A Month of Sundays
The Stranger Sends 31 Writers to 31 Houses of Worship
Photos by Malcolm Smith
Seattle is godless.
We are, rather famously, one of the least churched cities in North America. It seems that most of us have better things to do on a Sunday morning than go to church. Seattleites would rather take a hike. Or nurse a hangover. Or fire up the bong.
We're just not that into Him.
But look around. There are churches damn near everywhere in this town—old churches, new churches, mega churches, mini churches. And just what, we wondered, is going on in all those churches? What are they saying? What are they doing? What are they plotting?
Last weekend, we sent 30 writers into 30 houses of worship to find out. We packed a month's worth of worship into a single day so that we could report back to you, our readers, about just what the Seventh-day Adventists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Catholics, and the Jesus freaks at Mars Hill are up to. We also snuck into a mosque, a synagogue, and Sea-Tac's meditation room. We took a look inside their sanctuaries, we took in their sermons, we took Communion, and we took notes.
The Stranger gets religion.
It's a miracle.—Dan Savage
1. All Pilgrims
500 Broadway E
Sunday service: 10 am
Why does God hate Saturday nights? Can I take my coffee into church? Do church people care that I didn't brush my teeth, and that I'm still a little drunk? What if I fart?
These questions are on my mind as I enter All Pilgrims Church on East Republican Street and Broadway East, aka "the Big Gay Church." As a Jew, I had entered this church only once before—to go to a yard sale, where I bought five signed portraits of winners of Miss Drag Queen America. They were $2.50 for the set.
The pastor introduces himself as Mark. Just Mark. He's not wearing shoes and pads around the chapel in socks, which poke out from under his floor-length pastor's gown. He's very animated and excitable, and I swear to God Mark can sense my intestinal distress with his wide-open blue eyes. I decide God is less scary than Pastor Mark, and sit quietly at the back through all the singing and praying and whatnot.
The service emphasizes Positivity and Inclusiveness, which are pronounced as if they're spelled with Capital Letters. You are Included and Loved and Forgiven—and so are You, and You, and You. We all are! This gets Obnoxious. At the end, everyone takes Communion, which I am scared to do because I don't want to accidentally turn Christian, so I wander out of the room for a moment. When I return, the entire congregation is Singing in a Circle. Thank God they weren't Holding Hands—I would have Thrown Up. ARI SPOOL
2. Christian Faith Center South
21024 24th Ave S
Sunday services: 9:30 am, 11:30 am
Everything about Christian Faith Center South is huge. It seats thousands, and the four JumboTrons above the stage simulcast services with the CFC North campus in Everett. This means that probably close to 10,000 people a week hear the gospel of preacher Casey Treat.
Treat's face is everywhere, from CFC's website to their television commercials. On one flier, he's sitting on a motorcycle, a giant American flag flying behind him. With his rickety rock-star charisma, Treat has a lot to say about a lot of things: He calls Paris Hilton "retarded," he mentions "the 9/11" frequently, but mostly he talks about money, a whole lot.
Treat preaches prosperity: God wants you to be rich. The CFC is raising cash to build the largest church in the Northwest, scheduled to open in less than three months. This Hummer of a church, with its coffee shop and valet parking and banners proclaiming "desire," "worship," and "attitude"(?!), is already a testament to all things smug and ugly about America.
And it is about America. Treat brings out some button-nosed kindergarteners who affirm their gratitude for living in "the greatest country in the world." During collections, the JumboTrons show commercials for upcoming church events, including the July 1 CFC Freedom NW Service, with its "explosive patriotic songs" and a "thunderous indoor Harley-Davidson parade," followed by a big ol' red-meat barbecue.
If you're thinking of attending a church, I beg you not to attend the CFC—find one that understands humility and grace and charity. I'm an atheist, but the CFC brings Bible imagery to my mind. Standing in all the gaudy sound and tacky fury, all I can think of is the perverted temple that Jesus Christ ripped to pieces with his bare fucking hands. PAUL CONSTANT
3. Mars Hill, Ballard
1401 NW Leary Way
Sunday services: 9 am, 11 am, 5 pm, 7 pm
I have only been at Mars Hill for 30 seconds and already I'm laughing. The house band has just started playing, signaling to everyone mingling in the lobby to come find a seat, and the opening bass part to the song sounds almost exactly like Bush's mid-'90s hit "Comedown." I haven't heard that song since Endfest 1995. Hi-larious.
Pastor Tim gets on the mic—wait, Pastor Tim!? What the fuck!? Where's Mark Driscoll? Where's that round-faced dude who blames infidelity on fat wives? Where's the Jesus-loving blogger who once compared homosexuality to cancer? That's the dude I wanna see! If I'm gonna mock anyone, it ain't gonna be some half-assed Pastor Tim who's too busy pimping his band's upcoming CD to lead the crowd in prayer!
Lucky for me, Tim was just doing the morning's introduction. Phew. After a few more shitty worship songs, they beamed Driscoll in from West Seattle via live video feed. He was flashing across five large projection screens.
Driscoll wasn't as insulting as I thought he would be—he basically said men are the backbone of America and men need more God in their lives in order to lead, teach, and love their families. Because, you know, women (who are more likely to be Christian, he says) aren't capable of that shit. "It's good to be a man," Driscoll preached to all the young, single dudes in his congregation. "To get married and make babies."
At that point, Pastor Tim's worship band got back onstage and they started the whole booze and crackers thing—but I bolted. I could see all the single guys scanning the room for single ladies—and the last thing I need is some sissy Christian boy trying to knock me up. MEGAN SELING
4. Redmond Baha'i Center
8151 164th Ave, Redmond
Sunday devotion: 9 am
What the hell is Baha'i, anyway? Do I need some of it in my life? I'm a sinner, yes. I feel bad. Will Baha'i help? Will hands be placed upon my person? Will there be genuflecting? The casting out of demons? Or, will there be "affirmations"? Singing? A donut?
I call the Baha'i Center to confirm the address—it's the Redmond Baha'i Center, but the address I have says Issaquah, which seems wrong—but there's no answer. Just a cheery voice telling me to leave a message. It's weird, this Baha'i, but I have faith. I wake up Sunday morning bright and early. I shower. I shave. I put on a white shirt, a jacket, jeans. Jeans! Baha'i!
