Pianist Kevin Cope knocks another tune out of the weathered Gulbransen upright piano, and again the group jumps into song unabashedly, with more hands held above heads and more upward-searching faces. But this time the song doesn’t really end. It just kind of...rolls...into this, this chant! The voices eventually hit the same monotonous note, but they aren’t chanting the same words; in fact, they don’t seem to be chanting in the same language. More to the point, they don’t seem to be chanting at all as much as trying to swallow their tongues or cough up wayward chicken bones. It is baby talk, incoherent babbling — or so it seems to the uninitiated. Still holding their hands and faces high, the singers continue their bizarre sounds, complemented now by the pianist who, in something of a trance himself, prods his stringy fingers across the ivory keys in a series of rambling arpeggios. The sing-song voices of the assemblage begin to falter and die, and soon lapse into silence. All 18 of them, including the children, soundlessly stand with heads bowed.
It is nine o’clock Friday morning. These first arrivals have gathered on the stage area of the meeting hall, and it feels like meeting halls everywhere first thing in the morning, when the air inside is cold and the only warmth comes from the bodies sitting huddled together. Out- side, rainclouds swell up like something from a stormy Dutch seascape. More people enter the church hall, chat- ting comfortably with the others as they sit on the low- slung benches and stools arranged in a haphazard circle. A 15-foot-high wooden cross leans against the tall north wall inside the room.
Most of the people are in their mid-20s to mid-40s, although several children and older people are present. The pianist, without a word or clue, starts in on a Gospel- flavored ditty. Each person present sings with bound- less enthusiasm, without false modesty. A heavy woman wearing Levis and a blue T-shirt claps energetically. Periodically the singers raise their hands over their heads and turn their faces upward, eyes open.
As the song ends, they pray, led by a 29-year-old man who looks 20. His name is Gary Bell, and he at first appears to be an unlikely candidate to lead a prayer session. He is about five-feet-eight inches tall, with wavy blond hair and an untrimmed blond mustache. One might guess that he would seem more at home hanging ten at the OB pier. He wears Levis, brown track shoes, a silver ring on his left ring finger, a Timex wristwatch that tells the day and date, and a blue-and-green Hawaiian-style flowered shirt. He asks the pianist to play a particular number, and the group sings about entering the gates of Heaven. As they vocalize, six more of the faithful enter the hall, take seats, and begin to sing along. “It’s kind of nice singing about entering the gates of Heaven just as everyone is entering the room,” Gary says when they finish. He suggests another hymn, and when it ends he comments on the sentiments in the lyrics. He is joined in the analysis by Pastor Ken Pagaard, one of the new arrivals of the morning. Pagaard, in his late 40s, wears a plaid sport coat and recurrently rubs a hand over his thinning black-to-gray hair. He takes the reins from Gary by leading a prayer of his own and asking if anyone has any comments or experiences they would like to share with the group.
A man of about 25 with short, black hair, a slightly dazed but wholly honest appearance, and a temporary cast on his left foot offers a thought to the group about how the Romans, while guarding the Holy Sepulchre, made the miracle of the resurrection all the more plausible by their presence. It isn’t the profundity of his statement, but rather the unaffected manner in which he offers it that commands attention. Later, he talks about the injury to his foot. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he confides. “I was working at a home-improvement store, and I was stacking some paneling. Something happened, though, and all this paneling started to come down on me. Well, the first reaction I had — that anyone would have — was to try and hold the paneling back, but that was impossible; it was just too heavy. Then all of a sudden I could feel myself being pulled out from under. I don’t know how, but anyway the only thing that happened was I hurt my leg and broke my foot. It’s all kinds of nasty colors right now, and it hurts some, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. You see, after this happened, I couldn’t work for a while. I still won’t be able to go back for six weeks or so. So I spent a lot of time inside, thinking. And when you have a strong relationship with God, you can hear Him speak to you. He spoke to me through the Bible and in a number of other ways, and He told me there were four areas of my life I would have to work on changing. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, I didn’t like the pain or anything, but it was lucky for me that this happened when it did.”
