Channeling Jesus

Bring together a TV-production mogul and the charismatic leader of Calvary Chapel, and you get Cross TV all religion, all the time

Taking Cross TV to the Philippines -- and possibly beyond -- is actually a natural step for Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. The church already supports missionaries around the world -- in Liberia, Russia, and Guatemala, to name a few countries -- who are trying to win more converts to Christianity. Their hope is to convince people to become "born again" of the Holy Spirit, and therefore to insure their ticket to eternal life.

Coy seldom uses the term "born again." "Because Jesus coined the phrase, I think I need to embrace it," he says. "But I think what the world has done with it has only led to disappointment and, sadly enough, misunderstanding. A born-again Christian... ought to reflect true Christ-like character. Well then, why is the born-again Christian in popular film presentation portrayed as anything less than an idiot or a madman?"

Those who've been saved at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale are a mixed lot, ranging from laid-back practitioners to zealots. Orsena Bartoloni falls into the latter category. For 18 years the 55-year-old home health aid was a Jehovah's Witness. She left that religious "cult," she says, after members attempted to kidnap her. "I swore I'd never go back to church again," Bartoloni recalls.

But she attended Calvary Chapel for the first time a few years ago on the advice of a friend and has been a faithful worshiper ever since. She was also drawn by the teaching of Pastor Bob. "He doesn't yell and scream like all the other preachers," she says. "I think of him like Jesus. Jesus, I don't think, would scream and yell at people."

Bartoloni keeps a white three-ring notebook, tracking the people she has converted to Christianity. The list runs four pages long. She says she once convinced the man loading her groceries at Publix to accept Jesus as his Savior. And she often talks about Christ with the elderly clients for whom she helps care. "I got two Jewish people once," she says, "but then later they said they didn't believe in Jesus."

Publix is also where Julie Davis discovered the teachings of Pastor Bob, while listening to the radio in the parking lot. (Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale services are broadcast on two local radio stations, WMCU-FM [89.7] and WAYF-FM [88.1], as well as on 140 other stations nationwide.) "He started talking about the books of the Bible and how one is the hot fudge and one is the spinach and one is the meat," recalls the 52-year-old owner of a beauty salon in Lighthouse Point. "And I just sat in the parking lot of Publix, and I listened to the whole teaching. I found out where the church was, and we went, and I was saved the first day."

Davis' husband, Charlie, also age 52, was a little more cautious. He and his wife were lifelong Presbyterians, and he continued to serve as a deacon at their church. But he also began to attend Bible studies at Calvary Chapel on Wednesday nights. A year later, in July 1993, Charlie was "saved." He then tried to convince his fellow Presbyterians that the pomp and ritual of their services was a waste of time. What mattered was having a personal relationship with God, through Jesus. His fellow Presbyterians weren't interested.

The Davises' story is a common one at Calvary Chapel. Many of the congregants come from Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant backgrounds and have long considered themselves Christians. But what they consider an overemphasis on tradition, ritual, and social gatherings, as well as a lack of grounding in the Bible, has turned them away from traditional institutions.

Donald E. Miller, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, says this kind of rebellion is a nationwide trend. In his book Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium, published in 1997, he describes the rapidly growing movement toward Calvary Chapel and other nondenominational religious groups as a "second reformation." "The style of Christianity dominated by 18th-century hymns, routinized liturgy, and bureaucratized layers of social organization is gradually dying," he writes. "But what makes this reformation radical is that the hope of reforming existing denominational churches has largely been abandoned."

As friendly as the Davises and other worshipers at Calvary Chapel seem, their world-view is constricted by the dictates of the Bible. They have little tolerance for people with other beliefs. Homosexuality is a sin. So is abortion. In his study of Calvary Chapels, professor Miller found that more than half of the worshipers at the Calvary Chapel he surveyed identified themselves as either "conservative" or "extremely conservative." Only 8 percent said they voted for President Clinton in the 1992 election. "There is a strong ethic of individual responsibility that resonates with a Republican bootstraps philosophy," Miller told New Times. "Conservative Christians, including Calvary Chapel members, would always attempt to legitimize their moral view with reference to Scripture."

Coy maintains that he keeps clear of politics. But prior to last November's election, he gave his worshipers voter guides assembled by the Christian Coalition. Included on the November ballot were amendments to the state constitution, and Coy explains that he was concerned that the wording of certain amendments was misleading. One amendment, which was passed by voters, defines "natural persons" as "female and male alike." Conservative groups fear that, by eliminating the distinction between the sexes, a government opens the door to allowing homosexual marriages. The Christian Coalition voter guide urged its readers to vote against the amendment.

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