Calvary Chapel, Claremont

Jacqueline Hidalgo

The Community

Claremont is a small, well-to-do college town 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Calvary Chapel of Claremont sits in an office complex just to the northwest of the Consortium of the Claremont Colleges. During the first site visits in 2003-4, a large portion of the fifty or so regular congregants, including the pastor and his wife, were Cuban immigrants.[1]   Although the congregation has since the time of the first site visits added a college bible study program and diversified its membership, especially during the English service, it is still predominantly Latina/o.

The beginnings of such a congregation should be understood in terms of U.S.-Cuba relations. U.S. interference in Cuban affairs can be traced back at least to1898 and Cuba’s war for independence from Spain. This war initiated sixty years of U.S. intervention in Cuba until it withdrew its support of President Batista in 1958. After 1961, those who chose to leave Cuba were forced to surrender all their property.[2]   The pastor, his wife, and some of the congregants at Calvary Chapel of Claremont came to the U.S. at this point between 1962 and 1969.

U.S. dominant culture still tends to lump all those of Latin American background together. [3] This association is most evident in the field of language where the retention of Spanish by people of Latin American descent living in the U.S. has been perceived as a socially destabilizing characteristic. [4]   With the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America, many in California have defined Latina/os as being “illegal,” [5] irrespective of their actual citizenship status.

Calvary Chapel’s form of Christian evangelicalism was born in Orange County with Chuck Smith. The denominational politics of the International Church of the Four Square Gospel led him to leave, and he took a call to Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa in Orange County in 1965. Calvary Chapel grew out of the 1970s “Jesus movement” of “Jesus freaks” – former hippies who were disillusioned with other forms of religion and became evangelicals. [6] Smith does not consider Calvary Chapel a denomination [7] despite its over 600 congregations worldwide. [8]   Marco Alvarez, the pastor at Calvary Chapel of Claremont, emphasizes the independence of each individual church from the larger fellowship. [9]

Uses of the “Bible” [10]

Calvary Chapel places a strong emphasis on the Bible, which has long maintained a special place in the textual field of the U.S.A. As Martin Marty argues, the Bible forms part of a set of “binding customs…that have a hold much stronger than that which law can impose.”  [11] Biblical inerrancy and pre-tribulationist, premillenialist theology are the most strongly promulgated doctrines at Calvary Chapel. [12] The pattern of preaching set originally by Smith and followed in Calvary Chapel is to exposit the entire biblical text in sermons, not to float from topic to topic.

The Bible itself acts as a language world for the congregants.  The entryway to Calvary Chapel has a quotation from 2 Chronicles 7.15 in New King James English running along the eastern wall. [13] The current pastor’s wife learned English by listening to Smith’s sermons on the old King James Version of the bible. [14] She also applies KJV English to Spanish translations of biblical texts. [15] Smith’s work adds an extra-canonical circle: his writing often frames the language with which the current pastor and the congregants speak about the bible. [16]

In the sermons, bible studies, conversations, and interviews, the bible was held up as God’s word. This “spiritual” origin grants the bible a particular authority for how the congregants should live their lives. [17] The congregants often speak of how they want everything they do to “glorify the Lord.”  This “Lord” is personally encountered in the bible.  The reverence granted that text is seen in the way that the congregants always pray for guidance before even reading the bible. [18] Alvarez argues that “the ultimate end of teaching the bible verse by verse is to let them know that the bible is not…man-centered, but it is Christ-centered, is God-centered.” [19] Ana, [20] one of the congregants, refuses to read any text other than the bible because anything else is “written by man.” [21] The bible helps Alvarez and the Calvary Chapel congregants to imagine a better world, one where they will feel at “home.” In Alvarez’s reflection on the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ portrayal of the millennial kingdom, he argues that Jesus shares these teachings “so that we may live as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven in a hostile and difficult world.” [22]

This sentiment can be seen in Ana’s words as well.  She left Cuba in the 1960s with her husband and daughter.  Ana looks forward to being “called home” by “the Lord” so that she can be with her family, especially her daughter who died.

