Please understand my cousin P. and how she landed in the church and singles group that became notorious on account of Dale Akiki’s trial.
P.’s a hero of mine. She got raised by a stern mother. When my Uncle J. left them, P. stood beside her mom. They protected each other from the world — owned and operated by wicked men — until her mom died from cancer, which might’ve been a side effect of bitterness. Then P. drove south in her mom’s old car.
She had problems. Grief over her mother, on whom she’d depended for 30 years, who’d left her without job skills or savings and with only a couple of distant friends. None of her aunts, uncles, or cousins was seeking a relative to support. Her dad was in Washington state, newly remarried, and cancer had struck him too.
My mom offered P. a room in her house on a La Mesa hill. The arrangement was supposed to benefit them both, but my mom’s quirks and P.’s didn’t harmonize. My mom was impatient and inclined to criticize. P. required encouragement and patience. I marveled at how deliberately, meditatively my mom could wash a window or scrub the kitchen counter. And whenever the exigencies of life left her preoccupied, she became a world master of the non sequitur.
“I got a letter from S.,” she might announce. “I wonder how much are plane tickets to Ohio.”
“Whoa,” P. demand. “S. doesn’t live in Ohio.”
“I know', but she’s thinking of moving to San Francisco, if this job doesn’t w'ork out.”
“The one she got offered in Santa Barbara.”
“Yeah, so what’s S.’s letter got to do with Ohio?”
Her explanation might include several flashbacks, digressions galore, and a brain-wearying medley of further non sequiturs. I learned not to ask for clarification. Still I worried about her mind, while my mother fretted obsessively over P.’s seeming inability to hold a job. When an acquaintance led P. to Skyline Wesleyan Church, my mom was doubly vexed. She regarded churches as extortion rackets. Our family wasn’t one that prayed together. My grandparents had practiced Christian Science, but the next generation had fallen away, except my aunt M., who got breast cancer and disregarded physicians, opting for a Christian Science practitioner. Exit M.
P.’s mother had believed in astrology. Her dad’s religion was liberal Democrat. But Skyline Wesleyan offered P. faith, hope, charity, and a singles group. Dozens of eligible men.
My mom also worried about P.’s adventures behind the w'heel. Lately she’d begun terrorizing the neighborhood. She wasn’t a bad driver as long as the car had all its functions. But a Monte Carlo doesn’t range very far on a dollar's gas, and P. rarely had more than a dollar. When the motor quit, the power steering locked, the brakes acted petrified. On the flat, P. escaped disaster. But on the hill — the first time, she leveled 50 yards of chain-link fence. A month later, she flattened a mailbox, mutilated a young pine tree, and splintered a telephone pole.
When P.’s insurance rates tripled, she bought a new pair of Nikes and dealt the Monte Carlo to a kid from National City. It became a lowrider.
I mention this stuff not only to tease my cousin, but in light of the doctrine that God’s quite able to bless us through calamities. P. moved to Faith Chapel because it was closer. She could walk there in 20 minutes.
At Faith, people offered P. friendship and rides. She joined the choir. Encouraged, her self-esteem blossoming, she found a job in the office of a nursing home and kept it. Secured by a regular income, she moved down the hill to her own place, an old-town La Mesa studio, near the trolley and handy to the Oktoberfest, in case she should ever learn to drink.
A couple of years passed before P. got the nerve to start inviting me to church.
Out of 12 cousins, I was the sixth, P. the youngest. I outranked P. in education, income, all that trash; and though I credited the people of Faith for appreciating her guilelessness and generosity, for helping her focus and avoid non sequiturs, I wasn’t likely to attend some fundamentalist church populated by Jimmy Swaggart and Tammy Faye clones. Not that I was an atheist or pagan. About 20 years before, when most everybody I loved was dying, I got lured to a Billy Graham crusade and offered my life to Jesus. A few hours later, I took it back and went to a Tijuana nightclub.
My mom died five years ago. I moved into her house. On Saturdays, P. would arrive lugging pillowcases crammed with laundry. By the time she left, she’d have invited me to the next morning’s service. A couple hundred times I said, “...blah blah busy....”
Meanwhile, in another dimension, I was wallowing through a divorce. I couldn't sleep. On a good night I’d doze from 2:00 until 4:00 a.m. About the time this cycle began, I’d received a letter from an old classmate who’d decided to enter a psychology Ph.D. program at Boston University on account of a book he’d read. He ardently recommended the book. I stuffed the letter in a drawer, forgot about the recommendation. But a month of vicious insomnia led me to the psychology shelf at a B. Dalton’s in search of a treatise on conquering sleep disorders. Finding nothing on the subject, I stood grumbling when a subtitle caught my eye: A Psychology of Spiritual Growth. Hmm, I thought, and picked up the book. The Road Less Traveled.
A few chapters in, I was sleeping whole nights, gaining weight. Feeling hopeful. I’d gotten inspired by a theme about truth — that if we seek it courageously, we can not only grow but also be delivered from unnecessary pain. That might’ve been common knowledge, but so far I’d dodged it, having emerged from the ’60s believing that reality was a crutch — a delusion that had landed me in the snake pit.
A year or so later, the author, M. Scott Peck, gave a seminar at Faith Chapel. My first visit.
At Christmas and Easter, the Faith Chapel choir performs in a dramatic extravaganza to which P. always invited me. She’d bring flyers, tickets, leave phone reminders. The year I was planning to attend, to please her, awful news interfered. Dale Akiki, a singles group friend of P.’s, was accused of molesting kids in the nursery.
“What the hell kind of church do you belong to, anyway?” I cruelly inquired, wounding her heart. P.’s devoted to her extended family, which had grown to include the whole congregation at Faith Chapel.
In 1965, I was sitting with my friends listening to Bob Dylan, and a couple of guys walked in with a baggie full of assorted pills they’d grabbed out of medicine cabinets. They offered us each a handful and a soda to wash them down.
Three years later, my friend B. maintained that during his months in a Mexican prison, the Mexicans had implanted his brain with electrodes through which they sent him evil messages.
By 1969, my friend R. liked heroin. One morning he shot up, walked outside, and aimed his motorcycle toward the grocery store but wrapped it around a tree. He walked home, returned with a car in which to salvage the pieces, but ran the car into the motorcycle. He walked home and shot up one last time, leaving behind a 19-year-old widow.
