By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Eleven-year-old Chris Ballew is trying to talk about Jesus. Blood and laughter keep getting in the way.
Chris is giggling in the men's restroom at God's Place International alongside his 11-year-old cousin and fellow Dallasite David Riddle because he's bleeding. Big bubbles of dark red blow out of one nostril, then another, as Ballew attempts to stanch--with a crumpled wad of toilet paper--the flow from an injury he received in the GPI mosh pit.
"I was out there moshing with everybody, and this dude turned around and went wham with his elbow," Chris says, staring at himself in the rectangular mirror above the sink.
"But it was an accident--it was accidental," Chris adds hastily, as he and David giggle at Chris' bleeding image. "I'm OK, man, I'm OK."
"It looks like you got a moustache, man!" David shrieks with a pronounced Texas twang, and Chris turns to show a perfect square of blood on his upper lip that's somewhere between The Little Tramp and Adolf Hitler.
This is only the second time Chris has been to God's Place International, the East Arlington church that offers three different venues for the national, regional, and local Christian alternative music circuit. The main sanctuary has been transformed into a venue called The Main Room. A Christian death-metal band called Embodyment is currently performing--drums pounding and lead singer doubled over on stage, muttering indecipherable lyrics into the mike with a guttural, Mercedes McCambridge-type voice. Chris, who says he attends rock concerts at churches all the time, has come here with his 30-year-old uncle, a big Embodyment fan. The kid got caught in the crossfire of the twisting, jerking arms and legs of about 150 moshers thrashing away at the edge of the stage.
"I listen to all kinds of music--some Christian, some not," Chris says. "But this is a good place to hang out. They talk about Jesus a lot." He pauses to spit into the sink, the first of three dark geysers during a 10-minute talk.
At some point, he becomes aware that the blood is starting to form a disconcertingly large puddle at the bottom of the sink. He glances at me with new gravity and repeats himself, this time in the sympathetic tones of a defense attorney delivering his case: "They talk about Jesus a lot here."
You'll encounter many 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds on a typical weekend night at GPI, some of them with older chaperones, but most without. Open for live shows most Friday and Saturday nights (August 1997 has been Saturdays only), GPI has attracted audiences as small as 25 and as large as 1,300.
These adolescents are expert loiterers, dawdling in small groups in the parking lot outside GPI as the summer sunlight fades on a Saturday evening. There are shaved heads and shoulder-length hair of various primary colors and some innovative combinations of the two; there are the ever-present club-kid backpacks that hang limp behind shoulders, containing nothing or not very much; you constantly see faded, tattered blue jeans a few sizes too large and belted at mid-hip. Among the older kids here, the 17- and 18-year-olds, there are pierced appendages and tattoos.
God's Place International is a music ministry aimed specifically at what its 43-year-old founder, Pastor Rich Speakman, calls "the unchurched young," and what his assistant, 25-year-old C. Monkey, calls "street runners"--working-class or poverty-level, mostly Anglo preteens and teens who spend a lot of time away from their (oft-times broken) homes. Using the media of various so-called "alternative" popular styles from hardcore to ska to hip-hop, the nondenominational, nonprofit GPI wants to persuade these kids to form a personal relationship with Jesus.
GPI's preaching is both laid-back and aggressive, delivered in a slangy adolescent vernacular that presents hell as a real threat to young people who haven't even figured out they're gonna die someday. Speakman claims that his unconventional methods have received little criticism from other Protestant churches in North Texas because, constantly short on money and working with kids that most people would like to forget anyway, his unglamorous operation flies below the radar of big, slick local ministries.
And yet, GPI's message is unabashedly provocative: Religion is of man, not the Lord. Most of the trappings, the rituals, the services, the attitudes of American churches, GPI staffers suggest, have less to do with delivering the word of God than perpetuating church bureaucracy.
In the words of C. Monkey, who books bands for GPI: "Religion leaves a bad taste in our mouths."
To understand the motives of God's Place International, you need look no further than the trio of men who operate it. Attitude- and responsibility-wise, they fall rather neatly into a holy, if slightly grungy, trinity: There's The Father, Pastor Speakman, who peers benevolently at his congregation through thick, owl-like specs; The Son, booking agent and assistant operations manager C. Monkey, slightly cocky with a shaven head and ready to correct your characterizations and descriptions of various musical styles; and The Holy Spirit, mountainous Big Dave "Bubba" Cates, the operations manager (read "head of security") who discusses what he believes is the imminent Armageddon, not to mention the hellbound fate of the kids who won't accept Jesus as their personal savior, with a good deal more bluntness than the other two.