By I. smiley G. Calderón
By now, every Fresnan has already heard the horrible news that our city’s dear iconic Tower Theatre is being sold to a church.
Who could have thought the sale of a parcel of land would cause this much of a ruckus?
The community people who call the Tower District home, that’s who.
And it’s not just those who live in the area. It’s also the people who work in the district and who’ve invested blood, sweat and tears into making it the special social safe space that it has become.
And not just those who work there, either. It’s also the many thousands of patrons from all over the city and surrounding areas who cherish the Tower District for its relaxed and inviting artsy vibe and who spend their hard-earned cash there. People like you and me.
Of course, we’re pissed. Fresno has churches everywhere. We don’t need another one right smack dab in the center of one of the city’s only openly queer-friendly arts and entertainment spots. In fact, there’s a church right up the street from the Tower Theatre and others not too far away. A lack of churches in the area is not the problem, and another church in the neighborhood is definitely not the solution.
And, it really doesn’t even matter what kind of church, either. It could have even been the most progressive Unitarian Universalist, Episcopalian or Presbyterian congregation or any other liberal-minded religious group wanting to take over the theater—the answer is still no.
The reason is nestled in the blessed assurance that our society is founded upon individual freedom of religion. Which, of course, actually provides us essential freedom from religion.
So, every community member should expect to feel equally safe and accepted in every communal public space—a space that should be wholly secular and free from religion. And this simply wouldn’t continue to be possible if a religious organization or group were to take ownership of the historic Tower Theatre.
But what makes matters even worse is that the church buying the theater is the Adventure Church.
The Adventure Church is a part of the Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an evangelical Pentecostal Christian denomination that doesn’t ordain gay clergy or accept gay marriage. Not very inclusive of them, right?
But of course, the church will say that its mission is to “love people” and “serve people.” Yet, how can you really do that if you also see these same people as hellbound “sinners”?
Of course, everyone knows about the lake of “fire and brimstone” awaiting all “the unbelieving, all the abominables [homosexuality is deemed an abomination], the murderers, the sorcerers, idolators, all liars, and they who have rejected [anyone who doesn’t want to follow this religion]…the love…of a bleeding Redemer (Jesus Christ),” right?
This is the original Declaration of Faith that the church still stands behind, written by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare church. It’s a theology of exclusion.
It’s clear, the Adventure Church’s own theology makes it impossible for it to truly “welcome all people from all backgrounds.”
After being “welcomed,” of course, I’d surely need to convert and conform—or else (“fire and brimstone”; remember?). But if I’m a homosexual, how the hell am I supposed to do that (without “repenting” from my “evil ways”)? The honest truth is, the Adventure Church is against homosexuality because it is seen as a sin that their God abhors.
Of course, they have their First Amendment right to believe in whatever religious idiocy they want, I suppose, even if doing so might hurtfully denigrate and devalue an entire group of people, sadly.
But, whether the Adventure Church loves homosexuals or embraces queer pride is not the point here, actually. (Even if they were a totally pro-gay church, the fact that they are still a church—a religious organization trying to buy this historical registered secular landmark—is the issue.)
However, knowing the Adventure Church’s nebulous stance on homosexuality can help the public empathize and understand why queer and gay communities in and around Tower and across the city might feel threatened by its presence.
It’s not about hating Christianity or God. Instead, it’s about actually being hated and merely tolerated.
Of course, the queer community is going to feel threatened and judged by the Adventure Church wherever the Adventure Church is. It’s only natural.
The Adventure Church’s stance on homosexuality is diametrically opposed to homosexuals regardless of how friendly or “loving” it claims to be. The church says that its “goal is to create a safe place where attendees can experience the love, acceptance and forgiveness of God.” But, how can I feel safe, loved and accepted if I’m not even validated?
If the Adventure Church can barely tolerate me (because of my “sin”), how can I experience its so-called acceptance? The answer is that I cannot—unless I conform to the church’s beliefs. And, really, if I’m forced to accept and experience the “love of a bleeding Redeemer”—or else suffer an eternity of swimming in “fire and brimstone”—is that really love at all?
Wouldn’t you feel threatened if your one and only city safe-spot was usurped by a group that ideologically challenged your very existence?
You definitely would. That is why every Sunday morning until noon, for months now, a strong group of dedicated Tower enthusiasts has peaceably congregated at the parking lot directly across the street from the Tower Theatre on the corner of Wishon and Olive avenues to demonstrate against and protest the sale of the theater to the Adventure Church in a Save the Tower demonstration. They are a passionate group of old and new friends who want to “Keep Tower Weird” by keeping the theater out of the hurtful religious grip of the Adventure Church.
And the Adventure Church knows the controversy this potential purchase has generated and the dire angst that it has caused in the community. Nonetheless, it is still stalwartly committed to buying the theater despite the overwhelmingly vocal and visible community opposition.
