Sunday, March 28, 2010

Roundabout Hate

When the gospel garage-rock we had so tolerantly been appreciating came to an abrupt end, Lon Solomon's face appeared like the Wizard of Oz on shining silver screens. A shiver ran down my spine and kept running as his dark mouth opened wide around words like "trustworthiness" and "veracity". My discomfort came on so strong because, well,  Lon is an atavistic crossbreed of game-show host and far-right cult leader, fluffing his feathers in high perch as the Senior Pastor of the McLean Bible Church. His position gives him the opportunity to preach to ten-thousand people every week, offering sermons that cover the burning bush, gay marriage, and everything he misrepresents in between.

Solomon's position of authority within the religious institutions we have explored is not atypical. What shocked me was his blatant and entirely unchecked discrimination that he supported with a paltry investigation of the Bible. He started by crucifying Jon Meacham for his Newsweek story, "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" -- a piece ( that put a thorn in many a fundamentalist's side. My trouble with this, aside from it being incredibly outdated (the article was written in '08) was that there was no way for anything productive to come from Solomon's synthesis of Meacham's work. It's like Solomon agreed to a tennis match with Meacham, wielding a racquet without strings. Needless to say, it was painful to watch, painful to hear, and even more painful to see the entire audience nodding along with it.

On the fateful Sunday he appeared before us in stage makeup, the only issue firing Solomon up was gay marriage. But he didn't approach this subject head-on after decrying it in his introduction. He continued prolixly, telling tales about Jesus meeting the Sadduces, Creationism, the historic validity of religious miracles, and Carl Sagan. To drive us all to further distraction, orbiting around Solomon's disembodied head were additional screens illuminating a powerpoint presentation. In the slides, Solomon's paraphrastic and grossly biased quotes took on a great grammatical purpose. In one breath he said, "We don't need a bunch of gobbledegook theologians telling us what to think," emphasizing not only the righteousness of accepting the Bible at face value but also the necessity of it. Then in another breath, he drew our attention to the powerpoint in which he translated "God's words" for his congregation, and left his translations in quotes. It looked like this:

God: "I AM God, so it's true. I am God, I exist. My words will never pass away, so ride them like a surfboard into eternity."

Now, this isn't from the Bible. It isn't from anywhere except Lon Solomon's head. He said this was the way Jesus saw the Bible, and if we want to be like Jesus, we have to be like Lonny Solomon, and if we want to be like Lonny, we have to not question anything Lonny says the Bible says. Lonny is just reading the Bible like Jesus read the Bible. So Lonny, the Bible, God, Jesus, and real life all become the same thing. To call into question one of these things is to call into question all of them, and then do you know what happens to you? You're condemned to an eternity in Hell. So go ahead, be gay.

Yes, that was Lon Solomon's hour-long sermon. He concluded by breathing fire and snorting the words, "God said it, I believe it, that's good enough for me. This is Jesus' attitude. This is my attitude. If you have any sense you'll do the same thing." Solomon admitted he was not up to debating the issue, because it's "beyond" him to doubt anything God has so explicitly and unmistakably said. It's just not worth the risk.

Far, far away on the other side of the fence, Jon Meacham wrote, "to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition," and from this premise continued to construct an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Meacham supported his claims using the same Scripture that homophobes hopped up on conveniently suited ideas of God's Will have been using for the opposite purpose. This is possible because, by definition, a quote is words out of context. The same way rock music can be prescribed or condemned by God using different clips of Bible material, similar strategies are employed regarding pressing sociopolitical issues.

Solomon would have everyone believe one road leads to heaven, and it's his road alone that will get them there. This is terrifying for a multitude of reasons. Where do human rights factor into Eternity? Religiosity can be a powerfully deceptive mask for discrimination. Intellectually stunted groupthink that perpetuates marginalization and intolerance has led to no holy place, ever, in human history. Let's love each other on Earth, starting now. Peace be with us all, Amen.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pretend Your Way to a Better You

The last day of our trip found us tired out by a daylight savings leap forward, running on empty, and still drying off from the previous evening's rain. Needless to say, waking up for a 2 hour drive to church didn't seem like the most enticing option.

After a hurried breakfast at the Silver Diner, we made our way back to the place where our journey started a whole year before: the McLean Bible Church. We waited in a familiar-seeming flood of cars, and searched endlessly for a spot in the cavernous and poorly lit parking garage. The chilly walk inside cemented the fact that we certainly weren't in Miami anymore.

Since we'd come to MBC the year before and were veterans of a service in their main chapel, we decided to switch things up a bit and go for the "praise through song" rock-and-roll alternative. In place of the usual opening sermon from a pastor in training and more traditional hymns, this chapel offered 20-odd minutes of total immersion Christian rock. In sum, the four of us stood still for a while, exchanging the odd skeptical glance, as our peers swayed with their hands in the air, reciting the words being projected on the four huge teleprompters towards the front.

It was like being at a watered-down Creed concert - definitely the last thing any of us wanted given our collective mood.

As the vocalists sang their last and the instrumentalists filed off the stage, the lights dimmed and the screens lit up with images broadcast from the main chapel. Lon Solomon, our guy from last year, had taken the stage! After his usual greetings, a few images showed up on the other screens (I can't tell you how well they coordinate the multimedia at these places) and we knew we were in for a treat. The screen showed the cover of a not-so-recent issue of Newsweek debating the issue of religious involvement in gay marriage. Waaamp waaamp. Our moods continued to spiral.

Lon used this platform as a starting point for his sermon topic of when and how literally biblical verse should be interpreted in dictating our daily conduct (his answer: all the time, and entirely literally). And man oh man, did he succumb to some serious flaws of logic.

We sat and suffered as Mr. Solomon proved the literal applicability and validity of the bible by...saying it just had to be that way purely on the grounds that it's the Bible (in other words, everything in the Bible is completely true because the Bible says so). As we watched the most basic principles of simple logic get torn down on a big screen and listened to the murmurs of agreement from everyone around us, it was hard not to wonder just how much everyone was willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of their pastor's argument. Although the man was encouraging false, circular logic and the type of closed-mindedness that would shock even Pat Robertson, everyone was eating it up. The second things concluded, we bolted, not even close to being in the mood for continued exposure, and too tired to argue.

