Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions – Goodbye Calvary Chapel

By the summer of 1992, I was longing for something more in my relationship with Jesus. I had been about five years since I walked into Calvary Chapel, a lost, irresponsible, and angry sinner, and became ‘born again’. I gave my life to Jesus because I was miserable, and I wanted to have purpose and direction in my life. Calvary Chapel gave me that purpose. I was to live a life of devotion to God, and service to others.

I was feeling a change in my attitude after five years in Calvary Chapel. Around 1990, Calvary Chapel of Albuquerque was widely billed as the fastest growing church in the United States. I don’t know if that was really true, but just that claim shows the astounding growth of that church during the five years I attended. Since I only wished to spend time with real Christians, and avoid the carnal, nominal Christians and hypocrites, I only attended evening services at Calvary Chapel. I figured that only the serious Christians would attend outside of the traditional Sunday morning services. The one time that I did attend a Sunday morning was after a third service was added to accommodate the crowds. Calvary Chapel of Albuquerque on Osuna Drive, a former indoor soccer complex, was stuffed to the rafters with worshippers. I just knew that most of them were not real Christians, did not have a real relationship with Jesus, but were in Calvary Chapel simply because attending Sunday morning church was a tradition to them. Tradition. How we Fundamentalists loathed that word. I knew I followed no man-centered tradition. I had a personal relationship with Jesus. And I had the Bible. What more could I possibly need?

I was starting to look for a smaller, more intimate and more devoted congregation. I wanted to be with serious Christians like myself. I wanted desperately to give to others as much as I had been given. I discovered that I loved to serve others. I loved to give what I could of my meager resources, to help those who were less fortunate than I was. I made little money as a cook, but I gave at least 20 percent of each paycheck to Calvary Chapel – 10 percent was a tithe, 10 percent was my free offering. I trusted that Calvary Chapel knew best what to do with the money. I have much to criticize Calvary Chapel about, but I think they did one thing right – they were masters at raising money. From all outward appearances, their strategy to raise money was – to do nothing. They never took up offerings during the services. They rarely asked for money. They held no fund drives. They did as Jesus commanded did not turn the giving of money into either an embarrassment, or an ostentatious display. They simply left some mail slots in the back of the auditorium. Just secretly slide money in whenever you felt like it. It was a stroke of genius for Calvary Chapel. Because of that one simple tactic, I never gave as much to anybody as I gave freely to that church. I peddled on my bike to Calvary Chapel every Tuesday afternoon, walked into the empty auditorium and placed an unsigned envelope stuffed with money into the mail slots. Nobody but God knew what I gave. I knew that I would not be rewarded by Man, but I would be rewarded by God.

Calvary Chapel, to their credit, did teach me to be generous with what little money I had. Before I became ‘born again’ in Calvary Chapel, I had spent most of my adult life selfishly partying, drinking, and carousing with my buddies. Christianity, for better or worse, did give my life a sense of purpose and direction. And after five years as a fervent Christian, I felt myself wanting to devote myself further into a life of service. I felt like a gluttonous slob, stuffing myself with endless devotional prayer meetings and Bible studies. I had read the Bible through in its entirety at least twice, and the New Testament countless times. I attended Calvary Chapel twice per week, Sunday and Thursday evenings, and gorged myself on countless recorded sermons from the cassette library. I could argue, debate, and defend Christian apologetics as well as anybody I knew. I felt that I was doing nothing but taking in information about the Bible, and living my Christian life to serve only myself. I had to pour my blessings out to others.

My opportunity came in August, 1992. As I set up in the last article, God, in his all-knowing providence, sent a Category 5 Hurricane to southern Florida. At that time, Hurricane Andrew was only the second Category 5 hurricane that was recorded to make U.S. landfall, and the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. A month later, Pastor Skip told his congregation about Franklin Graham’s relief organization called Samaritan’s Purse. Pastor Skip told us that Franklin Graham’s father, Billy, was called by God to preach in the world’s stadiums, but Franklin was called to serve in the world’s slums. I was burned out on preaching. After one disappointment after another, I preached to anybody any more. But to serve! Finally, I had found my calling!

Pastor Skip asked for volunteers to live in one of the tent cities provided by the National Guard, and to help the people in the devastated area in whatever way we could. There was no question in my mind. Neither Calvary Chapel, nor Samaritan’s Purse was going to pay my way, and I could not afford to take a month off with my meager cook’s salary. But I prayed about it, and asked God if he could provide a way for me to go if it were His will. And what do you know, I knew deep down that God did indeed wish for me to go. Unlike all my other requests to feel God’s guiding hand, I unambiguously felt his overwhelming instruction for me to go. Somehow I found a way. I quit my job, and made arrangements to start work at another restaurant in November. I scrounged up enough money for a month’s rent in my roach infested studio apartment and bought an airline ticket to Miami.

