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They Went Shopping, Found a New Church

March 16, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

When the Huntington Beach Church of Religious Science outgrew its 140-seat New England-style church in late 1979, a search was begun to find a temporary home while a new church was built.

After six months, church leaders found themselves with only one option: two vacant storefronts in the Seacliff Village Shopping Center a mile from the beach.

The Rev. Peggy Bassett wasn't sure how her 250-member congregation would react to attending church in a stark building devoid of stained-glass windows and other religious symbols--a building in a shopping center, no less.

"I was a little bit embarrassed by it and asked, 'Is that the best we could do?' " she recalled. But "we had an 18-month lease while we built the new church, and then something happened, and I'm not sure what."

What happened was that by the end of 1980--with little advertising and no sign posted in front of the shopping center--they already had outgrown the 300-seat church that was still in the planning stages.

Today, nearly six years after Bassett delivered her first sermon at the shopping center during an Easter sunrise service held next to an outdoor fountain, the Huntington Beach church has 1,800 members. It is, say church officials, the largest Church of Religious Science in Orange County and one of the fastest-growing in the nation.

The sanctuary now occupies five storefronts (seating up to 900), and nine other storefronts have been annexed for the church offices, counseling rooms, meeting rooms, classrooms and a metaphysical bookstore called the Aquarian Age.

Each month, about 50 new members--most of them under 50 and many of them young professionals--join the nondenominational church, which teaches a positive approach to life based on church founder Ernest Holmes' "Science of Mind" philosophy.

In response to the church's continued growth, the City Council in February granted permission to expand the sanctuary 20 feet into an alleyway--a $350,000 terraced-seating remodeling project that will add 500 seats. The council vote, which spurred cheers from the 100 church supporters in the audience, prompted one city planning staff member to remark in jest that "they're going to take over the whole center."

Bassett is no longer the least bit embarrassed by what she affectionately refers to as the "marketplace church." After all, she said, "The Master Teacher taught in the marketplace and in the fields where the people were."

"When I want to get a laugh," Bassett added, "I say I'm the storefront preacher."

They began arriving--about 900 strong--half an hour before the start of the 9:45 service, the second and largest of the three Sunday morning services held at the "marketplace church."

A dozen parking monitors stationed throughout the shopping center lot were keeping watch to make sure church members didn't park in spaces reserved for store customers.

Parking on Sunday has been a minor source of friction between the church and some of the merchants, who have complained that churchgoers are taking their customers' parking places.

Parking Spaces Rented

To help alleviate parking problems and remain "good neighbors," the church now runs two buses between the center and an office park across the street where 300 parking spaces have been rented. And an arrangement has been made with nearby Huntington Beach High School for additional parking spaces, if necessary.

But many of the shop and restaurant owners are the church's biggest boosters. In fact, many open their doors early on Sunday mornings to take advantage of the heavy churchgoing foot traffic.

"We actually design our hours around the church," said Jed Donohoe, co-owner of the Original Toy Box, which opens at 9 a.m. on Sundays. "We originally were going to close on Sundays, but you can't pass up 1,500 people."

"The parking problem has been corrected, and it's working out very, very well," said Ray Ross, president of the Seacliff Merchants Assn. "The biggest majority of merchants are thrilled that the church is here. On Sundays, (business) is just fantastic."

Although the 9:45 a.m. service would not start for another 20 minutes, the large patio in front of the sanctuary was packed with people, many of whom had stayed after the 8 a.m. service to drink coffee and socialize. It was a warm, friendly crowd, with a lot of easy laughter and a lot of hugging.

'Having Patio'

Bassett, always a visible presence after each service, called it "having patio."

"The people here are a lot more friendly," said Lana Grace, 37, of Huntington Beach, an unemployed aerospace worker. A former Baptist, she has been attending the church for 2 1/2 years.

"What I like about it is the positive approach to life and that there are no judgments involved," she said. "You can just be who you are."

"I was brought up a Roman Catholic, and that didn't have the answers for me," said Grace's friend, Mark Helmer, 35, of Long Beach, a free-lance sportscaster who also works at KTTV.

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