Thursday, October 12, 2017

"How a school that calls itself "Christian Hogwarts" is upending a small city in California's Trump country"


The Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry is at the forefront of a burgeoning — and decidedly youthful — evangelical Christian revival. Some have called its movement the fastest-growing religious group in America — a loose network of churches, led by so-called apostles, who see supernatural gifts like prophecy and faith healing as the key to global conversion. While other religious movements struggle to retain members and draw in young people, Bethel attracts millennials in droves.

The school — which is unaccredited and does not confer degrees — sends students into Redding and across the globe armed with training in how to speak God’s words, heal the sick, and use the supernatural to win souls. It has spawned imitators across the country and on nearly every continent.

But BSSM is also at the crux of a conflict brewing in the small, isolated city of Redding, population 90,000. On one side is the church that runs the school, Bethel Redding, which has more than 9,000 in its congregation — its own little city on a hill. On the other side is a group of longtime Redding residents, religious and nonreligious alike, who are afraid and even angry about the growing influence of this church in their city and their lives.

As it grows rapidly, Bethel has devoted itself to fixing the struggling city of Redding, which is one of California’s poorest. It donates money to the police department. It buys out public buildings. It nurtures local businesses. It sends armies of students to clean the city’s trash- and syringe-strewn riverbanks. To the church’s leaders, Redding and Bethel are inextricable, and the city’s rebirth is one of the church’s most urgent missions.

But to some Redding residents, this is a threat. They see Bethel insinuating itself into every piece of Redding — politics, real estate, schools — and, in the process, altering the very fabric of their city. The church’s opponents have begun to stage protests, pressure local officials, and badger the press to expose the church. Daily, on Facebook, they catalog the infiltration of Bethel into Redding: “Bethel-owned” businesses, Bethel-sponsored events.

In Redding, BSSM’s students — some call them “Bethelbots” — are everywhere. For school assignments, students hang out in parking lots and grocery store aisles, asking strangers who use wheelchairs or crutches if they can pray for them to heal. On Thursday nights, the budding prophets gather to listen for God’s voice, then set off on “treasure hunts” to prophesy for people who match the description God has given them — whole crews of students scouring the local megastore for a man in a yellow shirt one night, a woman with three children and a purple backpack the next. After Friday night church services, they flood the local pizza place with frenzied devotions they call “fire tunnels.” They film themselves trying to raise the dead and post the footage on YouTube.

Redding residents’ worries are as fundamental as the Constitution. Bethel, they say, is steadily eroding the separation of church and state — and doing it at the time their city is at its most vulnerable. There is strong evidence, they say, that Bethel is using its size and money to exert influence on their government, their neighbors, their children.

Many of Bethel’s most outspoken critics are evangelical Christians who are deeply troubled by Bethel’s theology. They’re the kind of people who would normally mind their own business. But by now, Bethel and the School of Supernatural Ministry have grown so huge that they are inescapable. Bethel is everywhere: on the city council, behind the police department and the local charter school, waiting in the parking lot of the Walmart off of Route 44.