In the center of the group, resting on a small taboret, is a bread roll placed on a napkin and a purple glass goblet filled with grape juice. (“Some of our people have had alcohol problems in the past,” someone explains,“and we don’t want to use wine in case it might set them off again.”) They all stand in clusters of three or four and put their arms around each other. Gary bears the bread roll to each person, tears off a small portion, puts it in their mouths, and gives them a hug. Another young man bears the goblet to each of them, tilts it into their mouths, then also gives them a hug. They continue singing after the communion: “Let’s just lift our hands to Him, magnify His name, and worship Him.” As if on cue, they all lift their hands above their heads, tilt their faces upward and look rhapsodic. “He forgave me all my sins, there’s nothing I can do but worship him.”
Everyone seems to sense the session is over without anyone actually saying so, and the group quickly evaporates. Gary strolls over to a visitor and says, “I don’t know what your plans are, but I have to go to the Municipal Court. One of the people in our house, a guy who just got off the honor farm, went out the other night and got arrested for being drunk in public.” Gary and his guest leave the yard of the First Baptist Church of Chula Vista and walk down Fifth Avenue to the South Bay Municipal Court to see what has become of the errant church member, named Bob. Bob, it seems, first came to the church in early 1979 in need of help to put his life in order. He had done time before that for robbing a store while intoxicated, and later violated the terms of his probation. He was sent back to an honor camp for most of last year, but after his release last autumn he was taken back into the Baptist fold, into one of ten communal households sponsored by the church. Turning onto G Street, Gary recalls that earlier in the year Bob was so nervous about appearing before a judge for probation violation that he went out the morning of his court date and got smashed. “We went out and found him and he was really drunk,” Gary says.“We cleaned him up the best we could, and we got him to court, but they couldn’t do anything once we got him there because you can’t sentence a guy when he’s drunk. It was pretty obvious that he was drunk.”
Inside the courthouse, Bob’s name is not listed on the morning’s arraignment calendar, so Gary walks up to the court information desk and asks why that is. “When he called from jail he said he was supposed to appear before a judge this morning,” Gary says. The secretary explains that because he was arrested on a Wednesday night, and because he doesn’t have to be arraigned for three days (not counting Saturday and Sunday), Bob will be moved to the downtown county jail for the weekend and will be brought to court the fol- lowing Monday. Gary takes the news numbly, and he and his visitor walk back to the church. He says that this sort of problem isn’t any- thing new to him or his church. “Sometimes it gets a little heavy,” he says. “Because of the nature of our church, we take in peo- ple who have problems. There are a lot of people with problems, and when they hear there’s someone willing to help, they find out where and go there. It gets to the point where you some- times just want to say,‘Stop! Enough!’ But you don’t. That’s part of our work.”
The communal life now practiced by more than a third of the church’s 450- odd members had its roots in a 1969 visit by Pastor Ken Pagaard to the Church of the Redeemer, an Episco- pal congregation in Houston. Pagaard was impressed by that church’s concept of “community households,” in which unrelated church members lived together, shared expenses, and gave one another spiritual support. Although Pagaard, his wife Mona, and their four children were already sharing their five-bedroom, split-level home on Westby Street in Chula Vista with non-family members, the trip to Houston, he says, “helped give us direction.” He explains how it began: “There was a girl from Seattle, pregnant, living in an apartment by herself, going to pieces. So we invited her home with us. Then an incorrigible boy from the school where my wife teaches was sent to Juvenile Hall. We felt that nine years old was too young for that, so we asked the authorities if we could have him. My brother, a missionary in Africa, asked to leave his two teenage children with us to finish high school. Then an alcoholic who I had tried to help for years was invited to join us, then a man out of prison, and a divorcée with two children.” The idea spread among the parishioners, until today there are ten such households — two in Lincoln Acres in southeast National City, four in north Chula Vista, three near downtown Chula Vista, and one in south Chula Vista. Housing from ten to twenty church members each, the communes range in size from four to eight bedrooms.
