Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Scott Brown moved to New Hampshire late last year, and is now locked in a tight race with incumbent Jeanne Shaheen. Whether Brown wins or loses, he’s already having an indirect, but potentially profound effect on his new home state: as the landlord of a nascent evangelical church in Portsmouth.
Late last year, Scott Brown and his wife Gail purchased a rental property near downtown Portsmouth, from Brown’s mom. Jim Davis, or “Pastor Jim,” as he is called, arrived in Portsmouth from Las Vegas in March. He and his wife Karyl moved into the duplex at 23 Friend Street, which they say they rented it online.
The Davises were soon joined by 19 other Las Vegas transplants, all of whom belong to a megachurch in Vegas called Calvary Chapel Spring Valley. That church draws 3000 or so congregants each week.
Their goal is to evangelize, and grow their church. “we’re wrestling against the world going down a path that is not Godly. That is what we wrestle against. That is what we pray about,” Davis preaches on a recent Sunday.
As the band plays, the congregants sway, eyes closed, hands in the air. Then, in tones more nervous high school teacher than charismatic preacher, Pastor Davis tackles Romans, Chapter 13. His congregants scribble notes as he talks.
Great Bay Calvary Chapel holds their church services under two white tents in the backyard of the Browns’ duplex. Davis calls them “Bible studies,” and keeps them low-key, because, he says, he doesn’t want to disturb the neighbors. He never did apply for the zoning permit he needs for “religious assembly” in that neighborhood, but they did bring a plate of cookies around to neighbors.
Neighbors Ben Swainbank and Christine Bastianelli say while hearing Christian rock wafting in their windows “is a little different,” the church has been a good neighbor.
If you ask congregant Sherry Vyvyan why she moved – or any of the 21 Vegas church planters, really -- she says “it was totally God!”
Vyvyan says she didn’t want to move, but when her pastor in Las Vegas led a prayer about the Davis’ expedition, she closed her eyes, and heard God’s voice telling her to go. So, she says, she sold her business and moved to Portsmouth.
Many of the church planters sold their homes, left jobs and said goodbye to extended families. And while ending up in Scott Brown’s duplex may have been a coincidence, landing in New Hampshire was not.
In recent years, national polls like Gallup have consistently found Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to be the least religious states in the nation.
Rudy Mitchell is senior researcher with the Emmanuel Gospel Center, a Christian research group in Boston. He’s not convinced the data is altogether accurate, but says it is often cited by evangelical churches who are training new pastors. The data, Mitchell says, “encourages them to expand and grow new churches in New England.”
Worshipper Toby Eulberg says the data certainly drove his decision. He wanted to be a missionary abroad, but didn’t want to raise his five kids – including an infant -- outside the United States. Then, he says, his pastor mentioned the data about New England. “It was then,” Eulberg recalls, “I started thinking wow, that might work in what God is calling us to.”
Eulberg, who had worked as a high school band director in Vegas, moved his wife and five kids to Portsmouth. They’ve been living in the duplex owned by Scott Brown, sharing space with Sherry Vyvyan.
“It's kind of like a staging area,” Eulberg explains. “It gives us an opportunity to find a place, to get out into the community.” Eulberg says over the course of the summer, congregants have moved into the two apartments, leased by Vyvyan on one side, and the Davises on the other. As earlier arrivals found jobs and apartments, new congregants arrived from Vegas and took their places.
Pastor Davis and Sherry Vyvyan are the first tenants Scott Brown has taken on since he bought the Friend Street duplex from his mother last December.
The Brown campaign declined several requests for comment on the church. When asked directly, Scott Brown told NHPR “I have no comment. I’m not going to talk about any people that are renting a property from me.” For his part, Pastor Davis says Scott Brown is not affiliated with his church. However, he says,“I would love to get to know him though, and invite him to church sometime when we get a building.”
Either way, the Davises won’t be holding services in Scott Brown’s back yard for much longer. Davis recently leased an industrial building on Route 1, and has plans to move the church there next month.