Thursday, January 17, 2008

Faith Works 1-19-08
Jeff Gill

Open All the Time, Not Always Possible

With some hesitation, “Faith Works” jumps into the discussion around Britney Spears.

Yes, Britney Spears.

You heard the story from last week, and I write this with real fear that almost anything could happen by the time this column sees print. She’s a mother who has already lost custody of her children, and when she had a hearing where there was a chance of getting some kind of visitation back, she showed up late, then backed out of the court building, drove around the LA area, and then . . .

What was little discussed but generally noted was that Ms. Spears drove past a place in Studio City, California called “The Little Brown Church of the Valley,” came back around the block with a flotilla of photographers chasing her from vehicles and in the air, and stopped to go into the church.

Why that church?

No one knows for sure, but the sign out front likely had something to do with her decision. “Come in and pray, the door is open night and day.”

The Little Brown Church was born in 1930 when Rev. John Wells felt a calling to build what he called “a refuge” in the growing fringes of Los Angeles. The church looks like a piece of middle America from the middle of the last century. Knotty pine furnishings, a pulpit to the left, a Warner Sallman portrait of Christ to the right, and communion table in the center.

Did it look like a church from the Louisiana of Britney’s not so distant youth? Or was it the wording of the sign, probably passed many times before?

In 1989 Central Christian Church of Van Nuys and the Little Brown Church combined their ministries, creating the Church of the Valley, with “The Little Brown Church of the Valley” an outreach ministry of the core congregation. (Look around at their work through their website,

And don’t confuse this body with “The Little Brown Church in the Vale,” also known from the hymn as “The Church in the Wildwood” which is in Iowa, and online at

The Church of the Valley is part of my home tradition, the Disciples of Christ, and I’ve worked with their music minister, Bill Thomas, at a number of Disciples’ events. Bill wasn’t in the area of The Little Brown Church when Britney arrived, but the youth minister, Michael Kosik was, and even for an Angeleno, the media frenzy was more than he’d ever seen.

As a pastor, his first instinct was to give the person some privacy who had come in response to the sign, “Come in and pray, the door is open night and day.” But by the time he had made a circuit of the building and reminded all the gathered press that this space was indeed a sanctuary, the person who came in had gone out, leaving almost as quickly as she had arrived.

What I’ve heard secondhand is that Britney was distraught, distracted, and could barely even sit down, pacing about as if pursued by . . . what? There are many descriptions we might fill into that gap of the kind of haunting specters that might drive such a soul from place to place, pew to pew, and then out the door.

I’m proud of The Little Brown Church for trying to remain a refuge, even in the San Fernando Valley, opening their doors to all comers, and putting out a brave sign advertising that fact. Britney Spears did not find peace, not yet, but I am heartened even in my sorrow that it was a place that said they were open for prayer that she came to when she didn’t know where else to go.

Bill and Michael and the rest of the staff at COV have, in fact, bent over backwards not to join the media maelstrom. Kudos to them, as everyone from former security guard employed for a week and garbage collectors have taken money from tabloids to tell their stories, true or fabulized. All we can know is that a woman with a troubled heart stopped by, looked for a moment of peace, and then moved on.

Should our doors be open? In the heart of an urban neighborhood, out in an isolated rural location, can we safely keep our doors so open we could erect such a sign, even if it meant just a few minutes refuge for a lonely, maybe even lost soul, to come and kneel?

“Come in and pray, the door is open night and day.” We are in all likelihood not each and all called to provide such a ministry. But are circumstances such that your place of worship, or at least some corner for prayer, could be available for a passer-by?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s delighted in open doors to places of worship in some of the most unexpected places. Tell him where you’ve paused to pray at

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