Photos by Jason Kaplan
"Do you need any prayers?"
It's 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and I've just sat through an hour and a half of prayer group. I'm tired and totally incapable of answering this question.
"OhÉ I'm fine. Thanks, though."
She gives me a skeptical look. I'm not fine, she thinks. I just sat motionless in the last pew for 90 minutes, while people all around me cried out for Jesus, paced the floor and punched the air, screaming, "Hallelujah Lord! Hallelujah Lord!"
"Do you have a church?"
Oh God, I don't want to get into this now. It's hard to explain I don't have a church because I don't have a God.
"No, I, uh, I was raised Catholic, but I don't really go anymore."
Another skeptical look. My responses are total bullshit, and I feel it just like she does. I should have told her I'm Jewish.
"You're not here just to do a story. You know that, don't you?"
Here we go, I'm fucked. Anything but agreement is just a confirmation of denial.
"Oh, uh, really?"
"God's got a plan for you."
Two months later I'm in the Meow Meow--a rock club on 527 SE Pine--at 11:30 on a Sunday morning. It's another church service and a world apart from the last one. I don't know what God's plan is supposed to be, but mine derailed. I had been on a quest to learn more about the seemingly random churches that inhabit storefronts in North Portland. I wanted to do a story on churches in non-church buildings. But after that Saturday morning prayer group, the pastors of the church refused to be part of my article because of the Mercury's "filthy, pornographic" content. In addition, they promised--before hanging up on me--if I wrote about them they would sue. So I began looking for someplace a little more hospitable. Welcome to The Bridge.
THE PIERCED PASTORS
Walking into The Bridge on a Sunday morning is like going to the Meow Meow any night. There are people out front smoking, upstairs it's dark, and there's a band playing. Even the music doesn't seem out of place with the usual shows at the club. In fact, the only real difference is how the chairs are set up.
If it seems way too comfortable to be a church, they want it that way. Ken Loyd, who started The Bridge five years ago with his wife Deborah and another friend, says, "I would prefer that a kid who's fallen through the cracks and is coming in off the street would say, 'This feels like home: it's comfortable to me.'"
Of the people here this Sunday morning--around 50 or so I would guess--the majority are younger; teens and twentysomethings. Many are dressed like punks, some look like they could be "street kids": more or less, they look like the typical concert-going crowd. There are also some older people, including some straight-looking folks in their forties and fifties. Were this a different church, they would be the norm; but at The Bridge, they look out of place.
Ken and Deborah, who themselves are in their 50s, are not your typical-looking pastors. When I first see Ken, he's in front of the stage with everyone else, looking nothing like what I expected. He's trim, in tight jeans and studded leather boots, with piercings in each ear, and wearing a "Goosebumps" T-shirt--the sleeves of which have been cut off to reveal the tattoos that run up and down each arm. Deborah stands by the chairs, her shoulder-length hair bleached blond, wearing all black except for the skirt that covers her tights and hangs over her leather boots.
WORSHIPPING THEIR WAY
The Bridge, a Christian church, is most certainly in a non-traditional building, and its service matches its facility. Worship begins with the band barreling through a half-hour set; the songs rolling from one to the next. It's loud, like it would be at any show, and the band is totally unencumbered by the fact that it's Sunday morning, and not Saturday night. If it weren't for a projector putting up the lyrics on a screen next to the stage, you'd be hard-pressed to think this is a "Christian" band, which to me usually sound simultaneously impassioned and totally insincere. At The Bridge, the band sounds ardent and honest. The audience also seems caught up in the fever of the music. A third of the people stand in front of the stage, dancing, swaying, jumping up and down. Some, too, are playing with percussive instruments the band encouraged them to pick up.
Individual expression is a main component of worship at The Bridge. Deborah tells me their idea is, "Let's open it [up], full creativity, full giving of ourselves in worship to God, and see what God speaks back to us as individuals." People are not only allowed, but encouraged to worship in whatever way they want. Deborah tells me one woman is planning on bringing in her pottery wheel so she can throw clay. In the past they've had a woman cut hair during worship, and during one, Ken got a tattoo ("My 'Hello Kitty.' I got it for my granddaughter").
With an unrestricted stage and sound system, and the black walls and floor eliminating the fear of damaging the room, the space feels like it's ready for anything. Equally, if not more important than the physical openness, is the emotional acceptance the building provides.
