Lords of the New Church

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

When the worship band launches into Michael Pritzl's "Clean" and Israel Whittimore starts singing, several people in the crowd stand up, raise their arms to heaven, and sing along: "My God has rescued me/Taken my rags and made me clean/Open my eyes so I can see."

After the beautiful ballad, the band bounces into a more poppy song, "Rain Down" by the U.K. Christian rock band Delirious. Several people tap their feet, and a few even dance in front of their chairs, as they sing along again: "Give me strength to cross the water/Keep my heart upon your altar."

Many churches, even those some people might consider "stodgy," incorporate some form of rock or jazz music into their services. What separates the worship band at OnePlace from the music at other churches is the caliber of talent within the group. Everyone in the band has been making music for years, and some members of the worship band -- like Shelley Barnes and Sunny Davis of secular indie rock band The Stiletto Formal -- have enjoyed an amount of mainstream success (they'll spend most of this summer playing a slew of dates on the Vans Warped Tour). "A lot of churches don't have the musical depth that we've been blessed with," Whittimore says.

Graffiti artists get down at OnePlace on the First Friday in June.
Niki D'Andrea
Graffiti artists get down at OnePlace on the First Friday in June.

For the few hard-line, old-school critics who still insist that rock is the devil's music, the leader of OnePlace's worship band says he's heard that tune before. "My parents were super conservative," Whittimore says. "So I had to hide my rock 'n' roll CDs under my super conservative Christian CD covers. For people who have the idea that sound -- whether it's rock or organ -- for someone to say, That's from the devil, and that's from God,' I'd just ask those people to look at the heart of it, where it's coming from, and what it's really saying."

The sun has set outside a north Valley Starbucks, and Mandi McKinney is sweating in her seat on the patio. Tonight, the 23-year-old California transplant is wearing jeans, a sleeveless shirt that shows off the colorful heart-and-dagger tattoos on her arms, and earrings in a couple places on her face. She's puffing on a Virginia Slim as she thumbs through her day planner. It looks like someone dyslexic and half-blind has played tic-tac-toe all over the pages. She's been booking shows like crazy, especially since the church got new speakers, recently. She says there are more secular bands than Christian bands at the shows, and she's open to booking all kinds -- hardcore aside. That experiment failed.

Okay, but what about Marilyn Manson or Slayer? "That would even be cool," she says without hesitation.

The only discouraging aspect, McKinney says, is that she doesn't get enough time to interact with people at the shows and tell them about the church. "For a while, I was discouraged. I was like, You know, I'm doing this venue thing and it's really awesome and I'm meeting lots of cool bands, but I don't really feel like God is in it enough,'" McKinney says.

But she felt better when Rob Tarr told her that the rock shows were bringing people into the church. "I guess a lot of kids have come in because of the shows," McKinney says. "And that's what I want more than anything."

It's the First Friday in June, and Jesus is all up in the house. Two white school buses are parked in OnePlace's parking lot, surrounded by yellow crime scene tape and six high-voltage spotlights. Four graffiti artists on ladders are adding to the colorful abstract spray paint murals on the buses. There's a stereo with huge speakers outside, blasting a Sean Paul song so loud you can hear it from two blocks away.

A crowd of about 40 people is gathered around the live art project, taking pictures and talking on cell phones.

"Hey, it's me -- are you guys coming downtown?" a girl in baggy camouflage pants asks her receiver. "I'm at the OnePlace. No, no -- it's called OnePlace. It's really cool."

Another few dozen people are gathered outside the front of the building, including a black guy with a big Afro, a woman with hot pink hair, and a girl with a pair of handcuffs dangling from her backpack. Adam Brooks, wearing a backward baseball cap, is greeting people, along with Israel Whittimore, whose shaggy black hair keeps falling down into his eyes.

Pastor Tarr is inside the church with his family, trying to keep an eye on his adopted toddler son, who keeps trying to stand up on a folding chair. "I think there's gonna be some hip-hop dancing or something," he says.

A couple minutes later, two young guys in baggy shorts and ball caps take the stage. "We're here tonight to recognize our Lord Jesus Christ," one of them says into the mic. "We're gonna do some rapping and then a little dancing."

The DJ starts mixing a fierce hip-hop beat reminiscent of gangsta rap, and the guy with the mic starts rapping all about God, ending the first verse with "Don't believe The Da Vinci Code and the gnostics!"

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