It is amazing what a slick website can do to create an initial impression. A site constructed entirely in Flash is artsy, has lots of wow, and is often so cutting edge it bleeds like a paper cut.
Of course, the web allows savvy developers to run and play, even when the sponsoring company or organization exists in far more humble digs. Call it the great leveler-of-playing-surface, but that is the net effect.
So yesterday I got to experience one of these things. But before I tell about it, I must digress.
A few weeks ago we had a guest speaker on campus as part of the Willson Lecture Series. Our guest was Chris Seay, pastor and founder of Ecclesia Church in Houston. Chris’s brother Robbie is a popular singer in the Christian genre; Chris also once founded University Baptist in Waco with David Crowder, another well-known Christian musician. It was my pleasure to sit at his luncheon table that Wednesday, and then hear him again later that night with a few hundred other folks.
Yesterday morning I had some down time, so I hopped on my bike, braved Houston traffic, and rode to Ecclesia over in the Montrose district, relying on a mental map I had visually scanned off Google Maps. I pedaled through some pretty rough neighborhoods, knowing full well my bike and Lycra clothing screamed “This guy doesn’t belong here!”
It took me a while to find Taft Street, but once I honed in on it, I rolled through the area until I saw a rather run-down looking red brick building with a small sign announcing it was Ecclesia (Greek for “church”), and their service times.
I did a double-take. After all, the cool website hinted this place should look like a gleaming cathedral in the suburbs. How could this be? There were a few seedy-looking characters sitting in the courtyard talking and sipping coffee. I wondered how long my bike would last up against the building were I to enter.
But I needed to go in. Chris spoke of the Fair Trade Coffee shop they hosted in their community building, along with a small bookstore, art gallery, and recording studio. I had come this far, and to turn back now would be anti-climactic.
I leaned my two-wheeler up against the wall, real close to the glass door, so I could sneak a peak every few minutes. OK, seconds. I thought about removing the front wheel to thwart anyone trying to ride off, but decided to just trust (not easy for someone who grew up in Chicago).
Once inside, I found the place to be just as Chris described. It was industrial, with corrugated tin walls and wood pallets nailed in a helter-skelter pattern. Funky music played, and a tattooed-and-pierced guy and gal sat behind the counter. An assortment of people were seated on chairs and sofas just hanging out, sucking wifi and sipping java.
I pondered for a few minutes the fact that their website was so slick, yet their building was so rough. Then I remembered Chris saying his church was an arts community, and welcomed everyone. I recall Chris saying there are 50-60 gay bars within a mile of Ecclesia, and that his street corner is often a pick-up for female-impersonating male prostitutes.
Nope, this is not my church-on-the-loop, the one with the $40 million building project. This is church in the city, an organic group of not-good-enoughs who were surprisingly welcomed with open arms. A place with about 1000 people attending each Sunday, but with only 11 dedicated parking spaces on the property.
I’m not sure why they sell only Fair Trade Coffee. Maybe Chris supports that movement, or maybe that kind of coffee works best in that neighborhood. And I liked the fact that their bookstore wasn’t just a rehash of Family Christian or Lifeway. No, sitting side-by-side on the shelves were books by long-dead Catholic saints, modern-day Christian writers, and social critics. It was a worldview one rarely sees these days, a refreshing morning blend of spiritual and social. And the ancient-future twist on Christianity that Ecclesia practices reflects a small but growing movement to combine great liturgy with guitar licks.
I found myself getting pulled into the environment. While my lack of tattoos and piercings bespoke my squeaky-clean upbringing (and some might say boring life), I just wanted to sit there and enjoy. I wanted what the strangers in the room had already found, a place where any and all could just sit, reflect, read, listen, talk.
I grabbed a few books and a freebie magazine, ordered up a mug of coffee and a bagel, and started reading. And I forgot all about my bike. I chatted with the guy and gal behind the counter, and they invited me back to church. “We’re here every Sunday,” the woman offered with a smile.
Time slipped away from me. I have no idea what was playing on the stereo, but it was cool, and it wasn’t Chris’s brother Robbie or David Crowder. Coffee chased bagel, and words chased each other. I gathered my bag of books and DVDs, and headed out the door. It was time to return to my world, the one with the slick websites, the busy conference schedule, and the mentally stimulating (or is that mind-numbing?) presentations by other professors.
My bike was waiting for me right where I left it. The same ragtag group of men were still seated there, smoking and chewing on the day’s events. I rode off and vowed to return.
Dr “Heaven Come Down” Gerlich