By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010; A01
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:
At 1 p.m., Naves throws open the double doors of the community room and places a speaker on the threshold.
Technically, Naves has reserved the community room, but its doors open up to a busy spot between the store's registers and its exit. It is in this gray area -- near the community room but not always inside it -- that Naves operates, a short and spunky 45-year-old woman pacing back and forth with a microphone in hand.
On this Saturday, she has called in reinforcements: a handful of friends and a worship band consisting of a lone saxophone player, her hairdresser's 16-year-old son.
"Is anybody here ready to be blessed by God?" she asks. Several shoppers -- some bewildered, some bemused -- stop and stare.
"This is a good day to let go of all the problems of the world!" Naves continues, unfazed. "Sometimes we forget that we come from a place called love, not worry. We rush around. We hold on to grudges. We don't realize what's important in our lives. You got to tell those precious people in your life you love them."
A man passes by, pushing a cart full of grocery bags. "I love you," Naves tells him, looking him straight in the eye.
The man pauses and responds, "I . . . I love you, too."
Later, outside the store, James Hodge, 51, tries to explain his reaction.
"I'm not saying everybody should be running around telling people 'I love you,' but maybe it's something we don't get enough of," the District resident says. "Maybe it's only strange because you don't expect to hear something like that on a Saturday, at a store, picking up your food for the week. But it feels good."Making people whole
Taking the Gospel into the marketplace is as old as Christianity. Jesus himself, scholars point out, strode into a temple market with His message (not to mention His wrath). The apostle Paul, in the Book of Acts, went to the Athens marketplace to debate the thinkers of the day.
That, in many ways, is the essence of evangelism, a practice that has long ventured outside the church with sermons on street corners and Bibles in hotel rooms, says Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research firm. Stetzer has co-authored a new study on church start-ups. By his estimate, 4,000 churches were launched in 2008. But none, to his knowledge, did so at the grocery.
At the core of Naves's message each week is God's love and His desire for people to prosper.
Some shoppers dismiss her sermons as feel-good prosperity gospel (her church's name: Set Time to Prosper Christian Ministries).
Naves, however, says people need her words now more than ever. "You got so many losing their jobs, losing their houses. It's not about money, it's about having the power to overcome and be successful," she said. "Everything Jesus did was about making people whole so they could go forth, multiply and prosper."
It is a philosophy Naves has clung to throughout her life. She was raised by a single mother in some of the District's rougher neighborhoods. Halfway through her senior year at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, Naves became pregnant. She graduated and enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia but shortly afterward dropped out to support herself and her child. For two decades, she worked clerical, security and youth advocacy jobs while raising her son.
Out of that struggle has grown a natural empathy that often seems to put her would-be flock in Giant at ease.
With persistence, Naves convinces a young woman who initially ignored her that she is in desperate need of prayer. As Naves holds her hands and begins to pray, tears well up in the young woman's eyes.
Her name is Harriet Dade, she says afterward. "I just got married 30 days ago, and I'm just now realizing how hard it is to maintain that relationship. When she started praying for my marriage just out of the blue, it got to me," she says, slightly embarrassed by her reddened eyes. "That someone would stop and take the time to do that for me . . . she doesn't even know me."
A little later, another shopper, Noelle Pinckney, also leaves choking back tears.
"You walk in with your mind full of things you got to do," says Pinckney, a Prince George's County graduate student. "I mean, the only reason I came in was for the sale on paper towels. But I was just walking through the aisles listening to what she was saying and it was like, 'Whoa, she's talking about some of the really deep-rooted things in my life.' "Praying in tongues
Not everyone, however, is enamored of Naves's ministry.
"I mean, I'm spiritual and believe there's a God. But to be honest, it feels a little invasive," says Shaeen Stevenson, waiting impatiently with a cart full of vegetables and jumbo crab legs while her friend Teri Fields runs in for prayer and anointing. "You expect it maybe in church, but not here."
Others are surprised by Naves's charismatic bent.
"I was okay with the anointing oil and the laying hands," says Damany Freeman, 26, who stopped in for chips and ended up praying with Naves over the drama between him and the mother of his baby girl. "But halfway through, when she started praying in tongues, I was like, 'What?' That kind of threw me for a loop."
After a few more prayers, Naves and her saxophonist call it a day. Her mouth is dry and her feet tired. But as she counts the number of shoppers who stopped by, her mood brightens.
"They weren't just coming in, they were coming with their fears and a sincere heart," she says. "As long as you're reaching people like that, it doesn't matter where you are. God's will is being done."