As we sat in the mass exodus traffic jam, venting our frustrations with everything we had just experienced, it occurred to me that our hurried exit from MBC was all to similar to our exit from Miami. After 2 days of car confusion and trouble, not to mention the sudden onset of overcast, humid weather, we were beginning to get a little fed up with our glitzy, glamorous, gauche, and greasy vacay destination. Even though we were starting to finally get the hang of things (only eat Cuban food, and stick to hotels for some genuinely pleasing nightlife), it had all started to wear a little thin. All the "I'M IN MIAMI, BITCH" t-shirts in the world couldn't make South Beach seem like a real destination, and to do things like we would have really wanted to would have taken a pocketbook much larger than any of ours.

The breaking point came during our visit to a store called Claudio Milan. Although it looked like Eternity Fashions (in terms of decor and wares), the whole place seemed to have been priced by a boom-happy Russian oligarch. Run of the mill, de-labeled Gap jeans encrusted in rhinestones ran well into the thousands of dollars. Latin Grammy-worthy ballgowns with splits up the side that reached above the hip seemed arbitrarily priced at $5000 apiece. Sarah had her eyes set on a part of lycra leggings printed with the image of jeans (a real feat of trompe l'oeil), only to find out that they cost an astonishing $275. A shirt that was literally constructed from mesh netting and puffy-paint cost six hundred and eighty nine American dollars. When Kim asked the saleslady (who had been following us around the store) if this was simply a typo or a case of a decimal gone missing, she responded in her most "Pretty Woman" condescending saleslady voice - "It's a local designer. Handmade. The highest quality." Given the rate at which it was shedding glitter, the shirt itself begged to differ.

In both places, we were being sold something that was so obviously transparent and gratingly untrue that we were left with no other option than to get tired and give up. We learned in South Beach that simply pretending something is glamorous doesn't make it so. At McLean Bible Church, we learned that saying something is true just because someone else said so certainly doesn't make it the case, either.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Ballad of the Drive Back

With drops of jupiter in our hair, sassy new bikinis strewn in the backseat, and McFlurries clutched in our sweaty palms, we set off from the Emerald City that is Miami in a Chevy HHR. We were destined for Savannah. Savannah! Enclave of ole’ Southern hospitality, Paula Deen, and, uh, St. Patricks Day. But wait! We aren’t there yet. Instead, we found ourselves at the Miami International Airport. No! Not to fly to Venezuela; we went to a Hertz. Yes, that car rental agency that excels at answering phones and doling out sexy little vehicles.

The following occurred prior to our sojourn to the Miami airport, when we were having car troubles with our smarmy old Pontiac and switched to a Toyota Corrolla. As we were presented with the tiny blood red sedan, someone whispered, “I think this car got recalled.” iPhones out! After some preliminary Google searches, article after article popped forth relaying the horror story of the disturbingly defective 2010 Corrolla. “It’s not like it’s defective in that mirrors fall off or something,” Adrian told us, iPhone reflecting off his glasses, “It’s more that the accelorator sticks and does not stop.”

We were not about to let Spring Break 2010 turn into ‘Speed.' We were here to research megachurches, not engage in some Keanu Reeves hoopenanny! So we went to the airport. After Kim sweet-talked the woman at the front desk, we were presented with what must have been the only non-Toyota in the lot.

Have any of you ever seen a Chevy HHR? It is shaped like the American dream, and it is a car-truck. We shoved everything in the less than spacious trunk, rolled out to the open road, and breathed deeply. Our car is definitely a smoker. The pungent smell of menthol cigarettes and a slight tinge of body odor filled our nostrils. We quickly opened our beef jerky and iced animal cookies to mask the smell, and the sweet scent of Aisle 7 replaced everything (sort of).

With Kim and Hannah at the helm, we drove and drove and drove, all wide-eyed and goosebumped, in the rain and the sleet and the snow until we made it to Savannah, where it is St. Patricks Day. This was curious, because there is a limited population of Irish people in Georgia, and this holiday is not for another week. Instead of trying to figure out this problem on our phones, we just opted for dinner on the water front. No sense in fighting it. Our exuberant waiter Brian M. (possible relation to Brian McDonnell?) served us delicious oyster poboys and crabcakes and burgers. Frightened by the possibility of us Yankees contracting e. coli, he urged us to get everything cooked fully. “Medium,” he commanded. “We hand pat everything here.”

Stomachs under control, save Kim’s, it was off to the Savannah Garden Inn for the night, where we booked two full beds for four people. Imagine our surprise when we walked in to find one bed and a pull out couch! A pull out couch sans sheets. After much hemming and hawing with the front desk, we were given two space blankets and no pillows. Oh, dear. This was going to be an issue that would have to be resolved in the morning.

Unfortunately, the best resolution we could reach was an 18% discount, but the prospect of a relaxing morning wandering Savannah cooled our nerves, and a long drive to Richmond brought us back down to earth. The drive was punctuated by a visit to Pedro's South of the Border and a low-fuel scare, but we finally arrived at our last roadside hotel in the midst of an enormous thunderstorm.

To sleep!

The fine line between swanky and skanky

After just a few short days in Miami beach, it became clear to me that most of the hype surrounding the nightclubs and fancy restaurants is just that: hype. Mansion, BED, Cameo, PrivĂ©, Space, Trapeze – the names are just vague enough to keep us intrigued, and dark or curtained exteriors make us feel like something secret and awesome is going on inside. 

Going to BED sounds exciting, not to mention reminiscent of Sex and the City as Kim mentioned, and with the whole beds-instead-of-tables thing, it's got a gimmick that makes you feel like you can't find It anywhere else.  Once you get inside, however, and the thrill of the hype has passed (or once it gets knocked out of you by an aggressively unfriendly Bouncer Slash Manager), it becomes nauseatingly obvious how sleazy this place really is.  A pair of older gentlemen stared unblinkingly at us from across the room as we tried to find a comfortable position, and our waitress literally crawled across a bed to take our order.  As we put on the night vision goggles of sobriety among our bump'n grinding, photo-snapping, cocktail-guzzling peers, we imagined what the scene in front of us would look like if somebody only turned on the lights, and decided it was probably best that they remained off.  I almost wished I could accept the glossed over version of my surroundings, but the devil was really in the details for this evening hot spot, and in this case, the devil seemed rather unsanitary.