    My daughter…was 24 years old when the Lord called her home…because I have Him I can go through all these valleys of sorrows and tribulations and I know that whatever happens in here is temporary…but we will have eternal life forever…And I know that one day He’s going to come for me, and I’m going to be there with Him. And that’s pleasure for me; I will see my daughter. [23]

She elaborated further when talking about her grandson who has a condition similar to Down’s syndrome.
I know that one day [my grandchild’s] going to be so beautiful when he be in the Lord’s presence and nobody’s going to give him the looks that they give him now…when he’s in the presence of the Lord he’s going to be so beautiful because he’s going to have a new body like in the promise.” [24]

Not long after saying this, she mentioned how grateful she was to have come to this country because it was here that she found the Lord.  “So many times I thank the Lord that I came to this country because here is where I have my relationship with Him. I learned here what it is like really to know the True God you know, through Jesus.” [25]

The Bible and the Negotiation of a New Latina/o Home

Robert Maldonado has argued that the complex history of Latin American identity is circumscribed by the canonical texts of two traditions. [26] The Iberian colonization left Latin America as a world of mixed ancestry and “ambiguous” identity, while U.S.A. colonialism and Manifest Destiny also made Latin Americans feel like “strangers” in their own homeland. [27]   It is precisely this “unhomeliness,” to use the term of Homi Bhabha, [28] that I believe is at the heart of the experiences of many of these congregants at Calvary Chapel.  Alvarez himself has argued that faith in Jesus “as revealed in the bible” grants him a “strong sense of identity and being.”  [29] Thus “unhomeliness” has helped me to understand the encounter between the Cubans at Calvary Chapel and the bible.

In examining this encounter, I have tried to hold a few pieces of “home” in tension.  First, home as in “nation” and “country.” Given dominant culture’s doubts about the legality of Latina/o citizenship and thus about how much they “belong” in the U.S.A., would it not be appealing for a Cuban émigré to belong to the religion whose central icon is the same as the one in the national shrine? In addition to incorporation into broader U.S.A. culture, the bible also fulfills the function of formation of a Cuban-U.S.A. hybrid identity, a building of a home in the U.S.A. [30] Given the historical relationship of other forms of U.S.A. Protestantism to the colonialist enterprise against Latina/os, it is worth noting that Calvary Chapel stresses its opposition to racism. [31]

Necessary for this first modality of home is a second modality: home as in that “spiritual” world to which the congregants at Calvary Chapel believe they belong, a home accessed specifically by reading the bible. [32]   Its very “spiritual” nature grants the bible a special status as something constantly read, beloved, and thereby used to construct the Calvary Chapel congregants’ home in the here-and-now. [33] Moreover, biblical rhetoric structures much of their critique of dominant “non-Christian” U.S.A. culture. Thinking back on “unhomeliness,” perhaps this “spiritual” orientation is a potent resource for carving “home” space on Californian soil. [34]

A third modality of home is the domestic space.  The first two understandings of home inscribe and implicate the domestic sphere, forcing it to bear the load of “home-making” in the U.S.A.  Alvarez’s sermon on Ephesians 5:21-33 was greatly concerned with the notion of a biblically based family home.  Such a family, understood in traditional patriarchal heterosexual normative terms, is the foundation for their Christian counterculture, for that identity that enables them to be “in the world but not of it.”  For Alvarez, the Christian home is meant to stand in stark contrast to the rampant divorce and marital problems found in U.S.A. culture. [35]   Is it possible that the interest in a biblically based family is a way of constructing a Cuban-U.S.A. hybrid identity, one that enables them to build home here in the U.S.A.?  Yet is it also a construction of family that rejects certain popular U.S.A. sexual mores that run counter to Latin American sensibilities?  Is it in the domestic space that Calvary Chapel congregants must build and re-negotiate their homes, re-form[ulate] as it were, their cultural hybridity, where the identity formation that takes place in the biblical encounter is given form and function?  

Homi Bhabha proposes that the unhomely has become the norm.  Public and private spaces have become disturbed and the “domestic space” becomes “the space of the normalizing, pastoralizing, and individuating techniques of modern power and police: the person-is-political; the world-in-home.”  [36] The domestic home has become the space where constructions of national identity must be enforced and perpetuated.  The domestic space is expected to carry the burdens placed upon it by the other two homes, the national and the “spiritual.”

