They meet in the Star Theater. Dating from 1956, the Star is the work of architect William Glenn Balch, who designed cinemas and school buildings throughout southern California. Its marquee, topped by an enormous harp inside of which neon stars flash and twinkle, is a local landmark. The Star showed first-run films up until the late 1980s, when new multiplex stadium-seating theaters put most of the old flat-auditorium single-screen venues out of business. But it never succumbed to the multiplex craze, and switched to showing X-rated fare (very popular with Marines from Camp Pendleton) for several years until urban renewal and gentrification transformed downtown Oceanside. Closed and dark after that, it tried briefly to resurrect itself with first-run films but couldn't compete with the new multiplex just down the street. The Star was finally taken over by the Poinsettia Center for the Performing Arts and is now home to the Coast Kids Theatre and the Star Theatre Company and well as to Genesis The King's Church. One enters a spacious lobby off which opens the auditorium, consisting of a large stage plus theater seating. The walls, light brown when the Star was a movie house, have been painted a dusty rose, but the starburst-style wall sconce lighting has remained the same.
They sponsor a number of ministries described on their website. Among these are children's church and nursery, men's ministry (Covenant Keepers), women's ministry (Women's Love Feast), youth ministry (Steppin' Out), hospital and prison ministries, marriage restoration ministry, and others. They sponsor missions elsewhere in the United States and throughout the world, including Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan and the Philippines.
The Star Theater is smack in the middle of downtown Oceanside, a city on the Pacific coast about 40 miles north of San Diego. In 1942 the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base was established just north of the city, and since then the military has loomed large in Oceanside's economy and demographics. Toward the end of the 20th century Oceanside had gone rather to seed, with the Star Theater and its X-rated fare only one of several businesses catering to the military trade. But urban renewal set in, and nowadays trendy restaurants, smart boutiques and obscenely expensive ocean view housing exist alongside military supply stores, beer joints and barber shops. The church is located directly across from the public library, the first of the urban renewal projects referred to above.
Bishop Michael Babin, pastor; Deaconess Kathy Nash, director of dance and drama; Diana Caringi-Fgu, lead intercessor; Christopher Felix, youth pastor; Gabriel Babin, covenant keeper.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Service.
How full was the building?
The Star Theater originally sat 1000 people but there are only about 500 seats now. The orchestra seats have been removed and the stage extended into that space, leaving only the loge seats. There were about 30 people present, including about a dozen latecomers. I'll have more to say about one particular latecomer in a moment.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were three gentlemen who looked like greeters standing out in front, plus a lady seated at a table where a jug of water had been placed. I watched the front entrance from a distance for about 20 minutes but saw no one enter. Finally at about five minutes before service time, they folded up the table and started heading in. I took this as my cue to approach. "Is there church today?" I asked. "Yes" was the reply. "But I didn't see anyone go in," I said. "People have been trickling in ever since 7.30," one of the gentlemen said. "Then I'll just trickle in, too," I said. One of the greeters then told me there would be worship music first and then prayer and talks. Inside, one person came up to me and shook my hand; otherwise I wasn't greeted.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The Star Theater always had very comfortable seats, and I was pleased to see that they still were. They looked like the original seats to me, perhaps reupholstered.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. Some hugging as people greeted each other. Two people were kneeling in prayer in front of the stage. At a minute or two after 9.00, a woman started playing some soft meditative bits on the keyboard, and the worship team (who had been sitting in the congregation) slowly walked up onto the stage and took their places.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Alleluia! Good morning!" This by Diana Caringi-Fgu, lead intercessor. She proceeded to talk for about 15 minutes, at first quietly, but building up to an intense climax. Like all the other speakers, her talk was basically stream-of-consciousness rambling, but the gist of it was that we should confess our sins and be thankful that the heavens are opened and for God's power over creation.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Digital keyboard, guitar, saxophone, tambourine, drums.
Did anything distract you?
My biggest distraction was reminiscing about all the good times I had at the Star Theater in its heyday. But there were other distractions too. One young gentleman seemed to be chewing gum in time to the music. And I noticed that the greeters who had previously been standing outside took up positions in the two stairways leading into the loge, as if they were blocking people from exiting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy-clappy doesn't begin to describe it! The music went on for a good hour and was very upbeat but also very repetitive. The worship team on the stage were waving their arms, clapping, jumping up and down, dancing, etc. They seemed to be overcome by fits of ecstasy. The congregation were just about as lively. The music ended with Bishop Babin (who was impeccably dressed in a white suit) half-saying, half-singing a talk, the gist of which was the importance of prayer. "Nothin's gonna happen if you sit back relaxin'," he said. "You gotta get on your knees and pray, pray, pray every day!" His talk was answered by a female vocalist who seemed overcome by the bishop's words, and who improvised a recitative of sorts, the gist of which was that the Holy Spirit was moving her to pray.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Hard to say. There were three speakers whom I stayed to hear; forgive me, but I left before the bishop gave his sermon. Each of the speakers spoke for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – I'm going to give them all a 5. They all employed the stream-of-consciousness rambling style that the lead intercessor had used at the beginning of the service, but each had several points to make that came through despite it all.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The first speaker was the youth pastor, Christopher Felix, dressed in a black suit, black shirt and white tie. His basic message was that young people build the Church, and that for youth who come from broken families (as he had), God provides family in his house. The second speaker was a gentleman whose name I didn't catch; he basically said that we're all brothers and must help each other and pray for each other. The third speaker was Gabriel Babin, covenant keeper; he was dressed in a light blue suit, light blue shirt, white tie, white shoes and white socks (I know because he raised his trouser leg to scratch an itch while he was waiting to speak) and he wore a white scarf. He spoke about the importance of tithing ("If you don't tithe, its not gonna work," he said) and of preparing yourself for church. "We're not playing church," he said. He went on to say that when we die, all we will take with us is the key to the kingdom we built while on earth. "If you built nothing, your key will open nothing for you," he said. "There is no relationship with God outside of his house."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Well, I give the worship team credit for having the stamina to clap, jump around, sing and dance for the amount of time they did without getting tired. Two hours had passed from start to the time that Gabriel Babin finished his talk and the bishop had not yet spoken! And I also give the congregation credit for keeping their attention fixed to it all. But as for me ...
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
... after two hours I had had it! I found the music repetitive and dull (basically "He's mighty, he's awesome, he's merciful" repeated about 100 times). I would have gone to sleep had it not been so loud. The saxophonist was a Johnny One-Note, playing the same note over and over again; it sounded like a car horn. And the speeches were hard to follow in their stream-of-consciousness style. But the last straw for me was one particular latecomer: a woman who came in and sat down directly in front of me, and who then took out her phone and checked her e-mail (and sent some replies) and voice mail. Next, she took out a bamboo hand fan and vigorously fanned herself. Finally, she took several swigs from a water bottle. That's it, I'm out of here, I thought to myself. I sidled past the ushers who were blocking the stairwell and left my Mystery Worship calling card next to a Bible that one of them had placed on the banister.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't hang around.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't partake. It was time for lunch, and so I adjourned to Dinos Cafe, where I enjoyed a broccoli, corn, onion and cheese omelet.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – I don't have the stamina.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Being in the Star Theater once again.