These extended households weren’t the only efforts of Pagaard’s church to reach out to the community. About 12 years ago, in an effort to attract young, impressionable possible converts, the First Baptists opened the House of Abba, a church conference room trans- formed into something resembling a beatnik coffeehouse of the 1950s. Kevin Cope, 29, is the congregation’s musical director and one of the young people who was attracted to the church through the House of Abba. He came to Southern California from Seattle in 1973 to find a job in the music business. Eventually he began playing jazz piano at the Chula Room on Broadway in Chula Vista, and on his days off would visit the church.“We started out with a coffeehouse atmosphere,” he says, “with music and talk and like that. What we tried to do was slip in some talk about Jesus — almost sneak it in — and tried not to scare anyone away by coming on too strong.” The kids who dropped in would buy soft drinks, coffee, hot chocolate, and snacks to nibble on while listening to live and recorded folk music. “After a while we stopped serving coffee and became openly religious, with communion, Bible study, singing, and religious drama,” Cope says.“But before the change it was really a hot spot; just an incredible place that attracted kids from all over to hang out, even those who weren’t interested in religion.”
The House of Abba — at its peak of popularity — became so “hot,” in fact, that it had to be moved twice to larger accommodations on the church grounds. It was not uncommon, Cope says, to have hundreds of teenagers and young adults hanging out in the church parking lot, listening to rock and roll on their car stereos and often dealing drugs in the shadows. Police cruisers made regular patrols of the area to keep tabs on the activity. In Chula Vista during the early 1970s it was the place to be on a weekend night.
But all of this did not go over too well with the neighbors. In years past one might have expected that living near a church would somehow have been a more restful existence than living next to, say, a takeout Italian restaurant. But without warning, the residents in the area of Fifth Avenue and E Street started finding their quiet streets turning into a haven for what they considered long-haired, drug- dealing, communal-living weirdos — the kind Life magazine did color spreads on. That fear on the part of the neighbors — however unfounded it might have been — was part of the reason the church began toning down the wild and free atmosphere of the church- yard parking lot. “It ran its course and served its purpose,” says Cope.
Out of the coffeehouse gatherings sprang up a hard- core group of newly con- verted young people in their teens and twenties, and others who had simply rekindled a dwindling faith in Christianity. Many of them had emotional, alcohol, and drug problems, and found solace and stability among the young church members, who for the most part consider themselves radically different from their fellow Baptists across the country. Before Pagaard was hired to be pastor in 1964, the church, Pagaard says, was a conventional American Baptist congregation. However, Pagaard’s radically fundamentalist leanings and the rise of the church communes quickly dispelled the church’s “normal” image. Today, the concept of communal living is probably the single most important factor in the lives of the church’s members.
Gary is the leader — approved by the church elders — of the Lincoln Court commune. (Most of the households are referred to by their respective streets.) He pays the bills, accounts for the household income, divides the work, lays down the rules, and settles disputes. He oversees a rambling, two-story structure in National City that houses up to 15 people. It is Friday night supper. Sitting at the table are Gary’s pixie-cute wife Georgia, eight months pregnant and trying to calm down the couple’s two-year-old son, Bryan; Hank, in his early twenties, a diabetic with a history of emotional problems, stroking his goatee; Gary, who sits in a place of honor at the head of the table; Susan, a refugee from the gangs of the South Bay at age 19, and who was kicked out of her parents’ house because of friction between her and her father; Rob, in his early 30s and retired from the Navy, and his wife Stephanie, who live in an apartment across the street, but who consider them- selves an integral part of the household; three children and their 30-year-old mother, Barb, a native of North Dakota, who is estranged from her husband after an emotionally scarring split and who helps Gary with the household finances; and several others, all bunched together around two long tables shoved end to end and draped with a plastic yellow tablecloth.
Friday night is for fasting, Gary explains to a dinner guest. The money that would have been spent on a meal is instead put into a coffer with money from the other households and is used by Baptist Famine Relief, a national Baptist agency, in an international hunger fight. It is not a complete fast tonight, however. Dinner biscuits and butter are passed around the table followed by a bottle of Seneca brand Grape Barrel unsweetened grape juice. Georgia, with a baby due in a few weeks, and Hank, because of his diabetes, eat a light meal of fish sticks and French fries. Gary figures his household is able to contribute $40 a month to the church’s hunger fund because of the Friday night tradition.
