Take Them to Church!

For the past three months, I have been in search of a new church home. Since my worship home, OnePlace in Phoenix, closed in the physical sense (the community still exists in a transient state in the Phoenix area), I needed a new place to feel connected in a spiritual sense.

Leaving my religious beliefs out of the equation — which is a conflicted thing to describe — finding a church is as difficult as trying to sell a Senate seat without cursing. There are as many churches in the Valley of the Sun as there are fake tatas, with places of worship as varied as you can expect. From Ned Flanders-like preachers and sermons to mullet-graced ministers that teach genteel lessons like a self-help workshop, there were many flavors to sample. All of them were charming in their own way and not without their charm.

And then there was a special church.

Last week, I visited a church that resided in a strip mall. (As I’ve learned in Arizona, some of the best restaurants dwell in shopping plazas, as well as some “interesting” businesses.) That was my first tip-off that this would be no ordinary house of God. When I entered the building, I filled out the new visitor info — as requested by the friendly woman — and entered the sanctuary.

Now, for those who have read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series of books, the main thread tying the stories together is a fractured sense of reality; a haunted take on what is real life, filled with fantasy and the occult. Stepping through the doors of the church sanctuary, I felt like I was transported into King’s version of 1999 New York City, into a holy version of Manhattan’s East 60s.

The vast room was as large as a gymnasium, decorated for a grim, televised Sunday service that would never happen. The walls varied between a steady beige and dour plum; the stage draped by two plastic plants clearly out of place; a row of five female singers that were slightly out of tune; fake beige walls that served as barriers between the church members that hid behind them as the preacher took to the pulpit.

The congregation was as fascinating, if not more so. While the singers tried to hit their notes, a “deacon” danced on the stage, clapping in excitement and occasionally peeking out from behind one of the fake walls. In front of the fake walls were several other “deacons,” consulting their Bibles and conferring amongst themselves. A older-middle aged woman — who had the frozen eyes and dress of a crackhead — danced around in a circle. A one-armed man did his best to praise the Holy Ghost.

But the best, most delicious part of this freak show was a church member who was on the stage: dressed like a ’90s new-jack preacher from the M.C. Hammer University of Prayer, the high-topped, sunglasses-wearing “deacon” wielded the microphone like a man on a mission from a higher power, rapping the lyrics the singers belted like he was inspired by the earliest Kirk Franklin works. It was like he was striving to embarrass his imaginary teenage kids in front of their friends. He knew no bounds, wanting attention like a stripper battling her demons by humping the pole. I relished his performances in a depraved, so bad it’s good-type of way.

He must have studied under the master himself.

And then the main preacher had to get on the stage. And he was interesting, like a snake oil salesman in the Middle East. He had the congregation under his spell, talking about how the problems of the present were not going to get HIM down — and that they shouldn’t get them down either. To hammer home the point, in the middle of the service, he called for the “deacons” to come down to the two main aisles with their donation baskets. About half of the members slowly marched in lines to the baskets, money in tow.

One constant throughout this service was my anxiousness to get out of there. Despite my efforts to be entertained — particularly by “new-jack deacon,” I was not feeling the members, the preacher or the message being taught. And it was a LONG service. After about two hours and a lot of eye-rolling, a cell phone call was my excuse to leave. (No cell phones in the sanctuary!)

As I left, I reflected on the experience: peeking “deacon,” out-of-tune singers, crackhead lady in the congregation, “new-jack deacon”; they all were entertaining to a point. However, I wanted to find a sense of community, a place of belonging. And reveling in mockery wouldn’t be a good thing, no matter what your beliefs are.

And so, the search continues. And I am sure that there will be more interesting adventures ahead.

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