I was once a Midwestern Methodist, so church for me equals a kind of spiritual bad smell. It hangs over the weekend's beer bongs and whippets. Ugh. I don't wanna! But maybe, I think, Baha'i is not a bad smell. Maybe it's something else. Something good. Who knows? I could be selling oatmeal at the airport by next week! Let's go! I'm ready! Baha'i!
I drive over Lake Washington, past the Darigold dairy fill-up station, and pull up to where the internet says the Baha'i should be. But there's no Baha'i here. It's a wine bar. Jazz on Sunday nights. No Baha'i!
I call the Baha'i number again and the same cheery voice tells me to leave a message. I want Baha'i! 411 can't give it to me—"With an apostrophe?" "Is it like a Jewish thing?"—so I call a friend who is sometimes up at 9:00 a.m. He tells me, yep, that's where the Baha'i is supposed to be.
"Why is the Redmond Baha'i Center in Issaquah?" he asks. "Fuck," I say. Too many beer bongs! Too many whippets! Sinner!
I call the Baha'i hotline again and leave a message for the cheery man. He doesn't call me back. I feel bad. I'm sorry. No Baha'i. TRAVIS NICHOLS
5. Overlake Christian Church
9900 Willows Rd NE, Redmond
Sunday services: 9 am, 11 am, 6 pm
Overlake is a behemoth of a church, a 250,000-square-foot facility sprawling across the fields of Willows Road Northeast outside downtown Redmond. In the chapel, which holds 5,500, the stage is set for a 14-member band, with sparkling lights through black curtains and camera crews projecting the scene onto three giant screens. The bandleader welcomes newcomers, jokingly referring to the building as the "Death Star."
He is not far off the mark architecturally, and the nervous feeling of being subjugated by an intergalactic establishment is not eased by lines from the stage like, "God is calling for total surrender."
As hard as I try to relate the words and songs to my own life, the connections are always glib and trivial. The sermon is on "Reigning": All I can think of is Shawn Kemp. Passages are read from the book of Colossians: I imagine Colossus from the X-Men. The pastor stresses memorization of Bible passages, and each program includes a card with a verse on one side and the acronym on the other. I can't help but think of the Brain Age game for my Nintendo DS.
In his sermon, the pastor speaks on putting less focus on what you're not supposed to do, and more focus on what you can be doing to help the community. "Don't be a don't-don't Christian, be a do-do Christian," he jokes. It is then that I finally relate his message to my own experiences. This idea of proactive behavior is also preached in my own spiritual texts. My mind goes to the Gospel of Fugazi, book of Repeater, chapter five: "Never mind what's been selling; it's what you're buying." JEFF KIRBY
6. Seattle Vineyard
4142 Brooklyn Ave NE
Sunday service: 10 am
Seattle Vineyard may worship at the University District's oldest church building, but they are all about the contemporary music. Pastor Karl cedes the first hour of the service to a five-piece band, which did a serviceable job performing the milquetoast oeuvre that is Christian rock.
It's too early for dancing, but that isn't stopping two youngish women who move unselfconsciously to the Christian rock. A blonde in a floral-print dress is dancing like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club, and a tall brunette is doing a reasonable approximation of the jumpy type of dancing you might see at a Fountains of Wayne show.
If I'm not getting many dancing tips, I'm getting some great pillow-talk ideas from the song lyrics, which are projected on a screen above the stage. "Deep inside, I'm crying for more of you," goes one lyric. Oh, I'm using that.
Other choice lyrics projected on a screen above the stage:
Song title: "Glory and Honor"
Style: downtempo U2
Lyric that could double as dirty talk: "Let your glory and honor fall on my face."
Song title: "Yes and Amen"
Style: downtempo Oasis
Lyric that could double as dirty talk: "I live to see your will be done."
Song title: "Rain Down"
Style: Fleetwood Mac
Lyric that could double as dirty talk: "Rain down, rain it down on me." (R. Kelly only.)
Song title: "Release Me"
Style: Dave Matthews Band
Lyric that could double as dirty talk: "Deep inside I'm crying out for more of you."
Song title: "O Praise Him"
Lyric that could double as dirty talk: None—the lyrics to this song are a recipe for terrible sex, just like listening to Coldplay. SETH KOLLOEN
7. Trinity United
6512 23rd Ave NW
Sunday service: 10:30 am
I took a seat in the back row where I hoped my person and my note taking would go unnoticed. The room was handsome with a vaulted ceiling and color-block stained-glass windows that made me think of the 1970s and my preschool in a Lutheran church in suburban D.C.
By the time the service began, the church was about half-full, and the parishioners represented Ballard: mostly white with lots of old people and a smattering of young couples with babies.
The upbeat, bearded pastor, Rich Lang, began the service with an interactive prayer based on Revelations. Then we sang two songs about meeting the maker. After much handshaking and a "Lesson for Young Christians," there was "Sharing Our Joys and Concerns." The mic was passed around for people to express occasions for celebration—a 44th anniversary, a nephew making Eagle Scout, a new baby—and for prayer—a diabetic sister, a relative with brain cancer, a brother receiving ECT treatments for depression.
Finally, the sermon began. Titled "Knocking on Heaven's Door," the sermon emphasized "God's creative capacity to bring order out of chaos." Pastor Lang proposed the appealing notion of a personable, knowable, and ever-expanding God. "God is evolving as we evolve. God is evolving and growing up," he said, noting that in this anti-Aristotelian, somewhat heretical concept, God's character can change.
Following the collection, announcements about CPR classes, and closing song, there was the "Blessing the Body of Christ," which I thought might involve eating wafers. I was busy writing down the lyrics of "When We All Get to Heaven" when upon looking up, I saw everyone standing and holding hands and a man with white hair holding his out to me. ANNA MARIA HONG
8. The Meditation Room
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
If you're going to find religion, the airport—thoughts of fiery plunges looming in every traveler's heart—is a more logical place than most. On Sea-Tac's Mezzanine Level, a deserted, antiseptic attic above the ticket lines, the interdenominational Meditation Room waits, dim and empty. Its walls are covered in plum-colored carpet; exactly 40 chairs sit in pew-like rows. Hanging over each tall, tinted window is a web of ancient macramé, lumpy and gray from decades of interdenominational meditative dust.