So a few dozen volunteers from Calvary Chapel, including myself spent the month of October 1992 living in a tent city near ravished Florida City, Florida, and did our best to meet the needs of the people there, and ultimately to be good witnesses for Jesus Christ. Because, we always quickly added, all the glory goes to Him.

I did not own a camera at the time, but fortunately somebody had a home video recorder that we passed around. When we returned to Albuquerque, some video editors took clips and stills from the video and snapshots from other cameras to make an inspirational presentation. This was played at Calvary Chapel. I managed to get copies of both the presentation and the raw video, and I would like to share clips of both in the rest of this article.

Here is the presentation that was shown in Calvary Chapel. For those keeping score, I am in this clip several times. I am the young man with a sleeveless white t-shirt, and long hair tied under a black ball cap. Please watch:

 This mission trip undoubtedly changed my life. I knew most of the people from my church at least casually. There were two from my small home Bible study and prayer group, including the guy who ran the whole thing. He is also in the video presentation, but I will not point him out. I will call him Sam. I will mention him again later in this article.

Let me share some more video clips. We flew into Miami, ate at a Cuban restaurant that I found very exotic. Immediately, and to my shock, some of my sanctified lit up cigarettes. What! I quit smoking, through the power of the Holy Ghost, in a single evening! One elderly and obviously simple man, free from the eyes of his pastor had suddenly started smoking cigarettes like a chimney.  He told us in that Cuban restaurant that it was his desire to become so righteous, so empowered and enlightened by the Holy Ghost, that he would start to glow like Moses coming down off Mount Sinai. He wished to become so glorified that he could hike up into the hills near Albuquerque, and immediately attract animals to stroll fearlessly up to him.

Oh dear, I thought. What kind of nut is this guy? Does he think birds are going to flutter around his head like Cinderella? I confess that I may have had a heart to serve, but I was secretly an uptight prick, and a little too pre-occupied with my own righteousness. I wanted to spend my time working amongst real Christians, not these carnal hypocrites. I was concerned that the Holy Ghost had not changed their lives the way mine had been changed. I was a bundle of immature and confused emotions. Who were these people I was spending my time with?

We arrived by bus at the tent city late at night. Here is the chaos of trying to put bunks together in the dark with no electricity:

The next morning we took a short bus tour of the ravished area. The tour was essentially driving through mile after mile of wreckage. I had never seen such devastation! The top winds of the Category 5 hurricane were 170MPH, but there were unofficial reports that the wind actually topped out at 212 MPH before the gauges broke. Most of the trees were mowed down as if by a giant weed eater. We saw a few collapsed radio towers. Most of the homes were simply abandoned with insurance policy numbers spray painted on the side of whatever rubble was left.

 The place was a disaster area. All electricity and plumbing was out, and neither ever came on during the time I was there. National Guard helicopters constantly patrolled the area and supplied relief workers with clean drinking water. A huge mobile kitchen from the Salvation Army gave us a hot breakfast every morning. We also opened each morning with a group prayer and inspirational Bible reading. We asked the Holy Spirit to guide us to the people who needed us the most:

 Our assistant pastor told us that everybody had their part and was important. I think he was partly correct. There were a couple of teenage girls who came with us from Albuquerque, and they were distressed because they could not do much heavy work. I told them that they had the most important job of all – they were there to make friends with some of the victims. In the end, I think that was all any of us could do. We entered ground zero armed with pathetic little tool belts, in the hopes of repairing some damage. In the end, our tool belts and our efforts were worthless. The slums just needed to be condemned and bulldozed under. There was no repairing anything. The best thing that we could possibly do for anybody there was to just be friends with the people we met and maybe clean things up a bit.

Our first day there was spent trying to repair homes that were already insured. I did not see the point of placing shingles on relatively unharmed brick homes that would have been paid for anyway. Actually I did see the point – we were there as representatives for Jesus Christ, so we took advantage of any foot we could get into the door. We repaired hoping to get a chance that we were there in the name of Jesus. By the way, you have heard of Jesus, haven’t you? Let me tell you about Him…

 We cleaned out the ruined bathroom of one elderly couple. “I braced my body against the door trying to keep it shut. That was one hell of a storm,” the old man of the house told me. “What church are you with?”

“What church are you with?” It was always assumed that we were there with some religious organization.

“Calvary Chapel from Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

While I cleaned the bathroom, a friend dug some old Gospel music cassettes out of the rubble. “Look at these. Did you see these? You think they are Christians? They might be. What do you think? Do you want to tell them? I don’t know, what about you?”