We met a similar phenomenon as we walked past the other clubs in the area.  We were handed VIP bracelets to Mansion by a beefy gelled up fellow, and told we could cut the line when we got there.  Of course this made us feel picked out of the crowd at first, until we realized that almost every twenty-something walking alongside us was wearing the same neon bracelet, and the line we were cutting only led us to another that was almost just as long.  We weren't VIPs, because there were no VIPs, yet the rest of the bracelet-wearers were holding onto the idea that this place was exclusive, and everyone else was just buying into the hype.

A lot of the megachurches we've visited practice this same kind of hype, with their gimmick being their size, and all the media and technology they use to reach a wider audience and hold their attention.  Like the Miami Beach clubs, they make us feel like we can only get It there (whatever It may be), until we actually go to a few of them and realize that they are mostly the same.

The New Birth Baptist Church was an exception in some respects.  Compared to places like Christ Fellowship, MBC, and New Spring, this one had the fewest gimmicks.  There were two small screens to project the service for those in the back rows, but the stage itself was small, and there were none of the colorful lights or special effects that we had become accustomed to.  Rather than trying to show us how great the church was, our guide was more excited to tell us about how God had blessed them in ways that allowed them to help people in the community, and about the ways God had spoken to her personally.  She told us about how the pastor was trying to keep his services to a manageable length, but how they could run as long as three hours.  This was especially interesting because aside from some songs from the choir and communion, the bulk of the service was the pastor's sermon, compared to the service at Christ Fellowship, which crammed as many different scenes as it could into one hour.

Our guide (who was a pastor herself) didn't seem to have anything against the larger, flashier churches we had been to; when we mentioned how this one seemed like it was easier to feel close to the pastor and the messages that were being shared, she said she didn't think size mattered, because if God wanted to get a message to you, he would do it no matter where you were.  Perhaps some of the larger megachurches began like this one, and if so, perhaps this one was destined for the size and hype of those churches.  Still, at New Birth it felt like no one was hiding behind the glamor of TV screens and lights and music.  Unlike BED, where night vision goggles were necessary to distinguish the reality from the hype, here it felt like the lights were already on.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


How does size affect religion? How does size affect South Beach? The churches that we have been visiting are so attractive to many people precisely because of their size; the same can be said for South Beach. The idea of bigger and better is appealing, because it signals progress and forward movement. In exploring both places, my question is does form and structure play a similar role in these two very different structures?

South Beach is famous because of its grandiose proportions. In the area where we are staying, on 63rd and Collins Avenue, we are surrounded by towering hotels and condos, each one’s penthouse farther up than the next. (Our hotel is a mere three floors). With names like ‘Fontaine Bleu,’ ‘W’ and the ‘Gansevoort’, these luxury hotels sound exotic and mysterious- you want to spend all your time there. They are beautifully constructed both inside and out, but their size is rather intimidating. Inside there are stacks upon stacks of people spending inordinate amounts of money for ocean views. They zoom up towards the sky, blocking the sun and making it difficult to access the beach. The theme seems to be, “Look, but don’t touch. Unless you can afford me.”

The rest of South Beach, at least the part frequented by tourists, is clubs and restaurants, and follows this theme. From a distance, these dining and dancing establishments look glamorous yet accessible. Close up, however, the glossy veil is lifted. The restaurants are huge, their outdoor dining area taking up a good third of a city block. Standing outside of most of them are hostess frantically trying to sell you their menu- they do so by shoving food items in your face as you walk by. Lobsters, cooked by the sun, and melting ice cream sundaes completely detract from the appeal of these restaurants. Despite the obvious lack of haute cuisine, everything is expensive. Your eyes can feast, but only those willing to pay the price can actually indulge.

The clubs are cavernous. As we walked by a megaclub called “Mansion,” the other night, we were struck by its size and the line of antsy, fake-ID armed college students that snaked around the block. Everyone has to dress up in a certain way to even be considered for entrance; once near the bouncer you are given the one-up and then asked to fork over around fifty dollars. The size of these places is intimidating, and the price even more so. South Beach is an exclusive, albeit temporary club. You have to really want to be wanted by Miami to enjoy most of its offerings.

In my opinion, some of the megachurches we have visited feel like intimidating structures, difficult to appreciate if you don’t believe, particularly the Christ Fellowship Church. From the outside, the church didn’t look huge. The walls were a pretty peach color, there were lovely gardens around it, and it looked awfully, well, cute. Inside, we were greeted by a cafeteria of Herculean proportions, and an even larger worship center. I have never felt entirely comfortable in megachurches precisely because of the intimidating size. I feel invisible, lost in translation and unknown as soon as I join a crowd of several thousand. Perhaps because I do not consider myself a particularly religious person, I have never understood how people feel a personal connection to God in a gigantic auditorium.

The New Birth Baptist Church was different. Still considered a megachurch, they have just under two thousand worshippers that attend services on Sunday. While the worship center can comfortably seat these people, the room felt smaller and cozier. The pews hugged the stage in a snug semi-circle, making the room feel much more connected. There were no individual chairs and the pews were rather close to each other. Indeed, New Birth Baptist seemed to be set up the exact opposite of all the other megachurches we have thus visited. This, of course, has to do with the fact that they cater to a smaller number of people. I asked the assistant pastor what she thought of the overwhelming size of megachurches, and if that affects people’s spiritual experience. “I don’t think that’s an issue,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter where you are sitting, God can reach you anywhere. You could be sitting all the way in the back row here and He could still come and touch you.”

