It’s Wednesday night in the parking lot of a shuttered Kmart in east Spokane Valley, and at the gates of what was once the garden center, young people are gathering with carnival-like excitement.
Not one or two, but hundreds of iPod- listening, text-messaging, flip-flop-wearing kids, ages 12 to 18, jockey for position so that when the doors open, they won’t be last inside.
Parents, here’s another item to add to that list of “cool” teenage things that leave you mystified:
Yes, that thing you’d hoped your children might find once you got them to pull their pants up to their bellybuttons is drawing big crowds in Spokane Valley, where last week more than 700 kids gathered for worship on a 75-degree spring night when the excuses to just screw around were myriad.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” said Bryce Johnson, 16. “The way all the kids come together, it actually tells me there’s a lot of people who really care.”
Eastpoint Church is where the gathering was held. Sandwiched between Yoke’s and the Dollar Store, inside the old Kmart building, the nondenominational church has an auditorium that could comfortably seat about 800.
Big venues have quickly proven essential for what organizers call the United Youth Church, which is formed once a quarter by merging the youth congregations from 20 Spokane Valley churches.
Youth pastors got the idea for the gathering from “See you at the Pole,” a September event in which students around the country congregate at their school flagpoles simultaneously for nondenominational prayer. Those gatherings emphasized the strength of numbers as well the similarities of Christian churches.
For pastors, United Youth Church seemed like a more frequent way to deliver the same message.
“I think the biggest thing that this does is it lets them see outside of their own church, that there are more kids out there trying to live for Jesus,” said Mike Scholtz, a Spokane Valley Nazarene pastor.
When Johnson arrived at 6:30 p.m., there was still a half-hour to go before the service began. Already, about 600 kids waited to get inside.
He drove his Ford Ranger pickup into the lot, surveyed it once to see if anybody was looking his way, then hustled to the back of the rig to unlatch the hard-shell lid that covers his truck bed. Out popped two stowaways, 15-year-old Julian Stacy and “Little” Mike Hitchcock, 16.
“It’s a good place to worship,” Hitchcock said.
The boys live in Spokane Valley but go to church at Real Life Ministries in Post Falls.
Inside, kids stream into the auditorium shrieking, their arms in the air as if they’ve been admitted to a rock concert.
And there is, briefly, music played by young musicians from various youth groups.
Lyrics scroll up a projection screen so the audience can sing along, though many know the songs by heart and sing with their eyes closed.
It is a swaying sea of Christian youth.
The mannerisms of individual denominations rise to the surface like white foam. Assembly of God kids, when they’re really feeling the spirit in the music, thrust their arms upward and point their open palms toward the stage like plants collecting sunlight.
The Catholic children cross themselves before praying. What the teens have in common is that everyone seems to be paying attention. It’s not a high school dance.
The boys aren’t leaning against the wall checking out the girls and vice versa. No one is circling the floor trying to fit in.
In the back corner, a teenage boy is excitedly punching acronyms into the keyboard of his Blackberry.
The brilliant white blue of the screen gives him away in the otherwise dark auditorium, but it turns out he is text messaging his youth pastor, who is lost in the crowd.
Brandon Campbell takes the stage, and the crowd gives the Eastpoint youth pastor a big “Amen, hah!” It’s a cheer delivered with Marine Corps gusto and the soul of James Brown.
Campbell speaks of unity. He stresses that despite attending church in different buildings under different names, Christians are basically the same.
He wants the kids to recognize one another in the hallways at school. He wants them to be part of something. He wants them to quit swimming upstream alone in the social current and instead give their religion a very public, shared acceptance. Because isn’t that how things become cool in the first place?
“If he can light a fire in Spokane Valley, not literally but figuratively” Campbell said, “I think it would be huge.”
It’s Wednesday night in the parking lot of a shuttered Kmart in east Spokane Valley. Kids are streaming through the gates of what used to be the garden center like a colorful school of fish.
In the warm night they scatter.
When will we meet again, one girl asks?
Another replies, “Soon.”