A few articles ago, I wrote of the distress and guilt that I felt over leading a homeless man to accept saving faith in Jesus. At the time, I felt like a conniving schemer, who won a man to faith when he was at his most vulnerable point. I felt like I had just exploited his condition to further my aims to spread the Christian Gospel and convert his heathen soul. Now, in Florida, working with the vulnerable victims of a terrible hurricane, I felt that same guilty feeling come over me. I felt like we were covertly trying to look for opportunities to convert unsuspecting people to our religion, while using the hurricane as just a means to achieve our ultimate aims. Just like the homeless man that I met on the streets of Albuquerque, I felt the pressure of trying to mention ‘Jesus’ to everybody in Florida that I met. “Ma’am, we are glad to help you, because we love you. We are here in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

One day, Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse visited our tent city. He was there to greet us, and present ten trailers to some homeless families. Across the lot were dozens of identical FEMA trailers. In this next clip, Franklin Graham meets some of us, then he gives a special message to our pastor Skip Heitzig, then he presents ten trailers to the community – making sure that everyone knows he was dedicating the trailers in the name of Jesus Christ:

 By the second or third day in the tent city, our assistant pastor discovered a small slum that was occupied primarily with Haitian refugees. “I found some people in real need. They have nothing. We need to spend some time with them.”

This clip is our first look at the Haitian slum. My heart broke:

 We descended on them as missionaries to the heathen, and immediately offered to pray with them. I confess that by this time in my religious journey, I rarely spoke of God or Jesus to anybody I met, especially a stranger. I was already so exhausted from the pressure to proselytize, that I did not want to again force my religious views on strangers. I would be there for a month, and I would never see them again, and I was increasingly uncomfortable with the feeling that I was just using my ostensible love for them and Jesus as an excuse to share the Gospel. I went to Florida to work. I just wanted to work.

Most of the people in the Haitian slum could not speak English, so I was not able to get their stories. But they looked hopeless. Nearly every house had a notice posted, warning that the building was condemned and unsafe to enter. The posters were all ignored, as these people had nowhere else to go. They looked like the hurricane had sucked whatever life was left in them. My pathetic tool belt was pointless. All we could do was help clean up the wreckage so they could collect whatever they could of their belongings, and do our best to be temporary friends. The thought of using their venerable situation to suddenly preach made me feel like a parasite. By this time, I wanted no part of it.

I quickly found that I loved the children there. They had youthful exuberance. They were joyful and full of life. They did not stare silently like most of the adults. I loved them all.

One young woman named Julie wanted to get into her house to collect her meager belongings. The storm had flipped her house on its side, and we spent several hours clearing away obstacles and attempting to pull her house over with a truck and some cables. We finally flipped it over. Julie went into the house, and I was compelled to follow her inside. My heart broke for this woman. Even though I did not know how to work the video camera, I grabbed it and went with Julie into her house. Upon recording, I accidentally erased the few seconds of footage of the house finally landing upright, which made a few of my fellow Christians quite upset. The voice you hear in the next clip is mine:

 She could retrieve nothing. Her home and her possessions were ruined. Everything was hopelessly buried under piles of rubble. Some of my friends dared approach her later that day, to tell her that there was hope in Jesus. I felt sick. I did not want to convert people when all their defenses were down.

My friends apparently did not agree. Any sign that anybody had given their life to Jesus was taken as a victory, and they were quickly displayed as trophies for the folks back home. For example, here is Charles:

 Conversions had ceased to impress me. I felt sick claiming victories. Charles later came to spend a few nights with us in the tent city as a new Brother in the Lord. One night, he asked one of us for money so he could get bus fare out of town. “Do you think he means it? Maybe he is just trying to take advantage of us. Maybe he is just claiming to be a Christian to get money out of us. What should we do?” There was some debate over whether to give Charles the money or not. Our assistant pastor decided it was best that Charles not make a mockery of the Church or our generosity. Charles never got the money he asked for. He disappeared from the tent city, and we never again saw him in the Haitian slum. “I guess that just proves he was never truly a Christian,” we reasoned.

Here is a shot of Charles in the tent city with us enjoying a bit of a break. We also brought back another young, newly converted 'Brother in the Lord' from the slum:

Missionaries from around the country were everywhere. We at Calvary Chapel were wary of missionaries from cults and false religions. One day Sam collected some religious pamphlets from another church, and some bit of eschatological minutia had him worried. “This thing looks weird. It does not look right. It says that the New Jerusalem is coming down from Heaven during the end times, but look at this – it is shaped like a pyramid! Doesn’t that look kind of New-Agey? Kind of New World Order? I mean, the Bible says that the New Jerusalem is shaped like a cube. I don’t trust those people.”

