On Sundays you’re lucky to find a spot to park at the confluence of Rohnerville Road and Highway 36. Dozens of cars line the edges of highway and road, and a hundred or so more cram into the big dirt parking lot of the white, old-fashioned church on the southwest corner of the intersection. Which is odd, given that this is Hydesville — pop. 790, according to the sign on the way into town. The 2000 Census was more generous, giving Hydesville 1,200 residents. But still, it’s a small town. Sleepy. And yet that pretty, white, steepled building — Hydesville Community Church — is busting at the seams, with a congregation of nearly 600.
They don’t all show up at once. Maybe 150 or so will attend the 8:30 a.m. Sunday service, a couple hundred at 10:30 a.m., and another 150 or so at 6:30 p.m. There might also be 100-plus kids inside the fluttery white tent next to the main building. But get this: Last Easter, the Hydesville Community Church had to rent out the Fortuna River Lodge to accommodate the 1,100 who attended the service. Same thing happened at Christmas.
The church even has a big city-feel website. The week before Father’s Day, the homepage sported a picture of a young, be-suited man with a sleeked-back urban ’do, driving his car, right hand on the wheel and left hand holding a cell phone to his ear as he looked keen-eyed out the window. Changing lanes in a big city traffic jam as he multi-tasked his way to a high-power job? That’s what it looked like. The caption said something like, “Answering the call.”
What’s up? Is Hydesville an extraordinarily pious and single-spirited town with a hidden urban flair? Um, no. Most of the congregation comes from Fortuna, a smattering from Hydesville and many others from Eureka, Ferndale and as far away as Redcrest. But what draws them to this broad, airy bluff of hayfields and nice homes surrounded by tree-covered mountains?
Last Sunday, we checked it out — after roving for a place to park, then walking past the children’s ministry tent (from which excited yelling and laughter erupted), then past the “Guest Center” booth, just outside the main entrance, and into the church. The electric-guitar-led band was already soft-rockin’ on the stage. Words flashed on the screen over the pulpit, and everyone was standing and singing along — many with an arm raised.
The song ended, everyone sat down, and the screen image became a green field. It was time for the baby dedications. A young family walked up to the front with two baby boys, and Pastor Mike Delamarian III — a smiley, tall, 50-something athletic man with short, curly light brown hair, dressed in a blue short-sleeved shirt, white trousers and Rockports, spoke at length in gentle tones about these “little warriors” of the faith, as he called them.
The screen image changed again, to a happy boy child, arms raised high, and the bright words “Rock Solid Kids.” Today’s sermon was a continuation of this month’s theme: children. Delamarian spoke for a long, long time, his stories ranging from riffs on Albert Einstein quotes to John Steinbeck anecdotes, from suicide bombings in Iraq to people selling young girls into prostitution in Guatemala, with Biblical tales sprinkled throughout. He told the story of how when he first arrived in Humboldt County, 23 years ago, he headed to Shelter Cove to surf. There, some of his new surfing buddies started passing the bong around. “And I remember one of the guys asking me what I did for a living,” recounted “Pastor Mike,” as everyone calls him. The congregation tittered. “And I waited till he” — here Pastor Mike made an inhaling snuffle snuffle sound, and the people laughed again. “And then I said, ‘I’m a minister,’ and the guy goes” — Pastor Mike made a pthpthpth sound — “and he said, ‘That’s cool, man. We need ministers, too.’” The message? “Do you have the courage to say ‘No’?” asked Pastor Mike.
Nobody seemed to be nodding off. They watched him, smiles flickering across their faces, at times taking off their glasses to wipe away tears.
After hugging everyone goodbye at the end, Pastor Mike and Lisa Cho sat in his book-lined office, the shelves peppered with surfing slogans like “Pray for Surf.” Cho is the director of the children’s ministry — which at the moment is offering something called “Space Camp” at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays. “We don’t have astronauts,” Cho said. It’s just a theme. The kids may walk around in space boots one day, and throw tomatoes at a picture of Satan the next.
“We use any object lessons,” said Pastor Mike, “that will teach the spiritual truth.”
Hydesville Community Church is so big it has even attracted its own gadfly. Kirk Cesaretti started a website devoted to excoriating what he claims is a constant harping by the church leaders that attendees either pay 10 percent of their income to the church — the tithe — or be in Sin. “Sin is separation from God,” says Cesaretti. And he thinks that’s unduly harsh punishment for not tithing. “And then came the “Surf the Nations,” said Cesaretti. That was a mission trip that head Pastor Delamarian, his wife and kids and some others took to Indonesia. Cesaretti accused them of misappropriating funds for the trip; Delamarian says it was, in fact, a real mission trip: “Surfing was just a tool” for them to spread their message, and Bibles, in a predominantly Muslim country. Cesaretti eventually left the church, but his kids still go.
Cho credits Pastor Mike for the church’s popularity. “He’s a great preacher, and he has a great message.” Many choose to go to the 6:30 p.m. service, where they can sit at bistro tables and sip espresso drinks while the pastor preaches. Cho said 80 seniors come to the senior lunches. But most of all, it’s the youth programs that people like about the HCC. The kids get to go on foreign missions; there’s a family camp; there’s intergenerational “mentoring.” Three years ago, the church even started the Christian Outdoorsmen group and has held a dinner every year — 400 men and boys attended the last one — where kids can win guns and other hunting gear.
Anything to reach the people, said Pastor Mike, an abalone fisherman himself. He said he read a study once that said the Pacific Northwest is “the most unchurched area in all of America.” And, by his own estimate, Humboldt County is likely 80 percent “unchurched.” He blames a certain fierce independence that comes with the territory. “But at some point you need people.”
Hydesville Community Church began in 1879 as a nondenominational church. In 1963, a new pastor changed it to “Evangelical Free,” after the denomination that originated in Sweden by people who were tired of state-run churches.
Last Sunday evening, Al Clark, from Eureka — who plays piano in the church band — was taking a break outside. He and his wife used to go to a church in Eureka. But, he said, “At the other church, there was a choir, and the members of the choir would stand up and I’d accompany them.” Then they switched to Hydesville. “This church has a full-on band. I feel more alive here. And there are a lot of down-home people here.”