The New Birth Baptist Church seemed very conscious of separating religion and spirituality from the physical structure of their location. Christianity can exist without the form and structure of a church; it is a spiritual belief that is embodied in each member of New Birth. Obviously, the church is integral in bringing together a group of worshippers, but religion is something that doesn’t stay in the church. The opposite is true of South Beach. The whole hedonistic lifestyle of partying and eating and tanning could not exist without the physical layout that is already in place. People come from all over the world to indulge in what is South Beach, but they cannot bring home these clubs and lobsters and ocean views. Although we may find some similarities between churches and Miami, the long term benefits that they offer cannot be compared.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Comfort Zones Begone

Following a night in our real beds, we had a day of churchgoing to snap us back into a religious sphere of things. First we drove about a half hour from the Lombardy Inn to the Northwest Baptist Church, which turned out to be something of a disappointing enterprise. We pulled into the church parking lot to discover that the most we could do was walk around suspiciously. It was a week day and the church functioned as a school for young kids. There was no easy entry point to get inside, and we looked sketchy trying to find one. We spent more than twenty minutes on the perimeter before we had to cut our losses. Trying to avoid ruffling any feathers, we made our quick round of the exterior and jumped back into the car. Everyone hoped for better luck at the next church, but nobody knew if we would find it.

Part of the discomfort I felt definitely had to do with the sudden change of scenery. We had gone from the glitzy (and frequently sleazy) sidewinder of South Beach to a more sparse and suburban low-income neighborhood. It wasn't far at all from all the excess we had experienced, and shocked us into a sense of seriousness.

When we pulled up into the New Birth Baptist Church (the second church on our hit list for the day), the security guard immediately came over to us and asked if we were lost. We knew before we got there that the church was entirely African American. We weren't lost, we were parked, and it became clear that not very many white people came to visit New Birth, if any visited at all.  I told the guard we were from UPenn and we intended to learn more about the church for a research project, and then he kindly directed us to the information area.

Once inside, we spoke to the secretary who tried to get us to meet with the pastor immediately. He couldn't meet with us, because he couldn't be located, so an assistant pastor gave us a tour and a run down. At first, everyone in the church seemed slightly surprised by our company, but they were eager to educate us after they understood our intention was to learn about their work and their spiritual lives.

We learned that New Birth does more for the Baptist community than provide a stairway to heaven. The church also functions as a career counseling and networking hub, providing employment assistance for any member that needs it. Furthermore, the size of the church (the sanctuary, specifically) was much more modest than any of the other megachurches we visited. This, coupled with the fact that the church cut back on technology expenses so they could keep more people on staff, made us confident that their mission is not only to help individuals reach salvation in the afterlife. They are also interested in bettering the mortal lives of the worshipers in their community, however temporary those lives may be. Unlike the messages administered by Christ Fellowship, the downplay of ephemeral hominid existence was secondary to the necessity of aiding others with a humanistic touch.

This got my gears turning. How can one describe the niche a church fills in its site-specific community with the niche filled by a nightclub in Miami Beach? It's not necessarily about how they might behave similarly or in ideological combat with one another.

Maybe it's more about what happens because they are each there, in their place for their purpose. We can say churches do more for the community, but do they? Only worshipers get to take advantage of the resources they provide, and you have to believe what they believe to have access to those resources. There are definitely a number of people in the New Birth neighborhood that could use career help, but they won't be getting it from the church unless they accept the church's faith. Nobody should be forced to make that sacrifice in order to get the help they need.

Churches might teach you that your soul must be saved before you can be helped by anybody -- regardless of how your bills keep adding up or how difficult it is to live off unemployment checks. Clubbing might teach you that many people seek out a taste of the meaningless and devote a lot of energy and resources to sustaining meaninglessness.

Yes, it's true that the nightclubs in Miami have their elect clientele, those fancy snappers who cut all the lines and get VIP access. But while the clubs emphasize certain vices, they stimulate the economy. Clubs provide jobs and money from the tourists during vacation seasons and the loyal customers who are cultivated every weekend. Many clubs have history and have become landmarks of the city itself. But no nightclub will tell you their club is the only club you can ever go to, and each church we have been to believes it's their way, or the road to hell.

All Senses GO

It would be generously reductive to describe South Beach as anything other than sensory overload. It's impossible to shut out everything that seems to be happening all at once and all the time, everywhere we go. A walk down Ocean Avenue comes with the agreement to deal with restaurant employees forcing lunch and drink coupons into our hands, and an afternoon lying on the beach comes with the constant encroachment of insipid conversation and a continuing parade of greased up beach bods. There's nowhere safe to rest your eyes, and sound is pumped in from all directions and sources.

Though it may sound like a stretch, the same basic exhaustion-by-stimulation happened to me during the service at Christ Fellowship - it just had more to do with rapid video editing and inconsistent subject matter than the reggaeton and shouts of "6.99 MARGARITAS AND FRIES!" we've encountered on South Beach. In light of all this, our visit to the New Birth Baptist Church had a refreshing effect, and the things we learned about the principles of the church from our tour guide seemed entirely antithetical to everything we'd come in contact with before.

I noticed that the significantly more low-key (yet still accommodating, and frankly, huge) chapel at New Birth had the same broadcasting technology as the other churches we've seen, and I asked about the different ways that the sermons were recorded and broadcast. Our guide said that aside from the usual internal projections, sermons were usually broadcast on (a host site that broadcasts sermons online), but due to cutbacks tied to the economic downturn, they'd been forced to put their broadcasts on hiatus; this was one of the first things to go, to ensure that jobs at the church would be maintained.

Where the pastors at Christ Fellowship had made sure to emphasize the importance of continued giving in the face of economic adversity (not to mention the necessity of increasing the size of the congregation, in what felt like a grab for a larger economic pool), our guide at New Birth made sure to tell us that the wellbeing of the community was their foremost priority. If this came at the cost of the expansion of a multimedia project, then so be it.

This tendency to stray from and shrink the power of constant stimulus was also evident in the lack of a snazzy gift shop chock full of STUFF. The kiosk that sold recordings of sermons and speeches seemed to be a bit more honest in it's intentions, in that the sermons were sold on video and DVD; this seemed to speak to a greater attachment to and interest in the message. Instead of being temporally available online, these lasting mementos of particularly affecting or interesting sermons are available to any and all who are interested. Something about this strikes me as more genuine, although it really isn't my place to say.

I don't know why I keep equating the expansion of these churches into new forms of media with a departure from purity in their message, but I think it has a lot to do with the way it distracts me personally. Since I've been having an extremely difficult time focusing on anything in South Beach (case in point: mountain of un-done geology homework), it might be that our visit to New Birth seemed to be a welcome contrast to many levels of this experience.

