Friday, June 25, 2010

Churchopedia #7 (Church #29): IHOP

I just wanted a pair of sensible sandals.

Though the mall has grown on me in the past year, I still hate going in there, especially outside of New York & Company’s affordable-and-yet-they-fit-me-and-kind-of-look-nice clothes. This trip required looking at the map, locating the specialized sandal store and purchasing overpriced (but oh so comfortable) shoes before I was supposed to meet Rachel at J.C. Penny’s.

The first part of the excursion went well, and within 30 minutes, I was grabbing sleeveless shirts off the sale rack at Penny’s and Rachel was judging each item with either an “Ok, try it,” or a dramatic, “No. Seriously? No.” Unsuccessful in our summer shirt search, we left Penny’s and shuffled quickly through Lane Bryant and New York & Company. With the sensible sandals as our only combined purchase, we felt the need to explore more options so that our trip to the mall would not be pointless.

We walked toward Macy’s, passing kiosks of beta fish, handbags and cell phone accessories. A miniature booth caught my eye and I slowed down to make sure I was seeing things correctly. In front of me, a man stood with his eyes closed and his hands on the shoulders of a woman and a young girl. His head was bowed and he was rocking, slightly, muttering something only they could hear. Once we passed them, I stopped and began to back up, careful not to run into them or the kiosk. I was trying to get close enough to hear what he was saying when a different man approached, traditionally handsome with a big smile and greeted Rachel like he knew her. She whispered, “No, I don’t know him,” to me and returned his salutation.

“You guys need an oil change?” He asked.

“Like, pull my car up right here?” Rachel replied.

He laughed. His smile was outrageously bright and it made me cringe a little bit. It was the smile of a toddler in a young man’s face.

“No, we have this deal…” He proceeded to explain a promotional offer for car repair through a company called “KC Promotions” (which, when researched, is reported as a scam on many websites). They sell coupon deals and offers, such as “Pay for five oil changes and if your car breaks down between August 1st and August 15th, we will fix it at a 30% discount, excluding breaks, tires and bodywork.” I tuned him out and leaned to the left to watch the man and the two women, who remained in their original positions. Finally, forgetting all etiquette, I interrupted the salesman, who continued to flash his eerie smile.

“What’s going on over there?” I gestured toward the threesome and forced myself to smile back.

“Oh, he’s praying for them. Do you guys believe in the power of prayer?” I searched for an answer that would keep him talking. My blog-alarm had been activated and there was no turning back.

“Sure,” I said without hesitation. “So does he work here?”

“Yea, we both do. Are you guys Christian?”

“Sure,” I answered again, Rachel was more hesitant, citing her Baptist/Catholic upbringing.

“So is this like a Christian Evangelism company?” I prodded, wondering if his employer knew what was happening on the clock.

“I mean, there is a group of us that are all believers, and we all work here.” He turned back to Rachel, “So do you believe in Jesus Christ? That he died for your sins?”

“Yea, I’d say so,” she replied.

The man was still praying over the two women and the salesman was still grinning at us.

I returned to my interrogation, “Are you guys affiliated with some group or church, then?”

“Yea, the International House of Prayer?” He stated it like a question to see if we’d heard of it.

“IHOP,” we said in unison. We had heard of it. It’s a staple mystery in Kansas City and it doesn’t include pancakes.

He continued to explain why it is appropriate to pray in the middle of a mall at the place where you are employed by rattling off bible verses. I just nodded and let him talk, waiting for the right moment to ask my last question. Finally, there was a pause.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, how does this prayer-in-the-mall come about? Do you just go up to random people and offer to pray for them?”

“Usually,” he replied (at this point his smile was creepy and his eyes had the glaze of non-reality), “we start talking about the business and people will start talking to us and something that they need to pray about just comes up.”

“Hmmmm,” I said. “Interesting. Well, thanks.” We all shook hands and Rachel and I turned to walk away. The man and two women were still praying.

“Wait for the corner, wait for the corner,” Rachel murmured over and over under her breath.

“Blog, blog, blog, blog,” I murmured back, picking up the pace and turning left at Dillard’s. After turning the corner we had a brief "what just happened?" discussion and quickly finished our shopping. I, however, was not finished with IHOP.

Later the next day, I sat at the reception desk of the theater, waiting for the musical to end and the venue to clear. I pulled up IHOP's website and clicked around nonchalantly. The salesman had said something about a 24/7 prayer space, which I imagined as a small, quiet chapel within a large, obnoxious building. "There are people there to pray with you 24/7," he had said. "We go in shifts."

