Alameda Point Entrepreneurs: Community Bible Church
Alameda Point Entrepreneurs: Community Bible Church
The only faith organization on the former Naval base, Community Bible Church occupies a spacious building on West Trident Avenue. Part of the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, it has had a home at Alameda Point since 2001.
Pastor Steve Kirwin is a married father of four who grew up in San Francisco and attended Balboa High School. In his late twenties, while working as a jeweler, he first heard the calling to become a minister. He took a mail correspondence course through the church and eventually took the helm of his own congregation.
Now, Kirwin ministers to a flock of about 25 believers in a squat, drafty building that he says once housed a Liquor Barn. His favorite aspect of his Alameda congregation, he says, is the cultural diversity.
“Growing up in the City, it was very diverse,” he says. “I like that. In America there is still a racial divide in church, and I like that in this church we have people from all walks of life. It teaches you to love and care about people and be less narrow-minded.”
Pentecostalism is a religious tradition within Protestant Christianity that developed in the 19th century. It is a faith that emphasizes supernatural spiritual experience, revelations and miracles. Worship often includes glossolalia ("speaking in tongues”), acts of Biblical prophecy, and hands-on faith healing.
Both supporters and critics acknowledge that the movement shares basic doctrinal commonalities with other, mainstream forms of evangelical Protestantism. But that’s generally where the consensus ends. The Internet abounds with controversy about religion, and this brand of Christianity seems to occupy more than its share of the debate.
A comedian could base an entire career on the results of a Google search for “Pentecostal church dress code.” Posts on the perennially contradictory Yahoo ‘Answers’ range from “no perfume, jewelry, ornate hairstyles, loud colors, bright patterns or outlandish styles” to “fake nails … if they (are) natural or French” to “something flame retardant: all that ‘fire and brimstone,’” along with the sarcastically practical “wear something you are comfortable rolling around on the floor in.” One believer reassures readers that “(our) church is laid back, we can watch TV and stuff, but of course, no one can wear make-up.” Another poster adds, “I have nothing against Pentecostal churches, except for the fact (that) they act like lunatics.”
The actual Friday night service is far less colorful than promised by Yahoo Answers. No one speaks in tongues. There is no hellfire or damnation, at least not at this meeting. No one talks about hot-button issues like homosexuality, abortion, or school prayer. Ten people just gather in a circle and express the worries and gratitudes of the week. Prayers are offered up one by one, so simple and unrehearsed, humble and heartfelt that they sound almost poetic.
“Thank you for taking the drugs away from my life,” says one young man. “I’m so blessed to have gas in my car.” “Thank you for government assistance for single mothers.” “Please help stop the fighting and bullying in our schools.” A man who was homeless for three years asks his friends to “please pray for a miracle that we are not evicted.” There is a palpable sense that literally anyone who walked in the door would be welcomed into the circle.
Vanessa McGill’s strong soprano voice floats through the air as people start to gather for the evening Prayer and Praise Service. Her husband Kris, a church deacon and Bible Study leader, greets everyone in the room one by one. It doesn’t take long; there are only nine people in the pews. A young mother in jeans scrolls through photos on her smart phone while her two young daughters chase each other around the room. As McGill and her fellow vocalists sing “Jesus, every breath I take, I breathe in you,” an overhead projector shows slides of nature scenes.
On a table in the back of the room, a Kleenex box wearing a knitted acrylic cozy sits next to an issue of Charisma magazine, the front cover of which shouts “Devil, You Can’t Have My Children!” Inside, the article cites a litany of possible symptoms of pediatric demonic possession: sudden chronic illness, insomnia, behavioral problems and nausea.
The women sing “nothing compares to this love,” and there is plainly love in the air: for God, for the church community, and for one another. But the church isn’t only about love. The church website explains that “those who reject Christ will be … consigned to eternal punishment in a punishing lake of fire.” It proscribes transcendental meditation and “new age deception” and issues a stern warning about martial arts and yoga, both of which may involve “philosophies and ideas foreign to the Bible and Christian faith.”
The gregarious Kirwin sees no contradiction between welcome and condemnation, hugging grandmothers and eternal damnation.
“If I’m directing traffic, and I stand there and wave at you with a flashlight, and show you the way to go, and you see the drop-off, but you still drive over the bridge and get killed, that’s not my fault, and it’s not Jesus’ fault, either,” Kirwin says. He shrugs and chuckles, like this is the simplest fact in the world.
“Hell is a real place,” he says; his website describes in detail the “putrid and rotting stench, deafening screams of agony, and terrorizing demons” that one might find there. But Kirwin doesn’t, in his words, “beat people over the head with it.” He believes anyone can ask God’s forgiveness, would rather someone join a non-Pentecostal denomination than none at all, and won’t be pegged as a bigot or fear monger.
“It’s not about hitting someone with the Gospel and then leaving,” he says. “It’s about a relationship.”
On the thorny question of the “unsaved,” Kirwin is cautious but frank. “When I was growing up, my mom had a Jewish friend, Kosher as a pickle,” he remembers with a smile. “My mom would talk to her about the Lord from time to time. My mother was kind to her, treated her with Christian love. At the end of her life, she did receive the Lord – as an insurance policy.”
When asked about the fate of this friend had she died unconverted, Kirwin is thoughtful. “I don’t know,” he says carefully, “but I suppose she would have been judged by how she lived her life.”
Kirwin also refuses to fall into a trap on the subject of homosexuality, and his hesitation seems more contemplative than strategic; he seems genuinely uninterested in his parishioners’ sexual preferences. “We used to have a few gay people in my church,” he explains. “A couple of them gave it up. The others, I don’t know. But all premarital sex is a sin. It’s not fair to single out and pick on homosexuals.”
While it is not hard to guess where Kirwin falls on the political spectrum, he is uninterested in debating political controversies. His goal for the year is “more Salvations,” and he’s not targeting anyone in particular.
“The most important message – the most important – is, it doesn’t matter who you are,” he says with emotion. “There is a God in Heaven that loves you.”