Earthquake Weather

I did what I always do when sleep gets hard and life seems bewildering - I went to church to share in the fellowship of strangers and soak up a little surplus mystery. I'd chosen a mega-church on the other side of the bay, affiliated with the Assemblies of God, where the Holy Spirit would be present, the A/V system would impress, and the message would be boiled down to slogans for self-improvement and easier living. I prefer to go to services at night, when the lonely and devout come out of their hiding places; it was fully dark by the time an attendant in safety orange waved me into an empty corner of the vast parking lot. I walked into the worship center, took the program that was pressed into my hand, and headed past the security detail on my way into the sanctuary. The band was in the early stages of warming up - a Bruce Hornsby-like ensemble with the leader on piano - and while they tinkered with their opening I chose an empty pew and watched believers filter down the aisles to their seats. It was a diverse crowd, some old, others young, a few Asian families arriving en masse, lots of retirement age white men in golf shirts, attached by the hip to their wives, and elderly black women in hats and colorful business suits. No one joined me in the pew before the service started, or afterwards either, when stragglers, getting into the spirit, clapped along to the band in the aisles and raised their arms high up in the air. It wasn't the kind of music that made me feel ecstatic - there was no danger in the melody, no promise of oblivion in the rhythm section - but then again, I was a visitor in that house of worship. I tried to let myself be moved. I closed by eyes when the time came. I waited for the Holy Spirit. I listed to the murmuring of tongues and tender calls to the savior ("I love you, Jesus. I love you, Jesus"). I didn't feel holy, or saved, or even vaguely transfigured. At the end of the service I bought a turkey sandwich from a church volunteer for $2.25 and ate it on the freeway in the dark, listening to The Hold Steady.

I had looked forward to driving down Sunset with Beck's "Earthquake Weather" playing - loud - on the stereo in my rental car, but after a few minutes the song revealed itself to be entirely ball-less (what do you expect from a Scientologist?) and so I listened to The Hold Steady instead. I came to Los Angeles to haunt an international gathering of the Pentecostal movement and I spent a week in the convention center, on charter buses, in prayer groups, at church services, conducting interviews, chatting with holy strangers, and enduring prayers for my salvation with laminated press credentials hanging from my neck. I came because I was curious and I had something that I wanted to write; but I also came to the Pentecostals - let's face it - because I was feeling damaged. They knew this, despite my denials of any personal interest in being saved, and I grew to appreciate being at the center of a clutch of people calling out to the Creator. I met a woman who believed the Holy Spirit had entered her through the head and traveled down her spinal column (in the form of a gel) to heal a painful birth defect. I met a U.S. military chaplain, originally from Nigeria, who had seen too much misery in his two tours of duty in Iraq and came to Los Angeles to be healed. I met drug addicts, preachers, frauds, adulterers, nut jobs, holy fools blowing on shofars, Christian mimes from Pasadena, and a former cheerleader who spent hours by herself in a corner of the convention center, dancing with a flag in a gold one-piece bathing suit. They knew something I didn't - that is, how to be saved. And if their salvation seemed like a strange hallucination to me, who was I to argue?