When I was small Mom and Dad dragged me to Catholic Mass each Sunday. When I say dragged, I mean that quite literally. There was nothing about the experience I enjoyed. Nothing! I was required to wear a stiff, starchy suit which I utterly detested. The black strap-on bow tie strangled me to near death and has scarred me for life. To this day I have an absolute aversion to wearing anything around my neck. And what fairy came up with the idea that guys appear more proper with long, silky ribbons around their collars? I wish he’d been strangled! After getting all suited up the six of us would pack ourselves into a Chevy Monza and head for St. Ceril’s Church in Encino. Inside it always seemed cold, dark and eerie to me. There I would sit, constrained in my unyielding suit, trying to conform my sore butt to some a hard wooden pew that was older than the combined age of the parishioners. For a full hour my head would spin and swirl into a state of oblivion from the seemingly endless rounds of meaningless chanting.
As a teen I was introduced to a different kind of church, the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys. This experience was extremely surreal for someone who grew up Catholic. For one thing the place was massive unlike the parish I attended as a tyke. I don’t know how many hundreds of members the Baptist church sat. Rows upon rows of perfectly lined pews faced a lofty stage where a hefty wooden pulpit proudly stood front and center. Massive organ pipes cascaded down the tall ceiling like twin waterfalls pouring down streams of gold on either side of the baptismal. Furthermore, First Baptist was lively! I say this because I remember St. Cyril’s as being very subdued. There was a sacred silence once you crossed the holy threshold. A small, marble basin welcomed the quiet splashes of a thousand eager fingers five at a time. But the Baptist church was quite different. People lingered in the lobby, chatting up a storm and, God forbid, laughing aloud for all to hear! This would have been considered irreverent at St. Cyril’s but that was clearly not the case at First Baptist. This was all very curious for a sheltered kid like me. I also remember the sanctuary of the Baptist church being lit up like a grocery store, which gave it a most cheery feel. It conveyed the idea that if God were in the house no one wanted him lurking in the shadows somewhere. And one final thing, the pews were notably different than the ancient ones my young fanny grew to despise. At First Baptist they had soft red cushions you could sink into. These Protestants were truly on to something; a positive church experience begins at the bottom!
I was baptized at The First Baptist Church of Van Nuys. It wasn’t my idea but it didn’t sound like a bad one so I went for it. I still remember that cold night. Afterwards I cussed up a storm in a sea of cars out in the parking lot because I couldn’t find my mom and I was impatient to go home. I guess not all my sins were washed away. Perhaps I should have gargled but honestly I don’t think rinsing with holy water would have improved my language. It wasn’t until many years later that my mouth got born again. Sins of the tongue are hard to lick.
I met a lot of good people through the Baptist Church and its street ministry, the Mustard Seed, many of whom took time to personally invest in my newfound faith. I’ll never forget Reverend Harrah, a soft-spoken old gentleman who always greeted me with a welcoming smile. As a rule I typically felt uncomfortable around authority figures, but not with the Rev. Though his words were few, I felt a kindred spirit in him. Then there was the gregarious Jim Allison who drove me to church every Sunday. It was his idea I get baptized and I’m grateful he took such an interest in a squirrelly punk like me. Ric Wonders was another fellow I looked up to. He was a big jolly surfer dude. I often wondered how a fellow his size could stand up on a thin, fiberglass board without ever sinking. Ric was the one who oversaw the Mustard Seed coffee house. I’m not sure what his title was or if he even had one.
Tom Fifer was another reverend who served on staff at First Baptist. He also made a lot of appearances at the Mustard Seed and occasionally taught Bible studies there. There was a small house across from church where Fifer kept his office, this is where he discipled and counseled young people. The little house became known as FAM, short for family and an acronym for ‘For All Mankind’. Fifer was the first reverend I had ever heard use the expression ‘boob’ in a sermon. Normally priests didn’t say things like boob in their homilies so I found this sort of amusing. Everyone thought Fifer was real cool because he rode a motorcycle, had long hair and always wore Levi 501 blue jeans. I also sported long hair and wore 501 blues but I wasn’t cool like Fifer because he had a motorcycle and he could grow a mustache. I didn’t get fuzz on my lip until much later.
I could be spotted at the Mustard Seed almost every other night or at the First Baptist Church on any given Sunday. These places offered me a sense of belonging and all the thoughtful people made me feel genuinely cared for. The great thing was I wasn’t expected to wear one of those dreadful suits or a torturous necktie! There were those who did suit up for church, mostly the older folks, but kids my age tended to dress very casually, just like the Reverend Tom Fifer. And, if that didn’t beat all, I could actually understand the preacher! Every word! This was not always a pleasant thing, mind you. Sometimes he could get a little gruff. And when it came to tithing he’d really hammer that point home. One time I remember him saying, “It doesn’t matter to me if you don’t put anything in the plate. You’re not robbing from me, you’re robbing from GODDD!” I wasn’t too inspired by this so I kept my buck and a half. But these gut wrenching guilt trips did seem to stack the offering plate in his favor.
I would not be who I am today if it were not for The Mustard Seed and the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys. It is through these ministries I was introduced to the essential doctrines of the faith. They helped me gain a better understanding of Jesus and what He did for me. I also learned the benefits of Christian fellowship and that church didn’t have to be painful to be spiritual. While it may have been the First Baptist Church that later exposed me to some blatant Christian snobbery it was also here that I was lavished in Christ-like love by guys like Jim Allison, Reverend Harrah and Ric Wonders. Sad to say though, when you’re backsliding you lose sight of gems like these. You tend to focus on the snobs, which I did. But today I’m most grateful for those precious saints who poured themselves into a troubled, ragamuffin punk like me.