The same year, the sister-in-law of my friend K. ran away from her parents’ home, then got ditched by her boyfriend in a gas station near Big Sur. An affable character in a van gave her a lift. He was Charles Manson. She stayed with him, mostly in Death Valley, until she discovered the graves in the desert. Then she escaped.
Mark Clifton grew up in San Carlos with Brenda Spenser, who would open fire on a schoolyard, and Danny Alstadt, who murdered his parents and sister. Mark filled a book with the stories of his childhood sidekicks who killed, died, or disintegrated while following gurus like Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead. A few got sidetracked and became what we used to call )esus freaks.
The way Mark tells it, in the late ’60s, at the beginning of the Jesus movement, fellowship involved meeting in living rooms or anywhere but a church building. Places like the Lord’s Fish House, a communal home on El Cajon Boulevard; and the One Way Inn, operated by Faith Chapel. Fans of Jesus would gather at the One Way Inn to hear Christian rock bands worship using Fender Stratocasters and Vox amps.
“As these kids grew in their faith,” Mark told me, “they started feeling called to become accountable. They acknowledged that they needed to plug into a more permanent situation, but only a few churches welcomed them. These longhaired, scruffy kids blew the socks off some of the more traditional and conservative churches. But Pastor George Gregg opened up his heart and his sanctuary to them or anybody else who was seeking God. He was way ahead of the curve. Convinced God was changing the hearts of these wayward hippies, he was obedient to open the doors of the building God had entrusted to him, much like Chuck Smith did in Costa Mesa with Calvary Chapel.”
Faith Chapel originated out of a split in the congregation of La Mesa Assembly of God. In 1956 the new church opened on Echo Drive with a congregation of 35. A few years later, George Gregg spoke at a Faith Chapel revival meeting, so impressing Pastor Troy Blair that when poor health forced him to retire, he arranged for George to replace him. Pastor Gregg took over during 1963.
Lettered above the main doors of the Echo Drive sanctuary was “Whosoever will may come.” People from all kinds of backgrounds and colors took Pastor George at his word. Through the Jesus movement and the charismatic revival that followed, the congregation grew from 200 to 3000. As worshippers filled the place and spilled out the doors, plans came together for a new facility on Campo Road behind the One Way Inn.
George Gregg served 30 years. Toward the end, he became missions pastor and turned the church over to his son Charlie.
Three years ago last Christmas, I figured it wouldn’t damage my kids or me to visit Faith Chapel for the musical, listen to P. sing in the choir. We took the escape seats, on the aisle in the top row of the balcony, and I sat grumbling that these guys could’ve delivered oatmeal to every famished kid in Ethiopia with what they’d squandered on this building. It could’ve been a symphony hall minus the orchestra pit. The pews were far more comfortable than my sofa. The ceiling reached to second heaven and was studded with lights that brightened, dimmed, and followed the actors.
I liked the choir but knitted my brow when the angel who appeared to Mary strolled away crooning operatically and when Jesus materialized in a synthetic mist above the stage in the baptismal alcove. Still, I enjoyed that the narrator was the guy who took the last room in the inn just before Joseph and Mary got turned away and that Mary rode into town on a real donkey. You can’t reject out of hand a church that lets a donkey parade across the route where its altars normally would be.
When Pastor George appeared, I watched and listened closely, eager to judge if P.’s regard for the man was deserved or misguided. He had prominent glasses, wavy brown hair. He mildly pointed out, in case we had missed the implication, that the miracle of Christ’s birth was accomplished for our sakes. “Besides the miracles he recorded, John said there were many other things, many signs, that Jesus performed in the midst of his disciples. By the Holy Spirit he selected some of the many and he told us why. Listen to me now — he said, ’So that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and by believing you could have life.’ ”
I sat restlessly through the altar call. When ushers passed the collection baskets, I tossed in a buck and gazed around trying to calculate how much the church would gross off this spectacle.
While the kids and I waited in the lobby for P. so we could proclaim that she stole the show, my critical eye scanned the crowd. All I could see were aging Republicans, a surprising number of attractive women, and sleek fellows in dry-cleaned shirts and woolen blazers. Loan sharks and car salesmen, I grumbled.
My fortunes were turning. Ten years after my first novel hit the shelves, my second would soon appear. I was recovering from divorce and the death of my mother. Several years after giving up a cozy professorship to live near my children, I’d landed steady work at San Diego State, directing students through the maze. Evenings, weekends, every summer day, I slumped over the computer, writing until I’d attained the posture of Quasimodo. Then I visited a nearby chiropractor who employed a magical masseuse, who kneaded me into a blob.
The world seemed a bountiful place. I had a book out, a good job. My kids were alive. Every week I received a massage. I found myself walking out in the morning and marveling over a tulip or a Cessna as it passed in front of a cloud. One such morning, I was stung by a conviction that for all this, the least I could do was thank God.
Twenty-six years had passed since I knelt at the altar in front of Billy Graham. Thereafter, instead of seeking a church, I’d joined a mystical group called SUBUD, founded and led by an Indonesian fellow who smoked cigars. At SUBUD gatherings we performed an exercise called Latihan in which you release your conscious mind then chant, babble, pray, sing, groan. Whatever the spirit decrees.
I’d read the Bible a couple of times, taken an Old Testament-as-literature course, enjoyed C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Soren Kierkegaard. On occasion. I’d prayed my way out of danger. Yet in all those years, I’d never made thanking God a regular practice. So I vowed to present myself regularly at some church. I might’ve landed at Calvary Chapel in Lakeside, at which I had friends, only one morning I woke up late. Faith Chapel was closer.
One of my skills is presenting an ornery expression that warns people to leave me alone. I used it on the greeter who was passing out programs and on the usher in the balcony. I took a middle-row aisle seat, eyed the women in their pretty dresses. On stage were a half-dozen singers holding mikes. Also a pianist, a drummer, and an electric bass. The first songs were hand-clappers, then the mood changed to worshipful. The orchestra filed out from backstage, and the chorus, including P. I wondered if she always smiled that big or if she’d spied me in the balcony.
The choir sounded fine. They did “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The offering was collected. They sang “The Wondrous Cross.” A pastor’s pretty wife took a solo.
Finally Pastor Charlie read from First Corinthians. “ ‘What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth....’ “Hebrews chapter 11 gives us a definition of faith. It says, ‘Faith is the evidence of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.’ Often people relegate faith to a dimension of non-reason or something outside of the realm of assurance or evidence. But faith has assurance. Faith has evidence. Not always the external evidence that we like to have in our seeing, touching, feeling world. But there is spiritual assurance, spiritual evidence inside of us. Although we don’t see the things that the Scripture has promised us, we have assurances because of the work of the Lord Jesus in our life. We didn’t all wake up one morning and say, ‘This is a good day to become a Christian.’ But in a spiritual dimension, deep in our hearts, the Lord was working, and he was working evidence in us, and conviction in us, and belief or faith and assurance in us. We have not blindly jumped off the ladder of reason to follow Jesus....