So when I finally left work at 11:00 p.m., I decided to take a little trip to IHOP (prayer, not pancakes). I was struggling with the blog entry because this felt more like a mega-church than a cultural church. As I drove to Grandview, I wondered if a cultural church could be contemporary rather than historical. Fads and fashions, styles and societies, movements and music...all constantly reinvent and create new, established culture. The Mormon Church seems historical to me, but when compared with Catholicism, it's modern-day. If IHOP were a mega-church, perhaps I would experience a culture similar to my ten mega-churches prior.

What I found instead was a living and growing subculture that is quietly creeping from the grassroots of the underground into electric popularity. At 11:15 p.m., I pulled into a parking lot full of cars. There was a crowded, outside seating area that was illuminated by neon lights that seemed to take over the entire block:

The rumblings of a blaring sound system filtered through the noise and discussion of those sitting outside. I almost didn't get out of my car.

Many who have studied education or psychology are familiar with the term, "Zone of Proximal Development." Imagine yourself at the center of a circle. The circle represents everything you already know. I, as an educator, draw another larger circle around the first one. The space in between the two circles is the knowledge you have the potential to acquire within a particular educational setting or time period. That is your "Zone of Proximal Development." Hypothetically speaking, your circle and the larger circle both continue to expand based on subject, interest and capability. Beyond your Zone of Proximal Development are things you can’t learn, won’t learn or simply do not want to learn.

I also think we have a Zone of Proximal Comfort. My first ten churches were inside my circle, within my comfort zone. For the next ten, I stepped out and have since been pushing and prodding my Zone of Proximal Comfort in order to learn, grow and maybe even restore my faith.

IHOP definitely wasn’t in my comfort zone and it wasn’t in my Zone of Proximal Comfort. Believe me, I tried to reach to pull it in or expand my zone to meet it, but there was no way.

The prayer room looked like this:

Notice the full praise band on stage, singing and improvising songs that say the same three words over and over. In fact, I swear they sang the word, “Faithfully,” about 100 times in a row on a slightly flat G. There are 10-15 people pacing around, up and down the aisles, around the chairs, mumbling to themselves as if they were speaking to a voice inside their heads. Some people rocked back and forth in their chairs, others stood and raised their hands, swaying. Then, there were those on their laptops (table, electricity and wireless provided), surfing Facebook, doing homework or checking email. A few people were quietly studying their bible. And then there was this:

It’s a space to dance and it reminded me of drunken dancers, alone on the dance floor at closing time. I also remembered dealing with a student on mushrooms when I was a Resident Assistant at Oberlin, and this seemed quite similar. At any moment, I expected snakes or nudity…I’m not sure why, just a worried thought that absolutely anything could happen.

My hands were shaking and my heart was beating fast. I felt trapped, even though I was sitting next to an exit where people came and went constantly. I tried to pray, sing, and raise my hands into the air. Maybe if I participate in the ritual, I thought, I’ll understand. I asked God to steady my hands and slow my heart. For at least twenty minutes I took deep breaths and I attempted to feel The Spirit, or any kind of spirit.

My anxiety attack was tumbling out of control and I was experiencing phobias more serious than my one and only arachnophobia. I finally left and sat in my car for five minutes before driving away. Now, I just needed a place to recover. My blood sugar felt low and I was unnaturally thirsty.

Looking in my rearview mirror I saw the bright “IHOP” disappear behind me.

“IHOP,” I said aloud. “From IHOP to IHOP.” The perfect place to recuperate from my failed quest to the International House of Prayer was obviously the International House of Pancakes—also conveniently open 24/7.

In the restaurant there was a modified, calm version of what I had survived in the prayer room. A lady sitting behind me kept repeating, “But I don’t like the international breakfast,” and rocking back and forth. The girl at the booth in front of me was writing and sketching in a notebook. Whereas the dancers at the prayer room seemed drunk on the Spirit, there was a couple next to me playfully pushing and kicking each other, likely drunk on spirits (you know, the kind with alcohol).

I didn’t feel afraid there, eating my pancakes and reading Percy Jackson. In fact, it felt normal and comfortable—the perfect place to relax after a night of work. The people struck me as ordinary and right inside my comfort zone. “Maybe I should skip the whole church thing and just eat pancakes,” I thought to myself.

Many of you know that IHOPancakes is open 24/7. Just so you believe me about the 24/7 worship, the live web stream is available here:

Go there now. Go there at 2:00 a.m. It’s always on (trust me, I’ve checked). If you explore the website further, you will find an unaccredited university, housing, and multiple evangelistic missions of the church.

I am hesitant to ever use the word “cult” to describe any of the churches I visit. That is a heavy accusation with unflattering associations. I will, however use it now. The International House of Prayer is a cult, growing in membership daily. It takes over people’s finances, careers and family lives. Just as in any cult, there is a choice to join, but cult-followings have an unnatural, manipulative power to change people and then jail them inside of their own beliefs.