When the band stops playing, and the worship part of the service is over, Ken introduces himself and talks about The Bridge. He explains they believe in Jesus Christ--but if you don't, that's no reason not to come. Everyone is welcome and the church is meant to build a community of love and support. After talking to Ken a couple of times, I understand something he told me to be the fundamental tenet of The Bridge: "People deserve to be loved because they exist. And that love has to come without a price tag."
Ken's belief is also clearly laid out in a book he's written, called They're Gentiles For Christ's Sake. He wrote it in part to appeal to older, more conservative members of the Christian church, to explain why the younger generation is leaving, and how they must change if they want to bring them back.
"The end of the world for our young is not if they hop in the sack with someone else, get drunk or loaded, become a homosexual, or anything like that," he explains in the book. "The end will come when they collapse under the weight of our traditional or opinion-driven rules... "
WHEN JESUS FREAKED OUT
SoÉ what would Jesus do?
"That's a valid question, though, I mean, it's been ruined by Christian pop culture," Deborah says, "but it's a very, very valid question."
For Ken and Deborah, that means accepting people for who they are without passing judgment. As Ken explains in his book, "When [Jesus] freaked out, it was always and only at the religious and self-righteous, never at sinners."
They see Jesus' acceptance of "sinners" as the reason that he himself was so accepted.
"They [sinners] weren't afraid of him, and that's huge!" Ken says. "Right away, that sets him apart from 90% of professed Christians."
And so Ken and Deborah aren't preaching a separation from the church, a denouncement of the Bible, or anything close. In fact, Deborah is currently getting her masters from Western Seminary, and plans to continue on for a doctorate. They just want to see Christianity return to its roots: Christ.
Even the leadership structure at The Bridge is different. There's no senior pastor at the Bridge, and they shy away from the title of "pastor," because of its negative connotations. It hasn't always been this way.
"I was pastor #15 on staff at a huge suburban church, 2500 at its peak," Ken says.
There, unlike now, Deborah was not allowed to be a pastor, nor were any other women in the congregation. Ken and Deborah left the church, including the large salary, benefits, and paid vacation attached to the job, and came to Portland to start something new. While they had an idea in mind, Ken stresses that The Bridge was solidified by the people they met here, most of them young, who became the congregation. Ken says, "We essentially asked if we could become one of them, and they've been very kind in accepting us for who we are and letting us be part of their lives."
ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, WILL.
When Deborah gets up to speak at the service, she starts by saying that a person there recently lost everything in a fire. Within a minute people have offered up a couch, a microwave, a coffee table, and a futon. Deborah thanks everyone and says it's awesome to see the power of God work so well and so quickly. After a short presentation on the "Apostle's Prayer," Ken gets up again to make a few announcements. He speaks about their search for a new building, since they've outgrown their current space.
They've found a place, he says, much larger than their current digs, which would allow them to do much more; a drop-in shelter, parenting classes, child play groups, etc. But to buy it, they need $200,000. That amount would seem ridiculous to me even at the large suburban churches, but here, looking around the room, it almost seemed cruel to mention the sum.
Finances are an inherent difficulty in keeping The Bridge running. They focus on reaching out to those who've been alienated and neglected, adjectives that aren't synonymous with wealth. Many people who attend can't support themselves, much less a church. As a result, The Bridge has to look outside its own congregation for support, and the solution is not easily apparent. Other churches in town have sometimes offered support, but it comes with strings attached. And though it has cost them money, Ken and Deborah are unwilling to change their practices.
"We made a vow amongst ourselves," Ken says. "That we would never ask our people to alter their behavior for the sake of other Christians or other people, and that we would never alter what we do for the sake of money."
A collection basket had been passed earlier, and I expect it to be pulled out again for a special "building fund." But the basket does not make an encore. Instead, Ken says they are going to put it in God's hands, and together they all pray. When finished, Ken announces there's food in the back, and with that, the service is over.
Leaving The Bridge, having thoroughly enjoyed my time talking to Ken and Deborah, I start thinking, who knows? Maybe there is a God. How else would you explain an unabashedly pro-church article in a jaded, twentysomething newspaper filled with music reviews and sex ads? I think, yeah, there's a God, and he understands the importance of print media. Even if the messenger is a "filthy" one, He still wants to be well represented. And good representation is a church that not only preaches His message, but embodies it. If there is a God, He understands that as far as churches go, The Bridge is a much better way to get his message across.