“Every time Jesus talks about faith, he uses an example of something living. Often a seed that is planted.... Every living thing goes through a process of birth. John wrote, ‘Whatsoever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that overcomes the world — even our faith.’ If our faith is real, and vital, and living — there was a point at which God gave birth to our faith. It wasn’t something that happened up in the corridors of our mind, but it happened in the chambers of our heart, perhaps at a point of conflict or crisis in our life, when his word became alive to us and faith was given birth to.
“Like anything that’s living, in order for it to grow, it needs to be nourished. The Bible has some things to say about the nourishment of our faith. ‘Faith cometh by hearing, hearing by the word of God.’ If I get away from the Scriptures, my faith weakens. But there’s something about the life that’s carried in the words of Jesus that’s directly connected to my ability to believe the things that he has declared, and my faith is made strong. So faith is like our own bodies. If we nourish them, they’ll grow strong. If we neglect them, they'll grow weak. Second Peter, chapter one says 'Add to your faith virtue.' Virtue means making Godly choices. 'Add to your virtue, knowledge.' If we don't add to our faith, our faith will weaken. And so our faith is something that can fluctuate. There can be crises of faith. Peter had one of those crises...."
He talked for a half hour or so. Then I staggered down from the balcony to the lobby thinking that I’d just been handed more stuff that mattered than I’d learned in eight years of college.
It appears we only shed our masks when some passion seizes us and holds on until we’re too enraptured to worry about exposure. People can get that way in Faith Chapel. There’s a woman who’ll holler “Amen” if she’s the only voice out of a thousand. Her hands will fly up and clap or reach for the sky, her face grimaced, light with joy, contorted in vicarious agony. She’ll nod fervently or shake her head in consternation. There’s an old fellow who sits up front, craning his head forward as if each lyric or sentiment were brand new and held the key to the gates where any second he might find himself knocking. A few rows back, a young woman lifts her hands like a ballerina’s, cocks her head slightly, lips barely parted, her eyes round with wonder. In the choir, P. sways and waves her arms. The woman beside her smiles so radiantly, I Finally give up the balcony for a closer look. From there I gaze across the altar in front of the pulpit to the first row on the other side where D. sits with her niece and five daughters, the little ones on laps, arms around each other, holding hands and singing freely.
“Hallelujah," I mutter.
A few items from college stuck with me. One of them is John Keats’s line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all we know and all we need to know.” Two decades after college, I sat in Faith Chapel, second row on the right-hand side, listening to the people sing, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power and his grace,” when suddenly I noticed that it wasn’t just the pretty and handsome who were beautiful, but every face in the choir, the orchestra, the ground floor and balcony. Though he might have a scar or a head way too large or bald; though she might be so gnarled or decrepit you wondered if she’d survive until noon or be shaped like a bamboo shoot or a beach ball — every person was lovely as the next. Glorious. Something had possessed me.
A few weeks passed while I pondered what it could be. My mind can get preposterously slow. Finally it kicked out an answer. What possessed me, I realized, could be the spirit of truth. What they call the Holy Spirit. When it fills us, I thought, we see deeper. Essences or something. Into another dimension?
Hurrah for John Keats, I mumbled. Bullseye. If it’s through the spirit of truth that we perceive the fullness of beauty, then truth is beauty, beauty truth. Simple.
By now I’d gotten addicted to Charlie, to the way he could illuminate a line of text and deftly clarify things.
“Jesus said, ‘I am meek and lowly.' Lowly has to do with position. Jesus did not rise up and use his position against other people. He set aside his position as God.
“Philippians chapter two tells us, ‘Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with Clod something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross.’ The emptying of Christ.
“When he came into the world, he was fully divine. It would’ve been easy for him to start making room for himself and being God. But what he did was forgo his rights and teach us how to be servants.
“If I was God, I wouldn’t wait in any lines. I’d go right to the front. If somebody said, ‘Why are you cutting in line?’ I’d say, ‘I’m God. Back off.’ If I’d been born into this world as God, I would’ve chosen the greatest palace to be born in and chosen the wisest companions. But not Jesus. His birth in a manger, his visit from the shepherds, was all a picture of his setting aside his position. He didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. True servanthood is void of strife and grasping.
“Our world is seized today by a spirit of grasping and strife, everyone positioning themselves for the best place. We’ve bought into the lie that if we exalt ourselves, if we position ourselves in the right place, then we will have a measure of dominion. Jesus had a different way. Listen — ‘He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.’ ”
My daughter was in tenth grade, my son in seventh. Half of each year they’d stay with me. Besieged by all kinds of temptations, they were doing as their father had. Cannonballing into the Black Lagoon. I’d get phone calls from school. My son had mouthed off then vanished before the vice principal could lecture or sentence him. At home the boy and girl would fight like alcoholic spouses or attempt to make my house a hobo jungle. The girl would bring home stray dogs and kids. Her friends might scribble gang names on the bathroom mirror with lipstick. The boy would slam doors and walls so ferociously, I’d wake up expecting the Apocalypse. It seemed as if their lives’ work was to act out whatever they could dream up to render impossible the already brutal task of playing single parent and breadwinner who also wrote novels and coached Little League. By Saturday nights, all I could manage was to collapse and wonder where in the world my daughter had gone. Every week brought a crisis that required a decision I hadn’t the wisdom to make. Historically, my best intentions backfired, and no matter how long and earnestly I sought to make right decisions, rarely did they turn out anything but dead wrong.
I’d stagger into church every Sunday morning, perplexed and exhausted, looking to Charlie for a fix. He always delivered. Like one summer morning when my daughter and her girlfriend had run away, and I was caught between fury and despair. Charlie, while addressing another topic, slipped in a few lines about the prodigal son and how the father let the child go his own way until he’d hit bottom, then joyfully welcomed him home, forgiving his transgressions as though they’d never been.
Yes! I thought. He let go, allowed the kid to crash-land. He neither enabled nor oppressed the son.