Some of the communal households are able to contribute more or less than that, depending on their net worth (and not all households are worth the same, by any means). The Westby Street household gives $50 a month to the hunger fund, and Pagaard estimates that the ten communes together give about $500 each month. Each adult in the respective communes is given a biweekly allowance by the house leader, in an amount based on the wealth of that commune, but usually between five and ten dollars for personal use. In Gary’s Lincoln Court house, each adult is given six dollars every two weeks. Each household is also responsible for maintaining its own finances. (The Lincoln Court commune does its banking with the Bank of America in Chula Vista.) The money earned by the members of the household stays in the control of that particular household, and because some members have better outside jobs than others, some of the individual communes are economically more stable than their counterparts.
That is a sore point with many of the commune residents, who feel true equality among themselves will never be achieved unless all money from all the communes goes into one central pool. The money, suggests pianist Cope, could then be doled back out in ratio to the needs of the respective house- holds. The bookkeeping involved and the probable resentment of the more financially secure extended families have so far hindered any such move.
Financial self-sufficiency is a goal striven for by each of the households. Each individual commune is either currently buying or has already purchased its own house. In the case of Gary and his Lincoln Court house- hold, none of the commune residents qualified for the necessary loans to buy their own home, so a member of another commune, Gene King, made the loan for the Lincoln Court house. The payments, however, are made by those who live at Lincoln Court.
The money for those house payments, as well as for the bills, repairs, food, allowances, clothing, and nearly every other item needed by the family members, is paid for by the household account. Commune residents are not allowed to have their own bank accounts or outside personal possessions. When one joins an extended-family household, all his or her belongings go to that house; automobiles, money, furniture, clothing — all become common property. (“That doesn’t mean we wear each other’s underwear,” Gary says.) Dick Hensgen, an elder in the church and a Navy veteran of 15 years, gave the church two houses he owned in Chula Vista when he joined the congregation in 1967. But for every new commune resident who arrives with a car and $1000 in the bank, a dozen arrive with little more than what they are wearing. Still, regardless of their condition on arrival, each person is expected to contribute, and in most cases that means go out, get a job, and bring home a paycheck.
The jobs run the gamut from housewife to Navy seaman to elementary school teacher. Pagaard’s wife Mona teaches first grade in Imperial Beach, Gary runs the print shop operated by the church. Kevin Cope is in charge of supplying piano accompaniment for the communions and group meetings, as well as the two major worship services, Friday evening and Sunday morning. Those commune members like Gary and Kevin who work in some capacity at the church are paid a monthly salary of $150 for each person in their immediate family, plus one. For instance, a man with a wife and two children would get a monthly salary of $750. That rule applies to all who are on salary at the church, from Ken Pagaard to the custodians.
In the Lincoln Court household Barb, Georgia, and Susan are home all day, and so bear the major burden of cooking and cleaning. A rotating schedule lists which of them is expected to wash a load of clothes or cook a particular meal, or do any of the housekeeping chores that aren’t taken care of by the rest of the family. Although the men in the communes share in light housekeeping duties, the majority of the housework and child caring is done by the women, a fact which has given rise to challenges of sexism in the communes. Most of the First Baptists, though, don’t see it that way. They look at women as they are portrayed in the Bible: wives should be submissive to their husbands, quiet when in public, and aware that it is the man’s role to lead in all areas of life. Equality of the sexes is not one of the goals of the First Baptist Church; the church members would rather see a woman caring for a child than a career. There are five children in the Lincoln Court house (preschool and elementary ages). Besides the women and the children, everyone else spends all day at a job or college classes or both. But whatever happens during the day, suppertime is the only chance most get to see each other.
The talk at the dinner table this Friday night is mainly on how to buy presents for an upcoming birth- day party. The biweekly allowance is distributed across the table. Seven-year-old Douglas wants to show everyone his new bow-and- arrow set he got for his birthday the week before. Gary and Georgia’s toddler Bryan, sitting in his high chair, has learned a new phrase and is shouting it out repeatedly: “Right now! Right now!” Then he breaks into unrestrained laughter. There are party streamers dangling overhead from another birthday party held two days earlier. In a house with 15 people, someone always seems to be having a birthday.
