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Reflections on a Sunday at Palin’s Church

WASILLA, Alaska — In my quest to understand Gov. Sarah Palin, I attended services at her church, the Wasilla Bible Church, Sunday morning. I ended up being shooed out of the parking lot — but I’ll get to that in a minute.

It felt a bit like a high-school gym or auditorium, with wood floors and an unfinished ceiling. The church was founded in the 1970s, though this building was completed in 2006.

A nine-member acoustic band opened the service with 30 minutes of Christian-themed songs — think loving God, forgiveness, humility, etc. It was a sea of about 500 folding chairs — all filled. Lights were dimmed so that the lyrics of the songs were easy to follow along with on the two large projector screens suspended from the ceiling on either side of the stage. The room’s focal point was a large, back-lit wooden cross.

When the music ended, Pastor Larry Kroon, a middle-aged, bearded man, greeted new-comers and, to my surprise, “the press.” A greeter at the front door had actually already given me a “welcome” goody bag — complete with a religious-themed CD and a green water bottle with the church’s “core commitments” listed on the side.

Kroon then said members of the press shouldn’t speak with anyone attending the service, or take photos. At this point, because I’m about an ounce better than paparazzi, I started to think about what the entrance looked like and where I’d most effectively snag people slyly. Kroon added he would not speak to the press on Sunday — so I signed up to speak with him Monday.

“Please don’t use this as a fishing pond for interviews,” Kroon said. Meanwhile, in my head, I was figuring that there’s a side exit people might use that would serve my purposes.

On the plus side, Kroon did go on to say that the press is a “gift from God.” He brought up Alexis de Tocqueville’s trip through the United States in the early 19th century and how the Frenchman identified two great American virtues– a free press and a free pulpit. Kroon was playing well with those of us in the back row, scribbling notes. I actually only saw TV camera crews on my way into the parking lot; I didn’t see any other reporters at the service.

Kroon, who kept the congregation engaged for the full 30 minutes he spoke, then touched on the positive experiences he had with the national media last week. The New York Times, Kroon said, sent a religion expert, who understood churches like theirs. Another reporter, from World Magazine, recognized authors in Kroon’s library.

Hearing this made me shift in my seat. TWI did not select me for this reporting trip because of my deep understanding of Christianity in America. In fact, it didn’t come up. The relevant factors were that I used to cover Alaska politics and still follow what’s going on up here. Unfortunately, 13 years of Catholic school and CCD didn’t seem like they’d win me any points here.

Kroon also noted that he was not the person to consult on policy — foreign, domestic or local. Church members would have to make those decisions for themselves. His job is to guide them in finding the “wonder, glory and mystery of Jesus” in scripture.

The Bible study portion of the morning, the central element of the service, focused on the first chapter in the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of Jesus meeting with his apostles to prove that he is alive. Jesus calls on his followers to be his witness and share his message with the “outermost points of the world,” as Kroon explained. Kroon stressed the importance of this message. One of the Wasilla Bible Church’s core beliefs is ministering to non-believers.

In conversation with some church-goers after the service, I was asked, earnestly, if I’m a believer myself. When I explained my Catholic background I received supportive nods. (So supportive that one woman gave me the email and phone number of her son, who lives in Washington.)

I spoke with two different couples — two lawyers and two entrepreneurs — about the role of the church in their own lives. They all agreed it’s a real community here. When I asked for their names, though, they hesitated — saying their pastor had suggested they not speak with reporters. When I tried to get them to reconsider by bringing up the de Tocqueville individualism message, they laughed.

Unfortunately, just as one church member was writing down directions to a beautiful area just north of Wasilla that she thought I ought to visit, a member of the church approached and said I was not allowed to interview anyone “on the premises.” My small group scattered in response.

At least I still have the number of the Alaskan ex-pat in DC.

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