Between fights on Jerry Springer, lawsuits against Seymore Butts' Tampa Tushy Fest Part 1 and periodic morality sweeps by local political hopefuls, Tampa Bay has been cast in the media as sin city. Mayoral hopeful Bob Buckhorn once called the city the 'Holy Land for the porn industry." But the truth is, Tampa may be the Holy Land for religious seekers as well.
In fact, it would take more than 45 years for one person attending a religious or spiritual session once a week to attend each existing church, synagogue, circle, mosque and other sacred place in the four-county Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area. In Tampa Bay, where six degrees of separation from someone who lived in the Voyeur Dorm is the norm, there is also a worship opportunity on nearly every block.
Tampa Bay has incredible spiritual plurality. Some churches even share their facilities with other faiths. In Tampa Bay, you can be as unorthodox or as Orthodox as you want to be.
My personal search for the Big 'G" — be it God, Goddess, Glory or Gimmick — began on A1A at the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church. I had gone there to drink a bottle of champagne and kill time. However, at the end of the service, with cars honking their amens, I realized despite my failed Southern Baptist faith and weary weekend atheism: I really was something different from what I professed to be. I was a skeptic who wanted to believe.
Worse, I was a skeptic who wanted to believe, belong and keep all the peculiarities I called my individuality.
In my trip through some of Tampa Bay's spiritual refuges, I found some faiths identify these points of individuality as tickets to hell. And some accepted me just as I am — as long as I kept to a tithe or paid membership schedule. Many made me long for the sort of inclusion and faith I thought I had intellectualized out of my heart.
My personal search was simple. It focused on walking into a spiritual place, feeling welcome, sensing growth opportunities and seeing active community service.
What pulled me into the Apostolic United Pentecostal Church in St. Petersburg was a foundering friend who sought to switch from cocaine to the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) version of Jesus. The UPCI emerged from the Assemblies of God movement back in 1901. One of the beliefs that aided in the split was the idea that speaking in tongues is one of the first signs of receiving the Holy Spirit.
I felt I was suitably respectful for this more conservative branch of Pentecostalism. I was makeup free, covered from neck to ankle and had my Jezebel hair tamed into an Armageddon twist. In the absence of the regular preacher, a senior member of the congregation took to the pulpit expounding on the topic, 'things we honor over God."
As he held forth on how people had turned to the mall and embraced maroon hair in the name of that 'grunge rocker Marilyn Manson," I stared at a loose strand of my own Clairol Herbal Essences #74 Purple Haze tresses. Even as late as 1997, Rolling Stone had referred to Manson as an 'outlandishly savvy, button-pushing frontman" when it reported on his many travails with the Christian Right. I was caught off guard by how my black boots had something to do with speeding me to hell, even though I haven't been in a mall in years and my CD collection is a bit heavy on collections of pipe organ greats.
Being publicly identified as Satan's future roommate should have turned me from the UPCI path, but I hoped I had just been overly sensitive. I held on to this even as a couple of people touched my arm, promising to pray for me as they left the church.
The Pentecostals of Gainesville is one of the largest UPCI churches in Florida. The preacher has assured his large congregation that Gainesville has a special place with God. A sort of Chosen City, if you will. I thought only Gator fans believed this.
I escaped censure until the altar call.
'Sister, the Lord sent me to talk to you and give you a prophecy."
A self-appointed prophet had an arm around me before I could make it to the door.
'Sister, in the end times, Jesus has chosen you to spread his word." I frantically tried to recall the words Jesus used in the New Testament to scatter the moneychangers at the Temple.
'Oh Lord, bring down the Holy Spirit on this sister," he began, shaking me for emphasis.
Oh Lord, please don't bring the Holy Spirit down on this sister, I prayed silently.