Some of the dinner conversation concerns the progress of Abbacraft, the combined print shop/craft business operated by church members in workshops on the church grounds. The arts-and-crafts shop specializes in silk-screening — T-shirts, wall hangings, and bookmarks — and the print shop publishes the church newsletter
Our Life Together , religious greeting cards, and does some private printing on the side. Abbacraft deals its products through 300 religious bookstores across the country on a mail-order basis, and is a member of the Christian Booksellers Association. Some of the commune members work at Abbacraft without pay, and in turn are taken care of by the extended-family household where they live. There are three full-time employees in the print shop, and seven full-timers in the crafts center. But the people at the dinner table tonight tire quickly of talking business, and someone says there isn’t much time before the twice-a-week evening prayer service at the church, and that it’s time to get ready.
Plates are stowed away and the table is wiped clean, and everyone heads for his or her own enclave to prepare for the night’s service: Gary and Georgia to their room, Douglas and nine-year-old Jeff to their room, the rest of the children to the bedroom they share, the unmated women to the upstairs bedroom, and the young men to the bunkhouse in the back yard (trans- formed from a large chicken coop into living quarters). A few of the family members wait in the living room for the others and flick on the Zenith color television, lounging on couches near the fireplace. Hank fades into the room and doodles a tune on the small Thompson organ next to the TV. A three-car caravan is formed in the driveway when all are ready, and they drive the four miles to the church.
A crowd of no more than 200 is filling the pews and thumbing through songbooks with the Abbacraft imprint. Soon the pianist and guitarist begin a familiar tune and everyone joins in. After each song most of the people mutter a weary “Thank you, Jesus” and “Alleluia.” After the third or fourth song the mutterings get louder, and several of the voices are no longer coming out in English. Unknown languages start floating through the church, and the pianist rolls multipitched C chords in accompaniment. The worshippers each transpose their own unique chants to that key. The words make no sense, and the people shouting them are entirely wrapped up in their own reveries, twisting and swaying with eyes closed, hands raised and voices strong. It is an unnerving experience for those who have never heard a person speak in tongues.
Speaking “in tongues” is an example of a “charism,” a Greek word that means “gift of divine grace.” When a person is charismatic in that sense he enters a trance said to be induced by the Holy Spirit, and speaks in so- called “ancient” languages. Others who are charismatic claim to be able to translate the garbled cries of those speaking in tongues. The practice of charismatics in the United States is most often considered to have become a major social movement around 1900, called the classic Pentecostal movement. It enjoyed prominence until it began to falter after World War II. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Protestant neo-Pentecostal movement seeped into, among others, the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. Often called the Protestant charismatic renewal, it differed from the classic Pentecostal movement — which was highly disorganized and emotional, and appealed to the lower classes — in that it attracted a more sedate, middle-class type of churchgoer.
Soon the voices die down and there is silence for a full minute before Pastor Pagaard asks everyone to sing another hymn. One thing that is quite noticeable to those who grew up going to a church where one put on one’s “Sunday best” is the extreme casualness of these First Baptists, including the pastor and the four elders standing with him at the head of the church. Jeans with gaping holes at the knees and work shirts rolled to the elbow are not uncommon.
Pagaard himself wears gray slacks, a pale green shirt open at the collar with a Viking ship stitched to the breast pocket, a black belt, and black loafers with gold buckles. He has a silver tipped pen clipped to his shirt pocket. His eyebrows are bushy and jet black, and there is a bit of a spare tire around his middle. He has heavy, almost Nixonesque jowls and soporific eyes. Pagaard asks if there are any announcements, and a young woman from Abbacraft stands and says there will be a sale of Abbacraft products in the church hall after the service. A woman in the back rises and says the women’s club will meet the next day in the basement meeting room. Next it is time for the offering, and the gatekeepers — the men who pass the plate — walk down the center aisle and start up the collection for the church fund. Afterward, it is time for Bible study, and Pagaard treats the entire congregation as if it were a group of bright sixth graders. “How many have finished Leviticus?” he asks, knowing that most people find this to be one of the more boring books in the Bible. He doesn’t appear surprised when only a few hands are raised in response. “How many have finished Matthew?” he then asks. Most of the people lift their hands.“Praise the Lord,” he says.“Why is it that so many of us get bored in church?” Someone in the back calls out, “We hear but we don’t obey.” Pagaard, his hands jammed into his back pockets, nods his head slowly. He has an easy smile and a deep voice.