At Calvary Chapel, submission remains the design of the relationship of child to parent, wife to husband, congregants to the Bible, to God, and also to secular government. The entire notion of home is as complicated in postcolonial criticism as it is for me personally. [37] The question is often asked about the damage done, to oneself and to others, by longing for home. It is out of my own ambivalence concerning homes [38] that I have read, possibly unfairly, other people’s searches for that ambiguous “home.” Such searches, rooted as they are in submission to a perceived external authority to be found in scriptures, have problems and limitations, as well as strengths.


[1] Calvary Chapel of Claremont is a multicultural congregation with people of all backgrounds, especially at the English service, and this trend has become all the more obvious in the year since first contact was made.  The Cuban congregants are in focus because they are the people encountered most frequently. The pastor is Cuban. Cubans represent the largest of the different ethnic populations.  The words and thoughts expressed in this paper are those of the investigator and not those of the members of Calvary Chapel Claremont—except where they are directly claimed to be so.  Religiously, ethnically, educationally, and politically, the investigator comes from a very different place from the people discussed in the article. The investigator is an outsider to the community, so their words remain those they would share with an outsider.  More importantly, their experiences are real and should be respected even if their descriptions of them vary from the investigator’s analysis of them. .
[2] Miguel González-Pando, The Cuban Americans, The New Americans (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998), 4-21.  Due to limitations of space constraints, it was necessary to simplify issues regarding the complexities of Cuban and Latino/a identity. Because their views would shed much light on the congregants’ experiences, tt is important for the reader to consider how biblical scholars and theologians of Cuban origin in the U.S.A. have addressed these questions of identity.  Of particular interest to note is the different ways and terms that three different scholars approach their identity vis a vis Cuba and the U.S.A.  In addition, it is interesting to see how they have varying approaches to the bible as a centering text. See Justo González, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996); Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996); and Fernando Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View From the Margins (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000).
[3] The question on the 2000 census asked if you were Hispanic and then asked you to choose a race, not a nation of origin.
[4] Blanca G. Silvestrini, “‘The World We Enter When Claiming Rights’: Latinos and Their Quest for Culture,” Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights, ed. William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 53.  A wave of “English-only” legislation spread in response to Latino/a immigration in the 1980s, and this legislation was especially characteristic throughout California in response to Cuban immigrants from the Mariel Boatlift (the third major wave of Cuban immigration) and an influx of Asian immigrants. See Frank del Olmo, “English Only Rules are Un-American,” Los Angeles Times, Home Edition, Metro Section, May 15, 1985.
[5] Renato Rosaldo, “Cultural Citizenship, Inequality, and Multiculturalism,” in Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights, ed. William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 31.
[6] Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America, expanded edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 18-19.
[7] Marco Alvarez, the pastor, frequently used “fellowship” in his interview when describing the congregation.
[8] Donald E. Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 34.  According to Alvarez, there are currently over 1200 congregations worldwide.  Interview with Marco Alvarez, January 14, 2005.
[9] Interview with Marco Alvarez, January 12, 2005.  Alvarez was quite adamant that his words and the views expressed in his congregation are his alone and do not stand for any other member of the Calvary Chapel fellowship let alone that of Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa.
[10] In the case of Calvary Chapel, the “Bible” does refer strictly to the set of canonical texts recognized by Protestantism as the Bible.  In English, this is generally the King James or New King James translation.
[11] Martin E. Marty, Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 141.
[12] Randall Balmer and Jesse T. Todd, Jr. “Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, California,” American Congregations, vol. 1 of Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities, ed. James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 681and 685.  Balmer and Todd identify Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa’s views as premillenialist dispensationtionalism; Alvarez disagrees with this citing that their theology disagrees with some of the specifics of Darby’s and Scofield’s views on the dispensations.  Interview with Alvarez, January 14, 2005.
