County can’t stop the rock

Is Club Retro a nuisance or just exercising religious freedom?

Bands like With Faith or Flames have been playing Christian rock for teens at Club Retro for years. But now the county says this musical ministry is a nuisance.

Bands like With Faith or Flames have been playing Christian rock for teens at Club Retro for years. But now the county says this musical ministry is a nuisance.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Calvin and Hobbes’ bootleg cousin, black-and-white teenage Calvin, has a sharp-angled, menacing face compared with his colorful counterpart’s look of sweet mischief. But 27-year-old youth pastor Matthew Oliver counters the image of the obnoxious teenager committing skullduggery by affixing a “praying Calvin” on his office door and welcoming teens to his “cutting edge” ministry.

Oliver opened doors three years ago to loud music and young people congregating at night at the Family Christian Center, or FCC, at 6521 Hazel Avenue in Orangevale. Countless Christian and non-Christian community members flocked to the alcohol- and drug-free “Club Retro” to listen to live bands; connect with peers; and, if they wanted to, “get God.” The energy and excitement of young people “being themselves” without being misunderstood permeates throughout the old sanctuary turned modern lounge.

But a recent Sacramento County threat to close the residentially zoned Club Retro turned patrons’ passion into action when over 400 people gathered outside of the FCC on September 20 to make a “silent statement” to the county: “We don’t have to be loud to have a voice.”

Some protesters sealed their mouths with red tape and carried signs that read, “I’m not a nuisance!” and “Here or on the streets—your choice!”

The county crashed Club Retro’s party on June 1 when investigators cited the church for creating a public nuisance, operating a nightclub and unpermitted use in a residential zone. A violation notice mailed on August 28 ordered the church to stop creating a public nuisance and shut down Club Retro.

Code enforcement received about four Club Retro complaints according to the county’s principal code officer, Carl Simpson.

Brian Reed, an across-the-street neighbor, told SN&R, “The volume [of the music] would shake the house and rattle the windows,” which “made sleep very difficult.” Reed, who goes to bed between 8:30 and 9 p.m. and works the early shift at 5:30 a.m. on the weekdays, said he was further aggravated by the “honking and peeling out” of patrons as they left the vicinity.

Church leaders met with county officials on September 13 to contest Club Retro’s closure and try to find a middle ground. The county put off its shut-down threat and gave the FCC 30 days to appease neighbors.

The next day, the FCC sent a letter to area residents, committing to lessening concert time and frequency, decreasing volume, keeping doors shut and adopting a no in-and-outs policy.

Although the violation notice telling the FCC to “cease operation” seemed like it meant business, Ted Wolter, chief of staff for County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan, said the county does not intend to shut down Club Retro. With extra diplomatic emphasis on “positive resolution,” he added, “We’re seeking a positive resolution where Club Retro is operating in a way that doesn’t create a nuisance for neighbors.”

But Oliver is wary of the county’s intentions for Club Retro. He said, “They’re saying one thing, and then they’re trying to say another thing, and we’re not buying it.”

According to Oliver, 8 years ago the county effectively forced the FCC to shut down a softball league held at the church. Neighbors complained about the dust, lights and noise, and Oliver said the county said, “Just work with your neighbors.” The church cut back hours, put up netting to keep balls from flying into yards, sprayed the infield to reduce dust and built a $130,000 sound wall. However, he said, eventually, “through restrictions, the softball league became ineffective.

“We gave up the softball league—hundreds of people coming out and being ministered to a different way,” he said, “We’re not going to let them do that with Club Retro.”

Code enforcer Simpson said, “We’re hoping they’re going to work it out, and then we’re going to walk away as long as there’s no longer an issue.” He added, “The county concedes [Club Retro is] a valuable service. We don’t care how they minister—we are looking at the results of what they’re doing.”

The church holds a county use permit, which allows for “ancillary uses,” but Simpson said Club Retro is “not what you would normally expect of incidental behavior.”

Oliver said, “It’s not the county’s job to define normal. We’re a church just doing a ministry. Teens at night with loud music at a church can be young people getting God.”

Rather than take to the streets on a Saturday night, SN&R went to check out Club Retro on September 16. Outside, the cars and trucks whizzing by on four-lane Hazel Avenue were louder than the sound of heavy metal muffled by shut doors. Three or four volunteer security members in snazzy black Club Retro T-shirts ushered us inside. Another volunteer who collects “suggested donations” of $5-$10 and checks IDs to label legal smokers, handed us neon-orange “VIP” bracelets and waived our fee.

The maroon and black hallway led to: a cafe that sells Sobe, Airheads and Hot Pockets but no booze; a lounge with three couches, a TV and an Atari; a “spiritual reading” room the size of a closet, with colorful stools and friendly people who pass on affirmations from God and pray for whatever your predicament might be; and finally a room with a closed door and a twisted metal sign that reads “Retro.”

The singing, screaming and pounding instrumentation increased exponentially in the Retro room. Christian and non-Christian local bands, usually still in high school, rock the stage while audience members about 14 to 25 years old rock out to the lyrics, which exclude profanity and obscenity.

“Through the music, you can communicate with God because when we come here and we congregate, there’s a certain presence that everyone can feel,” said Christopher Tucker, a security volunteer. “You can feel it in your heart, in your soul, in your mind.”

Oliver said, “I’ve had nights where a kid turns to me in the lounge and asks me a question, and the next thing I know, I’ve got 40 young people in the room listening. Then they’re just asking questions: ‘Well, what about this? What about this? What about this?’ It’s a new day. What people used to qualify as church has changed. Now church can be sitting in a lounge with kids asking you questions all of a sudden. It doesn’t have to be someone preaching from a pulpit.”

“Maybe traditional church isn’t working. This is,” said Sally Stephenson, a parent volunteer. “We like to be on the cutting edge with the culture and with God.”

Jessica Will, a cafe volunteer and club regular, said, “Every other church is, like, dead.” She explained: FCC youth ministry, “it’s not scheduled—we don’t have worship for this long, and we talk for this long, and then we play games for this long. Whatever we feel that God wants us to do, that’s what we do.”

“Our goal is to be effective,” said Oliver. “The point is to get the right people into the place and to make a conducive atmosphere for music, for enjoyment, for hanging out.” He said, “We’re not angry at the neighbors. Our goal is not to get out there and frustrate them even more. What we want to do is let the city know there are young people here. It matters to them.”