If I needed hope, it usually arrived through one of Charlie’s messages. I came in worried about my friend who had cancer. Charlie spoke about healing. The week I was piecing together an article about Mother Teresa’s people in Tijuana, he returned to the topic of servanthood. He never failed to offer the message I needed. And worshipping gave me the spirit to put wisdom into action, for another week.
Though I’d learned to trust Charlie, I remained wary of the other people. Beautiful as they appeared in church, out in the world they might become harpies. Suppose, at Faith, I encountered wicked conspiracies to censor books, deport gays to Haiti, rob the poor for the wherewithal to stockpile missiles and aim them at Beijing.
Yet, in about 50 Sundays I hadn’t noticed any of that. Even through the presidential election, the only comment from Charlie was a suggestion that we vote our convictions and pray that the winners would open themselves to God’s direction. Apparently Faith wasn’t Pat Robertson’s campaign headquarters in disguise. Neither did it seem the lair of hypocrites. Rather, I kept learning of people who seemed to be living their faith. Two families had sold their homes, bought land in Jamul, and were building a place where abused children and parents could heal. A couple had moved downtown so they could feed and hold Bible studies for street people. Yet another couple had opened their home to unwed mothers.
And there was the Akiki matter. I kept waiting for Charlie or another pastor to defend against the media implications that Dale had been railroaded by a gang of wackos on account of his peculiar, hydrocephalic appearance. But all I heard was Charlie’s request for our prayers that the truth reveal itself.
People I encountered who learned of my attendance at Faith Chapel would ask about stories they’d heard that the church was in a chaos of disputes and hysteria. They expected me to tell of screaming matches or fistfights in the lobby between those, like my cousin, who believed in Dale and those who credited the children’s claims. I had to disappoint them, having never even spotted malicious glowers or overheard catty remarks.
Union-Tribune articles would refer to hysteria at the church or among the parents. I asked my friend R., who’s been around and counts among her dozens of friends many of the parents involved in the trial. She said, “I didn’t see anything resembling hysteria. There was a lot of pain and concern, a lot of hurting for the children.
“The families I know are certainly not hysterical people. They’re humble, normal, loving families who were concerned about their children. Of course they believed their children, and they were experiencing confusion and feeling the kids’ pain. The parents were so wounded. They were in shock. Devastated because of what their children were experiencing and horrified that this could’ve been happening under their noses, in a place they considered to be the safest of all places. They were reeling from disbelief and horror and pain and confusion and above all the concern for their own little people.” R. introduced me to C., whom I’ve since gotten to know. She’s a vivacious woman who spent a lot of years around horses and racetracks as a groom and an owner. Now she works in an office, raises her two children, and volunteers helping girls in juvenile hall. I asked her about the hysteria. She said, “No, look, here’s how it went, for me.
“My son was having nightmares. He wasn’t screaming. He’d just bolt up, frightened. There were a lot of things. And a lady, the one in charge of the nursery, came to me and said, ‘Some of the parents are saying this and that might’ve happened, but you don’t think that, do you?’ And I thought it was gossip and told her I didn’t want to hear about it. I heard later that she’d been advised to say, ‘Some of the parents see changes in their child. Do you see changes in your child? If so, please come to this meeting.’ Then I would’ve gone.
“The next I knew was when Charlie said from the pulpit that we might be reading in the papers that there might’ve been child molestation with kids that were in certain age groups, on Sunday nights. My son was there Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights, but with a different age group. So I went to Charlie and said that my son was acting different, but he was too young and wasn’t in the classroom they talked about. Charlie asked if he’d wake up screaming. I said not screaming.
“He would bolt awake and sit there in terror. I’d hold him, cuddle him and he’d go back to sleep. And with Dale and Sharon, I’d been embarrassed. I’d say, ‘Now J., hug Dale goodbye.’ He would hide behind me. I would apologize to Dale. I just didn’t understand, because Dale was a good hugger. He used to hug me. He was warm, never afraid of hugging. Then all of a sudden, J. would get so scared.
“Finally Charlie announced that Wednesday nights might’ve also been involved. The class that my son was in. So I went to a meeting. There had been a couple of other meetings, I guess, but they were before I knew about the Wednesday night class being involved. You know, the papers said everybody was talking with each other, but they tried to keep it to as few people as possible. One day Pastor George had called me and asked what I thought about the parents’ meeting. I said, ‘Well, I’m a parent but I didn’t go to any meeting.’ He said, ‘Oh, sorry. Excuse me,’ and hung up.
“Nobody called me about these things except one time Mary Goodall called. The best thing that happened. I didn’t even know who she was. So I asked, ‘Who are you?’ She said, ‘Well, I’m the grandmother of one of the children.’ And she prayed with me. She was the only person who reached out. That’s all she said. The papers would say that she spread the rumors. Never. She was the only one who sympathized. Asked if I was okay. Prayed with me."
According to stories I heard, the trouble started when somebody saw Sharon Akiki outside a classroom with a child, scolding her. The person told the child’s mother about this. The mother was already concerned because her child seemed to have been regressing and acting angry and frightened. So the mother asked the child if anything was wrong.
The child made an accusation. Exposure. She claimed that Dale showed his penis. So the parents went to Pastor Charlie, told about the exposure, and said that the girl had been acting strangely, that they’d been concerned about her. Months before, they had taken her to a pediatrician and told him she just wasn’t the same. Besides her fear and belligerence, she’d been wetting her bed frequently and urinating on the carpet.
So Charlie called in Gordon Bear, a social worker. He made an evaluation and informed Child Protective Services. CPS sent out a detective.
After another parent reported a similar accusation, Charlie decided to call for a meeting of the parents simply to announce the possibility that exposure could've taken place, and if so, the church wanted to provide effective evaluation of the children. During the evaluations that followed, more accusations were made. So the CPS investigator started talking to the parents, children, and therapists.
Many of the therapists had been recommended by Mary Avery of the D. A.’s office as experts in the treatment of child molestation and trauma. There were about 80 children in the suspect classrooms. Some of the parents said no, my child isn’t doing any of those behaviors, I don’t think he was affected, and declined the therapy. About 20 kids indicated that some kind of abuse had gone on, and half of that group became witnesses.
The original prosecutor was Sally Penso. After her interviews with the kids, she wanted to drop the case. At this point, according to the Union-Tribune, the Goodalls visited District Attorney Ed Miller. The Goodalls are a prominent, influential couple whose grandchild was among the children in question. When Miller replaced Sally Penso with Mary Avery, talk arose about the Goodalls having influenced Miller; and though the Goodalls had already left Faith Chapel, the media implied that the church was behind the influencing.
