Mass Appeal: A superstar pastor

Have you ever been sitting in a movie theater, had a jumbo popcorn tub passed to you, and been expected to drop money in it?

Have you ever been sitting in a movie theater, had a jumbo popcorn tub passed to you, and been expected to drop money in it?

That’s what’s been happening at “Theater Church” in a Union Station movie theater every Sunday since 1996. An innovation of the National Community Church, the theater service brings a distinctly not-urban vibe to what is normally one of the city’s most raucous venues. Anyone who goes to a movie at Union Station can usually expect the very finest in unruly audience behavior: shouting, drinking, cell phone-answering — you name it.

But show up for Theater Church, and you’ll find a mob of chirpy devotees — many of them Hill staffers — eager to direct you to free donuts and coffee.

On Sep.17, the morning’s second service began with 20 minutes of religious rock music and a rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” from an ensemble set up in the front of the theater. Ushers brought the collection buckets through the aisles. Audience members clapped their hands and unclasped their money-holders.

Then-Capitol Hill resident and Lead Pastor Mark Batterson addressed his flock from the big screen: “Let me give a shoutout to our podcast listeners.” The day’s previous service had been live; Batterson had to leave to deliver another live sermon for the 10:30 service at the National Community Church’s Ballston location. The Church also owns Ebenezer’s Coffee House on Northeast Capitol Hill.

In his polo-shirt-and-jeans video sermon, Batterson mentioned (or alluded to) some things you won’t find in any of the church’s promotional materials: the scripture, the wrath of God, eternal suffering, and Jesus Christ.

There are no crucifixes anywhere near this church. The prominently advertised “core values” are 11 bullet points, such as “Go the extra mile” and “Maturity does not equal conformity.”

“We keep growing,” says Batterson, who is set to add another Theater Church location in Northwest D.C. a year from now. He explains that much of his congregation is comprised of people who never attended church before or had long stopped attending, so mass appeal is ideal.

The church hosts Redskins tailgate parties and promises free pizza to the college-aged. No dogma. And especially no politics.

“We’re very apolitical and that’s because half of our church are Hill staffers,” Batterson says. “Half of them work on one side of the aisle, half of them work on the other.”

The National Community Church enterprise is reminiscent of the non-denominational mega-ministries run by superstar pastors like Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. There is a clear emphasis on positive thinking and self-esteem, and hardly a hint of hellfire. Batterson says he’s not interested in television, but I wouldn’t rule out superstar-pastor status for him yet: “The goal is to continue to grow,” he says.

D.C. Family Court: You’ll get mugged

Twenty-three-month-old Brianna Blackmond died in 2000 of blunt-impact trauma after a judge ordered her removed from foster care and returned to the custody of her horribly neglectful and disturbed mother. The infant’s death prompted citywide outrage at the inept bureaucracy of the Family Division of the Superior Court. Former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), himself a foster dad, spearheaded an effort to redesignate the Family Division as a separate entity to make sure children wouldn’t be sent home to such bad parents again.

But now an Aug. 31 decision by the Court of Appeals (D.C.’s highest court) may make it difficult for anybody other than biological parents to obtain custody of a child. Opponents of the decision say the foster system would be overwhelmed and potential third-party caregivers would be excluded. In the case that led to the decision, the appeals court found that a lower court exceeded its authority in giving child custody to a non-parent. 

Problem is, a huge number of D.C. children don’t live with their parents. Over 60,000 D.C. families care for children not their own, according to a brief for reconsideration of the Appeals Court decision by Matthew Fraidin, a lawyer and professor at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law’s HIV/AIDS legal clinic.

“The Court of Appeals has issued a ruling that may prevent grandparents and other non-parents from getting custody of children,” Fraidin says. “We’ve asked the Court of Appeals to reconsider that opinion.” Fraidin says the decision seems to be inconsistent with years of case law in D.C. courts and years of legislation by the D.C. Council, which recently enacted a pilot program that subsidizes grandparents raising kids.

Michelle Palmer, director of the Family Ties Project (one of the “friends of the court” in Fraidin’s brief), says the appeals court decision would make it too easy for a bad parent to contest a court order giving custody to someone else — “particularly fathers who may not be involved but are thinking there may be a check attached to the kid.” A responsible grandparent wouldn’t have any legal standing in such a situation.

School board member and likely Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells is the executive director of the Consortium for Child Welfare, another name in Fraidin’s brief. Wells fears that this decision is a threat to many children with bad biological parents.

“We do know children growing up with their grandparents do much better than children in foster care, or even with adoptive families,” says Wells, who is a former Child Protective Services social worker.

The Children’s Law Center and the AARP have filed briefs of their own as well.

Why should you care? Because kids who’ve had rotten lives will grow up to mug you. Michelle Palmer points out that if you follow the foster population to adulthood, you find a lot of crime and poverty.

“If we’re not tending to the kids in the way they need to be tended to,” she says, “we’re raising criminals, potentially.”

Police Blotter: The land of Chardonnay and Malt

No matter how foofy, chi-chi and bourgeoisie the Capitol Hill neighborhood gets, it will remain part of a high-crime area. I like to remind myself of this with daily e-mails from Aside from the all car break-ins, the preliminary reports of what’s happening in the First District that arrive in my inbox are sometimes scary, sometimes strange and sometimes poetic.

Here’s a scary one, about a Sept. 20 assault on the 800 block of 12th Street NE:


Here’s a strange one, regarding a Sept. 7 burglary of an apartment on 5th Street N.E.:

“[Complainant 1] reports unknown person(s) entered the rear gate which was left open went into the refrigerator and stole various items.”

And here’s a poetic one, about a Sept. 13 theft on the 1100 block of New Jersey Avenue SE: