This opinion piece was written by Josh Cobia, a musician and the pastor of music and community at Resonate Church in Santa Monica, Calif. Posted the Washington Post
When I was a budding 21-year-old, I took a job at a church in Calabasas. It was a brand-new church meeting in a movie theater, and as I relocated to Los Angeles for my first service, I learned the Kardashian family were major supporters of the church from its infancy. At the time I had to Google their names to figure out who this celebrity family was. They had previously attended a much larger church in the area and met a very charismatic and prolific pastor there. He ended up leaving the church, thinking he would never go back to ministry.
It was Bruce Jenner who found this pastor three years later as he was working at Starbucks.
Jenner searched this pastor out and told him that wife Kris had been trying to find him and would love to talk with him. The pastor kindly received the request, and upon meeting, Kris Jenner told the pastor that they wanted to start a new church in their home town of Calabasas with him as the pastor.
If you’re surprised by this, so was I.
It’s a long story, so I’ll keep it short. He accepted.
I was introduced to this pastor as a potential worship leader leading music for the new church. The pastor flew up from Southern California to the Bay Area, where I was living, to come watch me lead worship at my dad’s church, where he serves as a pastor. When we had lunch later, he told me about the vision of his new church. He explained that it was a church designed for everybody, all were welcome, and it was a “come as you are” atmosphere. I was thrilled with this idea, and I hoped and prayed that he would call me about a position. I wasn’t convinced that I nailed the interview, but I was convinced that this was where God wanted me.
Sure enough, the following week, I was asked to come down and lead worship music in a preview service. A week later, I was offered the job. I had also let slip that I had a youth leader background and was great with students. The pastor asked me whether I would take on that role at the church. too, and I told him I would. I was thrilled to be able to work with kids close to my age and teach them about Jesus.
It was only just before that preview service that I learned that the Kardashians/Jenners were an integral part of this nondenominational evangelical church. I couldn’t understand why a family like this would want to help start a church, but I was even more intrigued.
As soon as I moved to Hollywood, I was contacted by Kris Jenner and asked to meet her at her home. I drove up to their larger-than-life mansion in Calabasas in the busted-up Honda I still drive today. She shared that she hoped her young daughters Kendall and Kylie would find God and he would be a huge part of their lives.
I enjoyed going to the Kardashian home over several visits. It was a warm and inviting place. They loved me for who I was, and Kendall and Kylie were always fun to be around. They were so funny and beyond their years. To a starving music student, their kitchen pantry was heaven, and I was not too proud to eat as many Susie Cake cupcakes as could fill my 21-year-old-stomach.
As the church got its start, I quickly fell in love with it. The church was growing, I was growing, my faith was growing, and soon I was able to start the youth group. The youth group initially met on the steps inside the Edwards Calabasas movie theater, and in attendance attracted some of the craziest/most diverse students. There were middle school computer prodigies, One Direction experts and a troublemaker or two, along with Kylie and Kendall, every week. This was the beginning.
At a certain point, I realized that just the Sunday morning experience wouldn’t be enough and asked the group whether there was a house that wouldn’t mind hosting a Wednesday night gathering where we could continue our conversations from Sunday morning. Kendall approached me and told me that we could meet at her house. So I led a youth group at the Kardashian home.
This is the same home you would recognize from the show. On my first visit, I noticed stage lights in every corner as a producer told me I couldn’t enter yet – they were in the middle of a scene.
Here, on the set of a reality-TV show and a family home, I began to have conversations with the celebrity we now know as Caitlyn Jenner before the youth group gathering. We would make small talk as she microwaved a giant plate of spaghetti. Students dropped cupcakes in her pool, and she was stellar enough to tell me not to worry about it. I would later watch her scoop it out of the pool herself. It was a great experience and a formative time for me. I even met my wife here as she volunteered for the youth group.
As the Jenner girls grew into careers of their own, there wasn’t a lot of time for the youth group. Kris and the girls stopped coming as regularly on Sunday mornings, as well, although Kylie and I would still joke around when they came for Easter and Christmas services. We moved the youth group from the Jenner home to my wife’s parents’ home and met weekly there. One thing remained, as odd as some of you may now find it…
Caitlyn stuck around.
She was there at church almost every Sunday, sitting in the front row and singing along to every song if he could. She would chat with me before services and make fun of how I wore sandals every day. I used to think that I was wasting her time before the service, Why would this Olympian/reality TV superstar want to talk with me?
But the more I talked with her on Sundays, the more I realized she actually cared about me. She wanted to know what was going on in my career and why I wasn’t preaching yet. I knew her family, I knew her simply as a parent to two girls in my youth group, and she just wanted someone to talk to. So we did just that.
She listened with great intent to the sermons at my church. I could tell she just loved being there. Caitlyn was the one in this family who never went out claiming to be a Christian. Her statement was her attendance at church, week after week, Sunday after Sunday.
I eventually left that church under great terms to help start a new church in Santa Monica. Caitlyn was there my final Sunday and gave me a big hug wishing me well.
News came out a few months later that Caitlyn would no longer identify herself as Bruce Jenner.
My newsfeed is flooded by both enormous support and enormous disappointment. Most of my friends who don’t know Jesus were in support of Caitlyn, proclaiming their acceptance and love for her. Those who did know Jesus were mostly either silent or derogatory.
Today, I can’t help but think how backward that is.
Caitlyn knows who Jesus is, and Jesus knows her by name. Whether that sits comfortably on a Facebook timeline or blog comment, I know firsthand that Caitlyn has heard the good news.
And, Caitlyn has taught me more about Jesus.
Caitlyn taught me to be bold. Jesus was bold enough to overturn tables at his father’s temple, he was bold enough to stand up to the religious leaders of his day and let them know they had it backwards. In the Bible, we see the oppressed overcome the oppressor and the meek become strong. That is the core of the Jesus I know. Jesus came to eat with the people no one would be seen with, to turn the tax collector into an honest man. He came to transform the world.
Caitlyn showed me that life is a journey with many twists and turns. Look back at this person’s story — a major Olympic athlete on the cover of a Wheaties box and a reality-TV star on one of the most bizarre shows about a family on the air. I will tell you that in my limited time in the Jenner/Kardashian home, Caitlyn was the most grounded and sensible person there. Would she claim to know Christ now? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m sure if I asked, she would give me an answer more fully thought out than one I could muster for myself.
What’s more pressing to me is how the church (my tribe) will respond to Caitlyn. The LGBTQ people I know are loving, accepting, beautiful people, and many of them have been so hurt by their church communities that they have left the faith.
Jesus wasn’t one to turn away from those the world had labeled broken. He was the one who would walk toward them with open arms.