The first time my grandma took me to the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, I was probably about five years old. Staring at the megachurch’s crystal structure as it sparkled in the sunlight, I couldn’t help but ask an awestruck question:
“But grandma, aren’t people starving?”
I was your average, inquisitive kid. And I’d be lying to say the structure didn’t impress me on some levels – the Glory of Christmas, a play held in the cathedral yearly, dazzled me with angels zipping down metal cords from the rafters and my main interest in life – animals – flocking the stage. It quite literally took my breath away, well, at least until the year I puked during it and it lost some of its luster.
The dizzying array of metal and glass at the pulpit
Being in the cathedral for Sunday services was awe-inspiring: inside a giant, glimmering tower, you seemed walled in by massive panels of glass that stretched far beyond the heights of the elevated pulpit to the heavens itself. Everything was massive and gleaming, save the pithy-looking humans and the whirring cameras that followed tracks in the metal framework between glass panels. But, as impressed as I may have been, I quickly lost interest in Robert Schuller’s Tower of Power sermons and guest speakers and instead waged battles in my mind of all things He-Man and Ninja Turtle. At the end of the boring, mumbling speech (and semi-interesting plate of cash being passed around that I always deposited the dollar my grandma had given me ahead of time in, to the seeming delight of other seniorly citizens), Schuller himself was there to shake every leaving person’s hand with a, “god bless you, have a good day.” I actually appreciated this small bout of human interaction, but it no more endeared me to the man than it did make me believe in god in any way.
At the time, my brother and I spent alternating weekends at my grandpa’s house in San Diego, so church was only an every other week affair. I tolerated it because I loved my grandma. We’d often go with her friend Jean, who always wore brocade costumes and enormous, gaudy jewelry that entertained me in its own regard.
When I was seven or so, my grandma enrolled me in Sunday School. It was not in the cathedral but a separate, giant (and, at least on Sundays, rather abandoned) building with a large Roman-style fountain out front. This is when church became less an experience, more a negative experience for me. Before, I was happy to ignore sermons and stare at the structure of the building and plants – now, religion was delivered to me in a format that required paying attention. The first story my group was exposed to was Abraham and Isaac, and I was not at all hesitant to mouth my outrage over it. As the adults tried to tend to my outbursts, I was soon aghast at the realization that they believed the shit they were spewing, and I was not about to be turned into a zombie like them!
The second Sunday School session went similarly rough, but this time, I began to try to deconvert other children. The adults murmured worriedly to themselves while staring at me, then would round up each kid I talked to to talk privately. I decided this was a real waste of my time, so I dropped out entirely.
Hence on alternate Sundays for four years, I went with my grandma to the shop near the cathedral for breakfast (usually a bran muffin and tea, for me) and then walked into the building, waved as she went off to the cathedral for her sermon, and found a place in the building to hide. I’d hide under a desk or the stairs or a room by the donuts or in an emergency stairwell by a soda machine; exchanging my dollar to be donated for an icy Mountain Dew and then chucking the change in the fountain out front for no apparent reason. (I didn’t believe in wishes being granted, either!) Very few adults bothered to ask who I was or why I wasn’t in class. One time, the singing drew me in; another, a session of free play in the indoor gym area, but both times I disappeared afterward when the preaching commenced on an eternal bathroom break.
When Sunday School was over, kids would be put out onto a small enclosed playground to await pickup. I always got there on time, and teachers even lied to my grandma about me doing well in class on occasion for seemingly no benefit other than saving their own hides.
After my grandfather died, my grandma shuttled my brother and I to Sunday School weekly. We were different ages, so different classes, and neither of us talked about it. One Sunday when I arrived in the stairwell with the soda machine, I found my brother sitting there. He, too, was ditching classes, so we ditched together after that. One Sunday, however, a rather distinguished-looking man saw us in the room with the coffee and donuts and took us into his own office and explained that we shouldn’t keep coming to Sunday School and he would inform our grandma of the fact. She stopped taking us after this with no fuss, but later I would find she deeply resented that we ditched classes and, perhaps even more troubling, the notion that I was destined to hell because I didn’t share her beliefs.
Over the years, we watched the property of the cathedral spring up with new, insanely expensive items like a solid marble “reflecting room” and donations such as a glass belltower and an improbable Wyland painting celebrating a whale calf’s first breath as “creation”, despite the fact that christians are rarely environmental stewards. They even got their own private burial ground on property! My grandma went to church less and less and eventually not at all, but she still tithed, and every time I saw a donation envelope in her house from them, I ripped it up and threw it out – I was disgusted that they were fine with taking her money. I did not care for the Schuller’s politics as I got old enough to really understand them.
And now… The megachurch is finally claiming bankruptcy, owing an estimate between 50 and 100 million dollars. Frankly, I don’t know what this means for the age-old spectacle, but I’m pretty sure the announcement will draw in many a donation and wealthy benefactor! The Schuller family will die, as it lived, in financial excess gained from the terror of people their faith victimized. It isn’t really a success story – the ministry will continue in their Schuller’s books and websites (they are currently trying to manipulate the courts to get out of paying their massive doubt and will likely succeed), and the tower itself will probably remain in place – but it nonetheless brings a small comfort.
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