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Beer Me, Jesus 

The ambiguously Christian leader of Catalyst Church is bored with hate and Hell

Sunday night. Humboldt Brews. Chairs, each adorned with a pen, comment card and a small polished stone, obscure a floor where the prior evening's habitués swayed, with hops-filled bellies, against a layer of beer splatter and body odor-induced humidity to the music du jour. Where concertgoers customarily attempt to flag down the bartender with failed sultry gazes and a wave of their crispest twenty, now coffee and water dispensers rest beside cookies and paper cups. "What has descended upon the performance hall where we downed those pitchers of hemp ale and marveled at the pure beauty of the Guac-zilla burger?" you may ask. The answer: Jesus.

Catalyst, a local non-denominational Christian organization that meets Sunday mornings at Eureka's Accident Gallery, has begun meeting Sunday evenings at HumBrews, in Arcata. Each week they transform both spaces into a hybrid of youth culture and a house of worship. HumBrews, dimly lit apart from multihued stage lights reflecting off of predominantly white faces, is perhaps the most radical location being utilized for church services on the North Coast.

As associate pastor Dan Davis begins his sermon he points to five stands, each containing a visual prop -- a clock, video game system, a representation of a white picket fence, an "As Seen on TV" ab roller and a book, Unchristian -- lining the front of the stage. Davis delivers a five-minute "mini-message" inspired by each item. ("Perfect for us, the YouTube generation," Davis playfully announces.) Each of the five items inspired questions about how one lives their life, whether for personal gain or with social conscience, and which types of goals might suck an unhealthy amount of time and energy that might be used more wisely.

Davis, a college-educated and married man, confesses to struggling with finding his place in social justice work, due to the privileged life he's been fortunate enough to lead. He emphasizes how this generation is going to be the first since the Depression to have materially less as they age than they did when they were kids. He talks about how the American dream -- especially in regards to homeownership -- is a delusion, and why Christian judgment needs to be replaced with acts of social justice.

Each person is asked to place the stone found on their seat on top of the table containing the issue they feel they need to work on the most. A discreet Eucharist is passed around, of which Davis later comments, "I tell the Catholics who come to our services not to worry; three of ours equals one of yours." The crowd then culminates with a sing along to "We Shall Overcome." This was not for the traditional sake of civil rights; instead, the struggle they hope to overcome is consumerism.

The service, with its postmodern bent, stands in stark contrast to what one would expect from religious hucksters like Pat Robertson or Rick Warren. The most apparent distinction between Catalyst attendees and those of other churches is age. Despite their affection for pastel attire, nearly all are under 30. The youthfulness of the approximately 150 followers is enhanced by a projection of Catalyst's Twitter and Facebook addresses on the stage prior to the service.

Instead of pressing the retrograde agendas that have dominated the evangelical movement for most of the last 30 years, Catalyst focuses on acceptance of other lifestyles -- and, more generally, of the modern world. The congregation is assembled from youth from many different denominational backgrounds, and many of them found their place here because they no longer have need of pastors who preach damnation, fear and hellfire.

After the equipment is loaded into Catalyst's travel trailer, where it will be stored until next Sunday, pastor Davis and this reporter (an atheist) sit down with nothing but an iPhone set to record and a couple pints between them.

  

Davis, 29, is one of four associate pastors of the committee-run church. He says that he co-founded Catalyst because he wanted to start a movement within the Christian movement -- a place for "recovering evangelicals." Bright-eyed, Davis chooses his words cautiously yet without a need to be defensive. As the conversation ebbs and flows, he taps his pen along to the rhythm of the discourse occasionally jotting down illustrations of his ideas onto a napkin; he does this several times while nervously emphasizing that his views are not the overriding views of the church.

There's no single leader or head pastor at Catalyst. The church service itself is designed to generate weekly discussions for more intimate gatherings held in homes called "life groups." Catalyst has no permanent building and doesn't desire one.

"Not only do church structures often lead to pastors compromising their message due to finances," states Davis, "church buildings are, in a lot of cases, not paying property tax and can actually hurt the community."

In place of a permanent church, Catalyst has joined forces with Big Brothers Big Sisters, CASA, Northcoast Mentoring, the Raven project and Betty Chin to help people. The church has also started several community gardens and maintains a bulletin board, thecommon.org, where members can post and respond to community needs. Catalyst has even gone to evangelical megachurches under the guise of being "moderates" to raise awareness on environmental issues.

Social justice is integral to Catalyst's constitution -- so much so that each life group must spearhead at least three acts of social justice each year. Catalyst wants to address issues such as poverty and the environment -- whether local or global, and through whatever nonviolent means are accessible. This is done without any aim to convert.