Born of American missionaries in Swaziland, Africa, in 1932, Ken Pagaard is the undisputed leader of the First Baptist Church of Chula Vista. Married for 27 years to wife Mona, he is the final arbiter of inter-commune disagreements, the ultimate policymaker on financial matters, and the comforting father image around which revolves the church and its extended families. But not all people see him in such a favorable light. Several former parishioners and commune members have charged that Pagaard was the prime factor in the breakup of this or that marriage, or that he is power-crazed, or that he is guilty of a number of real and imagined sins for which, they say, he should be barred from ministering. One of Pagaard’s foes is 37-year-old David Wignall of Chula Vista. Wignall has claimed that his wife Theresa, 26, and their young daughter are being held at one of the communes against their will. Wignall, himself a former member of one of the communes, took his charges — kidnapping, drug misuse, and assault — to the San Diego Evangelical Association in an effort to prove that Pagaard was unfit to run his church. The association took Pagaard to task on the charges in the spring of 1979, but found no basis for any action against the pastor.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped criticism of Pagaard. The October 1979 issue of Eternity, a nondenominational religious magazine published in Philadelphia, carried an article entitled “The Power Abusers.” Based greatly on testimony provided by Wignall, the story accused Pagaard of being responsible for or allowing such things as spankings of unsubmissive wives, authoritarianism, not letting members mature, interpreting criticism of the pastor as being a “spirit of rebellion,” and straining marriages. Pagaard lashed out at the article in a letter to the magazine’s editor, taking exception to the frequency of such phrases as “has been accused of,”“has been criticized for,” and “ex-members have claimed.”
But no matter how much Pagaard resents the use of such phrases, certain ex-members do accuse Pagaard of poor judgment and do criticize him for his handling of church members and their problems. One former commune member, who is now an atheist, writes science fiction radio scripts for National Public Radio, and lives in a second-story apartment in Normal Heights, recently described his feelings after five years away from the church. “I was assigned a partner,” he said after asking that his name not be used, “to make sure my thoughts corresponded with the rest of the household. They immediately screen out those people who are too individualistic. I made concessions, and for a good reason. There is a real attraction in those households; there is the opportunity for deep relations, or at least the appearance of them. I was going to Southwestern College at the time. I was only twenty, and didn’t have a job, so in addition to school I was given little chores to do. I had to tend garden, do the dishes, vacuum, and cook breakfast once a week.
“One thing I learned real fast,” he continued, “is that the individual must bend to the will of the house- hold. You have to get used to no privacy and no independent thought. Other- wise, they call it ‘being in rebellion.’ They have a real cute thing they do. You see, the head of the household is automatically right on everything. There are no differences of opinion. There is the head’s point of view and there is being in rebel- lion. No middle ground. And the thing is, it isn’t like you versus me; it’s you versus God, according to them. The head of the household is approved by the elders, and the teaching of the church is that God put the elders where they are, so if you disagree with the elders, you disagree with God, and God will get you for it.”
Why, then, would any- one want to put up with it all? “Because you get sucked into it,” he said.“I wanted to be into it, the whole thing, at first, and so I was. When you move into a household, you cut off everything from the outside, which means that everything you have is in the household. The things and people in the house- hold were the things and people that became important to me, because after a while they were all I had. But I paid too high a price to have those things become important to me. The emphasis on the abnega- tion of the personality of the individual really got to me. There was a lot of pressure on me to quit college and get a job to bring some money into the household.
“The last straw came about seven months after entering the household. I was living with thirteen others, and they were all good people. But let me explain it like this. I moved in with a lot of personal objects. The idea is that all personal goods brought into a house- hold belong to that household, but if the person moves out, he can take his possessions with him. I had a girl I was in love with, and I wanted to buy her a present. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re getting an allowance of five dollars every couple of weeks. So what I did was, I figured I would take some of my personal belongings — some books — and I sold them for thirty dollars. Later I was called in and the head of the household said he understood I was withholding money, and that I would be in rebellion if I didn’t turn it back in, so I gave him the money.
