News Articles

Church in marijuana mecca offers ‘radical grace’

ARCATA, Calif. (BP) — It’s not just that new believers are baptized in the ocean or in a river by Sunny Brae Church in Arcata, Calif.

“These are radical professions of faith from people who are coming from a very different place,” Derk Schulze said of the 200 people he has baptized during 21 years as a pastor in one of the nation’s top marijuana growing regions.

“These people are truly outsiders,” having trekked to Arcata, a town of about 18,000, for the region’s legal and illegal marijuana trade. Schulze said they speak “a different language; they have different priorities, different mindsets and a different culture.”

Baptism, he said, “is really a public profession of faith, a testimony of what God has done in your life.”

“We live in a visual world and this can be an effective way to proclaim the Gospel,” the pastor said. Baptisms in the ocean or a river give people who would never step in a church “a picture of the Gospel, and that leads to an opportunity to answer questions and explains the new believer’s faith, because they’re not doing it in front of just adherents, but those who are not.”

“We’ve seen things happen [at baptismal sites] that would not have happened otherwise, because [onlookers] wouldn’t have come into the church.”

Arcata, five hours north of San Francisco, is in densely forested and mountainous Humboldt County, known for the nation’s largest-remaining old-growth redwood forest, ideal growing conditions for marijuana, and a free-thinking university.

Schulze, a building contractor by trade, injured on the job and now living with a disability, wears his hair long, his attire casual and spends his days in the community. His wife Wendy works as a teacher with special needs youngsters.

“Arcata is a mecca for the marijuana worshipper; they want to be free to smoke their weed,” Schulze said of his daily encounters. “If you become adversarial, that never leads to dialogue. We’ve had to do things differently. Instead of getting in peoples’ face about the ills of pot, we basically tried to address the many issues that affect the community.

“One is that you have many transients sleeping everywhere and doing their things everywhere,” the pastor said. “So, we set up a sanctuary on our property, basically for people in crisis or at risk. They sleep in their car or tent, and we have the opportunity of influencing them.”

Sunny Brae, a small church with about 30 in attendance, has had a homeless ministry for 18 years with “some success,” and “that’s measured by changed lives,” Schulze said.

The pastor spoke of one young couple with a toddler who arrived from Ohio in an aged Dodge RV that had the word “Miracle” spray-painted on it.

“They had dreadknots and loose, grungy clothing, smelled of heavy doses of patchouli oil and were definitely into using pot at the time,” Schulze said. “We loved them and received them where they’re at; that’s one of our principles.”

The young woman was pregnant, saying that God had told her she was bearing twin girls. The birth of a son, instead, became “a platform for discussion,” Schulze said. “She wanted to know, ‘Why did God lie to me?'” giving the pastor an opportunity to set forth the larger truths of Scripture.

For six months, the family stayed at Sunny Brae and then gave birth to their son. They then stayed with various church members until they had saved enough money for a place of their own. They were discipled, then asked Schulze to marry them, were baptized and became members of the church.

Christ “changed their minds, which changed actions, and now they’re Kingdom workers,” Schulze said. The family is back in Ohio, where he has become a pastor in a church larger than Sunny Brae.

“It’s all about extending and developing trust, and not try to put the issue of conformity on them,” Schulze said. “We hope for a radical grace, as it were.

“The heart is the issue,” he noted. “When a person understands their heart is off, then we can speak to the power of the Gospel to change the heart. The heart compels the will, and it’s from the new heart that we have life.”

Despite Sunny Brae Church’s small numbers, it is a healthy congregation, by Schulze’s assessment.

“I have different measures for what a healthy church should be,” Schulze said. “One is generosity. Where your heart is, your treasure will be also.” A full 15 percent of offerings — about $500 a month — are passed on to missions causes, including the Cooperative Program — the way Southern Baptists work together to spread the Gospel worldwide -– along with the work of the North Coast Baptist Association and the California Southern Baptist Convention.

In his forays onto the campus of Humboldt State University in Arcata, Schulze said the chasm between the church and community becomes most apparent.

“They have an ‘open mic’ you can sign up for on the campus plaza,” he said in recounting an example of the overt hostility toward Christianity that hovers campus-wide. When an evangelist signed up last year, there was “such a language discrepancy. When he said ‘love,’ he’s saying it in one way and the audience hears it very differently.

“He’s presenting the traditional Gospel, and suddenly this kid in the middle of the plaza right in front of him gives him multiple middle fingers and starts doing backflips,” Schulze said. “The evangelist said, ‘Oh, he just embarrassed himself, didn’t he?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think he did. Plenty were applauding his antics.’

“We think we’re communicating but we’re unwilling to listen,” the pastor said. “We need to not cut people off, and not immediately become contentious, and build trust so we can speak, so they know we’re not religious puppets.”

Schulze said his relationship with people “should reflect how God has treated me.”

“In my preaching I do a lot of defining of terms and putting everything into a Kingdom perspective,” the pastor said. “We think the Gospel is just about getting right with God, but it’s much more. Jesus and Paul both preached the Kingdom.”