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?”