“In time I started asking things like, ‘What if the elders are wrong on certain decisions?’ When school let out for summer I was assigned a ministry. My ministry consisted of cleaning toilets, mopping the church floor — you know, grunge work; but in this case, it was punishment. The one thing I hated was bathroom work, and they knew it, so they assigned it to me, I complained to them and I was told either do my ministry or leave. There was a lot of crying and hitting pillows with my fist, but I left that day.” That was in August, 1975. Still, there were some positive aspects to his time with the commune. “I learned more about human nature than at any time in my life. And when you live so closely with other people, you can’t help but come to love them in a way. They are people who are caring to begin with, and need a forum to express that, but then the forum itself takes over their lives. The bitter part, though, is that when you leave you have no one. You might have your parents [his lived in Chula Vista], but when you go in there to begin with you give up all your friends — everybody. For a year afterward, I had no one. The best thing I got from my time with the household was my atheism.”
It is not only individuals who criticize Pagaard, his church, and the communes; both the cities of Chula Vista and National City have declared certain of the households to be in violation of zoning ordinances which prohibit multiple families from living within the same dwelling unit. The National City planning department last month for the first time sent off a notice of zoning violation to the Lincoln Court household, but the problems with the city of Chula Vista stretch back to 1975. In that year, Pagaard and his wife Mona were named by the city’s Human Relations Commission as Humanitarians the Year for their rehabilitation work with troubled young adults. A month later, after pressure from neighborhood groups and petition-passing pastors of nearby churches, the city council declared the communes to be “public nuisances.” One of the neighbors who protested against the communes at the Chula Vista City Hall and signed one of the petitions is Nancy Lawe, now of La Mesa.“They wanted to build a commune on the corner of Flower and Brightwood,” she remembers. “It was the density of the housing, you know, the number of people that were going to live there, that we were against. My main concern, though, was that I strongly objected to commune types of living. If we condoned it to that group, we would have been forced to let the Moonies and all those others come in.” As the city began sending evic- tion notices to many of the communes (there were 13 at the time), Pagaard and the church’s attorney decided to sue the city for violation of basic constitutional rights, such as freedom of assembly. The city council in turn filed a lawsuit of its own seeking to uphold its zoning laws. The constitutional questions were sent by the county superior court directly to the state court of appeals. The appeals court sent back portions of the lawsuit to be tried in superior court, and denied a hearing to other portions, which subsequently were appealed to the state supreme court. A temporary injunction (until a final decision is made) now prohibits the city from evicting the residents of the communes.
But legal battles fade into the background as the church members concentrate on their Friday night Bible lesson. The discussion again returns to the Gospel according to Matthew. As he speaks, Pagaard puts one arm akimbo and scratches his left jowl. He grips the lectern. He makes a peak with his fingers. He points two fingers at the wall. He holds an open palm in front of his face. He draws an oval in the air with his right hand. He nibbles at his baby finger. He puts his thumb and forefinger together. He tugs at his left earlobe and pokes the Bible with his right hand. A young man stands and says he is confused about a Bible passage he has read. Is the church always right, he wonders? Does Heaven back up the church even on little, unimportant things that might not be covered in the Bible? “Yes, you have some of that,” Pagaard tells the assembled multitude, “in that you have to be sub- missive to the authority the Lord has placed over us. There is authority here, and you have to be careful to obey authority.”
After the service, Ron, Susan, and two children — all from the Lincoln Court household — are driving along Highland Avenue to their home in National City. The subject of charismatics comes up, and Ron, a Navy sailor, offers, “It’s just the Holy Spirit showing itself. It can happen at a friend’s house or anywhere. It can be good for you. It really relieves a lot of tension.” Susan, sounding less than enthused, says she isn’t really too familiar with singing the Spirit. “It’s never really happened to me,” she admits. “I haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit yet. I have some reservations about it all. I guess the reason I go to church is to learn about it and to open myself up to it, but I still haven’t been filled with the Spirit. I have some real reservations.”