Evangelism 101

After the musical, theatrical first half of the service at Christ Fellowship Church, during which they managed to bang out a rock concert, a comedy show, a Broadway musical, as well as practically choreographed audience participation (not to mention a call for donations and volunteer recruitment for Easter, which seems to be their biggest opportunity for conversion of newcomers), we moved into what Adrian described as the talk show portion, but which felt to me almost like school.

We were all given a church brochure as we walked into the auditorium, and inside was a paper insert with a bunch of quotations from scripture, interspersed with numbers and incomplete phrases with lines to fill in the blank.  At first glance it looked like some sort of religious MadLibs, but I soon realized that it was more like a worksheet, along the lines of those you would have to complete for homework in middle or high school to prove you had done the reading.  While I had brought a pen and notebook to the service for note taking, I was prepared to be stealthy about it so as not to seem disrespectful, until I noticed that many people around me had their pens out as well, alert and ready to take down the answers to the worksheet questions.

The insert was titled "Reach - Part 1, Pastors Todd Mullins and John Poitevent," and it marked the first service of the theme of Reach, or rather the first class of a new unit.  As the discussion between Pastors Todd and John continued, it felt more and more like they were laying out their lesson plan, and the space that had so recently felt like a theater was suddenly transformed into a lecture hall, with the professors sliding seamlessly between anecdotes and PowerPoints, and the students jotting down everything they thought might be on the exam.  This interactive approach was certainly a great way to keep people listening; in my churchgoing experience, zoning out and even falling asleep are often inevitable, no matter how much you want to pay attention.  On the other hand, the layout of the worksheet made it easy for us to listen only for the answers to fill in and miss out on what was in between.  Either way, people took notes when they were told to and our "professors" were able to mold what we paid attention to and what we took away from the sermon.

The worksheet, and the sermon, began with the statement (and assumption) that "You are an _evangelist_."  With this classification of the audience, the pastors worked hard to dispel the idea of the "scary" televangelists who are only interested in getting your money.   They assured us that they were not trying to "sell people," but rather to get people "one step closer to Jesus."  This was certainly refreshing to hear, although it was difficult for me to accept completely when the first half of the service had been mostly about ways to give money and support the church, volunteering with the goal of gaining more megachurch members, rather than "reaching" out to the community as the theme of the second half suggested.

Pastors John and Todd defined the term "evangelism" as our "mission in the world" to spread the Gospel, or the "good news," as we filled in for the second blank.  Once they had defined the term, the rest of the discussion was about teaching us how to be evangelists, using a mixture of personal anecdotes and stories from the Bible, with the "7 Steps to Sharing the Gospel" as the next seven blanks to fill in as we learned more.  The discussion itself was a very positive one, which focused on listening and engaging with the people around you to see what their needs are and understand how God has called you to help them.  And while I had a lot of difficulty with the service we went to last year because the sermon left me with so many questions that went unanswered, I found that almost every question or problem I had with one of the steps in this service was answered within the next few steps.

By the end of the service, my worksheet was completely covered in notes; not just with the one word answers to Gospel Bingo, but with my questions and the answers they provided, plus thoughts and quotations and further questions for reflection that I asked myself.  It was difficult to read because there was hardly any space in the margins beyond the text and the blank lines they gave us, so I had to smush in my thoughts wherever I could make them fit.  This made me wonder about their intentions for giving us these worksheets, as I looked around at my neighbors, who had written one word per blank space (which was the same answer for everyone) and looked satisfied with the information they had gleaned.  Regardless of how much the pastors' discussion made us think, we walked away with the written proof of only a few simplified ideas – and while the subject matter might seem like it belonged in a class where we are graded on essays of analysis and interpretation, instead we were given a homework sheet of questions with only one right answer.  Whether these answers agreed with or contradicted what we heard during other parts of the service (i.e. the words and requests of Pastor Todd's father, Senior Pastor Tom Mullins, during the first half), we walked home with a clear and cohesive set of notes that showed no proof of any contradiction, and provided all of us with a homework mission to keep us coming back.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

B.E.D. H.E.D.

Last night we decided, since we love naps and relaxation, we would check out club B.E.D. B for beverages, E for entertainment, and D for dining. We shamelessly imagined ourselves in that episode of Sex and the City where everyone goes to the nightclub that offers a plethora of sleep-inspired furniture. Unfortunately for us, our experience lacked the ease and reliability of a night with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. Despite this, last night gave us entree into the realm of Miami nightlife that we came here to discover.

Club B.E.D. received Hannah, Sarah, Adrian, and me with an undo amount of turbulence. The owner insisted that we pay for "at least one appetizer a person and dessert." We had already eaten dinner at an amazing Cuban place and we knew that excessively-overpriced-mandatory-eating should not be imposed on us in lieu of a cover charge, so we didn't crumble under this nightclub dude's pressure. He had major attitude though, and was pretty abrasive for someone who works in the service industry. Assuming he was the owner, he should have been providing his customers with a positive experience. If he does not do this, they won't come back -- and they sure as hell won't be ordering souffle.

The only commonality between our night at B.E.D. and what happened on SATC was the fact that beds were present in both. Beds or no beds, I've been thinking about what it is that nightclubs are promising us. Why do we seek a taste of the exotic, a bar with beds for example, and why are we willing to pay so much money for it? Reductively clubs offer overpriced drinks, food, music, and dancing. Restaurants do the same thing, minus the dancing. So, I think there has to be something about the idea of night life that imbues it with special powers. People see it as an opportunity to act on impulse and enjoy themselves and the strangers among them. The formula is something along the lines of this: pay money + get into semi-private room with a lot of other people + alcohol = escape.

B.E.D. got me thinking about the service at Christ Fellowship last Sunday. First and foremost, the public baptism we witnessed was shocking and altogether a hard experience for me to swallow. It seemed to be in awful taste, making a spectacle of a spectacle of a religious ceremony. It looked like bad theater. Second, all of the service seemed to emphasize surrender and obedience. Instead of qualities I admire more, like critical thinking and questioning, every prayer and every song discussed the worthlessness of human life and the impossibility of happiness until death. Worshipers were implored to accept the inadequacy of their existence before prayer. Their prayers seem then like another kind of escape, the escape from the hopelessness that requires their prayer. The cover charge of these prayers is having to remain unsatisfied or "sinful" during your life on Earth.