Along one wall is a table offering Christian tracts. Billy Graham's "Steps to Peace with God" advises me to walk across a bridge made of Jesus to avoid eternal torment. "Have a Good Day" contains news of scientific breakthroughs: "An economist found that going to church makes people wealthier," and "a government study recently found that it's healthy to be married."
Holy shit—my meditation is interrupted when I realize that someone else is in the Meditation Room. Lying silent across the back row of chairs, asleep under an orange coat, is an indeterminate pile of human. A hobo? A sleepy murderess? A trap? I sit close to the door in case it turns on me.
On the front wall, where one expects Jesus to dangle, there's a large photograph of a mountain lake at sunset. "Lake Wenatchee," it reads, "January, 1986." Just to the right is a tiny door with no doorknob, which could only lead from the adjacent chaplaincy. The door has a peephole in it. Is the chaplain in there behind the peephole? Is he peepin'? Can he peep all the atheism that fills my cold, doomed heart?
I lower my head and pray to Lake Wenatchee. I get the overwhelming feeling that Lake Wenatchee doesn't give a shit. And even if it did, what could it possibly do for me? Or my family, or the hobo taking a nap, or all those people terrified to get on all those planes? How awful, to blame your misfortunes on a personal failure to pray persuasively enough. Anyway, at least Lake Wenatchee exists (Lake Wenatchee, 1; God, 0).
A man in a black polo shirt and jeans enters and walks purposefully to the corner. He removes his black shoes and kneels, his back to Lake Wenatchee and his face inches from the macramé curtain. I can hear him whispering very, very quietly in Arabic: "Allahu Akbar." He completes his prayers, ties his shoes, and leaves. So do I. LINDY WEST
9. Church on the Hill
Meets at Capitol Hill Arts Center, Lower Level, 1621 12th Ave
Sunday service: 10 am
There were maybe 30 or so congregants in Church on the Hill's meeting room in CHAC's Lower Level. Contrary to expectations, there were no hipsters. Candles and tables and chairs were set up sparsely for quick removal; the church has to be out of there by noon. I've heard this is a conservative, Fundamentalist church ["Cross Purposes," Erica C. Barnett, May 3, 2006], but in the hour and a half I spent there, it didn't show. The members just seemed really into Jesus.
The young pastor, Jason Hudson, read from the Bible, relating it to his own life, perhaps to make it easier to understand, or to give it a modern spin. The sermon was on the book of Hebrews, in which we learn that you can't know God unless you know him through Jesus, for Jesus is the embodiment of God. If I got it right, some Jews who became Christians were considering going back to the Old Testament, but whoever wrote this book of the Bible said to them, "Out with the old, in with the new—Jesus is now the only way we can truly know God."
Hudson then asked everyone to read the rest of the book before next Sunday's meeting. He said to think of this Sunday as our first date with Jesus, and we should go home and call our friends and tell them all about this awesome date we just had, then next Sunday would be our second date. KIM HAYDEN
10. St. John the Baptist
3050 California Ave SW
Sunday services: 8 am, 10 am
I'll admit it—I was a little nervous.
I was going to church with my dad, an Episcopalian minister, for the first time in more than 15 years. When I was young, Sunday mornings always brought out the same feelings—dread, anxiety, and unbearable fatigue. When we walked in to St. John the Baptist church, I was 11 again—palms sweaty, shrinking behind my father, who was happily greeting the greeters. It seemed that church was church, unchanging and eternal, no matter how old you were.
But then something changed. The first chords of the processional echoed in the cavernous, not-nearly-full hall, and I calmed down. Perhaps it was the chorus of voices lifted in song that was at least aspiring to melody. Or the down-to-earth, funny, and actually rather thought-provoking sermon, delivered by a visiting Lutheran bishop. Or maybe it was simply the dappled light, shining down onto the altar.
The words from prayers I thought I'd long forgotten rose to my lips unconsciously and there was something soothing in the familiar rise and fall of the language, the shared murmuring, and the—shudder—community of it all. I'd expected to feel a lot in my return to church—hypocrisy, boredom, and unease at least. What I hadn't expected was the sense of calm and goodwill that enveloped me the rest of the afternoon.
Nostalgia? Father-son bonding? That delicious BLT I had at our postCommunion lunch? I don't really know, and I don't think I'll go next Sunday, but now I'm wondering if church might be something more than church after all. CHRIS McCANN
11. Idris Mosque
1420 NE Northgate Way
Friday service: 1:30 pm
As I walked down a godless stretch of Northgate Way toward the Idris Mosque, I kept pace with a young woman in a gold burqa. When we passed Idris's parking lot, she turned and followed a small ramp into the mosque's basement. I entered through a door marked "gentlemen," up a flight of stairs on the other side of the building.
Inside, I slid my shoes into one of the tall wooden racks by the front door since Allah likes to keep his carpets clean. A good cheese/bad fish smell that wafted up from my socks. The day's heat and my Jew-y nervousness had gotten the best of me.
I was greeted and quizzed by a friendly young man. "Just checking things out," I told him, hoping he wouldn't think I was a Fed. I was led into a large, brick-walled room with an immaculate teal carpet where I sat, back to the wall, in a corner.
The imam began the service in Arabic. Eventually, the imam switched over to English. Apparently, the topic of the day was "being nice to your parents." As things came to a close, a 3-year-old—clinging to his father's back—smiled at me and squeaked out an "Allahu Akbar."
On my way out of the building, the friendly young man wanted to know if I had any questions about Islam. I asked where all the women were. A smile crept across his face. "Okay, it's like this: When we pray, we bow. If the women were in there... you know, your face would be..." We both laughed. Apparently, women are in the basement because no matter how devout a man might be, there is no power greater than Allah... except a woman's ass. JONAH SPANGENTHAL-LEE
12. The Joy Cathedral
Meets at Columbia City Theater, 3804 S Hudson St
Sunday service: 3 pm
I was so willing to go to church, especially to Reverend Vici Derrick's nondenominational Christian pickup-band church held, according to its website, at the Columbia City Theater. But the theater looked empty and the door was locked.
