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An unconventional Church

  • Jon Kelly
  • 5 Oct 08, 07:24 AM GMT

ST LOUIS, MO: So there I was in a downtown bar, discussing indie bands over my pint with a crowd of studenty-looking twentysomethings.

The talk turned to the election. Religion and party politics shouldn't mix, someone said. Church leaders who urged their congregations to back conservative candidates were abusing their position, another drinker agreed.

And then I remembered. These people were Southern Baptist evangelicals - supposedly the most partisan and right-wing of all American religious groups. What was going on?

The Journey isn't your typical church, to be fair. Its website proclaims a mission to reach out to "punk rockers, grandmothers, [and] construction workers" alike. And as part of its strategy to persuade young people that a love of alt-rock and alcohol is compatible with Christianity, it holds regular informal meetings in this ale house I visited.

Well, any trip to the pub is a religious experience for me. And at a time when most Americans are demanding that politicians listen to them, I was keen to meet one group who were anxious to step back from the megaphone.Darrin

With his scruffy-smart demeanour and fashionable horn-rimmed glasses, Darrin Patrick looked more like a Hoxton web designer than a Southern Baptist pastor.

He told me how much he loved Radiohead and Arcade Fire. Earlier in the week, he said, he'd been to an "awesome" Foo Fighters gig.

In Britain, we tend to be cynical about anyone who tries to marry popular culture with faith. I come from a country where "trendy vicar" is a term of derision (and one which was regularly lobbed at guitar-strumming Roman Catholic convert Tony Blair).

But Darrin genuinely seemed equally at ease in both worlds. And in a county where religious belief is so widespread, it's hardly surprising that young Americans might look for a connection between the secular and the sacred.

He told me how he had found his faith as a teenager when, during one week, he was suspended from high school for fighting, kicked off his football team for drinking, and led to believe that he might have got his girlfriend pregnant.

He'd set up the Journey appeal to people like his younger self. Six years on, over 2,000 people were now attending regularly.

An equal proportion of them were Republicans and Democrats, Darrin said. Some were motivated by concern for the poor, others by individual responsibility. It wasn't his job to tell them how to vote, he said; in fact, to do would be a breach of responsibility.

Instead, he told me that his priorities were social justice and community action. Journey members worked in St Louis's inner-city schools as well as with immigrants, people with HIV and single mothers. Putting Christian principles into practice was what evangelicals should be doing, he insisted, not getting mixed up in party politics.

"If you sell out to the right or the left, you sell out Jesus," he said.

"Go to certain evangelical churches and they're all conservatives. But I think the church needs to follow Jesus and stay right in the centre."

Richie Cook, a 22-year-old Bright Eyes fan, agreed wholeheartedly. He had felt alienated from conventional churches when he studied for a theology degree at university.Ritchie

"I met people living Christian lives who were secretive and hypocritical and..." he searched for the right word. "Mean, to be blunt.

"I didn't want anything to do with Christianity. But I couldn't get away from the fact that I believed in God."

After discovering the Journey, he said he'd finally found a home in the church. "I do care more about social justice and issues that deal with how it affects people," he said. "That's what motivates me."

He wasn't the only one. Kristin Guilliams, 28, a paediatric neurologist was still making up her mind about how to vote.Kristin

But she said that issues like the economy were more important to her than the kind of topics that were meant to excite evangelicals.

"I think that morality is something that shouldn't be legislated for," she told me.

"Abortion and marriage are things that are better left to individuals' conscience."

Religion and politics might seem inextricably linked in the US for now. But if Darrin gets his way, one of the great certainties of American elections could be undermined.

(1) www.journeyon.net

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