It was to be a dream vacation. Vi and Nathan had saved for several years to be able to travel comfortably to California, a land of sunshine and celebrities. They knew someone who knew someone who had traveled by coach from San Diego to Napa Valley and enjoyed every minute of it. It looked like something they would enjoy, especially after looking at photos of deep blue skies, swaying palm trees and lush green lawns.
So different from their frigid home in Minnesota. They were tired of deep snow and steel grey skies. Tired of working at the jobs they’d had since they married thirty years ago. Tired of the same old monotony that was controlled by the seasons. So they packed their bags, took a bus to the train station and then on to the airport in Minneapolis.
When they arrived in San Diego they took a shuttle to their hotel. The first thing they did was change into shorts, t-shirts, and sandals, covered themselves with loads of sunscreen, then headed out to walk the streets. Vi carried the camera slung over her shoulder and pulled it out at every opportunity. She snapped shots of anything that was remotely interesting, and even some of people that she was convinced were movie stars.
The next morning, after a brief introductory meeting, they boarded the coach and settled in for the tour. Nathan researched the spots on the itinerary using his cell phone, while Vi sat with her face glued to the window. They were not disappointed. Everywhere they went they saw things that represented California’s colorful past. Adobe buildings, missions, Mexican restaurants and museums.
In the morning they headed to the Los Angeles area. They spent one day at Disneyland and another at Knott’s Berry Farm. They went to a botanical garden and tar pits. They visited Universal Studies and an art museum. They even got to walk the famous sidewalks of Hollywood.
On up the coast they went, stopping to catch all the promised sites. Vi and Nathan were having the time of their lives. They did not have to worry about which roads to take, where to stop, where to spend the night. It was all arranged and paid for as part of the tour.
Eventually they reached the last stop on the trip; the famous Napa Valley. Nathan was looking forward to visiting a few wineries while Vi planned on taking an alternate trip to the Church of Saving Grace. In the morning, Nathan hopped on one shuttle bus while Vi got on another, camera in hand.
Vi’s bus took her up a winding path into an area of deep green trees and colorful gardens. They stopped briefly at a gate where the driver spoke to a security guard, showing some papers before they were finally able to continue. The guard made Vi a bit uncomfortable. What kind of church has protective services? Especially one that catered to tourists.
As the bus drove toward the massive white building at the end of the road, she saw men walking the manicured lawn on one side, women walking on the other. They were dressed alike in white polo shirts and khaki pants. No one seemed to be speaking, no one was smiling. They just walked. This was such an odd scene that Vi wished she had gone with her husband.
When the bus stopped, a group of people lined the steps to the front door of the church. They did not wave or smile, but as the passengers stepped down, a person came forward and took each of them inside. Vi noticed that men escorted men, women took care of women. Vi sat still, thinking she’d remain on the bus, but the driver told her she had to get off.
The woman who approached Vi had shoulder-length brown hair. She was short and slim and while her mouth smiled, her eyes did not. “Hello,” the woman said. “I am Serenity. I’ll be your guide today. Please come with me.” She touched Vi’s elbow and lead her up the steps and into the double-doors of the building.
Everything was sparkling white. Not a smudge on the floor or walls or windows. No paintings or murals were hung. No statues or artifacts. Nothing that indicated which religion the people worshiped. Vi reached for her camera, but the woman told her that no photos were allowed anywhere on the grounds.
The woman opened a door at the end of the hall and stood aside. Vi entered. Nothing but women sat in the pews. The tourists alternated with uniformed guides.
Vi looked around, expecting to see an altar, tabernacle and stained glass windows. There was none of that. Only white and more white. The only break in the nothingness was an upholstered chair at the front.
A tinny bell rang and the guides stood. The tourists stood as well. A man entered through a door at the side. He was clean-cut and dressed in the same uniform as the others. There was nothing about him that indicated religious office. He did not carry a bible, he did not genuflect or kneel. He simply stood and smiled.
“Welcome,” he said. “I am Brother Anthony. I am one of the spiritual leaders of the Church of Saving Grace. Our goal today is to make you as comfortable as possible while sharing some of our beliefs. Hopefully you will be inspired to join us in our worship meeting later on today. Meanwhile, relax.” With that he turned and walked out of the room.
Vi’s guide led her out of the room and down the hall. They entered an area that was full of steam and surrounded by sets of large blue lockers. The guide opened one and took out a nondescript bathing suit. “I hope this fits,” she said. “Please put this on. You can leave your clothes here. They will be safe.”
“What about my camera? Where should I put it?”
“I’ll hold it for you,” the guide said.
Vi did not want to change clothes. She did not want to give up her camera. She did not want to be welcomed into this church. All she wanted was to leave. Now. She turned and walked quickly to the door, pulled it open and stepped into the hall. She scurried away, camera protectively slung over her shoulder. Just as she leaned against the large double-doors, the guide called after her.
“Come back!” she said. “You must stay with me.”
Vi walked faster. She practically ran down the steps and headed off to the right, the direction in which the bus had gone. The woman caught up with Vi and grabbed her by the arm. “Stop,” she said. “you cannot roam about the grounds. It is not permitted.”
Vi shook her off and walked faster.
The woman jumped in front of Vi. “You must return to the center. Visitors are not allowed to walk about unescorted.”
“Get out of my way,” Vi said. “I am going back to the bus.” Vi pulled out her phone and punched in 911. “I’m calling the police,” she said. “I’m sure they’d be interested in this place. There’s something weird going on here.”
“Okay, okay,” the woman said. “I’ll help you find your bus, but once on board, you cannot get off.”
“That’s fine with me.”
They walked in silence. Vi kept her finger on the call button, ready to push it if anything untoward happened. She glanced nervously from left to right, expecting someone to jump out and grab her. Thankfully no one did.
She found her bus, the driver inside. He opened the door for her and she climbed on. Vi sighed. She felt as if she had escaped a dreadful fate.
Much later, the other passengers returned. Vi listened to their chatter. Some people were enthralled by what they had witnessed, while others, like Vi, were deeply disturbed.
When Vi rejoined Nathan at the hotel, she explained what she had seen and how she had felt. Nathan told her she had done the right thing. While he was in route to the first winery, he had looked up the church on the Internet. It had mixed reviews, some of them deeply disturbing.
From then on, for the remainder of their trip, Vi never left Nathan’s side. It was where she felt most secure.