2016-06-30
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Reprinted with permission of the Christian Century.

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.

Jesuit-run Santa Clara University discovered that MBA candidates are hungry for spiritual direction, so two years ago Santa Clara's business school established an Institute for Spirituality and Organizational Leadership. Classes are standing room only.

I also sensed the questing spirit at a "time out" retreat for evangelical Christian women who were practicing contemplative Bible reading.

The retreat was run by a group that calls itself Women at the Well, founded seven years ago by a former gym teacher and Bible Study Fellowship minister named Patti Pierce. "There is more of a melting pot here and therefore an openness to not doing evangelical Christianity in a box," Pierce explained.

Being in this valley presses the questions of identity more than in other places, because the spinning never stops-not even in church. People are going to church and saying, `Whoa! Isn't that the greatest sermon you ever heard? I'm going to get a copy and e-mail it to ten of my friends'-and not taking the experience into their beings.

Pierce has 3,000 women on her mailing list, and can be mighty hard to reach on her cell phone as she scurries about, setting up and running retreats. She is an entrepreneur of Christian spirituality. Once again, the penchant for innovation that defines the valley's business culture overflows into its religious life.

It has become almost a cliché to refer to new churches as "start-ups." More and more, valley churches are drawing on the marketing and high-tech backgrounds of members to reach out to a new generation.

I sat down a year ago with several founders of the Highway Community, a new nondenominational spinoff of a Baptist church. Pastor John Riemenschnitter wore a baseball cap pointed backwards as he showed me the slick direct mailings: "What if the hottest start-up in the Valley was a church?" one card said. "Let's do launch," said another.

He also showed off what looked to be a rock CD booklet; the cover photograph zoomed in on the pleading eyes of a young Everyman. In fact, it was a trim, paperback version of John's Gospel, made to catch the attention of young people. Highway volunteers hung the booklet on hundreds of doorknobs in surrounding neighborhoods.

Travis Reed, who runs a Christian multimedia production company, explained that the group was trying to "reposition" church in popular culture-tweaking the style of religious practice and outreach, but preserving the essential lesson about "the hope and truth of Christ's message." The church's organizers were using a "Silicon Valley team" organizational structure--flat, nonhierarchical--as a business model.

Prior to the plunge in the NASDAQ, many churches experienced what was described as a "tsunami of giving" by wealthy dot-com members. Recently, the large gifts have vanished and the church is paying close attention to its $12,000-a-week operating budget. Similarly, Jubilee, which received about $1 million in stock donations from dot-commers last year, didn't receive any this past spring.

But after years of warning worshipers to avoid the seduction of material success, pastors are now sermonizing on the predicaments of sudden economic misfortune.

"One CEO in my care was forced to shut down a brilliant new business, turning out his employees, because the venture capitalists don't have the courage to do their jobs" said John H. Huntington, an Episcopal "missionary" to the valley's business community. "There are all kinds of suffering."

A former CEO himself, Huntington, 62, is a big, bearish man who rides a motorcycle from appointment to appointment. The freeways are so gridlocked that arriving punctually to counsel his "clients"--dozens of CEOs and other business executives--is almost impossible by car.

A typical morning for Huntington might begin with an early breakfast meeting with a CEO who has been pinched by investors to lower the boom on employees, and who has no one to talk to about it. I sat in on just such a meeting this spring. Poking at his eggs, Kenneth Grunzweig recounted what led him to quit his CEO position with a dot-com late last year. Among other things, he said investors asked him to misrepresent the company's stumbling finances to employees, to keep them from fleeing.

"Not all of this is consistent with what I would call doing the right thing," Grunzweig continued. "As CEO, I was asked to tell my employees that everything was going to be OK until the end of the year, when I knew that wasn't true. It was a crisis for me because I wanted to succeed. But their God's not my God. They worship at the Bank of America."

Huntington knows the ropes: His research and engineering firm went under during a downturn in military spending around 1990. He once mortgaged his house to make payroll and can bleed in sympathy with those he counsels.

