Father and son pastors agree to disagree
By Christopher Goffard
Los Angeles Times
By Christopher Goffard
SANTA ANA, Calif. — From his pulpit here, Chuck Smith denounces homosexuality as a "perverted lifestyle," finds divine wrath in earthquakes and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and promises imminent Armageddon in a deep, sure voice.
If his message is grim, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement bears the good cheer of a 79-year-old believer who insists he has never known doubt or despair.
From the pulpit of Capo Beach Calvary, 25 miles south of his father's church, Chuck Smith Jr.'s voice trembles as he grapples with ambiguity. Without fire and brimstone, he speaks of Christianity as a "conversation" rather than a dogma, plumbs such TV shows as "The Simpsons" for messages, and aims to reach "generations of the postmodern age" that distrust blind faith and ironclad authority.
There is a tradition among superstar evangelists of bequeathing the pulpit to a son. Billy Graham did it, as did Robert H. Schuller.
However, it has been ages since anyone considered Smith Jr. a successor to his father's 15,000-congregation ministry, the symbolic center of a network of independently run Calvary churches: about 1,000 across the United States, including two of the three largest non-Roman Catholic churches in California, plus radio and TV ministries.
Instead, critics whispered that the son was a dangerous impostor. Last year, those whispers exploded into a full-blown din. Online protests and fliers distributed at the younger Smith's church demanded that he drop the "Calvary" name because of his liberal drift on the evil of homosexuality and the promise of hell for unbelievers.
"What will it take for Chuck Sr. to stop the nepotism?" blogged Calvary congregant Jackie Alnor, one of the critics leading the charge. "Does his son have to burn incense to Isis and Zeus before he is disfellowshipped from a Bible-believing fellowship of churches?"
By last spring, one thing had become clear to Smith Jr.: Sprawling as it was, the church his father had built — the place that once embraced a generation of hippies and helped change the way many Americans worshipped — had little room for him.
"Even when I speak, some of what I say is opinion and confusion and error," says Smith Jr., 55, who wears shorts and flip-flops as he welcomes a visitor to his church. "I'm more in a place of learning than I am in a place of certainty."
He grew up a true believer in his father's Pentecostal world, a world that could tilt and slide him into hell at any moment, or end with the thunderclap of doom. His earliest memories involve an overpowering sense of sin.
"You can never be good enough if you're Pentecostal or if you're fundamentalist," Smith Jr. said. "Jesus may even be upset if you didn't make your bed or brush your teeth."
When he suffered his first bout of severe depression in his teens, his ever-upbeat father found the malady so alien he could provide little help. If you're sad all the time, he told his son, you won't have many friends.
Dad, for his part, was reshaping American Christianity. He opened the first nondenominational Calvary Chapel on a Costa Mesa lot with 25 congregants in 1965. Soon he became famous as the pastor who threw open his doors to the ragged counterculture and baptized thousands below the ocean cliffs of Corona del Mar. He become "Papa Chuck," the smiling man in the Hawaiian shirt, a staunch-but-benevolent spiritual father to a generation of hippies, dropouts and drug casualties.
To his older son, he was elusive: "He wasn't present emotionally, even if he was present physically. To hear him speak, you just get the impression this is such a warm and intimate person, but the closer you got to him, the more you'd realize he really didn't have those intimacy skills."
When Smith Jr. left high school, he was certain he would not follow his dad to the pulpit. But at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, he found himself defending Christianity to his classmates. People kept firing questions, and, because he was Chuck Smith's son, he had answers.
About the same time, a coed invited him to her apartment. Suddenly, he said, his choice seemed vivid. It was between Jesus and being "sucked into the vortex of the evils of the world."
He politely declined, dropped out of college and became a pastor, the only one among his parents' four children to do so. By his mid-20s, he had founded two churches of his own.
Theologically, father and son were on roughly the same page. They preached damnation for the unsaved, the wickedness of homosexuality, and what the son, looking back later, would call "a general hopelessness about the world," one salved only by the promise of a cataclysmic Second Coming.
About the time he opened a church in Dana Point in 1975, Smith Jr. began reading widely, making friends with Christians of different backgrounds. He began to consider that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven, he was referring to the rewards of a selfless life, here and now — that the Gospels' core message was real-world compassion, not preparation for the afterlife.
For years, Smith Jr. said, he had preached about hell uncomfortably, half-apologetically, because he couldn't understand why a loving God would consign his children to eternal flames. It felt like blackmail for a pastor to threaten people with hell-scapes from the Middle Ages to induce piety.