The church’s website says that it “intend[s] to continue to serve the community through the purchase of the Tower Theatre.” Serve the community by hegemonizing it? Seriously?
Who is the Adventure Church kidding by trying to appear as both savior and servant of the Tower District? If the church really wanted to serve the community and its God, it would abandon this caustic and controversial purchase. If it really wanted to “serve the community,” the church should stop attacking the community by forcing itself upon us.
The church doesn’t need to be physically located at the Tower Theatre to fulfill its religious mission and service—and it knows this. They say so clearly on its website: “A church isn’t a building—it’s the people.” Yet, the church is adamant about buying a building to honor its God.
It’s kind of shameful, really, if you think about it. You see, when you consecrate a place for worship, like how the Adventure Church has rented and used the Tower Theatre for temporary church services, you invite God to dwell among you and your congregation—you transform an ordinary space into a holy one—for your holy God.
But not only is this God holy, but he’s also a very jealous God, one who doesn’t like sharing. So, most churches have this dedicated holy space that they call a sanctuary—a sanctified house of God.
Anyway, what’s crazy is that the Adventure Church wants to use a mundane space designed and dedicated wholly for secular entertainment to honor their God. Wouldn’t its God feel better at home and more comfortable in a place specially and specifically designed and set apart for his worship instead of at an old secular theater surrounded by drunkenness and gluttony? Well, that’s obvious.
I remember at last year’s Rogue Festival (pre-pandemic 2020), the Tower Theatre was used for the festival’s teaser kickoff show. Performers had a few minutes to perform a small portion of their acts in front of an audience with the goal of enticing as many people as possible to go to their scheduled shows during the festival.
There were many incredible performers, of course, and all different kinds. There was this one performer, “Brother Love,” I’ll never forget him, whose act consisted of leading the audience in a Jesus-loving evangelical revival.
He was passionate and flamboyant, dressed in a white suit and swinging his guitar. He wore a big wooden crucifix around his neck and rocked out singing about Jesus…and tithing…and then Jesus again—it was funny, but it was also so good that I thought he was a real Christian evangelizer performer.
After his short teaser, I told him backstage how much I liked his singing and playing and I asked him which church he went to. He looked at me, covered in sweat, and said, “Eh? What are you talking about, man? I’m Jewish.” Ah, so he was only pretending to be a Christian evangelist by mocking one as satire. Whoa, okay, interesting.
But the next guy really desecrated the theater. This performer had some show about just moving to Fresno, “Why did I move to Fresno? I thought you’d never ask,” or something like that where it was bluntly obvious that he wasn’t too happy with some of his life decisions.
Anyway, this fellow got on stage and in front of everyone, while acting as if he was talking on his cell phone, desperately screamed out a deep stentorian “F*CK!” when his character realized that he had to permanently move to Fresno (from Southern California). It was a little shocking—it was extreme for sure—but it was also theater. And, it’s okay to be irreverent and inappropriate onstage in a theater.
Theater is a safe space. But would these performers feel as free and open if their venue was a worship sanctuary? Maybe not.
Out of respect, Brother Love might not want to mock Christian preachers while inside an actual church, and the guy who loves Fresno so much might not want to use profanity in a sanctuary—because they understand that there is a place and time for everything.
While in a theater, it’s fine to do theater things, and while in a sanctuary, it’s fine to do church things. This is not a difficult concept, really.
Yet the Adventure Church won’t relent. Even after Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer offered an alternative downtown solution, the church rejected the newly offered lease and double-downed on its resolve and mission to own the Tower property and build for the future, as explained by Assistant Pastor DeShawn Carraway in a Facebook video about the theater sale. For a church that believes in the imminent return of its Lord Jesus Christ at any given time, it’s curious to think about “building for the future,” really.
The early Christians of the first century surely didn’t think about long-term future building and investing—they were much too focused on getting ready for Jesus’s sudden and soon return and in helping others get ready too.
And how does one get ready? That’s easy: by promoting love. But, instead, it’s disgraceful to see how the Adventure Church cares much more about owning mundane earthly property than about loving people.
The focus for the Adventure Church is not one of love but one of battle. To the church, it is in a holy fight for the Tower Theatre against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” And any opposition to its mission is the “devil’s schemes.”
Yet, I wonder why the church can’t see that this Tower Theatre battle is not the holy, spiritual fight they think it is. But, what it definitely is is a worldly struggle between real “flesh and blood” community members who don’t want the church in their sacred safe space.
Of course, there are a lot of real pragmatic and practical reasons why it’s a bad idea for a church to own the Tower Theatre, too, like how it could negatively affect nearby alcohol permits and licenses and other business zoning issues. But, this Tower Theatre situation is a manmade dilemma—it’s not some glorified spiritual endeavor.