Furthermore, the pastors spoke about giving up all earthly desire for the life to come after death -- but isn't desiring a life after death an earthly desire? And isn't heaven filled with all of the things we would want to have during our time on Earth, if only it were possible? What humans want for heaven is based on human experience, the very thing the Church service rejected.

The premise of heaven and the premise of the nightclub business is an offering of the unknown. Heaven is offered as, well, heaven -- while nightclubs brand themselves by their strange contents. Whether you get a bed, a theme, or theater, your experience of life is temporarily altered. This shift in perception is breathing room for the act of escape. People can either pay for it with their obedience or their wallet, but I'd say most of the time they pay for it with both.

Christ Fellowship closed the service with pleas for donations. "It's easy to give in good times," the pastor said, "but it's a true act of faith to give in hard times." Among their instructions on how to become a better evangelist, the pastors were able to solicit large sums from the people around us. There were envelopes in boxes on the back of each seat recommending donations later, if not now. The expense of Church attendance is a requirement of church attendance, and this expense leads me to another point. Maybe megachurches, are also in the service industry, offering H.E.D. or, Heaven, Entertainment, and Dining. As soon as we entered the Church there was a food court vibe that saturated the space immediately, a physical manifestation of service infiltrating religious ground. Service is not simply about raising money or recruiting converts, it's about giving customers what they want.

Mo' Money, Mo' God

Church is expensive. Well, it’s expensive in the way the Rodin museum is expensive. It’s free, but if you go there actively or even go there once, you kind of feel the need to give a little something. Money and the church are not an odd couple; since the early beginnings of the establishment of churches as religious and political institutions money has been collected and continues to seep in. The church needs money to survive as a community center, whether this be at a local or an international level. And, in a lot of instances, people like to give money-- they understand their contribution in aiding the existence of their church. This is true of people of all religions, and of all incomes. Besides food and basic necessities, low-income families from all across the world spend the most money on religious festivities and contributions to their respective houses of worship. There seems to be a willingness to give money because people understand the very real effect their cash can have, and are eager to worship in the most lavish possible way they can. I don’t think this is really all that different from religions pre-Christianity, in which sacrifices of animals were made to please the gods and to signal the people’s devotion. In the end, it is all about faith, and what tools you have in the present moment to show your devotion.

That being said, the Christ Fellowship definitely asked for money, but in somewhat nontraditional ways. When we first walked into the church, instead of being greeted by a lobby or a welcome center, we were welcomed by a giant cafeteria. In the middle of hundreds of tables and chairs was a coffee kiosk; off to the side was a buffet where people could pay to dine on eggs, bacon, toast and pastries. It looked delicious, and it wasn’t exorbitantly expensive, but it was interesting that you had to pay at all. We meandered around for a bit, and noticed a bookstore that sold everything from literature to music to candles to purity rings. In both the restaurant and the bookstore, the money went directly to the church. At 11, we walked into service and settled into one of the front rows. Ten minutes into service, I noticed some people standing by the aisles with wicker baskets. How they then proceeded to ask for money was most interesting. First, the large band/choir on stage sung several songs, teasing out everyones souls and spirits. I found the music to be quite moving, if only for the swelling volume and the very visceral reaction of everyone around me. Then, Pastor Tom Mullins came onstage. He talked a little bit about the church’s recent trip to Israel, and then launched into a segment on donating.

“It’s easy to give in good times, but its a true act of faith to donate in tough times... If you follow God’s economic plan by giving money today, than He will reward you,” Tom said. As he went on, the donation baskets went round. None of us put anything in, and no one looked at us oddly, but nearly everyone else put money in. I saw checks and large notes get thrown in the basket without question. But where was all this money going? In his speech, the pastor did not mention whether today’s donations would be going to children’s programs or salaries or construction or community service projects. In a megachurch, there seems to be much more anonymity of money. It reminded me of donations to international NGOs such as the Red Cross- because they work on so many projects, the money could go anywhere, or it could simply sit for any amount of time. In a way, then, it becomes less about the amount of money and more just the sheer fact that you are contributing anything at all with the intention of helping.

At the small, local level, I have no problem with this kind of system. If people feel closer to their church and closer to God when they donate, then they should do so, no matter how much they give. The vast majority of people will not give more money to the church than they are financially able to. Christ Fellowship did not put pressure on people to donate large sums of money, even though some clearly did. For some people, it’s just the thought that counts.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Church on TV, at church

As we walked into the main chapel at Christ Fellowship Church, we decided we were going to do things a little differently. Instead of taking seats that were relatively far removed from everyone else and observing from a distance, we were going to get right in there and become a part of the action, up close. We took our seats in the middle section, directly in front of the camera podium and facing the stage head on. This was closer than we'd ever sat before, and we were intent on getting a much more personal view of things. Based on our experience, we had to come to expect these spaces to be treated like concert halls, what with the stadium seating and groovy lighting. If this was the norm, then we were going to get the best view we could, with the same motivation as if we were at a Springsteen concert.

And then!

The lights suddenly cut out and a quiet piano melody took over the space. A chorus filed on to a set of risers, and a band got set up in front of them. Words like "HONOR," "GLORY," and "REACH" flashed across two enormous screens to the sides of the stage. The service had begun.

As the musicians finished up their act, though, I noticed that I had to make a concerted effort to keep my focus on the live action taking place right in front of me. Yes, I had a phenomenal view, and yes, there was really no other logical place for me to rest my eyes without turning my neck, but I could not keep my focus on what was happening directly in front of me. The two huge screens (and the camera/production crew of at least 20) were doing a fantastic job of keeping my attention focused directly on their handy editing and intercutting; in all honesty, watching the TV version of church is a hundred times more exciting than watching church in person, kind of inverting the way that a live concert is much more fun than watching the over-produced DVD.

When the head pastor took the stage and started a short sermon about the church's recent trip to Israel, he also made sure to mention the value and importance of baptism to the mission of Christ Fellowship. After a brief introduction and background story, the screen cut away to Jose (a church member who was about to move from Palm Beach Gardens to Virginia) hanging out with another church official in a nondescript black room. They each said a few words, and then WHOOSH - Jose was dunked, and the crowd roared with applause.

