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Big rock candy mountain

"Big rock candy mountain" Continued...

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

But now he’s alone again, shunned by half the community whom he claims his ex-girlfriend turned against him. 

Bubbles, a freckled 21-year-old with hazy green eyes and frizzy bronze hair, saunters over to offer Spider a cigarette. Her ears plugged to her Nokia cellphone, she sings and bops along to Taylor Swift’s “22” like a carefree young woman—except her life involves drugs, family dysfunction, and sexual abuse. She hopped on a train to Slab City with a bunch of friends. All of them left after a year. She stayed because she had nowhere else to go.

With ex-cons, bums, the unemployed, and others settling in the Slabs, conflicts often arise. “You won’t believe the drama we have here,” snorted Spider. “There are fights here. There’s gossip—so much gossip. If you listen to all that, you want to be put in a paddy wagon.”

So the community has needed to create its own system of rules: no trespassing, no stealing, take care of your trash. But often these rules are ignored and trash ends up strewn around the campsite, human waste dumped into pits dug in the ground. A group of residents created The Slab City Organization, a website dedicated to the cleanup and preservation of Slab City. But without police enforcement, vigilante justice reigns.

OFF THE GRID: An aerial view of Slab City.
Jessica Lum/Genesis
OFF THE GRID: An aerial view of Slab City.
LOVE STORY: A new hot air balloon.
Jessica Lum/Genesis
LOVE STORY: A new hot air balloon.
SLABBERS : Lynne Bright (right), head of the Slab City Community meetings and of the Slab City social club, Oasis Club.
Jessica Lum/Genesis
SLABBERS : Lynne Bright (right), head of the Slab City Community meetings and of the Slab City social club, Oasis Club.
SLABBERS : The Lizard Tree Library is always open
Jessica Lum/Genesis
SLABBERS : The Lizard Tree Library is always open
SLABBERS : The wedding ceremony of a couple who met in Slab City
Jessica Lum/Genesis
SLABBERS : The wedding ceremony of a couple who met in Slab City
SLABBERS : Cooling off in the canal.
Jessica Lum/Genesis
SLABBERS : Cooling off in the canal.

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Outside society still influences everyday life. Wifi is available all over the city: Bubbles checks in on Facebook; Spider engages in email battles on his cracked iPad. Drug overdoses and heart attacks draw city ambulances and fire trucks to the Slabs, and every resident has a post office box in town. While some residents barter or work odd jobs, their main source of income is still welfare or SSDI. 

Under a tarp canopy, Christian radio plays contemporary hymns, as a toothless Mama Lzi and bearded Pastor Dave lounge on worn, split-belly couches. 

Pastor Dave, 51, dressed in khaki shorts and ankle socks like a Boy Scout, sports a gray beard that falls just above his belly button. Mama Lzi, 67, wore nothing but a rattled shawl around her skinny frame and large sunglasses that covered half her weathered face. She chattered blithely with the graceful air of a Hollywood star, swaying her bony shoulders and sucking smooth into a cigarette. 

Pastor Dave and Mama Lzi took over the Living Water Mission, Slab City’s church, when its resident pastor left last year. Located in a blue bungalow, the church has been a staple in the community for 15 years, started by pastor Phil Hyatt. The couple are both ordained at the Universal Life Church, an anything-goes, free-style religious organization whose motto is “Do only what is right.” 

Every morning they lead Bible studies under the canopy. On Sundays, Dave preaches sermons to crowds between six and 30 in size. They also help out at The Haven—a sober area that acts as the church’s food bank and used clothing distribution center, connected to missions in nearby towns. 

“What brought me here was the economy and my health,” said Mama Lzi, who moved here with Dave 10 years ago. But she added, “I can’t live in a ‘box’ even if they paid me all the money in the world.”

Leisurely reaching over to pick two ticks off her ratty dog then crushing the parasites with a small rock, she dishes gossip with Bubbles and Spider, while Pastor Dave listens solemnly. 

One group of kids apparently started shooting heroin. Lzi pointed to Bubbles: “You stay away from them, ya hear? Dope [expletive] fries everything in your brain, I’ve seen what it did to my son and my son-in-law.” Later, she sniffed her medical marijuana plant and passed it around, cooing, “Doesn’t it smell incredible?”

One minute they’re grousing about their flat backsides–“The heat just melts butt fat off,” Spider said. And the next they’re discussing how to help Bubbles out of her abusive situation, with Pastor Dave offering a $10 bill from the morning’s tithe. 

As the Slabbers lament that the amount of drama in the desert is just as much as that in the city, Pastor Dave says the inescapable human condition is what his church wants to target: “I’m here to work with those who are lost and at the end of the rope, and show them Jesus Christ.”

And for those who have eyes to see, a colorful adobe mountain a few hundred feet away declares the solution to their problems: “Say Jesus I’m a sinner please come upon my body, and into my heart.”

Watch a video profile of Allie, one of the Slabbers:

One colorful ministry

But founder Leonard Knight doesn’t ask for money

LOVE STORY: Knight at his 80th Birthday celebration
LOVE STORY: Knight at his 80th Birthday celebration

The story of how Salvation Mountain ended up in the desert begins with Leonard Knight’s conversion to Christianity in 1967, his desire to spread his newfound faith, and his plan to sew together a hot air balloon with the message “God is love” and the sinner’s prayer on it. Over the span of 15 years, Knight travelled across the country sewing his hot air balloon, but when he finally tried inflating it, the balloon fabric had started to rot.

He found himself in Slab City, and started building a cement monument to proclaim the good news, but after four years the unstable mountain crumbled into a pile of rubble. Undeterred, he started over, this time creating his own mixture of adobe and straw, covered with layers and layers of paint. Knight estimates he has used more than 100,000 gallons of paint on the mountain.

John Norton, a volunteer at Salvation Mountain, said people have two ways of viewing the artwork: Either it’s the work of a crazy old man having too much time on his hands, literally watching paint dry. Or they see a man doing God’s commission to spread word of Christ’s salvation.

Norton, a born-again Christian, hangs around and leads visitors into conversations about the gospel. A handful have broken down and converted in front of Salvation Mountain. “I look at the mountain and I see a trap for fish,” he said. “The Lord told us to be fishers of men. I like it, this has the good feeling of holy ground.” 

Dan Westfall, president of Salvation Mountain’s nonprofit organization said that although he is “not that religious,” he considered the artwork a pure inspiration: “To me, it’s the world’s most obvious labor of love. It’s in-your-face–you just can’t miss the message.”

His concern is about the future of the mountain: When he asked Knight what he wanted to do with the mountain after he dies, Knight said he wanted it “to stay here and do the talking for me.”

Cynics may suspect Knight’s motives as an attention-seeking televangelist or a scam artist, but Westfall disagrees, as Knight has never asked for money.  “This is the purest form of ministry I’ve ever seen,” he said. —A.L., S.L.

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