Around the same time, there was a conference on satanic-ritual abuse, which was put on by the San Diego Police Department. Therapists, law-enforcement people, and clergy were invited. After this conference, at a Faith Chapel parents’ meeting somebody remarked that certain charges their children had made were similar to satanic rituals. Mary Avery chose to investigate the possibility.
Some of the children’s accusations were so bizarre no one could adequately explain them. A kid charges that giraffes were killed in the classroom, and parents wonder, uIs it the kid’s imagination running loose, and if so, are all the accusations just the kids’ imaginations? Or do bizarre things come out of the way that the kid reacts to being abused? Is he dissociating—he looks up on the walls, sees a picture of a giraffe on Noah’s ark, and now it’s a giraffe being hurt, not the kid?” But these children are so young, nobody’s going to demand that they separate the truth from their dissociation.
Meanwhile, I continued tn lie low, remain invisible, only showing up for the crowded morning service, with my guard raised. I might’ve kept sneaking in and out, aloof and anonymous, if not for Charlie’s decision. It was two Decembers ago, a few months before the trial opened, that he resigned.
Losing Charlie gave me a massive jolt. I spent that afternoon in a state like people claim precedes death, wherein my life kept replaying itself for me. Sins, failures, weaknesses, victories, lost loves. Around dusk I realized that since nobody at Faith was going to feed me like Charlie had, I could turn and head for the showers, go back to reading the Bible and praying only when the world got insufferable or spooked me. Or I could take the plunge. Go to evening services, maybe a prayer meeting or Bible study. Make a friend or two. Try to squeeze out of the church as a whole what Charlie had single-handedly given.
You ought to see R. in the choir. She’s got an ear-to-ear smile. She rolls with the music, praying with her whole body. P. introduced us about a month before R. moved to Long Island. We hung out together every day or so, talked on the phone in between. I was living with turmoil, needing to make tough decisions. Every time I’d unload a dilemma upon her, before advising, she’d innocently ask, “Have you prayed about it?”
The Saturday before R. moved, friends threw her a going-away party. She took me along, and I got to meet a lot of people I’d only seen before. There was a couple whose children were involved in the “Akiki business.” The father had just returned from a week in Mexico, where he’d chaperoned teenagers while they worked alongside citizens of a poor colonia on the outskirts of Tijuana. He talked of watching kids transform, as smugness gave way to sensitivity. How they arrived as brats and left as missionaries. This guy’s all right, I thought.
After dinner and some dancing to old rock-and-roll, a fellow played piano and we sang a few worship songs. Then R.’s prayer partners gathered around her. Six women aged 40 to 50 or so. They knelt encircling R., touched her and prayed, while I sat gaping as though I’d landed on a pristine beach beside an emerald lagoon out of which tiptoed creation’s most gifted dancers in crocheted' gowns, to perform especially for me.
By now, the trial was on. Emotions ran high. C. declined an invitation to dinner at my place when she learned that P. was going to be there. Later, she explained. “In singles, I felt ignored, kind of. Many of them believed Dale was innocent and thought, like people outside the church did, that this was just some gossip parents overreacted to and formed a little club about. That’s not true. It’s set me back in so many ways, personally, as a single parent trying to raise my kids. In my job and relationships. People in singles who don’t have kids, like P., they don’t know. I wanted some understanding, but it didn’t happen. Remember before Thanksgiving, you just hugged me and let me cry? That’s all I needed. I hadn’t had that in four years.
“There was a lot of secrecy. In summers, we used to have a Bible study at Ski Beach. I got there late one day, after work, and found all the guys gathered around Dale and all the women gathered around Sharon. I went up to a good friend of mine and asked what was happening. This was before I’d heard any accusations. Everybody was so serious. She said, ‘I can’t tell you, but you have to pray for Sharon and Dale.’
“Later, after I hadn’t seen Sharon and Dale in a long time, P. suggested I call them up. I did, and invited them over, and Sharon says, ‘Well, actually, we were asked to leave the church.’ She didn’t tell me why. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to pry. She didn’t want to talk, and I respected that. I didn’t see Dale again until the trial.
“I didn’t get any support from the church, except they did help with the doctors. They gave me a list to choose from. I took J. to one, but she was cold. She ridiculed me about his speech problem. So I took him to a different doctor from the list. He’s not a Christian. J.’s in his fourth or fifth year of therapy with E. We stopped seeing him for one year. Because of my job. We changed to a Christian therapist because she had evening appointments. J. made no progress there. He liked her at first. He could pray with her and that kind of thing. But she would ask specific questions. E. would let J. act things out and do the talking, and he would just listen. But this woman would say, 'Did you do this and that?’ When J. would explain to her things that happened, she would say, ‘Did he really?’ 'Are you sure?’ She would ask him a minimum of three times.
"It’s been hard on my son and me. But other parents, some have had it much worse. At the parents’ meeting I went to, there was a woman, beautiful girl, who was absolutely devastated. It was all she could do to sit in the chair. I thought she was going to fall out of it. Later she had a nervous breakdown. And since then, M. — you know, M. has this healing ministry — through M. the Lord touched this girl, put her back together. And I’m telling you, there go I but for the grace of God. Grace has surely been extended to me and J. I’m not saying he kept everything bad from happening, but I’ll tell you, after J. started seeing the doctor, one morning he woke up and looked around, all excited. He was saying, 'Where is he? I said, 'Where’s who, honey?’ He said, Jesus. Where is he? I hear him, I hear him, but I want to see him.’ I asked, 'What’s he saying, honey?’ He said, He’s healing me. I hear it in my heart. He’s healing me, and I want to play with him.’ “God is so good. He is so good. Everything in my life has been put on hold with all this. I m in my third year without a raise. My work hours were shortened, and they changed the duties of my job. Because I would have to leave and take J. to therapy. But it worked out to my good, actually. I have been alone through this thing. But I have not been alone, you know. God is so good.”
The trial was reported almost daily talk shows from San Diego and LA. made Akiki their subject of the day or week. I could hardly go to the market without overhearing someone expressing his or her outrage at the witch-hunt. I’d marvel at the ability of humans to assume that they’d squeezed the whole truth out of one or two short newspaper articles or a 30-second TV spot. I’m not that wise. Neither, apparently, is Pastor Charlie, who’d later tell the Union-Tribune, “I’m at the same place I’ve always been: I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, under all of this.’’ In church. I’d watch the children and wonder how I would’ve reacted if my daughter at three years old, with her big green eyes and Shirley Temple hair, her lip twitching like it does when she thinks intently, had told me that somebody locked her naked in a closet and stuck something inside her.
