A Mighty Hangar Is a Crystal Cathedral for God

updated 09/29/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1980 01:00AM

Every end is a new beginning," proclaimed the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, as he picked up the Bible from the pulpit of his Garden Grove (Calif.) Community Church, and led a congregation of 2,000, a choir of 150 and six assistant ministers out of their sanctuary of the past 19 years. The procession then followed Schuller past a fountain-lined walkway and into a stunning glass-sheathed new church. The $18 million "Crystal Cathedral" was open for its first services.

Five years ago Dr. Schuller announced plans for the star-shaped, multileveled sanctuary. "I had a private prayer with God," he recounts. " 'God, if you want it built, provide the cash and I'll take the criticism.' " At the official consecration ceremonies last week, Schuller, a quietly charismatic minister who preaches the upbeat faith of "Possibility Thinking" on his weekly Hour of Power television broadcasts, happily declared that both ends of the bargain had been met. Four individuals donated $5 million, while the 12,000 silver-mirrored windows were bought by donors at $500 a pane. The sale of Mylar "memorial" stars to be suspended from the 128-foot-high ceiling paid for the furnishings. Thus, the cathedral opened debt free. All income beyond operating costs, Schuller promises, will be used for ministry work and missions around the world. (The first collection plate total of more than $100,000 went to set up a medical center in Chiapas, Mexico.)

The criticism coming Schuller's way is mostly good-natured ribbing from the likes of Don Rickles, who quipped: "I'm in favor of the Crystal Cathedral because I have the Windex concession." To be sure, the church has been dubbed "Religionland," but that's because of its location just one freeway exit south of Disneyland.

Larger than Notre Dame in Paris, the Crystal Cathedral was designed by the noted Manhattan architect Philip Johnson and his partner John Burgee. Its lacy, white-trussed frame structure is naturally cooled by window vents and giant, 90-foot doors that swing open electronically to the 275-car parking area for drive-in services. Built to withstand even the most severe earthquakes, the church sits on support columns that "float" on four-inch pads of Styrofoam. Not long ago Schuller personally witnessed the cathedral's invulnerability to earthquakes when a tremor rumbled by. "All I felt was gentle movement," he says gratefully. "Then I said, 'It must be some happy angels flying overhead.' "

A quarter century ago Schuller, 54, conducted his first Easter service just a mile away—from the snack bar roof at the Orange drive-in movie theater. His congregation that morning was 50 people seated in 30 cars. A native of Iowa, a graduate of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich, and ordained by the Reformed Church in America, Schuller settled with his wife, Arvella, in Southern California in 1955. He has watched his flock grow to 2.5 million, counting the TV audience across the U.S., Canada and Australia. The father of five (one son, Robert, 26, will be ordained later this year at the Cathedral) and grandfather of two, Schuller says the opening of the Crystal Cathedral was "the top day of my ministry." It illustrates what Possibility Thinking can do, he notes. "I always say, 'Make plans big enough to leave room for God.' "

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