Lights, Camera, Gospel!

A look inside the grandiose cinematic dreams -- and genuine transcendent joy -- at Voice of Pentecost Church

This story is not about Hollywood power-brokers but instead about a rag-tag band of prayer warriors born in ... one of the most difficult cities in the world to live in as a Christian: San Francisco!

-- Richard Gazowsky, from his autobiography, Prophetic Whisper

Voice of Pentecost Church is housed in an old art deco movie theater on Ocean Avenue, its decrepit pink spire looming high above the neighborhood of Ingleside. Senior Pastor Richard Gazowsky preaches beneath the stage of the 700-plus-seat theater, and the room smells faintly of mildew from its old carpets.

Sunny and Richard Gazowsky.
Paul Trapani
Sunny and Richard Gazowsky.
The Gazowsky Family: Richard, Misty Dejavu, Rocki 
Starr, Sandy, and Sunny.
Paul Trapani
The Gazowsky Family: Richard, Misty Dejavu, Rocki Starr, Sandy, and Sunny.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, signs posted on the front doors of the church/theater direct people to a side door, through the bowels of the church, and into a small film studio.

Gazowsky, a heavyset 50-year-old with sleepy blue eyes and a laid-back drawl, sits next to a television monitor with some of his senior staff as young people roll lighting equipment around and carry clipboards. A fortysomething man who looks like an aging metalhead squints nervously into the lights, the camera pointed at him.

"Hi, how ya doing today?" greets Voice of Pentecost Associate Pastor Chris Rossetti. "We'd like you to say your name for the camera, and phone number, and where you're from."

"I'm Hal ...," wheezes the man in a pinched, high voice.

"I love his look," whispers Gazowsky, glancing approvingly at the man's long, blow-dryer-damaged blond hair and matching beard. "But his voice ...."

"We can dub it," Rossetti whispers back. To the actor, he says, "OK, now dude, do me a favor and scare me! Let's say these lines over the top! Really angry!"

"Back off! Get out of my life!" says the blond man, jabbing a finger toward the camera in what may be the most execrable acting job since Sofia Coppola appeared in The Godfather Part III.

"Thank you, man. God bless you," Gazowsky says charitably.

Next up is a thirtysomething guy with Elvis sideburns; he's wearing a wife-beater but packs only slightly more emotion into his lines. Gazowsky and Rossetti are excited about his résumé.

"It says here you have some experience in combat," says Rossetti. "Any bladed combat?"

"Yes," says the actor. "We actually have a stunt company."

The two pastors murmur with pleasure. Then Rossetti asks him in all seriousness, "Do you have any experience with whips?"

It's a typical day at Voice of Pentecost, a church with a mission to take on Hollywood.

Nearly 10 years ago, Gazowsky received a directive from God to make movies for the Lord. He launched a for-profit production company called Christian WYSIWYG Filmworks. (The acronym, borrowed from the computer software industry, stands for "What You See Is What You Get.") Using donations from VOP's congregation, he turned the church into a fully functioning movie studio. After experimenting on some 200 little projects, WYSIWYG made two longer films: a Christian musical called Guardians and an hourlong drama called The Roman Trilogy, neither of which has been commercially released.

WYSIWYG's thin-to-nonexistent track record hasn't stopped the studio from attempting its most ambitious project yet. Today, actors are auditioning for Gravity: In the Shadow of Joseph, a feature-length epic retelling of the Bible story of Joseph, set in a science-fiction world of the future. WYSIWYG plans to build spacecraft and monsters with prosthetic limbs, to cast more than 4,000 volunteer actors, and to film on location in Malta, Turkey, and Ireland. What's more, WYSIWYG intends to shoot the entire movie twice over the course of three years, to make sure it's done right. There's even talk of building a 400-foot-long sailing ship. Gazowsky says the budget for Gravity will be at least $50 million.

Gazowsky and WYSIWYG's 23 employees hope that Gravity will be a mainstream hit along the lines of The Lord of the Rings. Considering the less-than-world-class quality of their past projects and the company's overall lack of experience in the movie industry, it will take a miracle for Gravity to even get completed, much less be a watchable film. Ultimately, though, the movie's quality may be beside the point. The process of making movies has had a transformative effect on Gazowsky, his congregation, and everybody involved in WYSIWYG. The movies, an inspirational and creative outlet for hundreds of people, have become, in and of themselves, a spiritual undertaking.

Richard Gazowsky is a second-generation Pentecostal preacher whose mother, Marilynn, founded Voice of Pentecost in 1966. Members of a 100-year-old Christian denomination famous for its practice of "speaking in tongues" (otherwise known as "glossalia"), Pentecostals are usually culturally conservative. (John Ashcroft is one.) Traditionally, they eschew popular entertainment as sinful. Gazowsky, however, is something of a Pentecostal rebel.

A jeans-and-sneakers kinda guy who peppers his sermons with expressions like "Awww man!" and "What's up with that?" Gazowsky once fronted a Christian rock band called Richard & the Redeemed. Per his strict Pentecostal upbringing, he hadn't seen a movie on the big screen until he went to The Lion King in 1994. And yet when he took over the pastorship of VOP from his mother in 1988, he felt drawn toward mass media as a way to spread the Gospel. "I'm one of those quasi-hip Christian guys you never really hear about," says Gazowsky.

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