“…he who rejects me rejects him who sent me…” (Luke 10:16)

 

religion merchant
Image: Corey Arnold

Demonstrating that “church” can happen anywhere, filmmaker Dan Merchant takes his communion at the Bagdad Theater in Southeast Portland.

Dan Merchant

Maker of Lord, Save Us from Your Followers lordsaveusthemovie.com

Dressed in a white jumpsuit plastered in religious regalia ranging from a Jesus fish to a bumper sticker that reads, “Sorry I missed church, I’ve been busy practicing witchcraft and becoming a lesbian,” Dan Merchant bundles evangelism and paradox.

He doesn’t want to convert you; he just wants to get you talking. “Everybody has faith of some kind, in something—whether you’re an atheist or a Baptist,” he says. “And since we all have that enormous thing in common, the conversation about religion oughta be a whole lot bigger than what can fit on a bumper sticker.”

In the fall of 2006, Merchant donned his irreverent ensemble and hit the road with a cameraman, chatting up such disparate folks as Teen Mania Ministries pied piper Ron Luce, comic-turned-senator Al Franken, and a San Francisco drag queen named Sister Mary Timothy. The resulting documentary, Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, jumped squarely into what Merchant calls “the collision of culture and faith in America.” With the comedic theatricality of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock and the penetrating emotional tenor of a good counseling session, Lord, Save Us has become a barrier-bridging hit, playing in 13 cities, with several more booked and Merchant frequently along for live follow-up.

Baptized in a river on the Olympic Peninsula, Merchant has attended the same Beaverton church for 20 years. His father, an aerospace engineer, exposed Merchant to the world’s religions; his mother kept their TV tuned to The 700 Club. Given free rein to pick his own faith, Merchant chose Christianity. “The teachings of Jesus just made the most sense to me,” he says. “He’s the one religious figure in the history of mankind who didn’t get anything out of the deal,” he says, chuckling. “Buddha got enlightenment, Muhammad got to lead the army—Jesus, people shit on him wherever he went.”

“But the self-sacrifice and the grace and the redemption and the forgiveness,” he adds, “it all seems so otherworldly, but when applied in this world, it actually works.”

"What I see in Portland is a whole lot of believers doing a whole lot more than sitting in church on Sundays. Faith gets expressed in dynamic ways—the flavor and character of it is different." —Dan Merchant

Merchant toils in the largely uninhabited nexus of Christian evangelism, Portland liberalism, and pop-cultural celebrity. And as Lord, Save Us makes its way across the country, he sees himself as a pioneering exporter of a laid-back, quintessentially Stumptown brand of faith that’s rooted in Luke 10:25–37 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) and is exemplified by boundary-busting collective acts of kindness like Luis Palau’s Season of Service. “The culture of Portland is sloppy, weird, and wonderful,” Merchant says. “We’re not threatened by the diversity of ideas.”

With another decade of such service evangelism, Merchant imagines that the all-too-common perception of Christians as “those people who vote against this and this and hate everyone” might gradually blossom into a new image.

“What does Jesus’s love look like?” he asks, his bespectacled brown eyes narrowing. “It looks like a free dental clinic under the Burnside Bridge. That’s what it looks like.” —Rachel Ritchie