Last week’s 75 minutes of silence at the East Sandwich meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and this week’s visit, the fifth in the series, could not be further apart, more diametrically opposed, more yin/yang, salt and paper, or black and white than what I decided on for this week’s visit in the 52 Churches project. I knew, somewhere along the year-long project, that I would encounter some interesting variants and eye-opening experiences, I just underestimated the amplitude of the contrasts and the impact of some of the experiences. This week’s church visit was pretty amazing on many levels.
The Victory Chapel in Hyannis is located in a former tennis court complex near Captain Phinney’s Lane and Route 132 and was formerly housed at a location in Dennis. The church is a Christian Fellowship Ministry and its leader is the Reverend Dr. Paul Campo. I have been dimly aware of the church since moving to Cape Cod full-time in 1991. It has been the subject of a series of stories in the Cape Cod Times and gathered some controversy in the press, including allegations made elsewhere of cultish tendencies. I had forgotten about the church until recently reminded and told of its location by a friend who is active in Cape Cod religious circles. Here is the Wikipedia entry on the Victory Chapel and the associated Potter’s House.
This was not a mild experience for me. I approached it with an open and objective mind, but knew, going in, that I would be visiting a church that was different from most Christian experiences I have known as a Congregationalist and Episcopalian.
“Victory Chapel, located in Hyannis, MA, is a full Gospel Pentecostal Church, where Jesus is still changing lives. Our mission is to proclaim the gospel in our local community and throughout the world. We belong to a larger fellowship of churches called Christian Fellowship Ministries, with over 1300 churches throughout the world. We hope that you will come visit us and see what God is doing in our church.
Over the years, we have held true to the fundamentals of Christianity while maintaining a fresh enthusiasm for engaging the community. At Victory Chapel, God has reached people through bible studies, haunted houses, theater productions, coffeehouses, parades, healing crusades, outdoor concerts, revival meetings, TV and radio broadcasts and holiday productions.
Victory Chapel has been on the Cape for over two decades. Pastor Paul Stevens and his family came from a Christian Fellowship Ministries church in Tuscon, AZ to begin the work. The church began holding services in a living room before moving to a storefront in Yarmouth. Shortly thereafter, Pastor Paul Campo assumed leadership of the church. Over the years, the congregation has grown in size and influence. We have seen many souls touched and redeemed through the power of Jesus Christ.
We hope that you join us and see what God is doing in our midst. We’re a close-knit community always willing to welcome someone new!”
I arrived 15 minutes early, too casually dressed I realized as I entered the church and saw a busy congregation of well-dressed men and women wearing neckties, dresses, jackets, and polished shoes. I was warmly welcomed, introduced myself, and shown the double doors leading into a large open room the size of an indoor hockey rink. The floor was carpeted and lined with several hundred chairs facing a large stage filled with musical instruments and a large wooden lectern. Above the pulpit hung an array of flags from China to Brazil to Salem, Massachusetts. I took my customary place in a corner seat in the back row, sat down, and was soon approached by a man who introduced himself as Jermaine. He was followed by another gentleman, Jeff, and a third named David. All were very welcoming and offered themselves should I have any questions. Afterwards I learned Jermaine and Jeff were listed on the staff page of the church website.
The chairs began to fill with men and women — I would estimate the average age of the congregation in the late 30s or early 40s, mostly married couples, some with children. A few African-American parishioners were in attendance as well as several Hispanics.
The service began with a very energetic hymn played by a twenty-piece, electrified and amplified band. The musicianship was very good and the congregation sang along via a powerpoint presentation projected on a screen behind the band. I stood with the rest of the congregation and clapped along, but did not sing as my weak eyes could barely make out the words of the hymns — most of which reminded me of Christian rock music. The essence of the songs was Jesus, the Ancient One, salvation, and statements of Christ having died and risen again. Four songs were sung in rapid succession, with very little speaking between songs by a man I initially assumed to be the minister.
There were no hymnals. Many of the congregation carried bibles. I took off my coat as the clapping was warming me up. I was a little uncomfortable as I was too casually dressed and a bit in awe of the volume of the music and the enthusiasm of the people around me, many of whom sang with both hands high above their heads, or their right arm raised in a type of salute.
Announcements were made of upcoming Christmas performances, scheduled prayer meetings, and reports on “outreach” expeditions where some of the congregation traveled by van to Providence, Rhode Island to hand out pamphlets in the rain at some housing projects and stores. The congregation applauded enthusiastically whenever it was reported that someone prayed or accepted Jesus as a result of these outreach efforts. Outreach programs also traveled to local prisons to spread the faith. Parishioners suffering from the flu were urged to stay hope to spare the rest of the congregation, but to phone the church to let them know how they were doing and if they needed any help.
Following announcements the baskets were passed for the collection and the minister told the story of a Salvation Army kettle in Pennsylvania that had been given a dollar bill wrapped around a South African Kruggerand. A biblical parable was cited in parallel to the Kruggerand story but I forgot to write down the Biblical citation.
The pastor of the congregation, Dr. Paul Campo, delivered a sermon based on Phillipians 3, v. 13 — and energetically and with some wit presented a sermon on looking upwards from the pit, the pit of sin, to the light of life under Christ. He used several metaphors to describe this redemption, and at some points in the sermon spoke against smoking, drug use, drinking, and internet pornography. He also criticized other Christians who sinned but believed their church attendance absolved them, calling such churches “dead churches.”
The sermon was graphic at times, drawing analogies to being born again to being pulled from a toilet and placed on the seat by God, and backsliders to dogs returning to eat their own vomit. My favorite part of service was joining hands and introducing myself to the other parishioners around me.
At the conclusion of the sermon the congregation knelt its head in prayer and people were called forward to the altar. While this occurred one of the parishoners who greeted me before the service, David, returned to ask my opinion of the service. I said it was was “interesting and energetic.” He asked if I would be returning and I explained my intention to visit 52 places of worship. He reminded me that the Victory Chapel was about making a decision, a decision which could not be delayed for I needed to be prepared for whatever could befall me. I felt some pressure to commit, but I was able to deflect that pressure, and turned down an invitation for lunch at a parishoner’s home after the service.
I left at 1:15 pm, 2 hours and 30 minutes after arriving: the longest service so far. Another prayer service was scheduled for 7 pm. I did not attend.
- This was a somewhat aggressive religious experience and made me uncomfortable at times. I think it was designed to do that.
- There was some response by the congregation to the sermon, many “amen’s” and “good preaching”
- Sometimes there was a rising inflection of an appended “a” sound to the end of the some of the preaching, putting me in mind of Robert Duvall in The Apostle
- There was no moment of silence or silent prayer
- The Victory Chapel was my first “born again” “pentecostal” religious experience
- The faith supports the speaking of tongues. I thought one of the speakers spoke in tongues but cannot be sure if he was or if the microphone was malfunctioning.
- While there is a great deal of online controversy expressed about the Christian Fellowship Ministry, I won’t repeat or link to it here. I didn’t arrive at the church with an agenda, and I believe in suum cuique when it comes to religion. I have not personally witnessed first hand any of the negative incidents reported elsewhere.
- This form of worship is not new, and can be traced far back into the tent revival and Chautauqua movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Next week: undecided, but it will be my last Cape Cod church in 2010. I may go Baptist or Catholic next week. I plan on using my time in San Francisco during the holidays to attend Friday prayers at a mosque and meditation at the Zen Center.