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Free for Jesus

One church's ministry by broom, towel and toilet brush.

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CVS employee Thomas Woods takes a wary step out of the door. "How y'all doing?" he cautiously asks the crowd.

"Oh, we're just sharing the love of Jesus today," chirps one of the blue shirts. They explain that they want to wash the windows. Free.

Woods' eyes widen. "Oh, OK," he says.

Later, Woods says he first thought "they were selling some promotion." But the window washers seem sincere, he says, and even ask permission to clean the employees' bathroom.

Assistant Manager Nicole Holmes stands behind the counter inside the cool drugstore. "I think that's real nice of them, because they don't have to do that," she says. Holmes glances behind her, at the squeegees rising and falling on the glass. "They doing a good job too," she says.

Skepticism and mistrust often greet the Vineyard members, Peters says. "The most common reaction is, 'Why are you doing this? What's the catch?'"

"There is no catch," the members respond. "We just want to bless you."

Locally, church members have given doughnuts to Virginia Commonwealth University students. On steamy days they've taken watermelon, cantaloupe and cucumbers to homeless people in Monroe Park; on winter days, hot tea. A few weeks ago, they stood outside the Byrd Theatre and bought moviegoers tickets to "Robots."

Years ago, Peters says, he used to clean the toilets at Babe's of Carytown, which caters to the gay community. Some staff who have worked at Babe's for decades, however, say they don't remember him or any Vineyard members coming in.

With the freebies, they pass out cards that explain who they are and include a map to the church. But the point of the Vineyard ministries, Peters says, isn't so much "trying to attract new members to our church, but to break down some of the existing views of church that people have, that the church just wants something from you."

The church spends about $400 to $500 per month on its "servant ministry," and as much again on "compassionate ministry," the more traditional outreach to the poor and needy. Members participating in these ministries don't accept donations when people offer, Peters says.

At Southside Plaza, shoppers stare at the crowd of blue-shirted people who are industriously sweeping, wiping and smiling. The church members steal some attention from another group canvassing the plaza, a half-dozen or so children who are trying to raise money for summer camp at Precious Blessing Academy. Peters gives them $5.

The Kindness Team, as members' shirts call it, washes the windows of the CVS, the ABC store, even the vacant Verizon store with the spiderweb of cracks in the front door. But they hit a wall at Rentway, a rent-to-own furnishings store.

"We can't let anybody back there," manager David Simpson tells a few Vineyard members who offer to clean the bathroom. Nor does he want them to wash the windows, he says. They hire someone to do that. Not that he's unappreciative, he tells a reporter — the Vineyard's efforts are "a good thing."

Offering to do favors for total strangers feels a bit awkward when you begin, says Vineyard member Suzanne Birkeland. It's important to use a "soft sell," says Birkeland, who on Saturday is tackling the merchants' toilets. "You don't want to go in there and ask the people if you can change their heart by cleaning the bathroom," she says. To explain to people what the Vineyard team is doing, Birkeland uses the phrase "serving our way into the heart of our city."

"But really," she says, "what it does for us to do this is bigger than what it does for them. … Our light shines brighter through the rest of our week."

"It's very humbling," says Birkeland's husband, John, a burly man with relentless blue eyes. "That's what this whole thing is."

The Vineyard movement is rooted in the 1970s, the era of the Jesus People and Calvary Chapel, when many "migrated from the counterculture to an experiential form of the Christian faith," says Brad Wilcox, a professor of sociology and religion at the University of Virginia. One of those was former Righteous Brothers manager John Wimber, who joined and later led what would become the Association of Vineyard Churches.

Evangelical churches like the Vineyard are characterized by fervent personal faith and a "strong sense of God's spirit working in them and in their churches," Wilcox says. Peters agrees. The church could be described as "kind of middle of the road" between conservative evangelical and Pentecostal, Peters says, but he worries that people might associate the Vineyard with the more extreme versions of either movement. The church simply tries to help people find their spiritual calling, he says. Members are "just being real people, living in the real world, believing in a real God."

The movement, one of what Wilcox calls "California offshoots of evangelicism," uses innovative techniques, like the servant ministries, to reach out to the unchurched and skeptical. "More charismatic branches of evangelism tend to be more creative in the kinds of things that they do," Wilcox says. He chuckles a bit when told of toilet cleanings at Babe's. "That's certainly the most unusual thing I've heard," he says.

One Easter Sunday a few years ago, young musician Michael Clapp walked by with some friends and saw Vineyard members handing out free bottles of water on Allen Avenue. Hot and sweating, he took some water and glanced at the accompanying card. When he got home, he says, he tossed it on the nightstand and forgot about it.

Months later, Clapp says, he woke early on Sunday morning and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. He had just broken up with a girlfriend and was feeling down on his luck, he says. "It was rough times." Then, he says, he suddenly decided he would go to church that day. He rummaged through the nightstand, found the card "and got myself together and headed off to the Vineyard."

There he found a warm welcome and a worship service infused with music. "It moved me to tears, you know?" he says. "Music can do that. It can kind of break through walls that other things can't."

Clapp, now 28, joined the church. There he met Peters' daughter Ashley. The two married in 2002. Clapp plays music for the church and also participates in the weekend servant ministries. "It was a little sketchy feeling," he says of his early service. "I was kind of nervous at first, doing it."

Since then, he says, he's learned not to worry about what people may think. "I'll just tell them God loves you. He wants you to have a doughnut." S



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