name-tag of this train. Its name is Chris.
Chris is a good Christian boy train, we are informed. Chris is ten years old and accepts Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Saviour.
Chris goes on a different path to Leslie. The tiny signal light changes. Chris turns off the main track and up a small hill, past a tiny wooden cross beside the tracks.
“Chris has died.”
Chris accepted Jesus into his heart. Chris is in Heaven.
There is some more comic relief. A boy with learning disabilities is pulled up onto the stage. He is made to stand on a stool; he is given pink fluffy wings, it is funny. Then he is given a long white robe, and a large white cross, and a strangely-shaped crown-hat.
He looks like a KKK member. We do not say it. We glance at each other. We stifle laughs. He grins obliviously at the audience. He cannot see his hat or his robe. He does not know.
There is little else left to do. We are read out a surreal passage apparently from the actual Bible (although RE students confirm that they have recently written essays about the differences between Islam and Christianity, and one of the main ones, they point out, is that the Bible does not describe Heaven in any more detail than “Great kingdom” and the Qur’an describes Paradise in perfect detail) about the specific dimensions of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is 1500m long and 1500m wide and 1500m tall. He pulls out a world map on which he has drawn a square to show the size of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Isn’t it enormous?” he grins. “Enough room for all those who accept Jesus into their heart.”
It isn’t. If the top left corner of Heaven was the border of Scotland, the south border of Heaven would be in Egypt and the east border would cut eastern Europe in half.
Heaven is not very large.
There is certainly not enough room for, when you consider it really and in proportion to how long humans have been around and how many must deserve a place and how many there are of us now… Everyone in this room.
He makes the small children carrying the map walk around the hall again. They walked too fast the first time, their heads bowed and their faces read. They must walk slower. They must hold the map higher. We must all see the Kingdom of Heaven.
We will go if we accept Jesus into our hearts.
Of course, we could also not do that… We could end up… Like Leslie.
But we are good Christian children. We are blessed by our upbringing, the privilege we have to attend this lovely school (the nicest he’s ever visited to do assemblies in, don’t you know).
We have another hymn.
We thank him and say another prayer.
We file out of the single door. We walk past the train set, Chris the train sitting on the edge of Heaven as if about to teeter over the edge, Leslie still and silent in the bottomless pits of Hell; as we pass the doors we are given a leaflet. It reminds us of the meaning of Easter.
We wait until we are outside before we start to scream “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?” and “FUCKING SHIT ME JESUS CHRIST”.
We, the 17-18 year-olds, laugh and tell the group chat about it and manically text our friends about Mr. Christian’s latest crazy exploits. The 11-15 year-olds are silent and bewildered.
All of us laugh but our laughs are hollow. Leslie, the innocent train who did nothing wrong… Tumbling into Hell. P., smirking beneath his hard hat and clutching his fire extinguisher, being reminded that nothing can save him from Satan’s wrath if he does not repent. The boy grinning at his friends, oblivious, in his long white robe and large white cross and strangely-shaped crown-hat.
The Hall is too small to fit all of the school; the next hour is the turn of Year 8, 10, and 12. We pass them on our way out.
The strongly Catholic head of sixth form pushes between us.
“NO,” she is shouting. “They’re not going in there. They’re not being exposed to that. Go back to lessons. Assembly is cancelled. Back to lessons, Year 12!”
We cackle with laughter at how ridiculous this whole thing is. The tiny Catholic woman shouting at several hundred children to go back to lesson, the religion in this Christian college is too much for her.
Mr. Christian has already been through three separate public tribunals related to inappropriate or extremist religious behaviour. We have had to deal with multiple spirituality days reminding us to love everyone, regardless of race or religion, and to follow our hearts and think for ourselves. Will we have more? Is this the end of Mr. Christian and his messages of hatred?
We do not know. He is a living legend and he will continue to be so. “He made two lesbian girls cry once. He ranted about Hell because they were holding hands under the table.” “He nearly got fired because he said that community cohesion was a bad thing if it erases the Christian message at a school conference.” “He once brought in this guy, right, who had this train set, and one train was perfectly nice but it refused to accept Jesus into its life, so then this train got fucking sent to Hell! In front of eleven year-olds! In an assembly!”
Sometimes I struggle to believe that I do not, in fact, live in southern Texas, but in fact in a small largely secular town in the rolling green fields of England.