What happened to the Joy Cathedral? I asked the manager, Gabriel, at Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, which shares a building with the theater. And he was like an angel. He ran all over the restaurant, up and down stairs, and tried opening secret doors to the theater, but only got as far as a dressing room full of mirrors. He suggested the cathedral might be meeting at the Royal Esquire Club, a sports bar nearby. That door was locked, too.
A few blocks down South Hudson Street, I found a nun wearing a cornflower-blue habit and carrying a toilet seat to the curb outside a duplex. Another sign! She didn't know about the Joy. But she was from Saint Edward Catholic Church up the way. It had four doors. All locked. On the way, I encountered an Islamic service letting out, the Damascus Missionary Baptist Church ("Unleashing Our Potential"), and a sign on a street sculpture, seemingly unattached to any church, that said, "Do not praise God for creating the tiger, praise him for not giving it wings!"
Signs on South Hudson pointed to an estate sale. "Condition and odor of house may be offensive to some," a notice read at the door. At least I was getting into someone's house, even if it wasn't God's. In the corner of the smelly, dirty attic, near the old clothes, a Holy Bible was set upright, and that is where I finally found Jesus. JEN GRAVES
13. Olympic View Community Church of the Brethren
425 NE 95th St
Sunday service: 10 am
I slept badly the night before church: I was scared because I had never been before, and everything I know about Sunday services comes from David Lodge novels and Garth Ennis's Preacher series. "Are they gonna make me confess my sins?" I asked my boyfriend. He promised me they would not. "Can I eat beforehand? Can I get up to pee?" I was sure I would stick out.
And, okay, I did. The Olympic View Community Church of the Brethren congregants know each other very well—they're interested in the minutiae of each other's lives. One woman stood up to announce that her family had bought the house they had wanted, and thanked everyone for keeping them in their prayers. The pastor called every person by name.
There was only one point when I felt totally out of place: Toward the beginning, the pastor asked those of us who were guests to introduce ourselves. You're not likely to find someone more reluctant to speak up than a bashful Jew at Sunday morning church services. So I didn't, but the church is small enough that everyone knew I was a stranger, and that made my heart pound. But everyone was friendly, smiling at me and saying "Hello," as I walked by.
I'm not planning to go back—they do, after all, believe in Jesus—but I'm glad I went, rather than just relying on my jaded novelists. Olympic View is a place of comfort for anyone who comes through the doors. DAVIDA MARION
14. Local TV
Channels 11, 13, 16, and 22
Sundays 7—10 am
I'm late for church on TV, which is pathetic, since it's only five steps from my bed. I hit the snooze button for the last time, swallow a few painkillers, grab my crutches, and stump down the hall to commune with the rest of the cripples and shut-ins watching God on the small screen.
The good thing about TV church is that you can eat cookies for breakfast during the service. The bad thing is that it's even more boring than regular church. Without the formality, the little distractions aren't as funny.
Example: When you're sitting quietly at church, watching a fly crawl up the back of the bouffant of the lady in front of you is funny. Sitting on the couch in your underwear watching a fly crawl across a TV screen is not so funny.
Preacher Jack Holt—River of Life Fellowship in Kent, Washington—is embarrassing channel 11 with his studio-lit, copper-dyed hair. I wonder if he'll heal my broken foot, ask me to press my hand against the screen and pray with him, then cast off my crutches and walk into the light of day. "There are lots of methods God can use to heal a person..." Preacher Jack begins. Bingo! "Like start eating right!" Click.
Channel 13: A young woman stumping for some youth ministry called Generation Church ("the GC!"). "I have so much fun every week! If you're between the ages of 18 and 24—" Click.
Channel 16: A preacher on a beach, wearing a T-shirt: "Every time I see a boogie board, it reminds me to trust in God." Clickclickclick.
Back to channel 11: Holt and his wife by a fireplace, wrapping things up. She watches, constipated, while Holt summarizes his sermon: "Sometimes the Lord tells us to do it in a way that doesn't seem natural to us, but that's the way that brings the blessing."
Yes—that's the stuff. Snickering in church, just like the old days. BRENDAN KILEY
15. Emmaus Road Church
2709 Third Ave; Sunday service: 10:30 am
I've been here before: rented space, low ceilings, black cloth backdrop, propped guitars, amps and speakers with Peavey rocker logos. And I've been here before, too: a charismatic interpreter of texts standing before me, parsing meaning and extending metaphor.
Years of looking for transcendence and meaning in rock clubs and lecture halls prepares you for much of Sunday service at Emmaus Road, a small congregation that meets at the New Horizons drop-in center in Belltown, if not for the way that all meaning and transcendence are turned back to the glory of Jesus Christ. (A childhood of placidly ecumenical Sunday school classes in the Unitarian church doesn't prepare you for that, either.)
The texts of the day are Elijah and Jesus' raising of the dead, but Pastor Eric, dressed down and playing sax and flute with the band, with hair even messier than mine, quickly moves from the literal to the metaphorical. "What is dead in you that can be brought to life?" he asked us. Here are some words that have been dead to me for some time: worship, ministry, scripture, fellowship, prayer.
This morning, though these words were bent to a belief I don't buy, I could see the life in them, in greetings that met a stranger more than halfway, an acceptance of disorder in ritual, and the most diverse Seattle crowd I've seen outside a bus. But I ducked out at the end of the service, declining further fellowship in a mild antisocial and nonreligious panic. TOM NISSLEY
16. Bethany Presbyterian Church
1818 Queen Anne Ave N; Sunday service: 9 am
Two things worried me: how to dress, and the dread of singing. Dress is not normally a dilemma. Nor is singing. But in this instance both were concerns. I craved anonymity. I felt sneaky about attending a church service as a detached observer. I wanted, to paraphrase King Lear, to take upon myself the mystery of things, as if I were one of God's spies. This would require a modicum of invisibility. And no singing.
I checked the Bethany website. There was a picture of some people sitting in pews. They appeared to be casually dressed. Good. I could wear my jeans and running shoes.