Only as the cameras cut away and shifted their focus to the onstage action did I realize that the whole production had taken place directly above the stage in the previously hidden baptistry. The camera cutting away did not immediately line up with the change of lighting (the baptistry was directly above the stage and had been lit up for the occasion), so for a second, the illuminated baptistry was startlingly clear between the two screens.

What struck me about this was the fact that I had no idea that the baptism was going on right in front of me; it could have been happening in some different part of the church, or in another building altogether for all I knew. Instead, it was right above the stage I had jockeyed so hard to get a good view of. In a service where the pastor made sure to mention the presence of simultaneous webstream broadcasts on the church's website and on the other campuses, it seemed as though the major emphasis was on the power of technology to spread the sermon as far as possible. There are even whole areas devoted to showing just a broadcasted image of the sermon; it's like going to the movies, but instead, it's church. It sort of changed the experience of physically being inside the church, and to some degree, we were just members of the live studio audience.

This feeling of detachment was only made more potent by the fact that the rest of the service had the tone of a morning show. It was hard to tell whether I was watching two pastors discuss their experiences of evangelism or the hammy interactions of Regis and Kelly; the stage even emulated a set. To top it off, I COULD NOT TAKE MY EYES OFF THE SCREEN. Maybe it was just the simple fact that good editing and camerawork were keeping my focus, but I couldn't help but be the least bit frustrated by the fact that I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the stage in front of me. While a lot of my trouble with the service could easily be attributed to an undiagnosed case of ADD, the fancy production values were strangely placed, and nothing if not distracting. The whole thing felt altogether weakened by the feeling that I could have gotten the same thing out of watching the services on TV. Evangelism is clearly adapting to the advent of the internet; when you can't spread the good word in person, take to the web!

In other news, South Beach is bizarre, and a blast. I bought a towel with a horse on it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Well, now I've seen it all

Once on the road again, the wind was in our hair and the rental Pontiac was rolling like a dream.  There was neither cloud in the sky nor hole in our engine, and the 6 hours of driving ahead of us felt like a mere stroll around the block after our nightmarish adventure medley of the day before.  We amused ourselves by personifying our GPS device and watching the temperature on the dashboard slowly creep into our comfort zone.  

Soon the tourists in us needed some sort of billboard-encouraged distraction, so we stopped at a place called the Carolina Cider Company, where we sampled a variety of all-natural fruity beverages and learned about the health benefits of muscadine.  The woman running the show proved her knowledge about Philadelphia with references to Fat Albert and "those steaks there."  She told us stories of how Captain Kangaroo and Bill Cosby inspired her as a child, and she sent us on our merry way with bottles of peach, black cherry, and of course muscadine, along with a link to their website.

The remainder of the ride was pretty peaceful with yours truly at the wheel.  The rest of the gang fell asleep for a while, which gave me some time to sing along to Fleetwood Mac as I pondered the abundance of alligators in the swamps surrounding the highway.  We made a pit stop just above the border, where my drowsy pals convinced themselves that beef jerky was a good road trip purchase, and we barreled on.  

Finally, we arrived in Titusville, Florida, at the swanky Best Western Space Shuttle Inn, which conveniently shared a roof with Durango Steak House, and a driveway with the Waffle House.  This was great because we really felt like walking to dinner, and Durango was clearly targeting us with its sign that said "Welcome Bikers, Hawgs. Eat Beef."  So we did.

The next morning we were greeted by a flock of vultures perched along the dumpster in the parking lot.  We didn't know what those early birds were getting, but we continued to The Breakfast Room for our complimentary meal.  The woman in charge of cereal and coffee levels scolded us for not immediately finding a place to sit.  She looked at Kim with her box of BYO Fiber One tucked under her arm, nudged her friend, and said, "well, now I've seen it all."  We, on the other hand, had not seen it all, and were pretty sure we weren't going to find It in Titusville, Florida – so it was back in the Pontiac and back on the road!

Do the Charleston like it's 1928

After a rejuvenating night of rest at the exquisitely appointed Charleston Riverfront La Quinta Inn and Suites, we decided it was time to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Since we slept in after our night of non-stop travel, the threat of missing our noon check-out time was chomping at our heels. We found a few options for brunch and eventually settled on the restaurant with the best name - Poogan's Porch.
We drove through Charleston's historic center, and parked within ambling distance of the restaurant, with the intention of taking a circuitous tourists stroll back to the car. The restaurant was a little more formal than we had expected (everyone was in their Saturday finest), but this was quickly underplayed by the presence of paper tablecloths. The south is full of mixed messages. Breakfast was scrumptious, and generously portioned. Biscuits worthy of Red Lobster were served with a rare concoction called "Honey Butter," and we realized that it's hard to find a restaurant that doesn't serve fried green tomatoes. Hannah and I ordered some pecan-banana pancakes that were the size of hubcaps, and Kim got an omelette stuffed with crab cakes. Sarah feasted on fried-green tomatoes eggs benedict (I mean it, they're everywhere). We asked for separate checks, and the waiter continued a popular theme of assuming Sarah and I were a couple by presenting us with a joint bill. It's easy to recognize true love.
We then moved on to the main drag of King Street, and quickly realized that Charleston is super bougie. The old money, confederate capital is jam packed with high end shops, which worked out to our advatage when we found an Apple store with exactly the adapter we needed for the car. While surfing the radio was indeed a contstantly surprising treat, we had all maxed out on David Guetta and Akon's "Sexy Chitch."
The stretch of outdoor mall spat us out at a park that was playing host to a wine festival.We were drawn in by the sight of some dazzlingly balletic and inappropriately dressed fencers. As we watched the spectacle more closely, we were approached by what must have been one of Charleston's premier talent agents, and were pushed into a photo-op with the performers. "These photos are going on Facebook, they'll be all over the internet!" he yelled as he snapped photo after photo, making it sound like out names would be in lights on BROOAADWAAAY!! It turns out that the fencing was part of a promotion for the Charleston Ballet's production of "Zorro." When we said we were from Philadelphia and went to Penn, Zorro's adversary mentioned that his friend Erica worked in the "animal department," and asked if we knew her (we don't).
The walk back to the car was confusing and indirect, but the scenery more than made up for it. We piled in, plugged our destination into the GPS, and hit the road once more.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Titusville, FL

Hello all!