He also grew disillusioned with the Rapture, the notion that believers in Jesus will be whisked to God's side during Armageddon. His father had predicted the end of the world would arrive in the 1980s, based on his reading of the Book of Revelation. He has continued, year after year, to announce its imminence with absolute confidence.
The father: "Every year I believe this could be the year. We're one year closer than we were."
The son: "To use (the Book of Revelation) for prognostication, to me, is just ridiculous. ... I knew of a guy who was racking up debt because he just assumed he was going to get raptured and wouldn't have to pay for it."
During the 1980s, as the AIDS pandemic exploded, Smith Jr. embraced the gay community.
The father on homosexuality: "It is the final affront against God."
The son: "I met homosexuals who were trying to live celibate lives or be heterosexual, and I heard all about their struggles, and I never wanted to exacerbate that. My heart went out to them. Listening convinced me that homosexual orientation is not something people chose."
One by one they fell away, the doctrinal pillars of the house his father built. Yet Smith Jr. remained under the Calvary Chapel roof, not wanting to embarrass his father by leaving.
There was also the question of the son's temperament. He hardly fit the mold of the Christian soldier championed by his father in his book "Harvest," in which he spoke of "the ideal of a biblical man who is strong and not vacillating or weak" and denounced "the new touchy/feely men."
Smith Jr. weeps before his congregation, making no secret of his depression, which took him to the brink of suicide after his 1993 divorce. At the time, he stood before his congregation explaining that his wife of 18 years, the mother of his five children, was leaving him despite his effort to save the marriage.
"In my mind," he wrote in his book "Frequently Avoided Questions," "divorce was an alien behavior that could not touch true Christians, let alone a minister."
His condition alienated him further from his father's church, where depression is viewed as a spiritual problem bespeaking flawed faith. William Alnor, a longtime Calvary congregant and former pastor, expressed the view in stark terms: "I don't believe any Christian leader should be flirting with depression."
Fundamentalists have also been troubled by gestures they see as paganism, such as Smith Jr. giving the sign of the cross at services and hanging his sanctuary with paintings of Jesus in the iconic Byzantine style. In 2005, he took several extended retreats to a Catholic monastery in Big Sur.
One of his most vocal detractors, William Alnor's wife, Jackie, denounced his "decline into Catholic contemplative mystical religion" and protested outside his church.
"I could sense the darkness around that place," she wrote on her Apostasy Alert Web page.
In person, the elder Smith, a stocky, rosy-skinned man with kind eyes and snowy hair at the temples, is warmth itself. His office is attached to the pavilion-size church at the border of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana where he still preaches to a weekend congregation of 15,000.
He stresses how much he loves his son, regrets he didn't spend more time with him growing up: "Surely he's not a clone, and I respect and admire him for that. There's nothing shoddy about his ministry at all."
Reminded of a memo he issued cracking down on his son's views, the father replies that he and his son are aiming for different audiences, and he doesn't want to alienate the one he has. He says their relationship is stronger than ever, even deepened by the controversy.
"I don't feel that he's an apostate at all. If he would begin to question that Jesus is the son of God, then I would be concerned," he said.
Recently, Smith Jr. sat in the office of the Dana Point home he shares with his second wife, Barbara, a physical therapist.
The breakup with Calvary Chapel, as he sees it, was a good and inevitable thing.
"I knew it was coming," he said. "It was a matter of time."
He had no desire to inherit the sprawling Calvary Chapel anyway, he said, being better suited to a smaller flock. Until recently, he preached to a weekend congregation of 1,700 at a church he converted from a bowling alley. He is now on extended hiatus.
His relationship with his dad, he agrees, is tighter than ever. His challenge, he says, is to extricate himself from his dad's fundamentalist evangelical community without traumatizing his parents.
"It's like the parents whose child comes out to them and says, 'I'm gay,' " Smith said. "Hopefully they come around and say, 'You are our son and we will always love you.' My parents are no less loving than that."
Smith Jr. recalls a troubled preacher from Calvary Chapel's early days, Lonnie Frisbee, who was instrumental in helping the elder Smith reach the counterculture. A recent documentary about Frisbee's life makes the case that the church whitewashed Frisbee from church history because he was gay.
Smith Jr. appeared in the film, looked at the camera and asked: If the church shuts its doors to gay people, where are they supposed to find God?
It sounded like a direct plea to his father.
Smith says no, he wasn't really speaking to Dad.
Then he reconsiders.
"Maybe I was."