The Adventure Church’s position is to abandon its spiritual mission for a physical fight for the Tower Theatre in Jesus’s name. The church doesn’t care about the social and community carnage that such a fight is costing so long as it wins. Not so Christ-like.
The Adventure Church’s fight against the people has attracted all kinds of despicable foes, too. Many of them have revealed their vileness in social media and have shown their true colors. They are homophobes and religious bigots who don’t care about the queer community.
In addition to these online crazies, real-life crazies have shown up at the Sunday morning Save the Tower demonstrations to instigate and antagonize the peaceful demonstrators. They are easily recognizable because they wear yellow and black and call themselves “Proud Boys.”
They are a White nationalist hate group. And, for some reason, they feel compelled to oppose the opposers of the Tower Theatre sale. The connection is unclear.
The Adventure Church is a multiracial church and does not support White racism or nationalism. So why would the Proud Boys support the Adventure Church? Do they see homosexuals as “abominables” too? But the Proud Boys don’t seem to be very religious, actually.
From across the street right in front of the theater, the Proud Boys look like they’re just yearning for a brawl as they stare down the peaceful demonstrators and the Brown Berets, who started coming to the demonstrations just to provide protection from the Proud Boys. If it weren’t for the heavy police presence on-site and nearby, there definitely would have already been multiple physical bloody altercations at these demonstrations.
The tension is high. And the community feels threatened and does not feel safe because they don’t know who to trust. And they don’t know who to trust because those who they should be able to trust have proven themselves untrustworthy.
I’m referring to 19-year veteran Fresno police officer Rick Fitzgerald, who was recently discovered to have been a Proud Boy and was seen with the Proud Boys at a Save the Tower demonstration. He has canceled his trust by his association with this hate group, and he jeopardizes the trust of every police officer on the force. Are they all secretly Proud Boys covering for each other? Who knows? Who can we trust?
Fresno City Council Member Miguel Arias understands the seriousness of this situation and made it known at a City Council meeting: “It is morally reprehensible to have any rank-and-file officer as a member of a hate group,” he said.
“And it is a legal and financial liability to our taxpayers already burdened with millions of dollars in losses. We have the responsibility to protect the integrity of our police department and the trust it has built in our community.”
Absolutely. And I love how Arias cuts to the chase: “If our increasingly Black and Brown city is to maintain the trust in law enforcement, we must let them know clearly that we will root out hate groups from our ranks.” This is exactly right and why an independent investigation is needed in addition to a police internal affairs investigation.
But why is the Adventure Church attracting a White nationalist hate group to its cause and defense? Isn’t this something to be concerned about—can’t the church see the energy it is sending out into the community? Negative energy that attracts and stirs up hate groups and emboldens them. This should be the church’s wake-up call to stop and promote love.
The Adventure Church has actually turned people away from God with its stubborn un-Christian-like persistence to buy the Tower Theatre. It has turned off some people and left a bad taste in the mouths of potential converts and future believers.
And all of this is surprising because the Adventure Church is normally big on evangelism. That’s a crucial component of its faith and mission. So, it’s interesting to see that the church is actually willing to risk and forego its most sacred and important edict—to evangelize—solely for physical property.
Without a doubt, the Adventure Church has drastically distracted its godly evangelism mission with its worldly property mission. Honestly, I’m not too sure if its God is happy about that.
At least, Sister Aimee wouldn’t have agreed with the Adventure Church purchasing the Tower Theatre. Here’s her take on evangelism: “Soul winning is the one big business of the Church upon the earth; and that therefore every weight and hindrance which would tend to quench the flame or hamper the efficiency of world-wide evangelism should be cut off and cast away as unworthy of the Church, detrimental to the most sacred cause of Christ.”
Clearly then, if the Adventure Church simply followed its own Declaration of Faith, it would abandon the purchase of the Tower Theatre—a horribly conspicuous “weight and hindrance” that definitely “quenches the flame or hampers the efficiency of evangelism.” If the Adventure Church is serious about evangelism in the Tower District and really wants to “win” some souls for Christ, it should abandon the purchase of the Tower Theatre. The church should do so for Jesus.
You know, Jesus Christ talked about love a lot. In fact, he even told his disciples that the way people would know that they are his disciples would be by their love. Love—that’s it. Not by their wardrobe or jewelry or accessories—not even by their religion—but by their love.
And in another account, Jesus goes even deeper and explains how when you show an act of love to the very least, you are actually showing it to Jesus himself. And when you show an act of disdain or indifference to the very least, you are also actually doing it to Jesus, too.
When the Adventure Church proceeds with the purchase of the Tower Theatre, it will do so with indifference toward those who feel threatened by its presence. There won’t be any love for these people—only heartless indifference.
For Christ’s sake, Adventure Church, what the hell are you thinking?
I. smiley G. Calderón is a Gen X Chicano and lifelong educator who spent a career in academia in Southern California but is most proud of being a father.