By Ellen Lu
Autumn Purkey, a second year Biological Science major at the University of California Irvine was disappointed by what she saw, heard and experienced at her local church, The Church of Christ. “I had problems with gossip in Church,” she said. “It was a rude awakening that the only place I could learn about God had people that were trying to hurt me.” It was unsettling that fellow Christians would not only turn their backs on another Christian, but on God as well. These actions reflected how little these people understood God and what He wanted from His people, because intentionally harming someone clearly counters God’s number one demand: “Love thy neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). It also quickly became apparent that these people misunderstood what God wanted from them. He didn’t want them to praise Him by building beautiful churches or singing familiar hymns, but rather, He wanted His people to go out and make a difference in the world regardless of how small the deed.
One good thing did come out of attending church, she met Kirk A. McCrary.
Kirk was priest at The Church of Christ when he met Autumn, and after realizing they had a mutual dissatisfaction with the limitations and exploitations of organized religion, they knew they had to do something about it. Together they formed God without Religion, a club unique to the Irvine campus that emphasizes members to learn, discuss and debate about God with an open mind.
Sitting in the dimly lit classroom situated in the corner of the Donald Bren Hall at the University of California Irvine (UCI), it quickly becomes apparent to me that the meetings for God Without Religion (GODWOR) are the antithesis to regular church gatherings. There is no singing, there is no chanting of “Amen,” and there are no arms raised in praise just six believers of God sitting in a room tucked in the corner of UCI. Six other members – four UCI students, an elderly couple, and myself – sit in a crescent formation on chairs with wooden tables attached to; at a quick glance, this gathering could easily be mistaken for a discussion section for an Engineering class rather than club meeting about God. Yet, in a sense, the essence of GODWOR is discussion. For Dan Mititi, and many others in the group, GODWOR is a “place to ask questions about faith and the Bible.”
“I ask questions as I was a non-believer so that I eliminate all doubt in the lack of God’s existence. I always doubt everything I learn, whether it be about religion or science, until I am sure beyond a reasonable doubt that there can be no other explanation,” he continues. “I am a Biological Science major and a lot of what I learn contradicts what the Bibles says. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in God with all my heart, but I can’t be ignorant and refute facts about science and the Earth we live on.”
Kirk reaffirms the notion that the group is about “focusing strictly on God, without the trappings of religion.” To elaborate, he adds, “I challenge the group to read the Bible and study it and prove, or disprove if it’s true…[I’m] trying to teach people how to study it for themselves and then they can choose whether they believe it or don’t believe it.”
Kirk, a 53 year-old unemployed priest, is a benevolent fellow with pale blue eyes that complement his salted blonde hair. He has a penchant for wearing long sea blue jeans, collared button ups of various colors, and is almost never seen without his chromatic backpack which holds his personal Bible. Through financial stability from his wife Theresa McCrary, Kirk is able to devote most of his time to God without Religion. This includes, but is not limited to, holding small gatherings outside of the regular Tuesday meetings, helping out various non-profit organizations, or meeting individually with members who have extended questions about God and the Bible. If there’s one thing you need to know about Kirk, it’s his unwavering belief and love for God. However, after jumping from church to church, he realized that no matter where he went, his desire and need to know God on a personal level were not going to be met within the confinements of an organized religion. “When I started asking questions, I didn’t get answers that held up. And I don’t take the first answer I get usually, I keep digging away at it and it started annoying people,” he recalls.
With the taste of dissatisfaction in his mouth, Kirk, with the persuasion from others, decided to enter the ministry to become a preacher. To say the least, most churches have a hard time swallowing what Kirk preaches, and he has since been fired twice – the first time was from the Mission Viejo Church of Christ in 2002, and the second time was from the Costa Mesa Church of Christ in 2010. His termination was in part a result of his disapproval of worship and his liberal lenience on conventional Christian beliefs. “People were very angry that I wasn’t more of a traditional preacher who did lots of pastoral care. And worship became so important to them emotionally – the music and the feeling and the experience that they had in these worship situations – that it becomes so important to them that when you criticize that, they feel insulted, and they won’t trust you after that,” said Kirk as he looked down at his hands.
After a moment of silence, he adds, “There’s no place in the bible where it says you have to go to church, you have to go to church on Sunday, only on Sunday, every Sunday. There’s no place where it’s called worship. In fact worship is redefined by Jesus as doing good for other people, because God doesn’t need anything and this is straight from the bible. God doesn’t need anything. He cares about how I treat you, how I treat these other people and how I conduct myself as a man. That is how I worship God. Not by going to church service and giving money to some religious group.”
To further support Kirk’s statement, Autumn added, “Once you get a group of people together to form a church, they slap a name on it – already obscuring God – like Presbyterian. What the heck does that mean? I’m already confused. Then the rules that make it in that were people’s interpretations or downright opinions that they added into the doctrines and the members start to think that they have biblical precedence. Then the church often starts to function as a business. Now God has officially been taken out of the equation.”
