Pastor Kaleb—who does performance art dressed up as church—was never a religious man. He grew up Kaleb Hagen-Kerr in Grants Pass, a logging town in southern Oregon, where his mother worked three jobs while raising three boys and his father dodged in and out of the picture. "My dad was charismatic," he says, sitting in the kitchen of his Central District home, holding a glass of wine. "Kind of a musician, kind of a wheeler-dealer, kind of a con man. He was always looking for ways to get money from people for free." He'd be gone for long stretches, swoop in to make promises he couldn't keep, and then vanish. "It was a hopes-and-dreams buildup," he says. "Like: 'Christmas is coming and we're all going to be together,' and then the night before Christmas he'd say, 'I gotta get outta here, something happened.'"
His mother eventually married a stricter man—"She said yes to everything and he said no to everything"—but Hagen-Kerr says his grandmothers made a huge imprint on his childhood. His maternal grandmother was a bighearted, diligent Christian dynamo who grew up among the citrus groves of Hemet, California, a prototypical woman of the West. She built one of the houses her family lived in, made food for poor folks, sewed dolls, collected stuff, and raised children while her husband—a merchant marine—was away at sea. This grandmother attended an Assembly of God church, a Pentecostal denomination, and took her grandsons along. The boys didn't particularly care about the service but liked the social aspect and spending time with their grandma. His paternal grandmother was, in Hagen-Kerr's words, "a late-night pub thrush," a sweet good-time gal who carted him from joint to joint, introducing him to bartenders and piano players.
These tensions between different ways of conducting one's life—the permissive mother and the disciplined stepfather, the diligent Christian grandma and the good-time grandma—are at the heart of Pastor Kaleb's show. "I'm working out what it's like to be a human in this world," he says. "Being a carpenter and a partner and a neighbor, just trying to work it out—and I'm confused about this, guys! I have an urge to share, and maybe it helps other people work out their stuff to see someone trying to work out his stuff."
Pastor Kaleb's first official service was in the chaotic streets during Seattle's WTO protest in 1999. He'd been toying with the idea of a pastor character after a few months of watching late-night TV preachers when he got off his restaurant job. At the time, he was living with a bunch of other people in the cavernous rooms of a former electric building. "They were so many artists, people doing things," he said. "So much active creativity."
Hagen-Kerr got the gift of The Spirit one night at a party while he was talking with a friend, saying he could pull off a televangelist-style sermon. "No way," his friend said. So he jumped on top of an out-of-tune piano that someone was plinking on and began. "I was just preaching about breakfast or whatever," he said. "Like: 'You want a nu-tritious breakfast! A nu-tri-tious BREAK-FAST!' Just stupid stuff like that."
The WTO came soon afterward, and some of his artist acquaintances wanted to stage a funeral procession as part of the protests. Hagen-Kerr and a friend offered to build coffins—two adult-sized, one child-sized—using spare plywood from a job site. One of the artists in the march told Hagen-Kerr that they needed a preacher to lead the procession, and Pastor Kaleb was born.
That procession hit a rare chord for Hagen- Kerr, a chord almost unique to protest theater—it was earnest satire, simultaneously arch and sincere. He kept exploring that chord, hosting "church picnics," holiday services, and Sunday services that danced between irony and seriousness. Pastor Kaleb is also available for weddings. Last year, he officiated at his 70-year-old aunt's first wedding, to a man she'd met online.
Over the past 12 years, Pastor Kaleb attracted an unlikely congregation, almost entirely by word of mouth, from Seattle's arts and nightlife scenes. (He also spreads the word with his soul band the Witness.) "A preacher is known by his flock," he says. "It's not a big community, but it's the ones who don't go to any other church because they're told they're awful sinners."
He's held his services off and on in the electric building and other venues, but always preaches on Easter. Last year, Chris Snell—who runs the Can Can nightclub and Fred Wildlife Refuge—insisted Pastor Kaleb perform more often and offered the room at Fred for a monthly service. Plus, he wanted the pastor to baptize his new child.
One recent Sunday at Fred Wildlife Refuge, Pastor Kaleb approached the pulpit and scanned his flock. Mostly they were burlesque dancers and comedians, writers and nightlife impresarios, and they'd all just finished their brunch buffet and were drinking down the dregs of their Bloody Marys. The room felt like a church social, people from the same community greeting each other and catching up. Except they're just not the kinds of people you'd expect to see at a church social.
Pastor Kaleb let out a whoop, throwing his hand in the air, and began: "Yahoo! Who's ready to shout?!"
People shouted a little.
"In this parish for the de-funct and dis-oriented! I said, who is ready to shout?!"
People shouted a lot. He went on:
A parish people are proud to say they are a part of! "Naw, Grandma, the defunct and the disoriented are a group of really nice people. It's at a wildlife refuge. Well, not a real one. More like a wild-nightlife refuge. But it's not nightlife, it's in the morning—but there is a full bar. Oh, never mind."
Yeah, it's hard to explain to Grandma. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to get her here, to bask in our glow... just tell her that's it's not like Mars Hill or anything—it's more like Venus Valley. Less a red rocky unmoving desert mound... less a mount for the god of war, more a glen of love and beauty. A lush, flowing, watery sanctuary!
And he was off, delivering a sermon titled "Holidays with Grandma"—how Grandma would say to be charitable not just in this season but in all seasons, to jump in and lend a hand where it's needed, to remain a bastion of calm. Like when she drives, Pastor Kaleb said: "She cuts off people and slowly searches for street addresses and turns when she shouldn't and pisses people off! She just stares ahead and ignores their anger. Hear no! Speak no! See no! She doesn't get hot, no. It's partly why I loved riding with her in the car—she could do anything she wanted!"
Pastor Kaleb's flock laughed and clapped and stood up when he led an a cappella song. It was fun, and funny, and a good show, but it was something else, too—it's what church was supposed to be like all along.
What does Pastor Kaleb see as the bedrock of his theology? "We're all just people," he says. "Animals, intelligent animals, trying to make it. And I think we need to all help each other. Is there an existence, a purpose to all of this? Well, I don't know." He shakes his head and smiles. "I don't know."
This Sunday, Pastor Kaleb will preach on the theme "A Very Jewish Christmas: How Do We Find Joy in Winter?" The parish social/brunch begins at 11 am and costs $15. The service begins at noon.