Where church, state aren't so separate

The old Newport Beach council chambers, which have sat largely vacant for more than a year, came to life once again on a recent Sunday.

Mayor Rush Hill was not present to call the meeting to order. The voting buttons on the dais — "yes", "no" and "abs" — went unused.

About 5 p.m., two hours earlier than a City Council meeting usually starts, attendees began filing into the rows of auditorium-style chairs. But they didn't pick up copies of council agendas as they entered, nor did they come prepared with notes for public comment.

Toting Bibles, the group instead received outlines for a sermon. Clad in casual attire, they planned to hear about Christ's forgiveness, rather than consider dock fees or the city's trash system. Performers sang Christian worship music from the area where city staff once sat, now cleared of desks and illuminated by colored lights.

Sure, the city seal still hung on the building's facade, and maps of the city remained on the room's walls. The space, however, had taken on a new, less-secular purpose.

The assembly of roughly 80 parishioners had gathered for a "preview service" for the fledgling Viewpoint Church, a contemporary, non-denominational Christian church that plans officially to launch in the old City Hall space it has rented from the city on Easter Sunday, hopefully with added decor.

"We want this place to look like something other than City Hall," said Roger Tirabassi, a Newport Beach resident of more than 20 years who is leading the effort with his wife, Becky, to "plant a church," as they describe it, on the Balboa Peninsula.

Only since mid-March have the worshipers had a more permanent space to call home.

When church members started meeting roughly a year ago, they gathered at first on the sandy shores near The Wedge. As they grew in size, and winter approached, they also used space provided to them by Costa Mesa's Rock Harbor Church, which is guiding and supporting their efforts.

Although a hotel is in the works to be built on the land at 3300 Newport Blvd., the city hasn't yet approved a final project. The California Coastal Commission would also have to consider the hotel's plans before construction can begin.

Until then, Viewpoint Church pays the city the standard $46 hourly rate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each Sunday to hold services at the old City Hall — a space they chose because of its immediate availability and its location on the Peninsula. They also rent the room for occasional weekday meetings.

"Where better a place to start, right?" posed Gary Vyneman, who has been involved in the effort from the start.

Although city staff still hold occasional meetings in the space, the council has not called a regular meeting to order there since November 2012.

Any markers that once explicitly declared the building City Hall have been removed, noted City Manager Dave Kiff.

However, the city hasn't decided where to move the city seal yet.

The council chambers are available to any community group for use, Kiff said. The West Newport Beach Assn., for example, gathers there periodically.

"An unused building, where the heat's never turned on, the water's never used, that's not a healthy building," Kiff said. "Whether it was church, or another community group, we want to keep using the council chambers to keep it a working building."

The church adapts the space as its own on Sundays, fulfilling the intention to serve the Peninsula community in particular.

"If it's something that's allowable under the city's code, then that's OK with me," Councilman Mike Henn, who represents the Peninsula area, said of the church's use of the space.

Kinks, of course, remain to be worked out.

Tirabassi paused while delivering his message to switch out his buzzing microphone. The speakers continued to emit a low humming noise, followed by popping sounds, and he ultimately went on without a microphone as he described forgiveness as a universal need. They have since solved the problem.

He asked the audience to consider where they needed healing, be it emotional or physical.

"Let God speak a word to you about this," he said.

Maps are not perhaps iconic imagery for a church, but "that's the place we're praying for," Becky Tirabassi noted.

She took over for the second half of the sermon, sharing a personal story about how forgiveness releases love.

"My prayer is that this church is a church where we can just love on the Peninsula," said A.J. Swies, 20. "The Peninsula is like a mission field."

Before services, temporary yard signs point the way to the church. A banner reading "Welcome to Viewpoint" beckons above the doors.

The week prior, a group of people simply rode by on their bikes and wandered in, Natalie Swift, 21, said.

Her father, Pete, had also never been part of a church community before Natalie invited him to the Viewpoint group, she said.

A dock builder, he grew up on M Street, right near where the early gatherings were held.

Now, during the services, a cross he built leans in the corner of the City Hall meeting room.

The Easter Sunday service will take place at 10 a.m. April 20. Regular services take place at 5 p.m.

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