Together, Kirk and Autumn started GODWOR at UCI, hoping to spur discussion between people from all backgrounds who love God, but question the validity of religion. When I asked about the kinds of people in GODWOR, Kirk replied, “Most of the students were raised with no religion. A couple were/are Catholics, one has a Jewish mom, another a Muslim dad, and that all I know. Oh, wait – one guy is Romanian Orthodox.” This conglomeration of diverse people come together every Tuesday, and one the weekends, to intellectually talk, discuss, challenge and question the complicated matter of faith.
During every meeting, a debate over a topic would predictably arise. It was like clockwork, no matter what was being discussed, someone would dispute what Kirk had to say. On one occasion, the topic of sin arose. Dan, the more curious one in the bunch, began questioning Kirk about the inevitable act of sin. He inquired that at any given moment he will think a thought that will in some way be a sin. It could be a mean thought, a dirty thought or an immoral thought; regardless, he was bound to sin. With this in mind, he deliberated whether or not this meant that he, as well as everyone else, was bound to go to Hell. Before Kirk could reply, Autumn chimed in to tell Dan that it was Jesus’ sacrifice of dying on the cross that would allow Dan to repent for his sins. Kirk agreed with Autumn; however, Dan wasn’t finished. If everyone is given a chance to repent, then what would happen if someone suddenly died and didn’t have a chance to repent for their sins? As the discussion prolonged, the subject matter became too complex for the hour long meeting, and before it could be completely addressed, our time in the classroom expired and we were forced to leave the room. Dan was unsatisfied with the answers given to him during the meeting, so before we all dispersed back to our respective homes, Dan scheduled to meet with Kirk to continue their discussion.
When I inquired how people within the group would classify their faith, nearly everyone gave me a different answer, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it – everyone gets to decide for themselves. Some hold the Bible as the book of absolute truth; some question the Bible’s validity; some still classify themselves as Christians; some don’t really know where they stand; and some simply believe in a higher being, regardless of whether it’s “the God” or something else. However, there are two things they all agreed on: to love God, and to love your neighbor and yourself.
During one of the weekly meetings, Kirk handed me a plain white index and written on it was:
Love Yahweh (your God)
with all your heart and
with all your soul and
with all your strength and
with all your mind
Love your neighbor as yourself”
Like many of their tiny fliers that read “Know God, Help People,” GODWOR aims to not only push people to study and interpret the Bible to find God, but it also aspires to motivate its members to go out and make a difference, to help thy neighbor, even if that difference is a small one.
Autumn implements her knowledge in Biology by joining The Flying Samaritans, an organization which, as stated on their website, is an organization that “provide[s] health care for the indigent people of Mexico…provid[ing] free health care to people who would otherwise have none.” Others in GODWOR have helped out at homeless shelters and soup kitchens; it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re doing something to help.
And that’s what worship is. It’s not about building the fanciest church in His name, or singing songs of praise with arms lifted high in the air. As Kirk explains it, “The way I treat you today is my act of worship to God.” Worship is about serving God through spirit, “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
It was February 23rd, the sun was beginning to set and I could see the sky stained in pallets of blue, purple, red and yellow. As I stared out the window, I pontificated over whether or not this 7 week experience has changed my faith on God’s existence. We were seated in a crescent formation, and today’s topic was the afterlife. Kirk was asking all these questions about the afterlife that I had never really thought about, simply because on daily basis, I feel too preoccupied with life itself that to think about what comes after was just too much. Everyone tried giving an explanation of what they thought Heaven was. Some simply said it was a place where good people went, others were more specific and said it was a place where they would meet up with those they loved on Earth, and the stronger believers said it was a place where they would be reunited with God and Jesus. Kirk then turned to me and asked me what I thought Heaven looked like. I uncomfortably squirmed in my chair and replied, “I don’t know, clouds?” In my mind I was hoping Heaven would somewhat resemble how the sky looked at that very moment. The shades of colors bleeding into one another to exude a comfortable glow while light puffs of ivory clouds dangled in the sky. These people may question religion, but they don’t question God. As for myself, I still don’t know. There are just too many “ifs” and “maybes” that clutter my belief.
- Interview: Dan Mititi, Darlene Mackey, Chelsey Horath and Jose Ruiz
- Extensive interviews: Kirk McCrary and Autumn Purkey
- Observation: Attended the weekly 1 hour meetings for 7 weeks
- Research: Ran God Without Religion through database, but there was nothing on the GODWOR based in Irvine. Not surprising considering the group only started this past Fall quarter. However, there were other groups and movements named God Without Religion, but none of them followed the philosophies of the GODWOR at UCI. For instance, Sankara Saranam wrote a book called God Without Religion (http://godwithoutreligion.com/), but after skimming the book, it was obvious that the Saranam's ideas differed drastically from Kirk's ideas.
- Documentation: The Bible
- Documentation: Handouts/fliers from Kirk
- Documentation: Researched Kirk’s philosophy, as well as many of his answers to overarching thematic questions here: http://www.blog.godwor.com/
- Documentation: Learned more about the club and its origin here: http://godwor.com/club.html
- Documentation: Referred to http://www.flyingsams.com/wp/ for more on The Flying Samaritans