The salesman’s soul is lost somewhere inside the movement, along with the thousands of followers they have gained in the past year. My biggest fear is that in a decade or so, all across the nation, someone will mention IHOP and we’ll all have to inquire, “Which one?”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Churchopedia #6 (Church #28): The Catholics (Italian style)

I rested my violin against my right knee and carefully stepped off the bus, turning slightly to my left to avoid hitting the person behind me with my music stand. The black stand poked uncomfortably into my shoulder and the awkward legs pushed into my ankle. A small purse with a long strap hung vulnerably on my wrist, sweeping against the ground.

Once I safely was off the bus I moved to the side to get situated as my fellow musicians stepped down the stairs, each with as much, if not more, discomfort than me. I scooted to my right while trying to hoist my violin on my back, nearly running into Michael as he waited for his bass to be unloaded from the bottom storage compartment. He silently took the music stand in my left hand, allowing me to straighten my dress, sweep the hair out of my face and lock my purse into a more secure position. I picked up his music stand with my right hand and took my own from him with my left. He carefully hoisted up his bass and hooked both hands through straps, putting the majority of the weight on his torso. I was carrying four items to his one, but he still had the bigger and heavier load. “How long do you think we have to walk this time?” I asked him. “Does it matter?” He replied, smiling. We followed the rest of the orchestra down the uncomfortable cobblestone streets of Lucca, Italy.

It wasn’t as hot as Venice, but the black long-sleeved dress, tights and high-heels were already causing me to pant and sweat, as if I were running a race. Every block or so, a girl (often I) would lose track of her balance, get her heel stuck in the road and nearly topple over. We rarely spoke of the unique traveling experience when doing so for performance rather than vacation. We had stayed up late the night prior, sneaking into each other’s rooms and being innocently obnoxious. We rehearsed early in the morning and had a quick break for lunch and a nap. Then, we got dressed, piled on the bus, and headed to our concert destination. At this point, many of us had only traveled abroad with an instrument in hand, so this was normal and even enjoyable. It’s one thing to visit ancient landmarks as a tourist; it’s another to make music the same places music has been made for centuries. It was a blessed experience—one that took me to four countries and two continents before I was 16.

Lucca was confusing. We knew we were performing in a church, but there were churches everywhere. At each corner, we slowed down, in hopes that we had reached our destination. Finally, we stopped at a plain building down an ally from the main square. We walked up several steps and into a cool, open room with columns flanking the seating area. Pictures and statues of saints lined the walls and a moderately ornate altar was behind the orchestra’s performance area. It was at this moment that I fell in love with the Catholic Church.

Michael was less impressed. He was raised Catholic and agreed with the beauty and antiquity of the church, but did not get an exotic feeling from the symbols, statues and d├ęcor. We walked quickly down the center aisle, not giving me the time I wanted to take in every detail. We were lead into a chamber off the main room with a large, square hole excavated in the center and surrounded by rope. After dropping our belongings, much of the orchestra rushed to look down the hole. There were layers of architecture clearly made from different materials. Our local host explained that this church had been built a couple hundred years prior on top of another church, which was on top of another church, which was on top of a pagan worshipping space, which was on top of something else. Essentially, we were standing on and looking at more than two thousand years of spirituality.

The concert went beautifully and in my opinion, was the best we had played in Italy. The second to last song was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a crowd and musician favorite. This time, though, when we began playing, something was different. It was the perfect temperature, we were comfortable and happy, and I felt connected to every musician around me. The audience relaxed, many of them closing their eyes and tilting their heads toward the ceiling. Dr. Block conducted in a tranquil, quiet manner and our sound echoed to the ceiling and back. At the end of the piece, when the last note had faded, we were frozen. We looked as still as the statues and felt as peaceful as the painting of Mary holding baby Jesus. It was silent for what seemed like several minutes, the audience still calm and the orchestra still in playing position. Dr. Block’s hands were stuck in the cut-off mode but he had closed his eyes as if he were listening to the absence of sound. Finally, there was a unison sigh and no applause. Several of the musicians were crying, or shaking their heads in disbelief. It was, by far, the most intense, wonderful, spiritual music experience of my whole life. And though we received no physical or audible sign of enjoyment, I knew that the audience was as awe-struck as we were.

There is not much I can say about my visit to Holy Rosary Catholic Church in downtown Kansas City, except that it managed to transport me back, briefly, to that time in Lucca. It seemed delicate but steadfast and wonderfully Italian. Though it had an old physique, the congregation had progressed, welcoming the Vietnamese population that had settled in the area by doing some of the service in two languages. I left content, falling back into my belief that the Catholic church, though sometimes theologically behind the times, makes up for all of it’s faults in beauty, spirituality and pure historical significance. I envy their grace and dedication, and I hope some of it has rubbed off on me along the way.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Interlude: Why I Chose Kansas

A common stigma regarding liberal, artsy, private college graduates is our wild, adventurous nature that is not tamed by higher education. Instead, the B.A. is like a key to unlimited prospects, an excuse to do anything we want, and a pretty damn good reason to try and save the world. Oberlin is an exaggeration of this stereotype, full of students from around the world, graduating personalities that tend to keep our personal where-I’ve-been maps interesting. We keep ourselves in forward motion and in a something-new mentality. It’s not irresponsible, it’s just unpredictable.