As for singing, yes, there would be singing. Lots of singing. As soon as I arrived and selected a pew toward the rear of the chapel, strategically situating myself close to the aisle in case my morning coffee caught up with me a little sooner than expected, a kind woman with a welcoming smile handed me a circular with the morning's program neatly printed on it. And there they were: hymns. "Open the Eyes of My Heart." "You Are My All in All." "In Christ Alone."
The magnitude of devotion in the hymns was daunting. But when the time came to get up and sing, I stood. My voice emerged from its lair and blended with the other voices. Everyone was singing—I mean everyone. The Presbyterians were emphatic about participation. The prompting was warm and welcoming but impossible to ignore. Earlier in the program, everyone was urged to get up and greet the people sitting nearby. The sense of community was acute. The detachment I had brought with me, and was so carefully trying to preserve, detached, and hung around my ankles as I arose to sing "Open the eyes of my heart." JOHN OLSON
17. West Seattle
4400 42nd Ave SW
Sunday services: 9 am, 10:45 am
Driving over the bridge toward West Seattle Christian Church, a seagull dropped a Big Mac shit on my windshield. The white, liquid bomb of hit right in front of my face. I swerved, screaming, "GOD DAMN IT!" Then retracted, "Please Lord, forgive me for using your name in vain, on the way to worship."
Inside the church, loud music played. People danced. Hands were raised. Church rock filled the stained-glass-luminous room.
The band was called the Worship Team—two female vocalists backed by two guitars, bass, keys, congas, and the only drawback to my church going experience: the ever-dreaded, original-sinning electric drum set.
The minister's sermon dealt with apostasy, leading people from the truth. But the drum set behind him glared at me like Judas from the Last Supper. Fake drum sounds lead people from the truth. Then the Worship Team sang of sacrifice in "Lord You Have My Heart." Freddie Mercury said, "Free me, free yourself. A life of sacrifice controlled me." Tupac said, "Fuck sacrifice, like my nigga, Mike Tyson." And Jim Morrison said, "Chance is a survival of religion in the modern city. What sacrifice, at what price can the city be born?" I say we sacrifice the electric drums.
After the service, I hurried to the parking lot. Maybe the bird shit didn't happen by chance. Maybe it was supposed to be there. A sign. Maybe the Virgin Mary's visage was in that white splatter on my windshield. But no Virgin appeared. TRENT MOORMAN
18. Seventh Day
1300 E Aloha St,
Saturday service: 11:30 am
Volunteer Park's Seventh Day Adventist Church is built like a topsy-turvy uterus—cervix pointed heavenward—and decorated with a runny yellow carpet, brown paneling, and silk-flower Garden of Eden. Picture your mother's womb circa 1970.
There were 29 worshippers at the 11:30 a.m. Saturday service. The median age was 102. I stood out like a sore heathen thumb. To complete my sense of alienation, the sermon began with a pop quiz.
"What was Nebuchadnezzar's Folly?" Pastor Sam asked.
I stared at my neighbor's hands to avoid eye contact.
A toothy beard in back spoke up: "He didn't take the tree stump seriously." Pastor Sam nodded and expounded on the disrespected tree stump. I put on my thoughtful face.
Then we sang: "We fall down/we lay our crowns/at the feet of Jesus..."
At 12:50 p.m., a white dove appeared on the PowerPoint display above the pulpit, and everyone stood. Time for cocktails?
"That last hymn is my favorite," my neighbor said.
I thought the song would be more powerful pantomimed. Geriatrics have lousy singing voices.
"Act it out and bill it as Jesurcise," I said.
She laughed politely and then said Jesus wouldn't be amused.
"He doesn't have a sense of humor?" I asked.
"Of course He does."
She opened the church leaflet we had been handed. Inside was an article comparing God's incredulous power—virgin births, donkeys conversing with false prophets, etc., to Ripley's Believe It or Not—the television show.
"Hummingbirds can't walk and crocodiles can't chew even with all those teeth," she explained. "These are the little jokes God plays on us."
"But God wouldn't find me funny?"
"Maybe not," she said, "but you're still welcome here. You're very pretty. We need more youthful decorations."
"What if a cougar takes off half my face?" I ask.
"I'd pray for you," she replied. "And I'd pray that you'd be reunited with it in Heaven."
I'll drink to that. CIENNA MADRID
911 Stewart St
Sunday service: 10 am Holy Communion, 11:15 am coffee and conversation
The downtown intersection of Ninth Avenue and Stewart Street is home to both Gethsemane Lutheran Church and the Greyhound bus station, making it prime ground for the unsaved.
Ray, with liver spots crowning his rosy face and a sea-foam green tie, sees me in the vestibule. He requests a large-type bulletin on my behalf (though my eyes are fine), invites me to share his pew, and introduces me around. I shake hands with everyone who doesn't need both hands on his or her walker.
My signature in the guest book is the first since March; only a quarter of the seats are occupied. "We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves," Pastor Kempton Segerhammar reads along with the aging congregation. We warble through a discordant "Gather Us In."
After the service we sip fair-trade coffee in the basement, where a banner speaks to Gethsemane's boom days: "He has touched us. 1885, 1901, 1954–1961. We have grown." Parishioners hope Gethsemane will grow again when residents return to downtown's northern sector—sidewalks in all directions display sandwich boards directing pedestrians to sales centers for yet-to-be-built condos.
Meanwhile, a half block north, 47-year-old Robert Davis shaves his dark brown face in the window's reflection outside the Urban Rest Stop, a facility for the needy. He has heard Gethsemane offers a nightly shelter in its basement. I ask if he has ever attended a worship service upstairs, but he hasn't and doesn't plan to. DOMINIC HOLDEN
20. St. James Cathedral
804 Ninth Ave; Sunday service: 10 am
The last time I attended Mass at St. James Cathedral it was for my graduation from O'Dea High School—a grueling, two-plus-hour affair that left asses numb and caused my father to grumble about the "damn Jesuits" and their long-winded everything. I should have pointed out at the time that it was my non-Catholic father's fault for sending his non-Catholic son to Catholic school in the first place.