We met a man from Tennessee named Randy who traveled around the country with his son, as sort of a free-lance evangelist. Randy towed a small trailer behind his truck in which he stored his kiddie puppet and magic show. We trusted his theology, and he was a genuinely friendly man. Everybody liked Randy. One day in the Haitian slum, he performed a magic show for the kids. At first I thought it was a great, entertaining diversion for the children. But it quickly turned into another evangelistic ploy. “Jesus loves you. The Devil has nothing for you.” I find the next clip to be cringe inducing. Skip to the end if you must – a young Haitian woman interrupts the embarrassing performance, grabs the microphone, and sings a Creole song.

 Why, oh why, couldn’t this have been for pure, simple entertainment? Why couldn’t the girl sing her song from the beginning? Why couldn't we perform a puppet and magic show just for the simple joy of hearing the childrens' laughter?  Why couldn’t Randy just break out his microphone, and let these people sing? Singing is good for the soul! But no, it was better used to teach vulnerable youngsters about tricks of The Devil. I was a committed, born-again Christian who loved Jesus with all his heart – and yet the constant preaching was driving me crazy.

One frustrating day, confused about what to think, conflicted by all the clashing emotions and thoughts in my mind, I sat on my cot under the tent. Everybody was lining up for the chow line, but I needed a few minutes alone. I pulled out my Sony Walkman, inserted a music cassette, and swayed, sitting on my cot, to the driving rhythms of He Is Sailing. I shut my eyes, and cried. I did not know what to think any more.

Somebody walked into the tent and saw me from behind. “Hey, you okay?” I pretended not to hear him. I just continued to sway to the music in my headphones, lost in my thoughts.

We returned to Albuquerque after a month of working in Florida. But something had to change. I was undecided about whether or not to return to Calvary Chapel, or to begin looking for a smaller, more devoted congregation. But the week after we returned, our small prayer group met and made the decision for me. Sam, the leader of our group, shocked us all by saying he and a young married woman who had just joined our group a few months before our Florida trip had fallen in love. They had prayed about it, and surprise, surprise, God had directed them to be together. There was much apologizing from them, and Sam gave each of us, one by one, a hug as he left. My prayer group was dumb-struck. How could this charismatic young man, a man who had just returned from a mission trip to south Florida, a man so on fire for Jesus, fall into such obvious sin and adultery? I did not know. I did not really care. But living for a month amongst so many fellow believers in the close and intimate surroundings of a tent city exposed me to how many of my fellow sanctified believers really behaved outside of church. Sam’s hypocrisy was just the last straw that finally chased me out of Calvary Chapel forever.

I needed a break. I was still in love with Jesus, but I was not only sick of Calvary Chapel, I was sick of Church. In fact, I was sick of Christians. For better or worse, that is the truth.


In March 1993, I had a job waiting tables in a slightly more upscale restaurant than I was used to. For my new job I cut my hair and dressed in sharp clothes. The hostess sat a young couple in my section that I had not seen since the previous October. Oh no. I recognized them. They were from Calvary Chapel. We used to street preach together. We held worship services in my apartment. We studied the Bible together. I approached the table.

“What a surprise to see you working here! We have missed you at church! Are you going to another church?”

“No. I am taking a break.”

“Taking a break!? Is everything OK?”

“Everything is great.” I forced a smile, but it was sincere. “I just need to take a break from church for a while. It is hard to explain.”

They were aghast. “What have you been reading?” Nearly 20 years later, that question still rings in my ears. They were already afraid of reading the wrong things, and exposing themselves to the wrong information.

“Nothing. I have not read anything.” And that was the truth. I had not read arguments against my apologetics. I did not ponder on the problem of evil. I never doubted the inerrancy of Scripture.  I had not formulated any philosophical reasoning about why I had to leave Calvary Chapel. I just knew that I needed to. I was not sure why at the time, but in hindsight, I think it was because I was sick of the guilt. I was sick of the constant attempts of the church to puncture my self-esteem. I was sick of having to try to convince people that my beliefs were the only beliefs that God favored. I was sick to death of crying. The part time classes at the community college were satisfying me more intellectually than anything the wisdom of the Church was offering. My new elementary physics class was tangible. Weighty. Engaging. Fascinating. I discovered to my shock that my physics class assignments were something I was very good at.  And it was something that gave me no guilt.

Immediately after leaving Calvary Chapel, my suffocated self-esteem started to improve. Around my 29th birthday in 1993, I gathered the courage to do something I had not done since my senior year at Cape Baptist Christian School. I asked a woman for a date. She quickly accepted. I was still a Christian, but Calvary Chapel slowly and steadily faded into a memory.

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