Year of Sundays

Have you heard of The Bridge? No? Maybe you’re not hanging out at the right coffeehouses, yoga studios, house parties, college dorms or food banks. At The Bridge, they do things a little bit differently. If attending for the first time, you will probably double check to make sure you got the address right, because you’ll think you’ve stumbled into one of those spontaneous jam sessions that used to erupt on Hawthorne Boulevard when the neighborhood’s apartments were available for rent, not for sale.

You’ll see a random assortment of men, women, girls and boys banging on Goodwill-pedigree drums and mayonnaise buckets, a Casio keyboard and an almost-in-tune guitar and keeping time for a homegrown two-chord melody that teeters—and often slips—into basement band chaos. You’ll see attendees milling around, munching on day-old bagels. A few people will look lost, as some of them, no doubt, have been for many years.

In this come-as-you-are church, the pastors wear no fancy robes or expensive hair spray. A pulpit would be as out of place as  Laura Bush at a cockfight.  Instead, you’ll see a slightly pudgy hipster couple switching off between sermonizing and cuddling their oh-too-cute baby. The Bridge is the kind of place you could only expect to see in a city that glorifies strange bicycles, house rock concerts and tofu. The only thing missing is the skunky, keep-Portland-weird scent of our city’s favorite smokable herb.

Service starts at the hangover-friendly time of 11:30 a.m. In lieu of songbooks or a fancy-schmancy karaoke setup, lyrics are scribbled on transparencies and projected on the wall. I suspect that when The Bridge added an overhead projector to its service, a nearby school experienced a small reduction in its A/V inventory.

All of which is to say, though this blog’s search for spiritual authenticity has yielded mixed results, this week, we found it in the unlikeliest of places: a multi-purpose yoga studio/art room/public space for hire. Welcome to The Bridge, captain.

After the music wound down, one of the pastors (my notes are sketchy, but I believe it was Donna Van Horn) began the service by dimming the lights to a sepulchral glow and declaring it Goth Sunday. She informed the audience that later there would be a confession period. “Line right up and tell us your deepest, darkest secrets,” she said like a carnival barker enticing visitors into a Kierkegaardian, existential house of mirrors.

I never trust a church that takes itself more seriously than it does God. Not a problem here.

This week’s sermon, led by Pastor Geoff Neill and his wife Crystal, began as a riff on the idea of thoughtfulness in gift giving (this may be the only service around that recommends using to express Christian love). But it quickly moved on to a discussion of the spiritual gifts we exchange with each other and God. Observed Crystal, “sometimes the church tells us that we’re just a piece of shit, and that we are lucky to be alive.” Not true, in her opinion. Sharing her own story, she recalled a time when she’d found herself out of work, depressed and laying on her couch for three months, giving God the finger. She could hear God telling her He loved her, but she called “bullshit.”

She had me at “bullshit.”

She also had me when she said, “Even in failure, you can have hope. You can be enough.” Typical churchtalk, I suppose. But standing in the middle of a greasy floor in a roomful of people, some of whom looked like they could use a good meal, I believe she said those words, not just because she felt they were correct, but because they were what this audience really needed to hear.

Her words reminded me of the time my friend Lane schooled me on the difference between a gift and a present. A present is what you get for someone because you decide they ought to have it. Like a vacuum cleaner. A gift is something you give someone because you know they want it. Like a pack of good cigarettes. This Sunday’s sermon was a gift.

Geoff and Crystal concluded the service with a moment of silence, because “in silence the weight of shame and guilt is dissipated and we begin living with the knowledge that the love we receive usurps all that crap.” Afterward, the couple handed out Sharpie pens and blank wooden nickels. “A friend is someone who lifts a weight from your shoulders,” said Crystal. “Whatever you can imagine your dear friend telling you that lifts that weight, write it down and carry it with you.”

This is what some of them came up with:

This is thrift store spirituality: a place where you bring a little, you take a little and sharp-eyed people in the know understand that treasures are to be found. If Jesus exists, he shops at The Bridge.

Instead of a head pastor who sets the tone (for better or worse), a trinity of three “truly equal” co-pastors—Angie Fadel, Geoff Neill and Donna Van Horn—make leadership decisions together. After the service was over, we caught up with Donna and the Neill family. (Angie was gone for the day.) There was a lot of talk about community, as in Donna’s comment that “we really try to make this a community where each person matters.”

Why do they work as a team, when most churches are led by a single pastor? “That way,” Donna says, “when the shit comes, there are three people to catch it and no single personality dominates.” Can’t ask for more than that.

When the wooden nickels had been handed out and people began heading out the door or folding up the chairs or standing in line for a bag of groceries, Crystal ended the service with the simplest of benedictions:

“Thank you guys, we love you.”

With those six words, she reached back 2,000 years and re-gifted the meaning of Jesus’ ministry.

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