Some of my closest friends’ geographic locale and movement:
From Oregon to Oberlin to New York to China to San Francisco,
From New York to Oberlin to Chicago,
From San Francisco to Oberlin to Nicaragua to Idaho to Chicago,
From Pennsylvania to Oberlin to Guatemala,
From California to Oberlin to Las Vegas to Chicago…

Notice some similarities from the sample: the last location is never Oberlin, a location is never repeated, and therefore, the last and the first location are destined to be different. The gross assumption that turns into basic truth is, Oberlin students never return home.

To add another level of personal discomfort, I should finish the above sentence with “especially if home is a red state!” (The exclamation point is important to the addendum; it is rare for students to return home after Oberlin, it is considered physically impossible if there are republicans involved.)

I am not meek or embarrassed when asked by fellow Obies what I did or what I am doing post-Oberlin. I say, confidently, “I moved back home to Kansas, I teach in a local school district and I got my M.S. at The University of Kansas.” Though I can tell by non-verbal communication that this reply has made them utterly speechless, I seldom get the chance to explain my decision. Once, someone caught me off guard and blurted an overdramatic, “But why?” after my response. As I gathered my thoughts it became clear that this person didn’t really care why, but was going to enlighten me with all the reasons why not. I stared at the floor and crossed my arms as I listened to a rant that not only covered why Kansas sucks, but a generous list of other cities (“including Midwest cities, if that’s what you like,”) that would be better options. The conversation ended with this person saying, “I just want you to know that there are other places out there.”

“Gee, thanks,” I wanted to answer sarcastically. “We never done learned ‘bout all them other places in Amerrrrrica. I’d sure like to try me another state if Daddy’ll ever let me leave the homestead.”

I never took the chance to roll my eyes and utilize my hick-twang accent. Nor did I think fast enough to defend my state, my home or my culture. I didn’t debate the issues or address the misconceptions…until now.

I know there is a book entitled, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” I am aware that Fred Phelps resides down the highway and that our State School Board isn’t so keen on evolution. Isn’t it flat? Yes. Isn’t it hot? Yes. Isn’t it windy? Very. Do you know Dorothy? Go to hell. Wait, do I know Dorothy? “Wizard of Oz” Dorothy, with the double braids and the Aunty Em? Listen, people, I AM Dorothy. And that movie isn’t a revolutionary work of fiction, it’s the God’s honest truth.

The reason Thomas Frank wrote, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” is that he believes my state has the capability and potential to make a great difference in this country. What he considers apathy, I perceive as humbleness. Perhaps we don’t open the doors and shout, “Come in all ye who have suffered injustice.” Perhaps we don’t go out to the picket lines and march for our beliefs. We smile and nod, offer our help and then leave you alone. People are part of the community instantly, but they also have the right to their privacy.

This unconditional right to privacy also fuels the school board’s lack of action or consequence on the subject of evolution. It is the reason we haven’t tarred and feathered Phelps and run him out of Topeka. I believe that if Kansans really stopped to think how they could effect change in this state and country, if we put aside our humble, mild temperament and took the podium, we could storm the political climate as we did before and during the Civil War.

I don’t agree with my fellow state-mates on many things. I, like many, get frustrated with the lack of action and forward movement. I know all districts should be teaching evolution as science and Fred Phelps should be imprisoned for some minor tax evasion, pending trial for the rest of his life. I get that we have a bad reputation as a state, but I ask that we not be judged as a people. What we lack in political fury, we make-up for in genuine community values.

I was asked recently, in a very non-judgmental way, how I function in a religiously and politically conservative environment. Though I just wrote about 1000 words on the subject, the short answer is this: This state is my home. My grandparents farmed wheat on this land. My grandma immigrated here from Japan. My parents fell in love here and married. The best memories of my childhood are enclosed in its borders. The children that I love and teach, though from many parts of the world, now call this state home. My family, whom I cherish and love, will grow old in this state.

I have been over the rainbow, to a place where I felt warm and welcomed. It was a place full of music and dancing; a place filled with struggles and lessons, but also huge self-growth and transformation. My over-the-rainbow, Oberlin, took the child from Kansas and sent back an adult. It is a priceless, important part of my history that I miss constantly.

I never believed Oz was just a dream to Dorothy. In some shape or form, she really experienced it. And in the end, she progressed to the conclusion that I believe as truth: There’s no place like home. There’s no place like Kansas. I know I made the right choice.