After the infamous pastor established his church in the 1970s, he slowly expanded its network to include local private education options from elementary school all the way through college. The college, which enrolls about 200 students a year, offers a “classical education in light of scripture” and is located just a few blocks from the state university in a building on Main Street—though I had no idea it was there until someone pointed it out. It occurs to me that kids born in this congregation whose parents are inclined to send them to its series of private schools could grow up having almost no contact with the outside community.
In addition to the education system, several local businesses are affiliated with the church, some more forthrightly than others. The most prominent is a café (named, I realize now, for an obscure Protestant reformer). The latest is a bustling clothing shop. This business savvy is a realization of Calvin’s belief that every aspect of society, including the economy, could operate in honor of the Lord. My None pals give those establishments a wide berth if they can help it.
When I announce my intentions to attend services at this church, my friend Emily rolls her eyes, “Ugh, that guy.” She’s the only person I know who says she’s seen the video where the pastor made the slavery remark.
I gasp silently as I enter a few minutes before the service starts. The congregation long ago outgrew its previous building. While the members await construction of a mega-church on the outskirts of town, Sunday worship is being held in the gymnasium of the church’s private grade school. Row after row after row of folding chairs—except in the few aisles I’m sure the fire marshal has declared necessary for possible escape.
If fewer people in general are going to church these days, here’s one congregation that’s bucking the trend—although it’s possible its members aren’t attracting converts so much as giving birth to them. So many young children are present that I feel like I’ve been teleported to the part of Disneyland where the rides are for preschoolers. Every woman seems to be pushing a baby stroller or holding an infant on her hip. All around, dads are pouncing on little escape artists. Chains of hand-holding siblings make their way gingerly through the crowd. There have been some children in every church service I’ve attended so far, but I easily could have counted them. I wouldn’t know where to begin the tally here.
But what I find hardest to fathom is that most of the couples here are “hip” in an urban kind of way. The women sport funky skirts with leggings and chunky boots. The men are lanky lumberjacks: close-cropped hair, broad shoulders, plaid. I get the impression they chop firewood and build things. If I saw them in a different context, I would totally peg them for Nones. But their facial hair? Ironic or not?
In a daze, I take the first available chair at the end of an empty row near the front. An angelic young woman with a halo of blond curls asks if the seats next to me are taken. When I tell her no, she nods to a clean-cut man who comes over with a newborn sleeping in a carrier and four small children trailing him like fuzzy ducklings. They file in to the spaces next to me, which is how I end up sitting elbow to elbow with a very well-behaved five-year-old boy whose blond crew cut sparkles under the fluorescent lights. I smile at him.
“Hi,” I say.