Later that night, after the children have been tucked in bed and the household is settling in for sleep, Gary, Georgia, and a friend slip away to the Jimmy’s Family Restaurant around the corner on Plaza Boulevard. Georgia has apple pie à la mode. Gary has the breakfast special — two sausage links, hash browns, and one egg, over easy. Again, the talk turns to charismatics, and Gary says that was one aspect of an intensified religious belief he had trouble embracing. “It goes against everything logical,” he says in between bites.“It goes against your intellect. But I had to come to grips with it. I said to myself,‘If my faith is real, it will come to me.’” It did come to him, finally, in 1970, during which time he was teaching a Bible study class for the Southern Baptists at a church in Nestor, just south of Chula Vista.“Part of our group spent time speaking in tongues and singing the Spirit,” he remembers. “It was a pretty exciting group of people. The class swelled from just a few of us to nearly a hundred. But then these rumors got started that all sorts of weird things were going on out there, like black magic or something.” That, he says, was one of the main reasons for transferring his allegiance soon thereafter to the First Baptists, a church that was beginning to explore the uses of charisma.“We’ve had instances of people speaking known languages, including Chinese, and also in unknown languages. Sometimes people will interpret; not word for word, but the general meaning. Most of the speaking in tongues and singing the Spirit is in unknown languages, though. It sounds like baby talk, but it really is one of the most wonderful experiences.”
In the morning, Gary rises just after six, showers, and dresses. After a quick cup of coffee, he makes his way to one of three cars in the driveway, starts it, and steams off to the church for an early morning prayer session with a group of seven men. They each talk about what is happening in their lives, then Gary tells them there is a problem in his Lincoln Court household. “I’m not really sure how to handle it,” he says.“First off, maybe you already heard about Bob. He got arrested again for being drunk and is in the county jail right now.” There are clucks of disapproval and commiseration. “But we have another problem,” he continues, “and that’s Susan. I think she’s going to leave. She’s just about decided. And Barb, I think she feels she wants to go back home, too. And there’s really a lot of negative feelings in the house. Georgia is going to have the baby very soon now, and the bad feelings in the house are making it tough on her. But the thing is, Susan is just not accepting her responsibilities. She doesn’t follow the chart for her chores. I know it sounds real trivial, but all these things add up. Like the other day, she was supposed to do the supper dishes, which includes taking them out of the dishwasher when they’re done and putting them away. But she didn’t do it. So, anyway, Georgia is supposed to do the breakfast dishes in the morning, and the dishes from the night before are still sitting there. So I went in and asked Susan what the problem was, and you know what she says? She says, ‘Why don’t you lighten up?’ And another thing is the rela- tionship she has with Barb’s oldest son, Jeff. Jeff is nine, and Susan has become very close to him, which is fine, but she’s becoming like a wedge between Barb and Jeff, and we just can’t have that. It’s not working out. But what can we do? Susan is only nineteen, and the only job she’s ever had was as a live-in babysitter. Her parents won’t let her back. At least her dad won’t. Her mother has tried to help her all she can, but still she can’t go back home. She has a friend with an apartment where she could stay, but her friend is a doper, and I know if she goes back she’ll start getting involved with these Mexican gangs again.”
Emery, the elder in charge of leading the prayer group, puts forth a solution — bluntly.“Well, she’s just going to have to get out of there,” he says. “In spirit, she’s already gone.” Someone else suggests that maybe another person can be brought in, someone from one of the other households, to help quell the touchy situation and to give Gary some moral support. Everyone quickly agrees, though, that that is not a viable plan, because it would only serve to break up one of the more stable communes. Emery says, “I think this is something we’re definitely going to have to pray about.” The men stand and huddle as if on some holy gridiron and put their arms around one another. They each take turns requesting divine aid for the problem at hand.
After the session ends, Gary and several others walk out to the print shop in back of the church. The phone rings just seconds after they enter. Gary picks up the receiver and listens. “Okay,” he says.“I’ll be right there.” He turns to the others in the room after he hangs up and says,“It was Georgia. She says everything is falling apart back home and that I should get back right away.” Once back at the Lincoln Court house, he finds that some uneasy truce has been called. The living room is warm. The television is turned to cartoons. Barb and Georgia are upstairs. Susan sits with the children watching TV. Gary disappears into the maze of rooms. Later on, standing in the driveway, Gary says good-bye to a weekend visitor. “One thing about the time you spent here,” he says,“is that you found out it isn’t all peace and love all the time. We have problems, but we think we’ve found a system that not only brings out the bad points in people, but also brings out the best aspects of their personality. We have these squabbles sometimes, but that’s because we’re a family. It’s not always easy being a family. I mean, we love it, but it’s a rough go.”