[13] The quotation reads in capital letters, “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to prayer made in this place.”
[14] Interview with Marco Alvarez, October 28, 2003.
[15] At the women’s Spanish bible study of Psalm 111 on October 21, 2003, she mentioned that in the KJV the term in verse 9 was reverendo or “reverend,” though it was not translated that way in the Spanish.  She also mentioned that “reverend” only appeared there, in reference to God, in the entire bible.  Thus only God, no person, could be “reverend.”
[16] This can be observed when one compares the language of the congregants to that of the pastor, Marco Alvarez, and then one compares his language to that of Chuck Smith in his books.
[17] Both Alvarez and Ana emphasized how important it was that the bible was the “Word of God” and not just something some person had said.
 [18] Discussion at a Wednesday Bible Study, December 3, 2003, and Interview with Ana, October 28, 2003.
 [19] Interview with Alvarez, 2003.  Another way that this is clear is in Alvarez’s reaction to my paper; he emphasized the bible is a universal text for all people, not something that is ethnic or to be used in a particularistic way, Interview with Alvarez, January 12, 2005.
[20] Ana is not her real name.
[21] Interview with Ana.
[22] The words are the translation of the investigator from the Spanish. Marco Alvarez, “‘Viviendo La Vida Cristiana en un Mundo Anti-Cristiano’ o ‘Tomando a Cristo Jesús en Serio’: Pensamientos sobre el Sermon del Monte, En Mateo 5,6,7,” Revista Edificación – Calvary Chapel, Vol. 1 (2003): 23.
[23] Interview with Ana.
[24] The promise here is that of the new body described by Paul in 1 Cor. 15.
[25] Interview with Ana.
[26] Robert D. Maldonado, “La Conquista? Latin American (Mestizaje) Reflections on the Biblical Conquest,” Journal of Hispanic/Latino Theology 2, no. 4 (May 1995), 5-7.
[27] Maldonado, 10.
[28] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), see especially p. 9-18 on “Unhomely lives.”  For Bhabha, the “modern world” is a very unhomely place, and especially in the wake of the “cross-cultural initiation” that would necessarily characterize the Cuban experience in the U.S.A., the lines between domestic privacy and the rest of the world dissipate, leaving disorientation in its wake.
[29] Interview with Alvarez, January 14, 2005.
[30] See schema in Vincent L. Wimbush, “Reading Darkness, Reading Scriptures,” African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush with the assistance of Rosamond C. Rodman (New York: Continuum, 2000), 24-26.
[31] Miller, 119. In my interview with Marco, he describes one of the draws of Calvary Chapel as being the “love” he felt upon first entering the doors.  That kind of welcome likely plays a significant role in the selection of Calvary Chapel.
[32] Alvarez would view this statement as not entirely accurate in that the home is accessed “through faith in Jesus Christ as revealed in reading the Bible.”  Interview with Alvarez, January 14, 2005.
[33] Alvarez makes an effort to read the whole Bible once a year, each year in a different translation, both in Spanish and English.  Interview with Alvarez, 2003.
[34] I would have liked to discuss the ways in which Alvarez’s and Ana’s relationships to biblical texts both perpetuate and challenge dominant social systems, in other words, sometimes they oppose the “center” and sometimes they violently support the center. Alvarez’s sermon on Ephesians 6:5-9 would be an interesting case study. Alvarez’s sermon both critiqued Cuban Communism and displaced U.S.A. arrogance in naming itself “American,” while at the same time refused to work on altering any social system because, ultimately Alvarez argued that, “You got to begin with the heart of man because you can change the system, but changing the system will not change the man.”
[35] In the October 1, 2003 English Bible study, the first time I ever went to Calvary Chapel, Alvarez managed to link the collapse of family with the fall of any society on earth, from the Roman empire, to the impending doom facing our own.
[36] Bhabha, 11.
[37] Because of the brevity of this paper and my desire to focus on the congregants I have relegated my own social location to two footnotes.  Nonetheless, I think it is important to note the rather substantive differences between my experience of “home” and the congregants.  I was born in Costa Rica to a Costa Rican father and an Angla-Kansan mother, but I spent the vast majority of my life in the U.S.A.  English is my first language, and I am, albeit with some complexity, a Roman Catholic.  In addition, my own religious history has a very complicated relationship to Ephesians 5:21-33 in particular.
[38] Laura Levitt, Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home (New York: Routledge, 1997). In this work, Levitt describes how both liberal feminism and the U.S.A. have often failed in their promises to Jews, and yet they remain home. In the end, she concludes that her embrace of home is an “ambivalent” one.

About ISS

ISS facilitates research on the work we make scriptures do for us.

Donate to ISS

Please support our Programs and Initiatives. To donate, click here.


2010 Claremont Graduate University Institute for SIgnifying Scriptures 1017 N. Dartmouth Ave (909)607-9676