We have arrived in Titusville, FL (pronounced the opposite way you are thinking it should be pronounced). We are very happy to have made it this far, and would like to extend a special THANK YOU!!!! to the people who helped us along the way. In honor of Oscar's night, the winners are:

Brian McDonnell, star actor of "I will work my magic on the telephone hundreds of miles away and supply you nomads with a rental car"

Ali Souli, star actor of "Fast and Furious VI: Chesapeake House to Baltimore in Under 2 Hours"

Steven, supporting actor of "Pistons. It's your pistons."

Dave, supporting actor of "Let me help you! I'm helping you!"

We love you parents! We love you. Everyone is a winner tonight. Also, a big congratulations to Hilary who managed to have a great college meeting, despite our repeated and very distracting phone calls!

Thanks again!
Adrian, Kim, Hannah and Sarah

Charleston or Bust, or Both Part II

From Chesapeake House (the roadside minimall) Ali Souli rescued our already road-weary asses and provided us with the emotional support -- and the wheels -- we needed to keep truckin'. Hannah's dad had arranged for the rental car to be picked up from Penn Station, Baltimore. So, we drove there. Little did we know, little did we understand.

When we got to the station we discovered there was no Hertz to be found. We checked the email confirmation again and realized we were supposed to go to the airport, about a half an hour away. When we called Hertz they told us, because we were so late, there wouldn't no longer be a car waiting for us at the airport. These words were... no good.

Fortune smiled upon us, kinda. The woman on the other line was incredibly helpful and within ten minutes we had another reservation booked at a Hertz around the corner from Penn Station. Times like these, you have to love technology.

We got to the Hertz and struggled through a minor debacle over the legal age to lease a car, but long story short, everything worked out! We were ready-set-go in a shiny brand new blue Pontiac. Classy, yet grounded.

Alright so, once we got motoring, the traffic between Baltimore and DC was bumperbumper -- but at that point being stuck in traffic was relaxing. Nothing like an engine explosion and a series of encounters with roadside assistance to make you appreciate the little things.

We drove and we drove and we drove. We were high on anxiety, all we wanted was to reach Charleston.

In the interest of being faithful to what happened last night, I will leave you with this: We did make it to Charleston by 3am, there were some rest stops we were too terrified to get out of our car to use, and there is nothing like driving in a night so black you can't see where the road ahead of you is coming from. Adrian and I forced each other to stay awake -- he forced me because I was driving, and I forced him because I needed him to force me. The movement of the car became mesmerizing. The blacktop strayed from the horizon in varying degrees of grey until it was under us, we had passed it, and were one second closer to sleep.

La Quinta, Charleston was the perfect place to shack up for the night.

Charleston or Bust, or Both

Yesterday, everything was set. We had all our bags, we had all our
snacks, we had all our fancy music devices. We all high-fived each
other as we settled down inside a gold 2000 Volvo aptly dubbed “The
Professor.” Guided by the melodically ambiguous accent of the GPS, we
drove through West Philly, zoomed up onto the interstate, and were
cruising all the way to Maryland. Ah, Maryland. You, with your
crabcakes and paddleboats, how happy we were to be in your presence.
That is, until the car broke down. Not broke down so much as something
quite literally kerplunked out of the car, forcing us to pull over
onto the shoulder. We sat, dejected with a smoking hood on the side of
the road as the other cars zoomed by us. We tentatively opened the
hood of the car, as though magically our liberal arts educations would
teach us how to fix an engine.

Luckily for us, we didn’t have to wait long for someone more
skilled to help us out. Steven, one of several heroes to appear in
this story, walked over to us, a vision in neon green and lip rings.
He oozed mechanical know-how. He chatted to us for a bit about what
happened, and offered some advice. Suddenly, a second truck pulled
over to the side of the road.

“Ah shit,” Steven said, “here comes this mother-f*****.” (Since
this gentleman never introduced himself, for the purposes of this
story we shall refer to him as MF.)

MF was also wearing the neon green that seems to be customary of the
Maryland Transportation Authority. He ambled over, five feet one inch,
belly protruding into too much of our personal space.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. We relayed the story. MF and Steven
looked under the hood and felt around for a while. The rest of us
stood there, amazed at their engineering capabilities. Steven stood

“A piston fell out of your car. The engine is completely broke. You
can tow it back to Philadelphia but that will cost you.”

Apparently, pistons are what make the car go. Well, a lot of
things go into making a car go, but especially pistons. What were we
going to do? Who should we call? Most importantly, how were we going
to get to Miami?!

We did the only thing we could do. We got our iPhones out. Fingers
furiously flying across touch screens, we called AAA, the police, and
our parents. Steven and MF got on the phone with our parents. After
much heeming and hawing, we figured out what we were going to do. My
dad had given us his AAA card in case of emergencies (good thinking,
Dad). Unfortunately, AAA refused to come pick us up since Ali Souli
wasn’t in the car. That meant that Ali Souli had to drive from
Philadelphia to Maryland so we could get the car towed. As this was
sorted out, Hannah’s dad Brian (who happened to be in a Very Important
college meeting with Hannah’s younger sister Hilary) arranged for a
rental car for us in Baltimore. This was wonderful news! Things were
getting sorted out.

We settled back into the car, resting our fingers and
stress-eating Oreos. After about an hour of sitting in the car and
comforting each other, another truck pulled over. I got out of the car
to talk to him.

“I’m with AAA! I’m Dave! I’m not here to tow you guys! I’m here to tow
another car, but what is going on with you?! Let me fix it!”
Trying to match Dave’s enthusiasm, I replied, “Our car broke down! AAA
won’t come because my dad isn’t here!”

I handed him my AAA card, and he worked his magic. “A tow truck is
coming in 25 minutes!” he shouted, and zoomed off into the distance.
25 minutes later, a tow truck indeed showed up. Mike hooked up an
absurdly thin cable to the Volvo, and with the help of Kim, wheeled it
up. We all hopped up in the front of the car, and bounced along to the
Chesapeake House rest stop to meet Ali.