Lords of the New Church

OnePlace gives new meaning to the phrase, "Rock me, Jesus"

At the intersection of First Street and Garfield, near a health clinic for indigents and an Arizona Public Service substation, there's a burnt-orange brick building that stops pedestrians. Most of the time, you don't see many people walking this part of town, but it's the First Friday in May, and a large crowd has wandered south from Roosevelt Row.

Three young women approach the building with puzzled looks and peer through the jagged, unintelligible, two-foot-long piece of vandalism carved into the front window. Inside, the walls are painted blood red.

Tonight, those walls are hung with photographer Monica Vega's "Women With Guns" series, which features hot babes pointing the barrels of various guns directly at the camera lens. There's a stage at the far end of the building, and shaggy-haired twentysomethings are shuffling in and out of the back door with various instruments, including three guitars, a drum set, keyboard and cello. While they set up, the sound man plays Rush and DJ Shadow CDs. There's no furniture inside except an old yellow couch and a few folding chairs.

OnePlace pastor Rob Tarr delivers an informal Easter sermon.
Luke Holwerda
OnePlace pastor Rob Tarr delivers an informal Easter sermon.
Mandi McKinney, the woman behind the rock shows at OnePlace.
Michael Alonzo
Mandi McKinney, the woman behind the rock shows at OnePlace.

There's also a crucifix over the front door and some pamphlets about church services on a table in the entryway.

Outside, a man in grimy clothes, clutching a bottle wrapped in a paper bag, asks, "What is this place?"

Somebody tells him it's a rock venue.

"Oh. I always thought it was a church!" he says, surprised.

"Well, it's kind of a rock 'n' roll church," says a skinny girl in blue jeans.

Her friend corrects her. "No, no, this is that art church."

The man takes a swig off the bottle and looks at them for a moment. "What isthis place?"


"This place" is OnePlace, and in theory, it's a Christian church. In action, it's a hangout for local artists, musicians, college kids, and castoffs from more traditional churches.

And while it's still trying to find its identity, OnePlace hasn't had a problem fitting into the downtown arts scene or the local music scene. It's the "church scene" that's been a tough fit for OnePlace, because its unconventional methods of worship and openness to just about anything put it at odds with traditional churches. Across the country, religious organizations and churches are taking a more liberal approach to attracting new members, but OnePlace takes its tolerance and hipness a few steps further -- maybe too far, some say.

Smoke cigarettes? That's okay. Gay? Welcome. Got tattoos and piercings? So does everybody else. Having sex out of wedlock? Whatever.

Don't even believe in God? That's okay, dude. Hang out and catch a punk rock show or peruse the art, anyway. There's a new exhibition every month, and a rock show almost every night of the week.

Word on the street is that OnePlace even hosts hardcore shows, when no other local venue will book them.

"It's cool that they're accepting of people who smoke or have piercings or whatever, but I don't understand how they can be a church and book hardcore shows, because those kids are violent as fuck," says one local venue owner, referring to past incidents of violence at hardcore shows in both Phoenix and Tucson, including a fatal shooting at Skrappy's last year.

OnePlace did host hardcore shows for a while, long after every other venue in the Valley decided not to take any chances on them.

"I don't want to exclude anybody's scene, and there was no place left for them to go," says Mandi McKinney, who books all of the shows at OnePlace.

McKinney managed to pull off a handful of hardcore shows before somebody shoved the pastor one night. "We don't book any hardcore bands at all now," she says. "The church asked me to stop booking them because it's too much of a liability."

OnePlace does hold church services every Sunday night, but this is not your typical church experience. Every week, there's something different. One Sunday, you might walk in to find the place set up like a coffee lounge, with throw pillows and books laid out everywhere, and another week, you might be gorging on a massive food buffet while watching a documentary about Somalian refugees that one of the church members made.

The head minister at OnePlace, Rob Tarr, has spiky red hair, a goatee, and an earring. The 30-year-old pastor took the full-time job at OnePlace about a year ago, after serving as a minister at various churches since finishing seminary school in California seven years ago. He writes a blog on the church's Web site, www.oneplacechurch.com, where he shares what he plans to preach about and asks for feedback.

"I like to keep the services more conversational, and a lot of times they're very interactive with me and everybody else, where we'll talk and ask questions," Tarr says.

OnePlace's worship band (think melodic rock with some Jesus thrown in) is one of the church's big draws, consisting of members of local rock bands Micah Bentley and The Stiletto Formal, with several other musicians sitting in when somebody's on tour.

"We rotate people in and out [of the band]," says Israel Whittimore, the worship-band leader. "We have that ability."

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