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By Amanda P. Westmont
I’ll be honest: part of me hoped this church would suck, just so I could call it THEAWFULEST*, but there was nothing awful about it. In fact, y’all’ll have to excuse me while I gush a bit because I genuinely adored this church, its steeple and how when you opened it up, inside were real people.
Upon arrival at Theophilus, we were greeted first by the heady scent of Spanish soup and then by the equally heady smile of Co-founder and Youth Pastor, Quinn Swoboda. Six months pregnant and so cheerful it should be illegal, she fired a quick hello at Joel and I before squatting down to greet my children at their eye level. Yes, you read that right. SQUATTING. While six months pregnant. She’s my hero.
Any other parent on earth would adore this practice – having her children treated like human beings from the moment they walked into the room – but well, my Genoa. She doesn’t love the attention like her older brother does. We try not to use the word around her lest it become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the child is SHY. Meanwhile Alex breezed through the hellos and was already manhandling a truck in the play area at the back of the cafeteria, making friends, taking names — his usual M.O. I didn’t lock eyes with him again until we got back in the car to go home.
Quinn welcomed us to line up for dinner and while we waited, she explained the genesis of Theophilus church, how she and A.J. started it in their living room less than two years ago and how they are loosely affiliated with the Foursquare church. Since we’ve already been to Foursquare and weren’t big fans, Joel and I shared a knowing look when she dropped that F-bomb and I tried not to be disappointed. Such nice people! Why do they have to be Foursquare?! I was immediately struck with the fear that Theophilus would be little more than a different chapter of the same book.
I was wrong, of course, but I didn’t know it yet.
We moved on to the Table portion of the evening where the soup was fantastic (cilantro — a.k.a. dish soap to my taste buds — on the side, thankyouverymuch!) and we broke bread (or tortilla chips) with a restaurant server, a nursing student, a sushi chef and a guy who runs an after-school tennis program for at-risk youth, all of them under thirty. Joel had a great conversation with the group while I waged a war with my soon-to-be-five-year-old about eating what is put before you and saying thank you, damn it.
After trying and failing three times to get Genoa to stay with the kids for Sunday school, she joined us in the pew, where we ended up sitting next to one of our most enthusiastic readers, Andrea The Seminary Student, and her husband, Jason. Good pew karma – we haz it!
When the music started, I got that swooshy, afraid-of-heights stomach roil I feel whenever I fall in lust. Young, blonde, beautiful and gifted, Anna Gilbert looks like Jewel and sounds like a grown-up, less whiny version of Michelle Branch. Unlike her fellow Foursquare divas, she is all soul, none of the usual extraneous Disney-on-ice fanfare. Her band is simple and tight — an acoustic guitar, Anna’s bo-hunky husband (normally her bass player) on cajon and Anna on keyboards. Given my proclivity for hot choir directors, it should come as no surprise that I was instantly smitten. The real surprise was that for the first time all year I found myself singing along. I stood there “Amazing Grace”-ing it and remembering how I used to tag along with my friend Jill to Calvary Baptist church in Los Gatos, CA, where even as a defiant atheist, they had enough grace to give a wretch like me a choir solo. Anna had me wondering how much of this spiritual journey is really just me trying to find that voice again.
As the music wrapped up, Genoa finally decided she was bored enough to join the other kids, so I held her hand and walked her over to bright, smiling Quinn, who remembered her name (amen!) and encouraged her to sit next to her brother. When I got back to the cathedral, A.J. had started his sermon and I yanked out my pen and began taking what would quickly become nearly 30 pages of notes, twice as many as I’ve ever taken before. That alone should tell you how I feel about pastor A.J. Swoboda – this is a man worth listening to.
Un-microphoned, un-tucked and unpretentious, A.J. is pretty much what Rick McKinley at Imago Dei wishes he could be – an authentic Geek for God. A.J. doesn’t take the stage or stand behind a pulpit. Instead he preaches at aisle-level and he’s tall, rowdy and expressive enough that there isn’t a bad seat in the house. He’s not the first pastor I’ve seen use his glasses as a prop, taking them off and on to emphasize the seriousness of the subject matter, but he was definitely the first one I’ve seen do it without even noticing it himself.
For part of the sermon, A.J. told a story about how he and Quinn had an old college friend visit for the weekend (in case you didn’t like them enough already, you should know they always keep a room open in case anyone ever needs a place to stay). They were up late sweeping the kitchen floor and chatting when he asked his old friend how she first became a believer. Apparently after attending many, many of A.J.’s sermons in Eugene, this particular friend got so sick of hearing about Jesus that she’d finally heard it enough. The way A.J. described it, I could almost hear her saying, “FINE. JESUS. WHATEVER. YOU WIN.” She was basically a “convert by annoyance,” but a convert nonetheless. A.J. mused that he didn’t know about it at the time and that back then things weren’t all sunshine and roses for him. He was struggling and he could’ve used the good news, the encouragement it would have brought him to know that he had helped one of his close friends find her path.
“But sometimes Jesus just says, ‘I’m gonna use you, but I’m not always going to tell you.'” He explained, “Jesus will secretly use you.” I bit off that chunk and chewed on it for a while.
Unlike Joel, I’m not a communion addict. I generally refrain from partaking because as a non-believer, it feels fake, like I’m stealing someone else’s bread when I’m not even hungry. But after hearing A.J.’s sermon on how children have something profound to say and being reminded to watch out for “where [I] need to sit down and look up at my fellow man,” I couldn’t resist taking a chunk of bread from a bright-eyed child. A child who held my gaze without blinking and offered me the bread as if she was handing over her favorite doll. I left the stage with tears in my eyes and a rock in my throat.
It was my first truly authentic religious experience.
After communion, Quinn brought my own bright-eyed girl to me because she needed to go potty. I chased her to the bathroom and before I could even wash my hands, she disappeared, taking the last vestiges of her shyness with her. By the end of the night, Genoa was chasing the other kids around the stage and talking animatedly to the baby in Quinn’s belly. I could blame Theophilus’ rare mix of eye-contact, respect, enthusiasm and generosity with Ritz crackers and Life Savers mints, but I think it’s probably closer to what A.J. said during the sermon: children have a lot to teach us. The people at Theophilus simply know how to listen.
If you want the heart and the story and the rawness of The Bridge without the punk rock, tattoos and F-bombs? Theophilus is your church. I left on Sunday thinking that if I could find two churches I like this much in the same city, maybe religion isn’t as broken as I thought it was.
And while we’re on the subject, I’d love to hear your own conversion story, if you’re willing to share it. Were you a conversion by annoyance? How did it happen for you? And how did you know it was real?
*Joel named his son Maxim Theophilus Gunz, (which RIGHT THERE is reason enough to stop speaking to your father), but I could never remember the name until Joel told me they started calling him Max The Awfulest during his terrible twos. THAT I could remember.