The OCeeker: Hope Center of Christ and the Fantastic Voyage From the Crystal Cathedral to the Crystal Ballroom

The OCeeker loves him some irony. And who does irony better than the Almighty

Consider this, ye heathen: Sheila Schuller Coleman, former leader of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, the iconic megachurch founded by her father, Robert H. Schuller, is now preaching to a 100 or so believers at Hope Center of Christ at the Anaheim Marriott Suites hotel. 

They meet in the Crystal Ballroom.

April 22, 10 a.m. 

On an overcast Sunday morning, the OCeeker fired up the Spotify, rolling along the freeway to the rollicking sounds of Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. Nothing gets a man in the mood for worship like Robert Williams telling his tales of woe: "I'm just a sinner/I sing a sinner's song/lost between darkness and dawn." 

Amid a throng of tourists checking out of the hotel and heading back to their homelands, a couple of signs in the lobby pointed the holy in the direction of the makeshift sanctuary, a meeting hall with taupe-y, faux-finish walls and a many-hued carpet belched from a 1980s video game arcade. 

Per evangelical protocol, a camera stood in the middle of the rows of chairs, to livestream the proceedings. Upon the little stage rested a pulpit, and Schuller Coleman opened the service: "And I can tell you that if you came here today and you need hope, you need to know that God loves you. If you need to be healed, it all begins with praise and worship." 

And with that and quick prayer, we lit into some praise, led by a mostly female choir fronted by Debbie McClendon Smith, who reminded the OCeeker of Donna Summer. McClendon Smith worked hard the money, hyping the congregation a la Flava Flav, with a call-and-response during the rockin' anthem"You Are Good". 

McClendon Smith: "Lord, you are good!" 
Us: "All the time!" 

Word. The crowd, made up mostly of white and Latino families and couples, stood to their feet and lauded the Lord, many clapping along as the choir, peopled with some honey-licious dames, shouted praises to the Savior

Now, every congregation has that worshiper among them--the sincere brother or sister who seem to have injected themselves with praise steroids before knocking on heaven's door. At Hope Center, it was a short, old lady who, from a distance, appeared to be a distant relative of Mother Teresa, decked in all white, with a long, purple shawl hanging from her neck. She's what the OCeeker likes to call the Woodstock Worshipper. With a series of hippie dances in the front row on the right side, she spun round and round, thrusting her hands heavenward, and pulling them down, as though she were catching flies (or angels). While her words focused on God, her praise moves screamed "Hey everybody, look at meeeeee!" Schuller Coleman, dressed in blacks slacks, and a black jacket that covered a green shirt, got her praise on next to the elderly saint. 

As the OCeeker pondered what it must be like to be a sleepy tourist awakened by the sanctified racket, he was suddenly distracted by another legend of church sanctuaries: Neurotic Soundboard Guy. These are the dedicated brothers who put up with flaky musicians and off-key crooners, working the boards at rehearsals and during the service, shouting at the minstrels to get louder or else quiet down. They put up with divas who can't hear themselves in the monitor, and generally wish they were on the road again with Stryper

At Hope Center, Neurotic Soundboard Guy was a middle-aged man who looked like Jack Nicholson walking off the set of a gangster movie. With his black fedora set aside, he sported a black suit with pinstripes, and shiny black-and-white shoes he apparently stole from Stacy Adams

When he wasn't pushing buttons to properly mix the canned background music, NSG was standing on his chair, conducting the choir about 90 feet away, or else scampering up to the front of the stage, waving his hands wildly at them, while McClendon Smith kept her composure in the storm of praise. At one point, NSG decided it was proper to boogie on up to a monitor and fiddle with it while the crowd pretended they weren't seeing what they were seeing: a crazy man in a crazy suit, doing a bunch of crazy-making. 

The song portion having ended, Schuller Coleman took to the pulpit again. She prayed and read a Psalm. Oh, and she got in some humblebragging, inviting the people "watching livestream all over the world" to send in their prayer requests via Facebook. After another praise ditty, she told us that we just "sung a love song" to God. The OCeeker didn't. He spit a battle rap at NSG. Pimp-ass buster be fakin' that funk. Tie him in a bag, then I slam my trunk.  

Schuller Coleman explained that Hope Center is a church centered on Christ.

"Christ is not at the periphery," she said. "He is not at the fringe of our lives. He is the center of our life. And when he is the center of your life, that's where you find the hope that will not disappoint." 

She also said the church loves strong, believes strong and forgives strong. 

"Right, Michael? Michael knows it." 

What the hell did you do, Michael? 

Schuller Coleman then spoke with a couple who has been involved in the ministry, dating back to Crystal Cathedral, for 20 years. They were part of an effort to build a hospital in Mexico, and seemed genuinely desirous to help the poor in Orange County and throughout the world. Props to you peeps! They shared about their happiness with Hope Center, and all the outreaches it is doing. 

Then it was time for the offering. Schuller Coleman pointed out that the church has brought in $20,000 more than it has spent in the first few weeks of the church plant. She said a lot of the money hasn't yet been banked because the church is waiting for its tax identification number, and politely asked that folks give in cash, if possible, until the number is issued. Offerings were pitched into what appeared to be potato chip bowls. 

Rev. Jim Penner took the stage next, to deliver the sermon. A sharp-dressed man, tall and handsome, with short, dark hair and a car dealer's grin, Penner broke him off some verses about the prayer of Jabez, found in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10

"Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, "Because I bore him in pain." And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!" So God granted him what he requested." 

First things first. Bible teacher and author Bruce Wilkinson enlarged his territory in 2000 by taking this humble prayer and turning it into a New York Times bestseller called The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. The gospel have been good to me! 

Penner, with his upbeat spirit, broke the verses down in a 20-minute message, teaching us how to "position our hearts" for answered prayer, comparing Jabez's words with the Lord's prayer. Like Jabez, he said we are to live honorable lives that are pleasing, though not perfect, to God. We should approach God with reverence, and let him define what "territory" means, be it material or spiritual. 

"He didn't say bless me with a Mercedes-Benz," Penner said, saying that when we pray like Jabez, we take the handcuffs off our prayer life. 

But his message took a left turn when he suggested that we might be praying for a corner house, when God wants to put us in the White House. The audience cheered. Le sigh. 

The OCeeker gave the sermon a C for its pleasantness, but it felt like a lot of work goes into getting God to do stuff. And what of all those unanswered prayers? Perhaps it wasn't the place to raise questions about why so many supplications are uttered to no avail. And the OCeeker couldn't help but ponder the answered prayer of a man who hadn't led such a godly life: "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 

Schuller Coleman gave a benediction, and the OCeeker went a'huntin' for the continental breakfast. The greeters at the door were the only ones who spoke to him.

Hope Center of Christ meets every Sunday at 10 am. at 12015 Harbor Blvd., Garden Grove;

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