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

Five years after finding God, Bob Coy arrived in Fort Lauderdale with a moving truck and a flock of three. He'd been to Fort Lauderdale only once before, on a high-school spring break trip, and he knew nothing about the city or South Florida. But he was on a mission. Before moving to Fort Lauderdale, a couple from the Las Vegas church had asked that their fellow congregants pray for the establishment of a Calvary Chapel there. Coy was the answer to that prayer.

The first service took place on the beach. But eventually, as Calvary Chapel grew, it found a home, first in a funeral home, then in an elementary school, then behind an Albertson's supermarket -- all in Fort Lauderdale. Coy was able to quit his job selling electronics at JCPenney and work full-time at the church.

In the early days, Calvary Chapel attracted its share of grizzled bikers and others who were no strangers to sin. "To invite somebody to attend Bible studies in a funeral home, [that person] must have been a person that wasn't concerned about outward appearances," Coy says.

Gennarino DeStefano began working at Calvary Chapel as a maintenance man back when the church fronted an Albertson's dumpster. He often made use of his culinary-school background to cook meals for the homeless people who hung out in the area. DeStefano says that, prior to being saved, he grew and smoked dope for 17 years. "Marijuana was my God," he says. "If I was caught without rolling papers in some hotel room, I would tear a page out of the Bible and smoke it."

Today he oversees Calvary Chapel's benevolence ministry as an assistant pastor. Like DeStefano the rest of the congregation has changed considerably. As the group's facilities have become more respectable looking, so have the congregants. Worshipers still occasionally show up in chaps and leather vests (on a recent Saturday night, one leather-clad congregant referred to his Harley as his "rapture vehicle"), but suburban families with Range Rovers have become the norm.

Mark Kielar is no exception. The 39-year-old television producer and father of four lived the luxurious Boca Raton life for years. He drove a Mercedes 500 SL convertible and spent as much as $5000 during a single shopping trip. "From a world perspective, my life was successful," Kielar says in an interview at his office at WJMK. "I had good relationships, good business opportunities, a lot of things were seemingly going my way. But there was a sense in which there was a void still there. Not one that I necessarily felt all the time. But if I really pressed the issue I knew there was something missing."

In an attempt to fill that void, Kielar began closely reading the Bible for the first time in his life. When he got to the Ten Commandments and read the section about not worshiping false idols, he began to ponder what he truly worshiped in his own life.

"It hit me like a thunderbolt that, wait a minute, my God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as I thought it was," Kielar recalls. "My God is my business, or recreation, or self-pursuits."

A few years ago, Kielar began attending Calvary Chapel on the recommendation of a friend. He was attracted to its back-to-basics, literal approach to Christianity: What the Bible says is the Word of God; everything else, including the political maneuvering that goes on in the Vatican, is heresy.

By 1997 Coy and Kielar had become close friends. (Coy, a father of two, says he wouldn't be surprised if his son grew up to marry one of Kielar's daughters.) While eating dinner with an assistant pastor at Calvary Chapel, Kielar and Coy began discussing the media. Coy was saying that radio was a great way to spread the Gospel when Kielar added, "What about television?"

WJMK had already been transformed by Kielar's religious conversion. Every morning at the WJMK offices, Christian staff members gather and hold an hourlong Bible study. Kielar's office is decorated with framed passages from Scripture and quotations about Christianity. Even his fish tank is adorned with a quotation from the book of Genesis.

More important than WJMK's prayers are its resources, which Kielar knew would help Cross TV get off the ground. Most of the cable station's staff and know-how comes from WJMK, as does much of the funding. Through WJMK, Kielar has contributed almost $700,000, while Calvary Chapel has provided about $100,000, mostly in staff time and equipment costs. The rest of the funding has come from an anonymous Christian foundation, which contributed about $200,000 in 1998 and has pledged an additional $265,000 for 1999. The foundation asked Cross TV not to disclose its name in order to avoid publicity.

Money remains the most daunting obstacle for Cross TV. The projected cost for 26 episodes of In the Light, the Christian soap opera the station hopes to produce, is $1.5 million. The price tag for 13 episodes of Totally Christian Karate Kids Adventures is $78,000. So far there are no takers for either. One potentially substantial source of income -- commercials -- is not yet being tapped by Cross TV. Both Kielar and Coy say they are not philosophically opposed to the idea, but that any product sold will have to be consistent with Scripture -- biblical tapes or books, for example.

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