Every now and then, one of Silicon Valley's high-tech workaholics makes a wrong turn off the freeway and stumbles upon a Californian Brigadoon. It's called Alviso, a backwater village that has so far managed to miss out on the technological revolution. In Alviso, everyone lives within a few blocks of the tiny church that is its centerpiece: Our Lady, Star of the Sea. People still walk to church in Alviso, which retains the feeling of a transplanted Mexican border town.
From Our Lady's courtyard, one can look across a highway and a broad swathe of undeveloped land and see an altogether different vision of Christian faithfulness. Rising in the center of grounds almost as large as all of Alviso is the Jubilee Christian Center, a theologically conservative, charismatic church with 5,000 steady members and a $15 million sanctuary that seats 3,000.
Multimedia rules at Jubilee. When Pastor Dick Bernal and M. C. Hammer, the rapper, sit down with Smokey Robinson and other born-again celebrities, the proceedings may be streamed over the nondenominational church's Web site or taped for cable television broadcast. On Easter Sunday, 1,470 young people received free Samsung cell phones at Jubilee's doors (unit value: $90) for bringing friends to services.
From time to time, I have enjoyed sitting in the early morning silence at Our Lady. I can actually hear myself think there. That's novel in the high-tech valley where Christians-including ministers-have told me they carve out time to pray while exercising on treadmills or changing lanes in the middle of hairy rush-hour commutes.
Silicon Valley is a place and a mind-set. Geographically, it wraps around San Francisco Bay. The computer and high-technology industries have historically been centered in San Jose and surrounding communities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and in southern Alameda county. It's been said that this area--despite the recent downturn in the high-tech industry--represents the largest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.
Technology is ubiquitous. On Sunday mornings, pastors ask congregants to please turn off their cell phones, and moments later tell them to synchronize upcoming church events on their Palm Pilots. Work is venerated. Valley engineers put in 60- or even 80-hour weeks and see themselves as missionaries, promoting the values of efficiency, productivity, risk-taking and entrepreneurship. Many imagine themselves as creators of a utopian vision that will transform the world through better distribution of information, jobs and money. Business is religion, technology its fruits.
"It's not Protestantism, but it's sure the Protestant work ethic," said San Jose State University anthropologist Chuck Darrah, who has studied the effects of technology on family life in Silicon Valley for ten years.
Religion teaches a constant message. The valley values nothing more than change. Its mythical figures-its high priests-are businesspeople, the creators of products that make yesterday's innovations obsolete. In such a place, the church struggles to stay on the cultural radar screen.
"You just don't have a lot of support here," said Earnest Brooks, a Lutheran pastor who moved to San Jose six years ago. "You don't get a lot of overall reaction to what you do. And sometimes you get to the point where you wonder whether there is any meaning to what you do, and if the church has any meaning to the people who live here."
Technology was supposed to set people free, to save time. Instead, technology's embrace seems to have left people famished for time.
A time to plant? A time to sow? The Bible alludes to an abundance of time, while Silicon Valley makes it almost sexy to be frenetic. As a result, Silicon Valley workers may dismiss faith as irrelevant. Or inefficient, the greatest sin of all.
But it is at this point that a reaction can set in. Burn-out in the office can open a door to the spirit: "Will I be happy to give up my Palm Pilot, cell phone and laptop?" Robert M. Kinnally asked me last year. Stanford University's dean of undergraduate admissions was about to quit his job and enter a Catholic seminary at age 40. "To some people that would be a sacrifice. I can't wait."
When it comes to church membership, attendance and other traditional measurements of religious commitment, Silicon Valley is among the least religious places in the country. Yet there are plenty of Kinnallys, people who feel compelled to quietly grasp faith amid a culture that's obsessed with work.
In some ways, the valley has always been open to spiritual sensibilities. Engineers are accustomed to seeking answers in the technological realm, so many expand the quest to seek more elusive answers in the spiritual domain. These include some of the area's best-known executives: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs spent years as a Zen practitioner; Ed McCracken, former CEO of Silicon Graphics, has lectured on Indian spiritual disciplines. These local icons set an example for legions of workers: The spiritual journey is OK, they seem to be saying, maybe even expected as part of the valley's questing ethos.