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On Sunday mornings, a church group turns a Union Station movie theater into D.C.’s stickiest chapel.
Just minutes before the National Community Church’s Sunday service is to start, a cloud of smoke appears above the entranceway. The cloud soon hovers over the heart of the room—a white mist constantly rolling over in a whale-sized plume. Bill Durham, a member of the setup team, notices with his nose.
Durham sniffs his way to the cloud. Could it be the nacho cheese heater? A reel stuck in a projector? These are the dilemmas you have to deal with when you run the only church in town that’s held in a multiplex theater.
“Is the theater on fire?” asks Durham, a tall, thick man with a thin mustache. No one is paying attention to him.
As it turns out, the assembled helpers are too busy to worry over a little smoke. Every Sunday morning, they have two hours before worshippers turn up to turn their space from a mass-culture trough of the entertainment industry into an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Putting a pulpit where onlookers are more accustomed to seeing Jim Carrey means intense prep time. Durham believes that the, er, devil is in the details. Instead of polishing pews, parishioners comb through the cushioned plastic seats scanning for leftover Junior Mints and popcorn kernels. This Sunday, Durham makes the discovery of the morning: a chicken bone. But the floors are still eerily sticky, and the theater’s temperature is still frigid.
“The very church Christ worshipped in was tombs, catacombs,” Durham argues, adding that a church doesn’t need stained glass and a steeple to hold a service. “This is us,” he says pointing to the stage and screen and comfy seats.
Some churches smell like incense. The National Community Church, however, has a less traditionally religious smell: popcorn. Sunday mornings, its makeshift cathedral—”the Grand,” the largest theater at the AMC Union Station 9—also features such accouterments as a sticky floor, a cupholder at every padded seat, and a big poster outside for The Sixth Sense, the Bruce Willis supernatural thriller about a boy who sees dead people.
Outside the auditorium, it’s pretty hard to even notice the divine presence. The small sign marking the church’s service can’t compete with the sexy come-on of the poster for The Thomas Crown Affair. And the slate-gray pamphlets volunteers pass out are no match for a multiplex box of Goobers. Even the cinema staffers are unimpressed by the church takeover; they simply work quietly, prepping the concession stands.
A Pentecostal congregation, the National Community Church started life five years ago, originally renting the gym at a Capitol Hill public school. After the school was shut down, church leaders thought about buying a space—but then they discovered Union Station. Associate Pastor Eric Hillegas says they couldn’t pass the theater up. “Seventy thousand people pass through Union Station every day,” he says. “We’ve had people come through from trains, see the signs and come in, get plugged into the church, make some friendships, and see some great changes take place in their lives.”
Life in the theater hasn’t always been easy. Once, the pastor’s daughter got lost among the seats. “She came out of the seats with chocolate all over her face,” Durham remembers, adding that the kid still candy-hunts if she’s ever out of her parents’ reach. And when The Phantom Menace hit the theater and started showing round-the-clock, the congregation had to change theaters.
This morning, however, things eventually go smoothly. By and by, the setup team has rigged up the microphones, tuned up the band, and even discovered the source of the smoke—soot and dust from the rattling nearby Metro, according to the church’s intern, Erik Scottberg. But by the start of the service, it seems pretty clear that the assembled never intended to make the AMC all that heavenly. Durham explains that he keeps the production values low.
It’s really about niche marketing—if you’re the only church to hold your Sunday worship in a movie house, why not play it up? Hillegas draws attention to the theater during his sermon. In conversation, he repeatedly claims that his is the only church in town that has cupholders. The church’s business cards advertise its cinematic divinity in bold purple type: “Now Meeting At A Theater Near You.”
And unlike, say, Detroit Rock City, Hillegas’ church won’t be leaving the theater anytime soon. Although the flock has increased from 70 members a few years ago to more than 175 since moving to the theater in 1996, Hillegas says National Community has no plans to leave. He adds that the church recently signed a new three-year lease with AMC.
Hillegas says that the movie theater is the perfect place to attract worshipers. It’s the Infotainment Age’s version of the revival tent. Instead of taking the church to the streets, National Community simply planted it on the Red Line and hoped people would drift in. “We hold a church service in the middle of the marketplace,” he explains.
By the time the service starts, about 125 folks have wandered in—a mix of newcomers, regulars, and homeless men. The men are almost uniformly dressed in khakis; the women in shorts, pants and unpretentious skirts. For the most part, they’re a young bunch. Hillegas says the members are mostly interns and congressional staffers. The turnover rate for the church is almost 50 percent per year.
The service goes down quick and easy—like a summer flick. Singer and guitarist Mike Godzwa opens the worship with two songs, both a bit off-rhythm. No one minds. Many even raise their hands to the heavens, close their eyes, and sing with full voice.
After the songs end, the donation plate is passed around, and Hillegas moves toward the pulpit for his sermon. The story today is Joseph—you know, the one with the “colored robe, the amazing technicolor dream coat,” Hillegas jokes. The associate pastor doesn’t break a sweat running through pop-culture references, school shootings, and today’s mantra, “Let Go, Let God.” Behind him, the screen fills with his lesson in outline form.
At the end of the service, Hillegas plays a video promoting an upcoming weekend activity of church dodgeball. The short advertisement shows the pastor interviewing kids on the meaning of recess interspliced with clips from Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison.
Hillegas has won over at least one new convert. Mandi Reynolds, 21, just moved here. This is her first time at a cinema service. “The seats are great,” Reynolds says. “It was great.” She especially likes the cupholders. Next time, she’s bringing some coffee. CP