While Md. grocery customers fill carts, preacher fills souls

After years of searching for a place to start her own church, Rev. Anita Naves found an unusual location to disseminate her message: the community room at a Giant grocery store in District Heights.
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Somewhere between the produce aisles and Giant's every-day-fresh bakery, the Rev. Anita Naves is working up a sweat. She is holding a somewhat surprised shopper's hand, anointing his forehead with oil and crying out for the Holy Spirit to enter the man's life and drive out all worry and doubt.

Nearby, a couple browsing the tomatoes looks on, slack-jawed. A woman passing by with a bottle of ketchup whispers "Amen." And overhead, the PA system interrupts the prayer with an equally urgent request for help: "Cleanup on Aisle 3. Curtis, you're needed on Aisle 3."

This is what happens when the divine meets the mundane, when speaking in tongues collides with picking up milk, when God's love is offered alongside the express checkout. You get weird looks, Naves says, as well as jokes and outright scoffs from the more hardened souls. But if you persist, you also find people desperate for someone to talk to -- people who come in to buy cereal and walk out crying tears of joy and relief.

"That's how you know it's from God," Naves said. "He wants to see people's lives changed. If that's happening, you know you're in the right place."

Officially, of course, Giant Food has no position on God.

Ask the District Heights store how Naves ended up preaching in its community room (think cafe seating near the checkout registers), and manager Mike Balenger replies: "All I can say is, we don't have a problem with whatever goes on in there. We've had birthdays, baby showers, chess clubs there. As long as it's helping people and the community, it's a good thing."

In recent years, churches have had services in movie theaters, school gyms, coffee shops and bars, blurring the line between the religious and the secular. Most of the time, however, the congregations meet off-hours -- on weekends when schools are closed or Sunday mornings when cineplexes are empty. Even churches in unconventional settings are careful not to push the boundaries too far.

Naves knew she was venturing into uncharted terrain when she began giving sermons at Giant last month.

For two years, since her ordination as a charismatic pastor by the Cathedral of Life in Temple Hills, Naves had been looking for a place to start a church -- maybe in an abandoned building or a dying church that she could build into a congregation of thousands. But the space never materialized. Everything was too costly or booked.

As possibilities faded, she says, she felt an urging from God toward the new Giant on Silver Hill Road. Without even scouting it out, she called and arranged a meeting with an assistant store managers. "I told him, 'I'm just going to be upfront with you. I feel like I have to be here. I feel like God has a purpose for me here,' " she says. "He just had this look on his face like, 'What do I do? Am I going to be the one who puts out the fire on God? Who wants to be guilty of that?' "

A few days later, the store gave Naves a spot on the schedule: Monday nights for Bible study and two hours every Saturday for her start-up church.

This is what church looks like at Giant Store #0373:

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