A Harvard-designed survey of 40 communities around the U.S., released in March, indicates that people in Silicon Valley are far less likely than most Americans to belong to or volunteer in a place of worship, to find a sense of community there, or even to trust the people they meet there. Only 27 percent go to religious services one or more times a week. In Mountain View, where houses often sell for between $800,000 and $1.5 million, churches face unusual problems. I recently visited St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in this white-collar world and found the rector, Kevin Phillips, working up a sweat as he sanded a new set of church doors on a Monday afternoon. In Mountain View, "You call a software engineer who doesn't know how to hold a hammer," said Phillips.

Phillips finds that his often well-to-do parishioners are so technologically focused that he can't make allusions in his sermons to scripture, literature, poetry or great music. "I'd get blank looks."

He's not bitter about any of this. He's amused, and he takes it as a challenge. He likes his parishioners, finds them to be warm and interesting individuals, just different.

"We don't do potlucks in Santa Clara County," he said. "You know why? Because people don't cook in Santa Clara County."

In this region full of tradition and antitradition, of material infatuation and spiritual questing, Phillips draws on his down-home past while keeping an eye on the high-tech future. "And on Wednesday nights, we've started this parish dinner where people just come and for five bucks they eat together. There's a homework room for the kids. But mostly, it's just a chance for people to do nothing, to just be together. Because human relations of depth take time that people in Silicon Valley don't have, or aren't willing to give."

Phillips has also created a leadership formation group for businessmen and -women. The group is developing seminars to help people deal with the recent downturn in the economy. About 15 leaders-in-the-making attend the leadership group. It meets one night a month for a three-hour session that's a little like a business seminar and a little like church. Typically, the men and women walk in and, on a scale of one to ten, grade themselves on a couple of questions: "How am I doing spiritually? How am I doing businesswise?" Then they read passages from the Bible or other sacred texts, Christian and non-Christian.

In the spring, a struggling entrepreneur named Tom Wootton found his way to the group and was happily surprised by what he found. "It was like going to your board of directors--but knowing that your board has this spiritual side to it," he said.

Peter Wilkes, the retired pastor of South Hills Community Church, one of the largest evangelical churches in San Jose, is one of the sharpest observers of Christian behavior in the region.

Work is so strict a discipline for valley folks that when they leave the office, church is the last place they're headed. They need a fast feeling of release. "It's a feeling," said Wilkes, "that need be tied to no creed, no dogma, no belief. The feeling is related to the feeling I have when uplifted by worship. For me, the emotion accompanies the worship, but in Silicon Valley the emotion is the worship."

But Chuck Darrah, who grew up in the valley when it was still filled with orchards and has studied its technology-driven culture for a decade, takes a different view. He and his colleagues at San Jose State University have shadowed a dozen families for years. Beneath the materialism and efficiency there is also "a moral vision of what the world could be like," Darrah told me.

"Why do parents buy computers for their children? Out of moral obligation. You don't want your kids to be left behind. You plow through agate-thick computer manuals because the personal computer is the `New Latin,'" Darrah said. "You learn about it because it's good for you and it imposes discipline on your mind. The Protestant work ethic is just oozing through our technological lives."

"For the most part they're profoundly moral and concerned about issues of right and wrong. Some go to church, some don't. But there are very few people who just seem to be predatory or nonreflective or not concerned with some kind of larger meaning in their lives," Darrah said.

Radically materialistic and technologically obsessed, the valley sets high barriers to religion. Its cardinal sin is wasting time, and religion takes time. Yet the religious impulse is all around the valley.

Every morning, I drive over a mountain to work in Silicon Valley. Sometimes I leave at 5 in the morning. It's pitch black out as I drive over Highway 17, nosediving around turns that I've commited to memory after all these years. I look in my rear-view mirror and, every time, I'm shocked to see hundreds, if not thousands, of headlights lined up behind me. We're all careening through the darkness. We're together, but we're alone. And, perhaps like many others in the valley, I say to myself: I must be out of my mind. What am I doing here? There has to be something more.

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