The Little Servant of God
“Every child is trained in one way or another,” says Deborah Drapper’s father. “Even if you just neglect them, that’s a training. But it’s a different training.” Deborah, a 13-year-old winsome blond, lives in the lush countryside of rural Britain with eight of her ten siblings. She is articulate and sincere — and deeply disconcerting. In a recent documentary aired on the BBC, Deborah 13: Servant of God, we meet Deborah and her family, who seclude themselves from the rest of society and consider one another friends as well as kin. Everything revolves around home and the family, including the children’s education. “I think it teaches us everything we need to know for life,” Deborah remarks after her mother explains why she and her husband chose to educate their children at home. “I’d much rather be homeschooled than go to school.”
Mr. Drapper candidly distinguishes between their approach to family and the normal life of state-schooled children — whom, he suggests, spend all day away from their parents, come home to a television meal, and then are off to meet their friends. “We have not had a television for 14 or 15 years,” he says, “but we are not completely cut off from the world. We have computers; we trust [the children] to be on the Internet in their bedrooms without fear of what they are coming up to, because we know who they are. We know what their natures are, what their characters are. So no, I don’t have any worries about them missing out. I’m glad they miss out on some of it — the bullying, the peer-pressure, and being led into things that are inappropriate.”
When presented with magazine images of Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham, neither Deborah nor her sister is able to identify them. Protected from popular culture and worldly influence, their attention is focused not on entertainment but on learning to live “God’s way.”
This includes keeping an open womb. Deborah’s mum — humbly endearing with her gentle British lilt — reveals that she and her husband decided to let God be in control and thus receive as many children as He wants to give them.
Deborah clings to her convictions, to her purpose, with even more determination than her parents. At first impression, she seems like the perfect spokesperson for the fundamentalist vision. She is intelligent; her devotion to God and family is evident; her faith strong and clear. She cares nothing for fashion, since, after all, “what does it matter that this hat is in style when all of the elements are burning up?” Giving no thought to what other girls her age might be doing, Deborah says, “I don’t see anything special about someone my age.” She’s an inspiration for beleaguered conservatives, who often struggle to raise children in a society that they perceive as hostile to their beliefs. This picturesque family with a bold, outspoken young daughter seems to show that such a lifestyle is an attainable ideal.
Matthew, the oldest boy in the Drapper clan, is enrolled in college and studying to be a chef. We see evidence of Deborah’s rhetorical prowess in a conversation they share while he is home on break. “Here’s my question, okay?” she says. “Science. Define science.” Matthew and Deborah are reclining on a rock, overlooking the countryside.
“Science is stuff you can prove,” Matthew offers, seemingly intimidated by the mind of his younger sister.
“Science is like knowledge basically,” asserts Deborah. “Things you can observe and test and demonstrate and test again and again and get the same result. Okay, so that’s science. So here’s my question.” She pauses to fold her hands, almost prayerfully. “How can you test and observe and demonstrate the Big Bang?”
“It’s a belief,” says Matthew.
“Exactly. There’s no scientific evidence for it at all.” Deborah speaks, as always, with assurance. “You would have to need help to believe a theory that stupid.”
We never meet the documentary’s narrator, who pushes Deborah, at times aggressively, to defend her positions. One wonders about the agenda behind the camera. Does this child pose a threat to the filmmakers’ worldview? Do they hope to discredit this little girl before she even reaches adulthood?
But Deborah holds her own, fearless and strong as any old tent-revival preacher. After every effort to remain untainted by the world, however, her initially sunny demeanor can turn unexpectedly morbid. “I think anyone who told the smallest white lie should be going to hell,” she says, “so, we should all be going to hell.”
“But what if hell doesn’t exist?” the narrator interjects.
The wind tousles her hair as she stops to ponder this question. “Well then, I’ll die and go to the grave and that will be it.” Deborah’s serious demeanor belies the girlie pink top she wears; she is, after all, barely a teenager. “But what if it does exist? What will happen to you?”
“If I die and that is the end, it is probably a waste of my life. I’ll just be dead. But if you die, and there is a hell, you won’t just be dead.”
By far, her favorite tool for evangelism is fear of eternal damnation. She takes part in a family puppet show which not-so-subtly proclaims judgment, fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth to a very young audience — messages that horrify parents in attendance. This is the fear that emboldens Deborah to witness everywhere she goes. “I don’t like to make people upset,” she says, “but it’s good to make them scared about hell.”
Eternal fire is the punch line for an ice-breaker she often uses, an old trick for those trying to secure souls for God. “Do you believe you are a good person?” she asks. The inevitable “yes” plays right into her spiel. “Have you ever told a lie? Stolen anything? Taken God’s name in vain? How, then, can you call yourself good?” She asserts her own wretchedness; with tears, she explains that if it weren’t for Jesus, whom she found “on my own at age six,” she would be going to hell herself for her many sins.
“I think I am living my life like I want to,” she muses. “I’ve given my life to the Lord; anything that happens to it is what He wants. I’ll probably be dead longer than I am alive — it’s just a wee dash between two dates: when you were born and when you die. You know it’s not that much, but I’ve given my wee dash to the Lord.”
How long can this preoccupation with the gravity of life and death persist? One wonders how Deborah will change with age, if she will grant herself some metaphysical slack when more temporal matters assert themselves. But for the moment, her mission is clear, and her focus remains steadfastly on eternity.