The Mass I attended Sunday was an hour shorter, but it was long-winded and, to this non-Catholic, just as impenetrable as ever. Walking in, my memories of weekday Mass during high school were dashed: the interior of the cathedral has been completely reimagined. Much of the Catholic splendor is still in place—the beautiful stained-glass windows, the domed ceiling that allows for sunlight to shine in all God-like—but the layout has been upended. Gone is the straight line from the entrance to the massive altar, along with the rows and rows of pews. In their place is an altar positioned in the center, with rows of folding chairs with knee rests branching out on all sides.
According to the St. James Cathedral website, the renovation, completed in 1994, hoped to "incorporate the teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962–'65) and change the focus of the liturgical action to the midst of the assembly," but taking a seat near the choir, I couldn't help but think of mega-churches, with their center altars and throngs of believers sitting rapt as their pastor puts on a show. It was a feeling reinforced by the mass itself, which, even at venerable St. James, was filled with intricate choir numbers, more incense than an Evergreen College dorm room, and, on this Sunday at least, a procession involving frilly streamers and a full-blown bagpipe squad. Nowadays even the Jesuits need a little razzle-dazzle to fill the seats. BRADLEY STEINBACHER
21. Beacon United Methodist
7301 Beacon Ave S
Sunday services: 9 am Llocano, 11 am English
I was not looking forward to this. The last time I went to church, it was my dad's Unitarian Universalist church in Eugene—and even at that liberal place of worship I felt conspicuous.
Now I know what sticking out really feels like. I was the only white person in the room and probably the only unfamiliar face in the crowd, sitting in the back and futilely trying not to draw attention to myself. Beacon United Methodist is a predominantly Filipino church (one member of the choir told me the church had some Samoans, about 10 Japanese, and "some Afros" in the congregation). Although everyone was exceedingly welcoming and friendly—so much so that I felt even worse about my intrusion—I was clearly an outsider.
The church building dates to the early 1970s, as evidenced by its felt banners and blandly functional architecture (can track lighting ever hope to evoke the supposed glory of God?), while the service itself was a mix of community building, praise music, and sermonizing. The community building took the form of celebrating the church's four recent high-school graduates and two college graduates. The music was typical of "praise" music: formulaic pop-style love songs with "girl" and "baby" replaced by "Jesus" and "Lord." The sermon wrestled with the theme "In Time of Grief," a reminder to recent graduates that "in life, the reality of death is real."
But of course, through God, even this reality can be made moot, which the pastor illustrated with two anecdotes. One was about an agnostic pediatric oncologist who came to believe after a dying patient told her parents with her last breath that she could see and hear the angels and the other about Eric Clapton's tragic loss of his son and subsequent penning of "Tears in Heaven." Seriously. ERIC GRANDY
22. Bethany Community Church
8023 Green Lake Dr N
Sunday services: 9 am, 10:45 am
An elderly couple greeted me at the door of Bethany Community Church, shaking my hand and wishing me a good morning. I had dressed all in black and feared I looked satanic or Johnny Cash–like. I found a seat in the balcony. Nearby, a middle-aged couple operated the AV equipment. As the congregation filtered in, happily exchanging hugs and greetings, messages were projected on the wall behind the dais, sort of like a Jesus-centric version of the trivia questions you're forced to sit through before a movie begins. Rather than teasing the brain with what movie Bruce Willis starred in with Matthew Perry, these messages advertised various events, like "Come find out what you can do about poverty," and "400 toothbrushes and hand sanitizers—we need your help!"
The service kicked off with a 25-person choir singing a selection from the hymnal, accompanied by an organist and a pair of trumpet players. I didn't sing along, being an atheist secular humanist and all.
Then something Lynchian happened: A young girl in a red sequined top hat appeared to introduce a dramatic dance and song number about some scandal that happened some time ago in Persia. After this the pastor, Richard Dahlstrom, proceeded to preach about the importance of rest. Pastor Dahlstrom wove anecdotes about an overworked period of his life with scripture and an interesting story about a Swiss botanist who planted a garden in which different flowers opened at different times of day. The botanist was able to look out his window and tell the time of day depending on which flowers were open. Taking Dahlstrom at his word, I decided to skip the rest of the service, slipping out to enjoy what promised to be a beautiful day. RYAN BOUDINOT
23. City Church, Belltown
2700 First Ave
Sunday services: 9:30 am, 11:30 am
How do you run a four-campus megachurch with just two pastors? Hold one service and simulcast the video at all the others.
That's the operating principle behind City Church, which has campuses in Belltown, University District, Issaquah, and Kirkland. Every Sunday, in other words, City Church's thousands of members get together... to watch TV.
This can, for obvious reasons, be disorienting for a newcomer. At Sunday's 11:30 a.m. Belltown service, it took me a few minutes to figure out that the woman onscreen (Pastor Gini, a slim blonde in a hot-pink suit with white piping) was not, in fact, in the room. Weirder still, the virtual pastors could see their audiences around the city. As in watch on monitors. As in, "Stand up, Belltown! I can see you!"
Like many megachurches, City Church's canon is Fundamentalist and dogmatic. They believe Adam and Eve existed, literally; they think God created the world in seven days around 6,000 years ago; they think Satan is real and lives in a fiery place called Hell; and you can probably guess how they feel about the gays.
City Church's Fundamentalism, however, probably isn't the reason most of its members have chosen to go there. It's a friendly, laid-back, nonchurchy environment (no band; no organ; and certainly no icky crucifixes)—the kind of church, in other words, popular among urban youth. When Pastor Judah, a beaming thirtysomething with heavily styled hair and hipsterish horn-rimmed glasses, made a particularly salient point (this Sunday's sermon was about Saul, who drew the wrath of God when he saved the spoils of battle to sacrifice instead of destroying them) half the room raised their right hands (yeah, like that) and shouted. "Come on, come on!" "Tell it!" "That's right!"
