Some people come to Hollywood to become famous. Karen Covell came to Hollywood to pray for those who are famous.
"It's a brutal place. People are lonely," Covell told VICE. "I think the enemy works the strongest here through loneliness, discouragement, and depression. There's so much of that here."
It was a Thursday morning in late June, and we were sitting in Covell's air-conditioned office on the top floor of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, a massive brick fortress that hugs the Hollywood Freeway and sits about a block from the Walk of Fame. It's here that Covell and her staff of three other women run the Hollywood Prayer Network, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing Christianity to the entertainment industry.
Though its headquarters are small, its influence is broad: The network claims to have 82 chapters in 29 countries, where devotees gather to pray for the people working in both their local film and television industries as well as the global industry that churns out multimillion dollar summer blockbusters, red carpet premieres, and A-list celebrities.
"The church hates Hollywood, Hollywood hates the church. There's got to be some way to bridge that divide." — Karen Covell
While many missionaries travel to remote villages in Africa or South America to spread Christianity, Covell believes her calling—her mission field, if you will—is right here in Los Angeles, in an industry that many of her fellow Christians find immoral or even downright sinful, both for its onscreen depictions of sex and drugs and the real-life sex, drugs, and other temptations that exist behind-the-scenes.
Covell, who was a film producer in the early 1980s, says "the church did not get how I could justify being a Christian in Hollywood, and Hollywood did not get how I would follow God. It was a divide." It was nearly impossible to meet other Christians working in the industry, let alone ones who would express their faith openly. "I said, 'The church hates Hollywood, Hollywood hates the church. There's got to be some way to bridge that divide.'"
The epiphany came when she and her husband, a film and TV composer, heard about a friends' missionary trip and began to think about Hollywood through a different lens. "As they described the Masai tribe in Africa, Jim and I were sitting there, and we said, 'It's exactly like the Hollywood tribe,'" she remembers.
"We have our own Gods that we worship—the Oscar Gods, the Emmy Gods, the little gold-plated statues. [The Masai] have their own language. You read the trade papers here, and it's all this language that nobody understands," she said, rattling off a list of industry acronyms. But rather than trying to convert the "Hollywood tribe" to Christianity, she says "you [have to] just love the people and let Jesus shine through us."
Every week, the Hollywood Prayer Network sends out an email newsletter advising its followers to pray for a specific entertainer working within the industry—usually, someone who has recently been in the news or has a new project on the horizon. Recent picks have included Adam DeVine, the Workaholics co-creator and star of the raunchy new movie Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates; Sophie Turner, the 20-year-old British actress who plays Sansa Stark on Game on Thrones; and Anton Yelchin, the 27-year-old Star Trek actor who died in a car accident last month.
The Hollywood Prayer Network, which began in 2001, is just one of more than a dozen entertainment industry-focused ministries that have sprung up in Los Angeles over the last two decades. There are Bible study groups on nearly every major film lot, church-inspired acting workshops, theater groups, film festivals, and faith-based networking groups advertising both personal growth and professional development.
Unlike Christian organizations that have shunned Hollywood, staging boycotts against movies like 50 Shades of Grey, Star Wars, The DaVinci Code, and even the Harry Potter series, this camp of prayer groups has decided to actively pray for these projects and everyone involved with them—Christian or not.
Tinseltown Ministries, a Bible study group that meets twice a week at the 20th Century Fox lot and CBS Studio Center, is one such example. On a recent Wednesday night, the group of 20 or so members gathered over Bibles and sandwiches around a long conference table at the Fox lot, in the same building as the production office for the TV show Bones and across from a giant mural paying tribute to Young Frankenstein.
"We came here to do this specifically for people that are in Hollywood because it is a hard place to work if you're saved," said Gary Swanson, the white-bearded pastor who leads Tinseltown Ministries, in an interview with VICE. "We know that we're not going to change Hollywood, but we hope to impact it in some way."
Swanson, like Covell, grew up in Chicago. He became a fixture on the Sunset Strip party scene in the 1960s, where he met his wife, Judy, and moved back to the Midwest to start a family shortly thereafter. But after working for three companies in a row that went under, he turned to God for help—and got saved in 1975. When he and his wife took a nostalgic trip to California decades later, they ended up staying, eventually founding Tinseltown Ministries in 2002.
"The last thing my pastor said when I came out here is, 'Why are you going to Sodom and Gomorrah?'" Swanson told VICE. "So much of [Hollywood] is anti what most Christians believe. [There's] a message to it that Christians find troubling."
Attempting to foster a religious community can be particularly challenging in a town where everyone's looking for the next gig, and scoring one can mean spending months filming away from home. "Hollywood is a transient portal, people come and go," says Swanson. "We're sitting here praying for them to get work. And then they get work, and you don't see them [again]."
By the 1940s, many Christians had become disillusioned with the film industry—enough so that a parallel industry of Christian film was beginning to emerge. A decade later, evangelist Henrietta Mears took control of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood's Christian education program, making connections with nearby studios like Paramount and forming secret Bible study groups from her home. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actress Jane Russell and country-Western stars Dale Evans and Roy Rogers were among its earliest members, according to Covell.
Problem was, the group urged its members to get out of the entertainment industry, and by the 1960s, there was no one left in Hollywood to continue it. A number of small Bible study groups formed clandestinely in Hollywood throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but the community experienced an explosion of growth in 1987, when actor and producer David Schall founded one of the first entertainment industry-focused ministries, InterMission.
When Schall died of a heart attack in 2003 (just before taking the stage in a production of Uncle Vanya at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood), a handful of ministries including the Hollywood Prayer Network had already begun to build a burgeoning Christian community within the industry. Today, there are more entertainment-focused ministries than ever before, but identifying as a Christian in Hollywood hasn't gotten much easier.
"Because [to non-believers] in Hollywood, honestly, a Christian is a right-wing, homophobic, finger-pointing, judgmental person," said Covell, who thinks the only thing more taboo than being a Christian in Hollywood is being a Republican.
Christianity might never be trendy in Hollywood, but Covell still sees it as her mission field—and the world's most influential one, at that.
"The people in Hollywood are creating products that impact the entire world—and you can't just make the content change," she told VICE. "The products will never change until the hearts of the people creating them change."
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