Big Quake Couldn't Shake Faith in Crystal Cathedral


When it comes to religious faith, I would rank halfway between the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and noted atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

But my position moved slightly toward the minister after I got a firsthand look at how his Crystal Cathedral can handle a good jolt from Mother Nature.

It was 8:05 a.m. four Sundays ago, and for almost three hours I had been helping the newspaper cover Orange County in the aftermath of the strongest earthquake to hit Southern California in 40 years.

I had checked out a tamale factory fire in Anaheim--started by gang members and not the quake--a downed power line in Cypress and interviewed nervous South African and Kansan tourists at the hotels around Disneyland. Now I was at the cathedral to see if any of its 10,600 panes of glass had cracked and to note if Schuller mentioned the quake in his sermon.

Upon arrival, I talked to an usher and found out that the glass was fine. So I went inside, and 25 minutes before the service was to begin I settled into a chair near the back, just in case the building began to crumble.

About 100 people were milling about the chapel, the orchestra was tuning up and a boys choir from Ontario, Canada, was rehearsing a song about all of God's children being of one race. Their voices were a bit screechy, but the thought was nice.

It seemed as if the tension from the earlier quake was beginning to fade. Just then, the building's glass shook with a slight jolt. Then it rumbled.

It was the morning's second big quake.

The congregants froze and 200 eyes all seemed to simultaneously meet and then look skyward at the glass above. It shook with a great din that was loud enough to drown out any shouting.

The boys choir broke first, fleeing en masse down the cathedral's center aisle, pushing through the front doors and out into the parking lot. They were followed closely by about half of the adults.

I stood up with my eyes fixed on one corner of the chapel. The joints holding the structure's metal beams were sliding apart, opening a gap of at least six inches through which I could see the sky. A second or two later, the beams slammed shut.

I had two immediate thoughts. The rational, lifelong California resident portion of my brain was saying, "Amazing how those beams work. You know, if they were rigid and didn't come apart like that, they would snap and the building would collapse."

The other half was saying, "Most earthquake victims are killed by collapsing buildings. Others are done in by glass falling from high-rises. Here I am in a high-rise made primarily of glass. This ain't good."

But then the quake stopped. The overhead lights still shook. The water in the chapel's indoor fountain sloshed back and forth and spilled over the sides. All looked around. The building was intact. There was silence.

It was broken five seconds later when the orchestra's drummer performed a snappy vaudeville lick, ending it with a loud cymbal crash. Everyone laughed.

Those who ran outside slipped back in, peeking at the roof to make sure all was well. A singer came forward and sang "Amazing Grace."

And life, and the Crystal Cathedral, went on.

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