Davis derives his worldview from Aristotle's philosophy of logic, compassion and ethics -- something that despite the unarguably brutish history of Christianity, he feels Christianity best represents. In regards to what he holds as truth in the Bible, he professes that there's a hierarchy to scripture, starting with what Jesus is believed to have said. Davis, who accepts evolution as fact, is skeptical of miracles, Heaven and Hell, and even atonement.

"I'm an agnostic every other day," he proclaims. "As for the Bible, I don't hold to inerrancy in the text. It's not meant to be taken literally; I don't think that the authors even meant it to be taken literally. That's why I have a problem with Christians who say. 'This is how atonement works: Pray this prayer, do this act ...'"

Christianity is founded on one particular credo: that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, he died and was resurrected, and by his sacrifice one's sins are forgiven. Imbibing the Eucharist is an act that symbolizes one's belief in the salvation of Jesus. This belief in the divinity of Jesus is what separated the early Christian sect from Judaism. Although many Christians fluctuate in how literally they take scripture, without believing in the salvation of Jesus one can hardly claim to be Christian, at least not in any meaningful sense of the word.

Davis, and much of the Catalyst congregation, however, approach Christianity as post-structuralist philosophers, deconstructing the Bible as a work of literature rather than an absolute truth. It's as if they're miners who extract precious gems by exploding the shafts that support the quarry. For Catalyst the resurrection could be a personal one, a rebirth from the consumerist lifestyle to living for others. It raises the questions: Is invoking Jesus metaphorically better for social justice than a literal invocation? Is it even necessary for the cause -- or for Catalyst -- to invoke Jesus at all?

"I think America is going to get more religious. More Christian," states Davis. "I think what we're doing is not the future. People want more truth than we have to offer."

 

Two weeks ago, with Judge Vaughn Walker's decision on the constitutionality of Proposition 8 about to be announced, the topic of Christianity's relationship to homosexuality arose. Davis doesn't think being gay is a choice, though he still wrestles with the biblical implications. Would he marry a gay couple within his congregation if Prop. 8 were ruled unconstitutional?

"I've thought about this a lot," he said. "Once I do, it becomes my issue. I don't want it to be."

After taking an extended sip of his beer he asked, "Do you have to publish anything on the gay issue? I know it, along with abortion, are the litmus test questions, but I fear answering because we work so hard to not run anyone out of the room by embracing one side or another."

A comparison of the civil rights movement as the litmus test of a prior generation is offered.

"I know that my position is completely unjust and goes against everything I've said earlier, but I'm still wrestling with it," he answered, staring pensively at the remaining drops of his second pint. "I know that if my daughter grows up to be a lesbian and asks me to marry her -- I will do it."

Religious institutions are often the last to change in response to evolving social and cultural perspectives. Eventually, however, they must. If, in due course, a religion doesn't follow society's lead it can suffer a loss of followers. Declining religions are then either forced to look for a new populace or face extinction. (Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, says the future of the evangelical movement is not in America but the Third World.)

When looking at statistics regarding church affiliation, the moral adaptation of Christianity becomes apparent. According to a survey of the U.S. religious landscape conducted by the Pew Forum, 84 percent of Americans identify as religious. Seventy-eight percent of Americans identify as Christians. Forty-four percent of those devotees have left the denomination in which they were raised. Catholicism, which makes up 24 percent of Christianity, is facing the most significant decline of all religious institutions. Protestants and their denominational affiliates are also in decline in America, however their numbers are rising across Asia, Africa and Latin America. One of the largest of such groups is the Baptists, who make up almost a fifth of the American population.

The smallest minority in our country is the non-religious, making up about 10 percent of the population. However, they've more than doubled in number over the past decade. Interestingly, one in four Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say they're not currently affiliated with any particular religion.

After a couple hours of conversation and several pints, Davis had a change of heart. Reaching across the table he declared, "If you are going to publish on the gay issue ... I'm for them. If anyone in our society has gotten the bum end of the stick it's that community."

  

So where are the Christians that prefer a more literal Christ? In his office across town sits 75-year-old Larry McCain, head pastor of Arcata's Trinity Baptist church. A year after marrying his wife Betty they moved from Texas to Humboldt County in hopes of starting a ministry. After two decades running Myrtle Avenue Baptist, now Harvest Church, McCain became the pastor of Trinity. Holding up a placard from when the church was founded, McCain proudly points to the date February 14th, 1954, exclaiming that he was ordained on the same date three years later -- a sure sign that his pastorship is God's will being done.

McCain makes no hesitation speaking for God. If you're an unbeliever he will tell you, completely unaware of how patronizing he's being, that you're in a dangerous place. You face God's wrath. You are, in fact -- going to hell. But not to worry: "God is a gentleman. He loves you."