When my son was three, he’d attended a daycare home two mornings a week. One afternoon he cried excessively. We questioned him, asked a dozen leading questions, and finally got a nod when we asked if the daycare lady hurt somebody. He wouldn’t say any more. I had a talk with the woman. Though she denied ever hurting a single child, guess who I believed?
I asked a church leader what was happening backstage. He said, “It’s pretty rough. The trial — of course it looks like it’s Faith Chapel versus Dale Akiki, so that makes us the right-wing fundamentalists who are out to find a bogeyman, a scapegoat to take all of our fears and anxieties out on. But Faith Chapel isn’t a fear-based church. We’re not out to get anybody. We’re not operating from anger or fear or anxiety. That’s not what motivates us, but you can’t convince the public of that because we’ve been painted with a brush of certain loaded words.
“Explosive words. You know how they work. Every marriage has them. You know them in an argument or with your friends. They’re always going to raise emotions. With the newspapers, every word can bias and prejudice things. They use terms like ‘religious right’ and ‘fundamentalist.’
“So from the beginning, we were called fundamentalists, and to many readers, that equals wacko, over the edge, crazy, radical, fanatic. We’ve gotten mail from all over the world. People saying, ‘What do you guys think you’re doing? Who do you think you are?’ People call us, yelling, ‘You guys are one step below Nazis.’ They don’t know what was really going on.
“Even in the courtroom, I didn’t feel people were really interested in the truth. Nobody ever said, ‘Tell us your story.’ It was, ‘Tell us this much and then we’ll fit it into our story to make our point.’ It seemed all they wanted was to win the argument.”
P. was summoned to testify for the defense. One day in September, I accompanied her to the courtroom. There were only six or eight spectators. The jury looked distracted and bored, as if they could use a vacation. Dale appeared watchful, stoic. He seemed accustomed to people talking about him.
When P. was called, she stood, muttered something, then walked through the gates and across to the witness stand. She sat primly, gazing in turn at her knees and at Kathryn Coyne, who asked questions like, had she attended Wednesday night Bible studies with the Faith Chapel singles group during 1988 and 1989? Had she noticed Mr. Akiki arriving late or leaving early? Had Mr. Akiki, in her presence, ever done anything cruel or inappropriate? P. did good. I was proud, the way she answered succinctly, refraining from elaborations and non sequiturs.
We hung around until the noon recess, mostly watching the attorneys examine and cross-examine witnesses about an incident that had supposedly occurred in the Faith Chapel nursery after the accusations. Several parishioners and a pastor had allegedly gone into classrooms and other areas and joined in prayers that God would expel whatever demons might be in attendance. I sat thinking, So what does this have to do with anything? Soon enough, I got the idea. Coyne was trying to characterize Faith Chapel as a place where gangs of lunatics roamed the halls performing exorcisms.
I wanted to jump up and shout the truth, that several thousand people go to Faith Chapel, and lots of them might believe in literal demons, while others would take a more psychological angle, and others like me would consider themselves too simple to comprehend such mysteries. Still, had somebody suggested we go into these rooms and pray that they be cleansed of any wicked spirits, I’d have replied, “Sure. Why not? It couldn’t hurt.”
But I would’ve gotten thrown out of court. Neither attorney, I suspect, was after the truth. They were too busy arguing.
Meanwhile, back in Spring Valley, the church had to contend with parents who believed their kids were molested, who are angry at the church for letting Dale teach, who threaten to sue for lack of supervision. People who didn’t believe anything happened accused the church of letting things get carried away. People leaving the church in significant numbers. Good people.
I hear Pastor George attended the trial regularly. P. tells me that he’d opposed the bringing of charges. Though he rarely gave messages any longer, about halfway through the trial, he offered a series on forgiveness.
On the last night, he said, “I know of no other truth that is more essential to the believer’s life or more vital to a sound foundation in the Lord than this great truth of God’s forgiveness to us and the necessity of our forgiveness to other people. It is absolutely necessary in this late hour that we understand — listen to me carefully — the provision of God’s forgiveness and the basis of God’s forgiveness to us, and it is important that we understand the completeness of God’s forgiveness. We are so prone to believe that God has forgiven us of almost everything. And because we cannot quite believe he has forgiven us of all of our sins, of all of our past, of all the things that have gone before, we tuck away a little something back in our soul that we feel is not taken care of. And because we do that, we let the enemy of our soul throw our past up to us, and in so doing, he keeps us off balance and out of the action.
“The story of the prodigal son, to me, will always be at the very heart of the Bible. In that story, lesus gives us the entire gospel in miniature form. Everything that we believe, everything that we preach, and the reason that we built this church, and the reason we have church, and the reason we have altars, is all wrapped up in that story of the prodigal son. It is a powerful picture of the warm, loving, tender reception that the father gives to a wayward boy. It is a picture of this father who loves his son in spite of what the son has done or where he has been. In spite of the grief that his son has caused, the father loves his scm. And it is a marvelous picture, to see this father on the front porch looking down the long dusty road, waiting for his boy to come home.... Perhaps he remembers how his heart was broken when the son left. Yet he bounds off the porch and runs to the boy. The Bible says, ‘He embraced him and kissed him. And then he ordered a great celebration. For this, my son, was dead and is alive again. He was lost and now is found.’
“Now in that story, (iod is the father. You and I are the prodigal son. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gone to church all of your life. It does not matter if you were raised in church or if you were raised in a preacher’s home or if you are a preacher. The Bible says that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. There is none righteous. No not one.
“The Bible tells us that not to bring us to despair, but to bring us to Jesus. Every one of us is the prodigal son. And we have been to the far country and wasted our substance with riotous living.... The younger son gathered it all together, and hell took the whole works. And then one day when he was in the pig pen, and all of his friends had abandoned him, he said, ‘I will arise and go to my father.’ That was the best decision that he ever made. ‘I will arise and go to my father and say to my father’ — and I want you to hear this because it’s the only attitude that we can bring to the altar of God — ‘I will say to my father, I am not worthy.’ ”
For about ten years, a recurring nightmare possessed me. I'd dream of myself as a fugitive, because sometime in the past I’d murdered a person. I’d wake and spend a couple of minutes experiencing a kind of rebirth as I slowly realized that the murder was only a dream.
I don’t have that dream anymore. It appears that for all my conscious and inadvertent crimes. I’ve been forgiven.
