The Last Supper

It's not easy when your boss tells you to do one thing and God tells you to do another

Naeve learned that the hard way, she says, when the karate school where she worked offered her a raise -- but only if she was willing to commit to working a weeknight that she usually spent at evening church services.

She accepted the new schedule, and the money. Sunday morning services, surely, should be enough.

It took only one month to decide that it wasn't worth it.

Theresa Serrano Keel and her brother Ric Serrano
Peter Scanlon
Theresa Serrano Keel and her brother Ric Serrano
J. Mark Ogden
Peter Scanlon
J. Mark Ogden

"When you make a decision, God will either give you peace with it, or not," she says, in her soft, careful voice. "And this just didn't feel right." After she gave her bosses back the raise, she says, "I felt a weight off my shoulders. It was incredible."

She remembered that lesson years later, when she found herself in another tricky work situation. In March 2000, she left a job managing human resources at a financial company to take a position managing Serrano's Mexican Restaurant on Power Road in Mesa.

When she took the job, she agreed to the company's strict anti-fraternization policy: Managers could not socialize with subordinates outside of work. Period.

The policy wouldn't have been trouble but for one thing. Naeve felt God calling her to do something far more controversial than ask for a night off. This call was about sharing her faith.

The church Naeve joined in the Valley, New Hope Community Church in Chandler, is part of a traditional Protestant denomination, the Church of the Nazarene, associated with the teachings of John Wesley and the Methodist church. It is not known for hard-core proselytizing.

But, like many older Protestant sects, the Church of the Nazarene is making a serious effort to bring its 18th-century core beliefs to people in the 21st century. Christians call it being "seeker-sensitive" -- creating a church that's user-friendly.

As Naeve says, when she first visited, New Hope's team was making music so modern it actually blared. Sermons aren't just Biblical history lessons; they're practical, with a focus on God's call to each person's life. New Hope also emphasizes small groups: Members get to know the Bible and each other, sharing their lives and learning to see God's hand in them.

In a seeker-sensitive church, it wouldn't do to share the church's message by shouting Bible verses on the street corner. That doesn't fly these days, as most growing churches have figured out.

Instead, the emphasis is on interpersonal relationships. It's no coincidence that Naeve was first invited to church by a co-worker at the karate school. While Christians still cite Jesus' exhortation to go into "all the world and preach the gospel," much of today's Christian literature focuses on the subtle one-on-one witness with friends, neighbors and co-workers. As for faith, it's pitched not so much as a way to escape hellfire, but as a tool to navigate day-to-day life.

Naeve says she was careful not to push her beliefs in the workplace. Still, she firmly believed that if God gave her an opportunity -- if friends or co-workers asked about church or about her beliefs -- it was no coincidence: God had put her there to answer the questions and lead people to Him.

With her warm smile and easy approachability, Naeve got plenty of opportunities. A waitress at Serrano's, Debbie Mills, asked Naeve one day whether she went to church. Naeve said yes, and Mills, who hadn't been going to church at all, started coming to New Hope. On another occasion, Naeve thought she heard a bartender, Michael Caeton, humming a tune by a Christian band. When she asked him about it, they got to talking. In time, he, too, started attending her church.

Not long after the employees started going to New Hope, Naeve heard God's call again. She and another woman at church, she says, "felt led" to start a small Bible study group for new Christians.

They put an announcement in the church bulletin. But even from the beginning, it was clear that this was something she'd discussed with the employees under her charge at Serrano's: The first Bible study met at Caeton's apartment. Also in attendance was his roommate, a waitress at Serrano's.

Other than the church member who was helping Naeve start the study, Serrano's employees were the only people in attendance.

And that, Naeve soon learned, was a problem. A big one.

In her trial testimony, Naeve said that she never thought the Bible study violated Serrano's anti-fraternization policy. Still, after praying one day not long after the first Bible study, she says, she felt God directing her to come clean to her bosses. She worried the study gave the "appearance" of a code violation. She didn't want to be a hypocrite when she urged her employees at Serrano's to follow other restaurant rules.

But to Ric Serrano, general manager for the restaurant's corporate office, the Bible study was much more than just the "appearance" of a violation. It was a violation.

He wouldn't have known about the group if Naeve hadn't told him, he says. But once she did, he couldn't look the other way. Even on the day she first told him about the study, he made it clear: Unless she stopped, she could be fired.

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