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An O.C. church recalls its roots

Calvary Chapel holds a revival meeting on the site where gatherings began in 1971.

March 13, 2007|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

They praised the Lord under a big white tent in Santa Ana on Monday.

More than 2,000 people sat on folding chairs, raising their voices in prayer, singing of wonder and listening to the word of Jesus as expressed in the songs of an aging Christian rock band called Children of the Day.

"It's been 30 years since we sang that," keyboardist Peter Jacobs told the crowd following the band's rendition of a piece called "New Life." "We have grandchildren of the day now."

It was in 1971 that Pastor Chuck Smith started holding revival services in a tent on the grounds of what would later become Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa. A mecca in those days for hippies, the church -- which began with 25 worshippers in 1965 -- quickly grew into a pioneer in Christian rock music and one of the world's first mega-churches. It now serves 35,000 people a week on South Fairview Street and has 1,300 affiliated congregations nationwide.

Through April 20, the church is returning to its roots by holding daily revivals in a new tent at the same location of the old one while its sanctuary receives a much-needed face-lift, Smith said. "We wanted to make it as positive experience instead of a negative one," the 79-year-old pastor said. "I think we've come full circle. I've been in the ministry now for 57 years; coming back into the tent is very refreshing."

Over the next six weeks, he said, the nightly revivals will feature many of the same bands that were regulars in the early 1970s, as well as ministers who first started preaching under the earlier tent. One of them, Franklin Graham, is the son of the Rev. Billy Graham.

"I was only a parent then," Smith said, "and now I'm a great-grandparent. I'm picking up on what the kids called the vibes; the excitement of finding the Lord and transforming lives. In a sense, I feel like a spectator."

There was certainly lots to watch Monday as the band -- now aided by huge speakers and video screens -- went through its musical paces, former sinners gave tearful testimony and Smith himself spoke rousingly of the last days of "great tribulations" to come.

"We are beginning to see some of the precursors of those events," he said. "I sense a strong movement of God's spirit because we know that his coming is so close. Some of you may say, 'Well, Chuck, I was in the tent in the 1970s and heard you say that then.' Yes, but now we are 35 years closer."

For many present, the tent was a familiar place.

"It helps bring you back to the roots of what this place was like," said Karl Bentz, 55, a former hippie who said he originally came as a young man of 18 looking for a girlfriend but stayed and found Jesus instead. "It's a reminder to all these gray-haired people of from where we came."

Said Pedro Ruford, 64, who was hitchhiking in Laguna Canyon in 1969 and ended up at the church: "My life changed. My heart, which had become very weary and sad and full of confusion, began to find peace."

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