At the Labor Day church picnic, B., a new leader of the singles group asked what brought me to Faith. I told him about my getting an urge to start thanking God for my blessings but admitted I couldn't figure what drew me to that particular church, which I’d previously rejected.
“I can tell you,” B. said. “For a couple years or so, almost every week P. asked the singles in the Wednesday night Bible study to pray for you, to lead you there.”
A look at B. and I., his wife, might better explain why Faith Chapel refreshes and inspires me. B. drives a produce truck. I. works with troubled teenagers. They’re both 30ish and can hold intelligent conversation, but they seem to possess a rare innocence. I ran into them at last year’s Oktoberfest in La Mesa. One thing we talked about was movies, and they mentioned one they’d seen recently in which the story was good but there was cussing and loveless sex, for which they didn’t condemn or reject the movie. But that stuff had obviously perplexed and saddened them. They’re not stupid or hiding their heads in the sand. Rather, I think they’ve chosen, in the meaning existentialists attribute to that word, to follow advice St. Paul gave the Philippians — “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.... And the God of peace will be with you.”
Up the street, I ran into P. with her friend Gloria, whom I’d only met once before but had read about plenty. She was in charge of the classroom where Dale had worked. She had also been accused. We talked for a while and I thought, this woman seems as guileless as P. How could she do anything sinister?
About a month before the trial concluded, an ensemble of choir members performed a medley of African spirituals and Israeli hymns. The last song was “Blow a Trumpet in Zion.” Pastor George gave the message that Sunday evening. As the singers filed off the stage, he stepped to the pulpit. “Well, that kind of charged our batteries, didn’t it?
“Boy, we’re going to blow a trumpet in Zion one of these days. All of us who can’t play instruments are suddenly going to be gifted, and we’re going to be in the real Zion; not this Jerusalem, but the new Jerusalem, and we are going to have a time. We are going to shout victory over all the battles that we’ve fought all our life. I still believe in heaven, do you?
Hallelujah. We’re on our way to heaven, we used to sing. I like the whole idea. About heaven.”
When her friend Gloria testified, P. returned to the courtroom and became an outlaw. The way she tells it, “They were cross-examining Gloria, and they got to the point of accusing her of actually molesting children. I started shaking my head, and all of a sudden I saw the bailiff and he was pointing, and I thought he couldn’t mean me. But he kept pointing, and then he came over and told me to get out and never to set foot in the courtroom again.”
Pastor George loved to dedicate children. During early November, he performed a dedication, leading off with Matthew 18. “At the same time came the disciples unto the children saying, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And Jesus called a little child unto him and set him in the midst of them and said, ‘Verily, I say unto you, except you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me, but whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, were better for him that a millstone be hanged about his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.’ ”
On the third Friday in November, the jury convened for a few hours and returned with a not-guilty verdict. The Union-Tribune featured interviews with the prisoners who had protected Dale, and calls to action by advocates of ridding the D.A.’s office of Ed Miller. The paper quoted jurors as saying they’d decided as they had for multiple reasons, including the lack of physical evidence, their suspicion that the therapists had led the children into wildly outlandish realms, the fact that both Dale and Sharon Akiki and Gloria Evangelista had appeared at least as good and sincere as any prosecution witness, and the D.A.’s examination of Akiki, which was surprisingly brief and ineffective.
At Faith, people weren’t talking much. P. was joyful that Dale had been set free and because it appeared her friend Gloria was safe from being charged. But neither she nor the others on Dale’s side were going to whoop about the verdict while there were parents around who had already suffered years of distress and confusion. They hardly deserved to see anybody else rejoicing over what to them must’ve seemed like the final insult.
On Sunday, from behind the pulpit. Pastor John gazed pensively around and said, “The psalmist wrote, ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say this, those he redeemed from the hand of the foe — let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. He sent forth his word and he healed them. He rescued them from the grave.’
“I didn’t read the whole psalm. It goes through the whole history of Israel’s adversity and the circumstances and the trials and things that they went through as a nation, as the people of God. But after each situation, the psalmist comes back to this fact — that we need to thank the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures forever. His love endures forever. And the psalm really isn’t about the circumstances and the situations and the adversity. The focus of the psalm is on God and who he is.
“We’re about to enter this week of Thanksgiving, and I trust that our focus will really be where it ought to be. Not on the situations around us, but on God and on who he is and on the fact that his love endures forever. This has been a tough year for us. It’s been tough as individuals and as a congregation. We’ve lost a pastor. We’ve been getting used to a new one. Many of you have lost jobs. Some of you have lost family. And now I’m sure we’re all aware of the news and the cameras that have been around here this morning, and we’re bringing this whole situation with the children and this case to a close after four years. There’s been adversity. Deep wounds. Misunderstandings. A lot of questions. People are asking, 'Why, Lord. After four years, why this? And why did all this come about?’ Well, I don’t have the answer to that one, and I don’t think anyone does.
“But I think there’s a deeper question for us this morning. The question I think we need to reflect on is this — how will we live our lives in light of the situations and circumstances that are going on around us? How will we choose to respond? I think that in light of our psalm this morning, the answer is pretty clear. It’s this: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good and his love endures forever.
“I think we have to be careful that we don’t allow the circumstances and situations of our life to define who we are. This is not our defining moment. Jesus defines who we are. He defines our purpose and where we go from here. We can’t ignore what’s before us, we can’t ignore the media, we can’t ignore what that means to us as a church....
“The door to healing and the door to entering into all that God has for us is thanksgiving.... Our focus isn’t going to change. Our focus is going to be on God. We’re going to keep doing the same things we’ve always done. Worship Jesus and tell the world about his love and his mercy and forgiveness. That’s how we want to live; it’s the message that we’ve been called to bear witness to in this world. That Jesus is alive. That Jesus is here for us. For all of us. In the place of our brokenness, in the place of our need, in those places that need mending, Jesus is the great mender....
“And whether you feel thankful or not really isn't the issue. The issue is this: God is good. His love endures forever.”
For Christmas, the drama group offered a musical comedy, For Unto Y’All, in which the nativity story takes place in Montana a hundred years ago. Rumor held that Pastor George was a little disconcerted with the idea, but he laughed uproariously at the angel Gabriel wearing a Lone Ranger costume.
