Executive Director Jim Penner introduces the interactive globe.
875 Hotel Circle South, San Diego
No cross tops the spire attached to the Legacy International Center, Christian evangelist Morris Cerullo’s new, nearly $200 million campus in the heart of Mission Valley. Instead, the spire’s gray façade, set among limestone blocks imported from Israel, displays the words “Love,” “Peace,” and “Forgiveness” in a multitude of fonts, sizes, and languages.
A monument to healing in the age of COVID-19.
The lack of Christian iconography is fitting. First, the spire is not a spire: it’s a Tower of Peace. Second, the Center is not a church; during a recent tour of the facility, executive director Jim Penner asked guests to think of it as “a luxury resort hotel complex,” complete with restaurants, spa, wedding venue, and conference center — itself complete with a 500-seat theater capable of hosting first-run films, concerts, plays, and well, yes, ministry events. A one-year membership to the Center is $112 and gets you two guest passes and 10% off at the International Market. “What is different for tourism in San Diego,” Penner continued, is the Attractions Building. “Just as folks go to Sea World or the Zoo, it’s just another interesting item that they can come to. Yes, it’s faith-based, but it’s not faith in your face. It’s very friendly. We try to be as inclusive as we possibly can.”
Lightfall: The Spiritual Combat as comic book and video game.
That is perhaps the second reason there’s no cross on the spire: there’s nothing friendly about the method by which the Roman Empire executed Jesus. (You can find crosses in the Market, but they are of the decorative variety: floral prints, polka dots, etc.) And the church Jesus founded can feel rather exclusive to those who don’t believe he founded it. There are intimations of the divine set into the walls as you approach the entrance, but they tend toward the positive and motivational: “God has promised to take you step by step, and each step will be a miracle.” “Every promise of God contains the seed for your miracle.” “Success is dealing with people as they are, not as you would like them to be.”
Once inside, instead of the old rugged cross and the Blood of the Lamb, the Attractions Building leads with the world Jesus putatively came to save. Explained Penner, “Dr. Cerullo has spent 70 years traveling the world in ministry; I think he’s been to 100 nations.” His goal with the center: “How do I introduce the people who come here to the people of the world? How do we have more understanding?” First answer: a massive interactive globe, built from 2500 flexible LED panels, powered by more than 1500 components, and operated via touch screen. “We came up with some real cutting edge technology,” said Penner. More tech is on display as you make your way down the long ramp and in and out of the four four-wall theaters showing films that gently broach the topic of a Creator behind creation. The ancient Greeks are invoked, as are the ancient Egyptians. For the kids, there are interactive video games based on the sci-fi comic book Lightfall. They are also cutting edge.
Jesus in the catacombs as rendered by painter Kurt Wenner.
Jesus? He’s underground, in the catacombs. And before you get to him, you’ve got to pass by his good and faithful servant Dr. Cerullo, whose monument is made from cast-off crutches. (Supernatural healings are a facet of Cerullo’s worldwide ministry.) The Christian is presented as person devoted to helping other people. Only after the Cerullo mini-biopic A Life Well Spent do you peruse Kurt Wenner’s stone-framed paintings of Jesus, the apostles, the angels, and ultimately, apocalypse and afterlife. The goal seems to be the evocation of that old-time Athenian Aristedes’ reaction to the early Christians: “See how they love one another.” You have to be curious to find out the reason why.
Legacy International Center’s Attractions Building; Tower of Peace at far left.
But after the paintings, and after the collections of substantial Torahs and Bibles and eagles, it’s on to the 4-D motion-seat domed theater for Wings Over Israel, which is not unlike Soarin’ Over California at Disney California Adventure, except it tours “the only nation ever given birth by God” — Israel, “proof of God’s promise kept.” There is a pass over the Dead Sea, “a fitting location for the infamous cities of Sodom and Gamorrah,” and the Church of the Transfiguration, “where Jesus revealed his divinity to his disciples.” Also showing: Walk Through the Bible, which a narrator describes as “an incredible four-dimensional experience” and “a spiritual journey in every sense of the word,” one that will feature, in addition to the moving seats, mists of water at the Flood and puffs of air as the plagues descend. Dr. Cerullo’s welcome message in the Center’s brochure invites guests to “experience the cultures and stories of the world afresh!” That seems right: the old story, told with better tech and a human touch.