Before any questions could be asked McCain launches into statistics regarding the Baptist Empire. According to McCain the Baptist movement is strong and getting stronger. Trinity is one of more than 46,000 Baptist churches nationwide. In California alone, 100 Baptist churches are started annually with a success rate of 85 percent after a five-year period. For McCain, this growth is due to God's involvement. McCain knows that God's involvement is also exemplified when one understands that no education is needed to be a Baptist minister.

"It's not a matter of intellect," he says. "Education, more often than not, gets in the way of religion. We then depend on that strength rather than God."

The Baptist faith has many different factions and beliefs within its brand. These beliefs vary from the less literal to New Earth Creationism: They believe that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old and that man walked the earth with dinosaurs -- something Trinity offers "classes" in.

Trinity Baptist also believes that while women can teach Sunday school and hold women's bible studies, they should not become leaders in the church; this applies even to leading the Sunday morning greetings. Not surprisingly, considering this enforcement of traditional gender roles, Trinity was one of the local advocates for the Yes on Prop. 8 campaign. On the subject of homosexuality, McCain remarked that he knows for a fact that society works better when people adhere to the ideals of Christianity as he defines it. He's seen people change from being gay. Traditional marriage is healthier, he says: "It's better for children."

A 20-year study in the journal Pediatrics found that in terms of social abilities, children with homosexual parents perform no differently than children raised by straight parents. To the researchers' surprise, they discovered that children of lesbian parents actually have higher self-esteem and perform better both academically and behaviorally.

"Yeah, some studies indicate that," McCain says when confronted. "But you know, you grow up a lot of sissy boys that way."

When asked if by that standard single mothers raise boys half as sissy as those raised by lesbian parents, McCain's chuckles subsided. As the corners of his white goatee settled, forming a parallel line with the light reflecting of off his head, a deafening silence stretched across the room.

Trinity Baptist is aware of the work being done by Catalyst and joined forces with them last year for a community cleanup day. Since then, several members of Trinity have become members of Catalyst. McCain respects the social justice advocacy of Catalyst despite their theological differences.

"If it's helping people, it's God's work," explains McCain. "But discrepancies in theology can be dangerous."

As for social justice initiated by Trinity, McCain mentioned the 1967 Baptist involvement in founding the Eureka Rescue Mission -- a place where, depending on the limited space and whether one is willing to sit through an attempted conversion, a hot meal, shower and bed to sleep in will be provided. Many Baptists often perform their own acts of charity and community giving separate from their church. For those working through the church however, the best way to help people is by converting them to their brand of Christianity.

  

On Wednesday nights Catalyst associate pastor Valerie Startare and her husband Will Startare hold a life group in their home. (Full disclosure: Will Startare is the costar of the Journal's "Seven-O-Heaven" comic strip, along with Journal calendar editor Andrew Goff, also a Catalyst member.)

As their fellow life group members arrive for the meeting, they're greeted with warm and familiar embraces. Valerie offers everyone coffee and white wine. She then returns to caramelizing peaches, later to be topped with ice cream.

"We don't always agree," Will Startare says, speaking of the church and its parishioners. "A lot of the time Dan and I don't agree, either. In fact, most of the time everyone has their own ideas of what Christianity is and how it works. It's kind of what Catalyst is all about."

Everyone gathers in the front room and Will opens his laptop. He scrolls down the church's website, provokechange.org, to retrieve talking points provided by one of the other pastors in attendance Sunday evening. No Bibles are present; no prayer is conducted.

"So because the service contained five shorter messages, Dan referred to us as the YouTube generation," Will says. "Do you agree? Do you think it was an effective method?"

Patrick and Kevin Hawkins, twin brothers about to depart to Haiti to participate in the relief effort, agree that the format was helpful. Others in the room discuss whether or not "The YouTube Generation" was a positive title.

The group, swaying between thoughts on the sermon and humorous pop culture anecdotes, eventually center on the American dream. Valerie comments on how consumerism is encouraged by "the American dream," leading Will to Google for more information regarding the FDR-coined term.

From there the group discusses which table each member placed their stone on during the service, discovering that most of them want to improve their social justice activism. More importantly, they all want to find causes that their skills and talents will be most effectively applied to.

Peering over the laptop screen, Will says "I feel that if I can just give what I can towards helping Betty Chin, I will be more effective than doing anything else I can think of."

He then hooks up his laptop to the TV and plays a video of activist Shane Clayborn demonstrating against greed on Wall Street. Conversations and ideas float around the room, and the meeting turns into a room of friends discussing their lives.

"I really want to do more activism," Valerie says. "Not that we should do it in place of charity, but I want to do more. And when charity is done for conversion, well, it's against the point. Isn't it?"

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