I attended on a Sunday. I was running late. On my way to the balcony, I overheard somebody say, “Pastor George mumble mumble hospital.” I figured he’d gone to visit somebody. Or broken a leg. Only when a pastor walked onto the stage did I begin to worry, having observed the man enough to read at least the most blatant of his expressions. Pastor George had suffered a heart attack, he announced. He was in Grossmont Hospital, intensive care. Through the first scene or two, I worried. But sorrowful things become unreal while you’re laughing. Like Pastor George, my favorite was the angel Gabriel in his dress whites with the mask, who always arrived accompanied by the “William Tell Overture."
There was no altar call that night. Instead, the pastor gave us the news that George Gregg had gone to heaven.
His funeral was in the sanctuary. The place was full. The choir performed “We are standing on holy ground, and I know that there are angels all around.” A pastor led us in singing “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power and his grace.”
Among the procession of those who offered memories was his son Charlie. Seeing him back at the pulpit felt like a blessing in the midst of all this grief. He said, “I remember one day he got up and read in the paper about a teacher who had left the suburbs and had gone down to the inner city in L.A. and had left a secure job to take over this one-room building and teach children who were runaways how to read and write. He was so touched, he got into his car and drove to L.A. and found her. He spent three hours in her classroom, talking to her and encouraging her, telling her how great she was. By the time he’d left, he’d given her $10,000 of your money....
“M. was a significant part of the growth of this church. Back in 1969 while M. was at the Newport Beach rock festival. God supernaturally intervened in his life. Everybody was waiting for |imi Hendrix to come on, and as they waited, a group called the Edwin Hawkins Singers — who had recorded a song called ‘Oh, Happy Day’ — began to sing, and as they did God visited M. and he began to weep. He knew that he needed God. When he came home, he didn’t know what to do, but he knew that my cousin went to church, so he called my cousin. My cousin called my dad, and my dad went over and led him to the Lord. Within three weeks, M. had brought to the church over a hundred friends, doubling the size of our church as a result of this revival that was taking place among young people.
“As the years went by, M. became our youth pastor, and as a result of transgressions in M.’s life — M. is here today, and we’ve talked about this so often — as a result of M.’s transgressions there were many wounds in our congregation. My father’s heart was torn between people he loved.
“Years went by again. My father found himself in the midst of a citywide trial that brought deep pain and affliction to so many people. On top of that, one year ago he was faced with my own resignation from ministry because of transgressions in my past. Leading a church this size is not without its pain.
“But M. told me that recently he had realized that my father was born for these times. He embraced them. My father’s greatest moments were not at the times of great glory and personal accomplishments. His greatest moments were at the times of deepest wounds. He rose with a strength that was not to be found this side of the throne of God. His wounds were the greatest times of accomplishments. Like Jesus, he had the capacity to carry our pain and our sorrows and our failures without rejecting us or casting us off. He gave us the heritage of unconditional love.
“When M. said these words, my mind flashed back to a time early this year when I sat across the table from my dad at a Denny’s restaurant. And I said, ‘Dad, I’m sorry that your name has been affected as a result of my actions.' His whole body began to rise with intensity. He moved toward me, put his good eye out there so I could see it, and he said, ‘Son, package it all up. Package up position. Package up reputation. Package up material goods and throw it in the trash.’ He said, ‘You love me and I love you, and there’s nothing more important in all of this life.’
“When M. said these things to me, a Scripture came to mind from Psalm 119, in which David prayed and said, ‘Enlarge my heart, oh Lord.’ And I realized that’s what happened. It really set me free, because I’d been thinking that the wounds my father suffered in pasturing a church for 30 years might’ve taken pieces out of his life, and maybe somehow that had contributed to the shortness of his life or his untimely death. But the Scripture led me to understand that his heart was not getting smaller, nor was his heart getting harder. It was getting larger. With each succeeding trial, his heart enlarged — it was just more people to embrace, more to love, more to heal. During this past year, through the difficulties that this congregation has faced, his heart enlarged enough to embrace everybody involved, at every level.
“He was a man who built his life on two principles, faithfulness and mercy. And now, in another place, in a world full of beauty, those two characteristics he is wearing with glory.
“So I’ll close as he would, always with an invitation for people to commit their lives to the God he served. He would first say, ‘Are you still out there, saints?’ And then he would say, ‘Remember that when the enemy turns the big guns against you, know that no one loves you like Jesus. And receiving him is simple. It isn’t cheap, but it’s simple enough so that any of us could understand.’ And he would say, ‘The word of faith is near you. It’s even in your mouth and in your heart. And if you will this day confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus Christ and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.’ And then he would say this, ‘Why not take the opportunity to send a prayer from your heart to the great heart of God, and you can leave here with confidence, knowing that you belong to the family of God.’”
Charlie introduced George’s friend Big John Hall. In a voice that could knock out windows, he sang, “Blow the Trumpet in Zion,” while everybody clapped and sang along.
The following Sunday morning, Marian Gregg appeared at the pulpit. She thanked us for loving her husband, spoke a few words about him, and concluded, “You know, all I have in my heart is praise and gratitude toward God. I would not call George back. He’s met the Lord and he’s happy. All the things that went on, he’s probably already forgotten them. And a lot of them we need to forget about and go on and serve God and be what he was, unselfish. Be an unselfish church. Be a channel through which God can work. And I don’t mean money but I mean in souls, in your thought life, attitudes, just be a channel God can use. And I believe with all my heart that’s what Faith Chapel’s all about.”
It’s early June. At Faith, there’s a new choir director, a delightfully ingenuous man. His wife sings with the worship team, a small group that leads the music when the choir’s not working. They have a little daughter who gets to range around the stage during services, exploring, climbing the choir platform, sitting on the piano player’s lap.
The choir has just returned from a break following the Easter musical. P.’s excited. She considers the choir her ministry, and she throws her heart into it.
She’s a little perplexed because some of her sidekicks, including a couple of guys she’s had her eye on, have moved to Christian Faith Center, on Echo Court, in the building that used to be Faith Chapel. Today she’s sitting across the sanctuary from me, ground floor in the middle of the sixth row, a few people to the right of R., who returned about a month ago from Long Island and was elated to get back to Faith. In New York, she couldn’t find a place where people worshipped this freely.
I’m delighted with the new music pastor, with the music, and the condensed messages he gives between songs. This morning he began listing the things Christ did and does for us. Among them, “He restores our innocence.”
If I were vocal like R. or P. I’d have shouted, “Yes, he does!” But I do my shouting on paper. I looked around, wondering if innocence meant so much to others, but I got a fuzzy picture. Only one thing came clear — if there was a dry eye in the house, it didn’t belong to me.