Protesters rallied outside the Hotel del Coronado on Sunday as it hosted a preview service for the controversial Awaken Church, which plans to open a new location in Coronado.
“Come on in if you hate the gays,” a protester yelled as people streamed in while church volunteers in orange shirts hugged attendees in greeting.
“We believe in love, not hate,” said Rae Roth, a protester dressed in rainbow down to her sneakers, gesturing to the Bible verses on her sign. “Many of us, maybe even most of us, believe in God. This is not about God. This is about preaching love, and God is love.”
Awaken, a church with six campuses in San Diego and two others in Utah and Idaho, has been criticized for plenty: its view of the LGBTQ+ community, its tax exempt status, its political activism, its prosperity gospel. The church’s harshest critics call it a cult.
But members say it’s a place of love, faith, and community, and say its rapid growth is testament to that.
“The people outside are saying we spread hate (toward the LGBTQ+ community), and it’s not true,” said Kristiana Sussi, who meets weekly with the Coronado Awaken church plant. “We don’t hate them; we love them. I do believe that what they’re doing is a sin that is not a part of who God made them to be, but we all have sin. I still love them.”
Sussi said she’s encountered a genuine community and has grown in her faith at Awaken. For the last year, she has been a part of the Coronado church plant, which she says now comprises about 30 families. She said that protesters are taking snippets of sermons at Awaken out of context.
“The one word I come back to again and again at Awaken is ‘humility,’” she said. “Everyone I encounter is so humble and genuine. There is no drama, just support, and I’ve grown so much in my spiritual journey.”
Outside, however, protesters chant: “No place for hate!”
More than 500 people attended Sunday’s service. Sussi said the Coronado families were there, but also, Awaken members from other campuses in Coronado were in attendance. The church offered golf cart shuttles from parking locations to the service.
The church’s lead pastor, Jurgen Matthesius, operates a politically charged social media presence. He called those in Coronado who oppose Awaken’s plant “demoniacs” but said the criticism is a sign of things to come, likening the church’s struggle with Jesus’ reception.
“This is such a wonderful confirmation that HOLY is coming to bring heaven’s freedom to the beautiful people of Coronado,” Matthesius wrote on Instagram, “and the UNHOLY tormented, destructive, unclean spirits are manifesting! It’s time for Coronado’s deliverance!”
His wife, Leanne Matthesius, has posted that “Pride Month” has, at its core, the letters “d-e-m-o-n.”
Outside the Hotel Del, more than 100 protesters waved signs. Passing cars honked in support. A rainbow shone through the clouds, and the group called it a sign.
“Awaken perverts what Christianity is,” said Roth, a longtime Coronado resident. “Christianity should be accepting and humble and not assume everyone who is not in the group is a demon. I’m proud of Coronado for standing against this. People here care about each other, and that’s how it’s always been: neighbors caring about neighbors.”
Lead Pastor Jurgen Matthesius delivered a sermon called “Casting Crowns,” in reference to both Revelation 4:9-11 and to Coronado itself, standing in front of a screen displaying a large crown akin to the city’s logo.
“And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever,” the verses read, “the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne” (New American Standard Bible).
To many Christians, “casting crowns” symbolizes humility and relinquishing human power. It is the name of a Grammy- and Dove-award-winning Christian rock band.
“For those of you who don’t know, Coronado means the crown, or crowning, a coronation,” Matthesius said. “And we’re taking the crown away. It’s not that we’re removing the crown, there’s a crown here, we’re just shifting it this way.”
The room erupted in applause.
“I believe that God wants to bring a shift over the atmosphere,” Matthesius said. He said the city needs to be healed, and referenced the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge, which ranks number two in the nation for suicides, as an example.
The Awaken experience
Attending Awaken on Sunday meant passing protesters and large signs saying the church spreads hate. I ducked my head walking inside, mumbled thanks to the people greeting me. Once inside, the event space at the Hotel Del was standing room only, with attendees spilling out into the lobby. People hugged one another in greeting; kids ran around playing.
As a solo attendee, several people approached me to chat. I stood in the back of the auditorium with my four-month-old strapped in her carrier, and during the service, three separate people offered me their seats. People were very nice.
When Matthesius and his wife, Leanne Matthesius, arrive, people in the lobby cheer – loudly. Leanne walks over and gives me a hug, and then hugs Sussi, the church plant member. “Of course I know who you are,” Sussi says.
During worship, a packed crowd dances and waves their hands in the air. People sit, hands folded in their laps, and pray. Security strolls up and down the aisles.
Before Matthesius begins his message, he introduces other pastors in attendance, all to raucous applause. I slip outside, worried about my baby’s ears – it’s loud. It is a different type of service, even for a megachurch.
Different doesn’t mean bad. I’ve attended Christian churches of all denominations. I’ve crammed into a packed apartment service for a community of Chin refugees, who fled their homes in Myanmar after religious persecution. I’ve felt my back stiffen after six hours in a loud, joyful service in a slum in Kampala, Uganda. I’ve attended worship services in Tokyo, fumbling to keep up with my clumsy Japanese.
I’ve attended Hillsong, the Australian church that arguably pioneered the contemporary megachurch and is now buckling under sexual and financial abuse controversies. (Matthesius attended Hillsong College.)
And I’ve attended a church planted by the Association of Related Churches, the Hillsong-connected network that starts churches internationally, which is currently facing lawsuits alleging financial misconduct.
Those churches also felt different.
“Your battle becomes your crown,” Matthesius said, referencing Abraham, who was promised by God that he would be made “a great nation” (Genesis 21). But it took his wife, Sarah, 25 years to conceive Isaac, a father of Israel.
They had to wait, Matthesius said, so the delivery of their promise would come with great faith. Their biggest struggle became their greatest crown.
He then referenced his own life. His father cut him off financially after he opted to become a pastor rather than an engineer, and at his first job in ministry, he earned no salary.
Awaken has been criticized for its financial practices and leanings into prosperity theology, a niche religious belief that says financial blessing and physical well-being are the will of God. Faith brings prosperity; faith will heal. Mainstream evangelical Christianity widely considers the doctrine heretical.
“Jesus was born poor, and he died poor,” theologian Cathleen Falsani wrote for The Washington Post. “During his earthly tenure, he spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual wealth and health. When he talked about material wealth, it was usually part of a cautionary tale.”
But Mike Yeager, the pastor of the Coronado church plant, says this criticism is inaccurate. During his remarks at Awaken’s Coronado service, he implored people to give – but he said in a phone interview that by giving, the church gives back.
“The big misconception is that we believe God wants to dump money on us so we can buy big houses and five Maseratis,” Yeager said. “We believe it’s God’s heart and desire to bless us so we can bless others. Just like Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing.”
Money is a tool, Yeager said.
“The people of Awaken Church are the most generous people I’ve ever been around,” he said. “They give away cars, they give away money, they invite people into their homes, they invite them on vacation. We, as a church, really walk this out. We don’t believe we give just to get more money; we believe that God desires to bless us so that we can bless others.”
It’s a church you either love or hate, with people on one side of the walls saying it brings them faith and community, and people on the other side saying it brings hate.
“As the parent of an LGBTQ+ youth who grew up in Coronado, I want all children and families in our town to know that they are safe and welcome,” said Cheryl Rode. “This is not about religious freedom. This is about the right to be safe in our homes and in this community.”