City Church is thus the ultimate intersection of religion and technology: A closed feedback loop between pastor and flock. ERICA C. BARNETT
24. Metropolitan Community
Church of Seattle
1441 16th Ave; Sunday service: 12:30 pm
Metropolitan Community Church holds its service in a small room off the central lobby of the Temple De Hirsch Sinai, a lobby that was filled on Sunday afternoon with Jewish ladies setting up tables and uncovering platters of cookies. None of them knew where the Metropolitan Community Church was. A janitor didn't know where the Metropolitan Community Church was. Finally someone pointed me to a side door, and on the other side of that door a black man with a ring on almost every finger greeted me and gave me a name tag that said "Hello, my name is"; a red slip of paper for me to put all my contact information on; a yellow slip of paper ("WELCOME to MCC-Seattle!!"); a refrigerator magnet; and a program for today's service.
There were nine people congregated. Total. Including the guy who greeted me, the guy playing an electric piano, the scripture reader, and the interim pastor. A small rainbow cloth hung on the altar. According to the brochure, "All people—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual—are invited to new life through the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ in the Metropolitan Community Churches." The whole thing had a very AA vibe, down to the grape juice for Communion ("out of respect for those in recovery").
Fifteen minutes in, six or so more people had joined us, including a guy with a rat tail who'd come to play the harp. At one point, the interim pastor, a lady with short silver hair on top of her head and flowing blond hair down her back, asked the congregation to share "praises," and the scripture reader, newly a mom, shared an anecdote about potty training. Communion involved being fed by either the scripture reader or the interim pastor, and then embracing them while they spoke into your ear. A better reporter would have gone up and been fed and hugged and whispered to, but I couldn't do it. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
25. Saint Joseph Catholic Church
732 18th Ave E
Sunday services: 9 am, 11 am, 5:30 pm
Mass at Saint Joseph is church as archetype, as paradigm: stained-glass windows, arcane ritual, belief that's nearly palpable. The architecture promotes reflection as it should, the ceiling distant and beautiful with its painted timbers, the cupola tantalizing. The parishioners stand and sit and speak as one, guided by their central mystery. The parish is notably liberal. Hymns are sung.
I liked going to Mass as a child, but it was mostly about the baked goods. My family was and remains entirely irreligious. My best friend's family, conveniently located next door, was Catholic, synonymous in my mind with possession of a multiplicity of cool older siblings with great records and a pool table and an endless supply of Trident gum. If I slept over on Saturday night, I'd go to Mass with them in the morning at Saint Joe's. I'd mumble through the collective orations, feint at genuflections, and, on more than one occasion, blithely take Communion. It was the pink box of cinnamon rolls and muffins and doughnuts from the bakery up on 15th Avenue that always appeared at their house afterward that was the miracle to me—such sweet largesse. Best-case scenario at my house on Sunday mornings was pancakes accompanied by the secular reading of the newspaper.
On this Sunday, the Eucharist is, fittingly, the topic; the service is marked by humility, with discussion of feeding those in need, of spiritual hunger. The priest quotes Andre Dubus's Broken Vessels. The fundamental, communal acts of eating and drinking—body, blood—are consecrated. More than one person remains behind, watchful, possibly reverent, as the feast of Corpus Christi is enacted. If one feels like a trespasser, there is the sense that one's trespass is forgiven. BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT
26. Bikur Cholim
5145 S Morgan St
Friday service: 7:10 pm early Mincha
Saturday service: 9:10 am Sof Zman Krias Shema
It doesn't make a lot of sense to send a Jew off to Jewish services for a feature package titled "A Month of Sundays." Jews don't have services on Sundays. Our weekly pause, Shabbat, runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.
Tradition holds that Jews are not to work on Shabbat. Encouraged activities include attending services, spending time with family, visiting friends, and having sex. This assignment—to attend a conservative Jewish service in Seward Park on a Saturday morning—encouraged none of those things. It took me away from my friends and family. It disrupted my sex life. And it turned one of the suggested Shabbat rituals, attending services, into one of the forbidden Shabbat activities, work.
But try explaining that to an editor. Like the easily angered and unpredictable deity of the Old Testament, editors sometimes want to order the world according to their own moods and visions. People say the reason Jews tend to excel in the publishing industry is our penchant for storytelling. I think it also stems from what our religion teaches about dealing with difficult authority figures: Sometimes you just have to roll with them.
I arrived late at Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath, and I left early. I'd done the math: I figured that if the intent was to have a token Jewish presence in this issue, then it should be of correct proportions. Jews make up less than 1 percent of Seattle's population. Therefore, if you're taking 30 peeks into the religious life of Seattle, there should be only one third of 1 percent of a peek into Jewish life.
I will tell you about the language and the hand gestures: The rabbi spoke mostly in Hebrew. He liked to tuck his thumb behind the four other fingers of his right hand, and then raise this arrangement skyward for emphasis. When he spoke in English, it was to announce the marriage of two of the congregants. He looked happily toward the lower level of seats, where the men (and presumably the groom) were sitting. Then he looked happily toward the upper balcony, where the women (and presumably the bride) were sequestered. Everyone said in unison, mazel tov! ELI SANDERS
27. Plymouth Church
(United Church of Christ)
1217 Sixth Ave
Sunday service: 8:45 am, 11 am, 6:35 pm
Plymouth Church is that large, white fortress of a building that sits, strangely, downtown, right by the on-ramp to I-5 South. I parked in the underground garage, rode the elevator up, and found myself standing in front of the Benihana that faces Fifth Avenue.
It's hard to imagine people flocking downtown to worship God on a Sunday morning, but Plymouth was packed with hundreds of people. With the exception of myself and the 12 other brown folks I counted, the crowd was as white as the church's exterior. Many elements of the service—South African Siyahamba processional, Jamaican folk tune "Halle, Hallelujah," Brazilian Psalm, doxology that could be sung in either Spanish or English, and a "traditional Gospel call and response" employed to honor the musical director (it was "Appreciation Day")—seemed to celebrate a cultural diversity that was, actually, nonexistent. Ah, Seattle.
Plymouth is a congregational church—service isn't led by a single priest, but instead facilitated by a group of ministers who offer "reflections" on scriptures. There's a lot of crowd interaction. Having been raised Roman Catholic, I found the format refreshing, if disorienting. While I appreciate Plymouth's looseness and wide-ranging cultural acceptance, I am haunted by the image of a small, bald, white man banging on a drum kit, singing an aggressively soulful song he wrote for graduating seniors: "The burdens will get heavy, relief a mirage/Trust the Lord got his hands on you in spiritual massage."
