Paul Fox was a lot of things growing up, but religious was not one of them.
Fox came of age in Venice, Calif., where he was what he calls an “S & S” — a surfer and stoner. He suffered two drug overdoses, one when he was 12 and another when he was 17. He would often think about the meaning of life. He said he even had hallucinations about God. But Fox was discouraged from seeking answers from organized religion.
“My father was very mocking of religious people,” he said. “He thought people that believed in God were weak and were using it as a crutch.”
But, 30 years later, as he stands before his congregation at the International Community Church of Columbia, Fox seems right at home as a pastor and religious leader. Dressed in khakis and a collared shirt, his scrunched face framed by glasses, he addresses his congregation in a tone of such quiet confidence that it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t born for the role.
Fox’s comfort level no doubt has something to do with the kind of church he leads. Although it’s affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America, 50 percent of Fox’s congregants at the International Community Church do not consider themselves Christian. About half of his church’s members are from places like Korea, Singapore, China, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Bolivia, Mexico and Japan.
Fox said that while he would ideally like to see the congregation become even more diverse, it means a lot to him that people who would be at home in a traditional church also attend International Community Church.
“There’s a lot of Christians who would want a church for their own needs, families and beliefs, and they leave after a while,” Fox said. “But the ones that stay do it out of a sense of sacrifice; they sacrifice their own desires for the sake of other people. That’s what makes this work— the servant attitude toward non-Americans and non-Christians.”
As someone who approached organized religion with some trepidation, Fox is attuned to religious diversity. He considers his church to be seeker-sensitive – that is, while the people who pray with him are seeking some version of the truth, they are not necessarily committed to believing in God or following Christ. That’s why Fox tries to avoid using a lot of traditionally Christian language in his sermons.
He also considers his church to be culturally sensitive. Because many of his congregants are learning English as a
second language, Fox often uses slides and pictures as visual aids during services. He also presents stories from Chinese and African folklore, instead of focusing on ones that are traditionally American.
The church building, at 1107 University Ave., reflects the International Community Church’s global diversity. The walls of the main room are covered in flags and maps. The room also houses multilingual prayer books, as well as photos and newspaper clippings of church events.
A big part of Fox’s mission is to help his foreign congregants navigate American life. American members of his church often go with members new to the United States to the car dealer, the grocery store or the doctor’s office to ensure that they are treated fairly.
“People are always trying to rip them off because they think they’re ignorant,” Fox said.
Although he now considers the International Community Church to be his “dream church,” Fox’s spiritual journey was long and complicated. He recalls his first meeting with a Christian while he was studying international relations at the University of California-Davis. Fox, who at the time was practicing Transcendental Meditation and Buddhism, said he made fun of the woman.
“I thought she was narrow-minded and self-righteous,” he said. “She started crying and said, ‘If you’re so open-minded, come to church with me.’ I was trapped by my own words.”
Around that time, he went to the Sunday school class of one of his professors, who persuaded him to pray. Fox recalls a strange sensation and a peace that came over him, as he asked God to reveal himself to him.
Fox ended up dropping out of school and traveling to Germany and Greece before spending a year on a kibbutz in Israel. It was there that he considers his official conversion to have occurred.
After overcoming initial anxiety (“I thought I was unworthy of it”) and following the advice of a mentor, Fox decided to pursue a life as a pastor. He transferred to a seminary in St. Louis, where he then began his career at international churches. He spent four years in a Korean church and two years as the English pastor of a Chinese church, before winding up in Columbia.
In maintaining the church’s communitylike character, Fox offers programs from introductory English classes to pingpong nights to semi-traditional religious school classes.
Lisa Bermudez, one of his Sunday school teachers, said that she teaches her class pretty much as she would teach anyone, by using a curriculum as a guide while focusing on the individual student. She does, however, recognize the unique combination of religion and language that she must address.
“Most don’t have a Bible background, so my story of King David, or whoever, may be the first they’ve heard of him,” Bermudez said. “I feel like I’m giving them ‘hooks’ on which to pin future learning. I probably give fewer details of the Bible story than I would in a class of ‘churched’ kids.”
Bermudez praises Fox for the many types of support that he offers his church’s members.
“He is very welcoming to all and is willing to put himself out constantly to help,” Bermudez said. “Meals to families with illness, counseling in difficult situations, driving lessons, language, culture explanations, honestly, I have no idea how many ways he quietly helps.”
Helen Yamparah appreciates that concern. Originally from Bolivia, Yamparah met her husband, Alejandro, in Mexico. They moved to Columbia together two years ago, with their 7-year-old son Ramon. Although Yamparah comes from a Catholic family, she decided that the Catholic churches in Columbia weren’t a good fit for her. She was unable to find a church that offered the kind of support she was looking for. “For me, the important thing in the church is the pastor,” she said.
She heard about the International Community Church through a friend, and one visit convinced her that it was the right place for her and her family. She said that when Fox presents Bible passages, he compares them to stories from different cultures. Fox’s personal style keeps the congregation focused and interested, making it easier for people of different religious backgrounds to understand the concepts.
“I’m learning about the Bible and about other countries at the same time,” she said. “And I love that.”
Yamparah also appreciates the servant-like aspects that Fox has embraced. Before giving birth to her second son Adrian, who is about 2 months old, she spent nine weeks in the hospital on bed rest. Because the family has no other relatives in Columbia, the Yamparahs relied on Fox and other church members to bring food and offer comfort.
“I think ‘if I move from this city, where would I find another church like it?’” she said.
For the future, Fox would like the church to become even more of a community center, through which he could offer a more complete English language school as well as an international preschool.
“I have a lot of goals,” he said, “but a church like this is like a train: People get on, they ride it for a while and then get off, and get on and they get off. It’s kind of like being in the middle of the world.”