1640 Camino del Rio North, Mission Valley
It is the rock music echoing off the concrete-and-glass storefronts of Mission Valley mall that draws a reporter to the front doors of the place that used to be Seau’s. There’s a band playing inside on a makeshift stage under the giant flat-screen TV. A couple of hundred people stand with their hands raised in the air. That old mural of Junior, surrounded by a corona of airbrushed lightning bolts, looks down on the assembled masses. But no more football Sunday — this is a sanctuary now, and it has been ever since Eastlake Church took over the venue last September.
Outside, pop-culture references abound: there’s an image of an electric guitar and the Hunter S. Thompson–esque slogan, “Weird, because normal isn’t working.” Later, I ask Kevin McPeak, who is the creative director for Eastlake Church, if the music and such are just a Trojan horse designed to bring young people into the fold.
“I wouldn’t say ‘Trojan horse.’ What we’re trying to do,” he says by phone, “is get the exact response I just heard from you: ‘I haven’t been to church in a long while, the people were nice, and I had a good time.’” He explains that rock and roll helps break down barriers stemming from negative church experiences people may have had in the past. “In all due respect to the tradition of church music, not a lot of people are interested in going to a pipe-organ concert.”
McPeak, 42, is a former music instructor at Southwestern College and plays guitar and bass. Eastlake Church simulcasts their morning sermon to three other satellite locations, including Seau’s. “We have one or two musicians on staff at each location who are pros. They coordinate schedules, make sure everybody has charts, and they lead rehearsals.” The remaining band members are volunteers. But McPeak says Eastlake is particular about who they choose to jam for Jesus. “There’s kind of a high bar to get on the [music] team.”
Junior Seau opened the 15,000-square-foot sports bar in 1996. It closed in May 2012, following the former Charger’s suicide. McPeak says that Eastlake contacted Seau’s family when they learned they would be granted the use of the facility. “We didn’t want them to read about it in the newspaper,” McPeak says. “Junior’s brother came to our first service.” Otherwise, Seau’s remains the property of the mall. “Their interest is in finding a long-term restaurant tenant. In the meantime, we’re there as long as they want us.”