Regretfully, I didn't leave Plymouth uplifted, light with God's love. I left feeling uptight, my mind filled with questions about cultural appropriation. ANGELA GARBES
28. First African Methodist
1522 14th Ave
Sunday services: 7:30 am, 11 am
FAME, the oldest black church in Seattle, began its second service this Sunday with music from the choir. The entire church clapped and danced to this wonderful music, which refreshed the soul, and ended only when all in the choir and congregation felt that the spirit of the music had ended.
After the music (the best part of any black service), new visitors were asked to stand. About 11 people stood and the pastor's assistant welcomed them to FAME. After the visitors sat down again, announcements were made: people who had died, people who were about to die, people celebrating birthdays, people graduating from this or that school, people who had gone on trips to this or that church conference. There were so many announcements.
The sermon that followed the announcements, and another inspirational performance by the choir, was not original but was relevant to African-American realties: facing and overcoming the challenges of life, family, work, and so on. At one point, the preacher, Reverend Anderson, made us turn to the person sitting next to us and ask: "How do you do it? How do you make it through the day, through all of the difficulties?" I asked the portly man next to me this question, and he, too, asked me the question. We did not provide answers because we were not asked to do that. Altogether, the sermon, like the service, was pleasant but a bit too long for my tastes. CHARLES MUDEDE
29. St. Mark's Episcopal
1245 10th Ave E
Sunday services: 8 am, 9 am, 11 am
This place is fucking gorgeous: 50-foot ceiling; stone-slab floors; white concrete pillars bookend the altar; light-pink, yellow, and off-white stained glass filter the morning light; and the piano-and-flute-heavy ensemble croon away.
In an era when Christianity is marketed as a sort of rock concert meets Gatorade commercial—with TV-screen preachers beamed into makeshift houses of worship in high-school gyms—St. Mark's splendor is awesome. I understand the populist impulse of the evangelicals, but God deserves some gentle beauty.
When it comes time for Communion, I leap at the chance to float down the aisle and hang out at the grand dais.
Again, there's no skimping here: I'm startled at the size of the slab of pita bread I get. When the guy jams it in my mouth, I'm wondering if he's made a mistake: Am I supposed to tear it in half and share with the old lady on crutches next to me in line? Are there two parts to this ritual—am I supposed to eat only half now with the wine and bring the rest back to my seat to dip in charoset? JOSH FEIT
30. Antioch Bible Church
Lake Washington High School Gymnasium
12033 NE 80th Street Kirkland
Sunday services: 9 am and 11 am
I’m circling around the gym, trying to find a cute girl I can sit next to. There are none. Seriously, NONE. This is absolutely not the place to pick up chicks. I also notice that I am the only one here with sideburns.
Don’t let the gymnasium fool you. They’re very high-tech here. There’s three giant screens, and video cameras, and wireless headset mics for the preacher dudes. There’s a Christian indie soft rock band, and the lyrics are projected on two of the screens so we can sing along. I throw in some barbershop harmonies but no one seems to notice.
On the center screen there’s a slide show of the downtrodden. I’d guess there are around 800 people here. The audience has a much higher percentage of black people than you find on Capitol Hill, though is still mostly white. There are a number of black man/white woman couples. Very few black women. One of the preacher dudes mentions his Norwegian wife and jokes that his children are “Blackwegian.” Everyone laughs. They’re very big on the multi-cultural thing here.
After the show I chat with the main pastor, Ken Hutcherson. I confess to him that it’s practically my first time in a church. He announces it loudly and excitedly to the people around us. Then he puts a firm grip on my shoulder and steers me to a table where some women take my information so they can follow up with me later. Luckily I have Christopher Frizzelle’s e-mail address memorized. DAVID NIXON
31. Quest Church
3223 15th Ave W
Sunday services: 10 am, 11:30 am
The pastor ordered us to hug our neighbors.
"Make them a little uncomfortable," we were instructed, "by squeezing them a little too hard—that's okay. It's part of the getting-to-know-you process."
With charges of clerical sexual abuse still being leveled at churches great and small, you might think a Christian pastor would err on the side of not encouraging congregants to hug their neighbors past their comfort levels. The getting-to-know-you process? More like the getting-to-sue-you process.
I attended the early service at Quest Church—one of Seattle's "emerging churches," a sort of Mars Hill wannabe, if slightly more progressive—on an important day. Quest had been meeting in a warehouse space it rented from Interbay Covenant Church. Six years old, Quest was growing, attracting hundreds to Sunday services, while 65-year-old Interbay was slowly dying, attracting a couple of dozen at best. So in April, Interbay voted itself out of existence and handed all of its property—its homely sanctuary (picture the Brady Bunch's living room pressed into service as a church), the converted warehouse, a parking lot—over to the upstart. Sunday's 10:00 a.m. service was the first for the "merged" church, hence the getting-to-know-you hugs.
There was some insipid singing, led by an insipid worship band, and then a sermon preached by what I took to be Interbay's soon-to-be unemployed pastor. It focused on a selection from Luke: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple." That verse was a favorite of David Koresh and Jim Jones; isolating someone from his or her family is what cult leaders typically do. But we were encouraged not to read that verse with "a cold, unimaginative realism," because "Jesus uses hyperbole." Good to know.
Then Quest Church's pastor, Eugene Cho, tore a loaf of bread in half, we took Communion, and then we prayed.
A word about the praying: When I was dragged off to church by my parents, we folded our hands together to pray and assumed a posture of humility. In today's emerging churches, you lift both hands up toward heaven, arms out, in what looks like a sort of double-armed fascist salute. It's a posture that screams, "Look at me, God! I'm praying! To you!" The more enthusiastic worshippers looked like toddlers reaching up for Daddy, anxious to be picked up and hugged past their comfort levels.
Oh, and Communion? I lined up and tried to take it. But I dropped my piece of wine-soaked bread on the floor. It was an accident. Or a miracle. DAN SAVAGE