A computer grab from the virtual world Second Life shows avatars outside ALM Cyber Church, where you can attend Sunday morning services or Bible study.
Let us pray virtually
Avatar 'Lauranne' attends Bible study in Second Life where Christians try to keep it real
By Melanie B. Smith
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I sat on a plump blue sofa and looked around.
Those in the ladies' Bible study seemed lovely, and the environment was welcoming
But I joined the group with trepidation. I didn't know anyone. I felt a stranger in a strange land. Would this gathering be, well, freaky?
Why would I think that?
I was visiting a "room" in a cyber church. It wasn't exactly me sitting on a couch but my avatar, a computer-generated image I named Lauranne. The others in the group were also virtual characters, and we were in Second Life, a strange land indeed.
Here you can fly and transport to islands, buildings, oceans and events that exist only in bits and bytes. On screen, the places can appear solid and realistic, similar to scenes in video games. But this place isn't just a giant playland.
The millions of participants in Second Life can choose to attend Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, buy "land" for their own creations, party with like-minded beings, attend a fair wage protest or hold a yard sale.
I sent Lauranne to church to find out the appeal of faith in a virtual world. I wanted my avatar to encounter a religious group represented there, and I discovered many.
I didn't have Lauranne visit Pirate Church, the Church of Elvis, First Church of Omnitheism or the Hare Krishna Lecture room.
I came across ALM CyberChurch, where G-rated behavior is expected, according to a description. I learned that on Tuesday the church has a ladies' Bible study in the afternoon. That sounded perfect.
Making my way
First, I need to explain about getting there. For me, it was like locating a storefront church in Atlanta with a 20-year-old map. I'm not into video games and rarely use Instant Messaging. I dislike going through tutorials to learn computer manipulations.
I completed a free signup and downloaded Second Life software, but skipped some of the practice sessions. The image I picked as a temporary avatar moved like Frankenstein's monster at first because I didn't learn what I should have. However, I learned to "fly" Lauranne and, finally, to "teleport" her.
The Second Life world that opened up to Lauranne appeared amazingly diverse. My avatar could have driven cars, sipped tea, shopped in stores or gone to any number of bizarre or normal-sounding gatherings. I didn't explore much because I didn't want to land some place sleazy, even if it wasn't "real."
I did have my avatar join a church site that unexpectedly resulted in the word "Christian" attached to her name. (Names appear on screen with each avatar.)
I arrived early for the ALM study, way too early. I didn't know that time in Second Life is Pacific Standard Time. While I waited, I learned how to make Lauranne sit, got her hair cut, changed her clothing (no more skin-tight shirt) and learned about other religious sites.
I left Lauranne lounging and minimized my screen, only to find an hour later that Second Life had logged me off. It appears that loitering isn't tolerated even in a church.
Back in the virtual world, I made my way again to the meeting room and sat. I waited. Did I mention that an avatar fidgets without your telling it to?
The session started late after the leader, Mariposa Psaltry, posted a message saying she would start in 10 minutes. Finally, there were five: Desiree Petunia, Cactus Barthelmess, CeeCee Meriman, Mariposa and Lauranne. Everyone appeared in the form of casually dressed women and not as animals or alien-looking creatures as I'd half-expected.
My anxiety eased as soon as I saw words of welcome from Mariposa and other avatars on my screen. I replied that I was mostly there to observe. Mariposa typed a request for prayer concerns.
That felt familiar and real, and so did the needs. Two avatar/women asked prayer for friends and relatives in "RL" (real life). Mariposa then typed her prayer, thanking Jesus for a beautiful day "here in Virginia." She mentioned the concerns and ended with "in Jesus name, Amen."
A musical tone notified me that I had mail. It was a postcard study guide and included questions about freedom and sin.
It was the day before Independence Day, and Mariposa asked what freedom meant. Desiree expressed concern about efforts to control Christian expression. The discussion veered to whether governments might criminalize Christian speech against homosexuality.
Mariposa wrote that her RL pastor told his congregation to visit him in jail because he would still preach against it. Others responded "LOL" (laugh out loud) and "good for him."
Cactus pointed out that some homosexuals believe Christians are against them, not against their behavior. Mariposa soon steered the conversation back to the topic of freedom. She asked, "What has God freed you from?" adding a smiley face to her sentence.
Cactus said God freed her from drug addiction and alcoholism.
"God is awesome," Mariposa wrote.
Cactus added she had become addicted after becoming a Christian. "He was still there to free me from the bonds I was in," she wrote.
Someone brought up King David and the discussion turned to God's mercy.
"I would be the last one God would let in on merit," CeeCee typed.
Mariposa didn't type anything for a few minutes. When she resumed, she said she had been greeting her husband.
A black cloaked figure suddenly strode across the screen. He was Plant Straff, Rosicrucian Mystic. Mariposa typed, "Plant, this is a women's Bible study." He replied, "Bye you guys" and left, seemingly flapping wings.
Someone was commenting on the sadness of women who have had forced abortions when another male avatar appeared. This one had on shorts and was named Marinho Qunhua.
"Just women here?" he asked. Mariposa typed that it was.
"OK. God bless everybody," he replied and left.
When after 45 minutes I typed that Lauranne had to leave, the other avatars sent me blessings and good wishes.
Real or not?
I felt I'd attended a true discussion, not something artificial as I'd expected. I am wondering how a virtual world fits into "spiritual life" or even real life. Is it an inkling of heaven?
Anyway, my limited experience in Second Life wasn't hellish.
The cyberlife seemed wildly creative and full of potential for good and bad — like real life but weirder. I did like Lauranne: no wrinkles, aching feet or housework for her.
What is Second Life?
It is a 3-D virtual world (www.secondlife.com), which has 7.6 million inhabitants from around the world.
Would I go again?
I left Lauranne somewhere in cyber world and probably wonít resurrect her. I prefer Bible study with people I can look in the eye.
But my visit in a Second Life church wasnít creepy. The people behind the avatars seemed genuine. They let their guard down. The discussion was lively and intelligent.
I saw how someone could more readily ask for help or give support when they are basically anonymous. Doesnít the same thing happen on phone hot lines or in simple online support groups?
Mariposa reminded me of people I already know. I learned that she is actually the womenís pastor of Potterís House Worship Center in Harrisonburg, Va., which operates ALM CyberChurch. Her real name is Jen and her husband is the pastor. ALM holds worship services that avatars can attend Sunday mornings. At the churchís Web site, a visitor can go to a pastorís study, visit a prayer room and make a donation.
I would like to meet Cactus, CeeCee and Desiree — whoever and wherever they are in RL. The Rosicrucian Mystic? The Sisters of Venus Church? They might be another article.
I think that a vast online community like Second Life at its best could provide help and connection for isolated people or serve as creative outlet. At its worst, it could be another way for them to waste their flesh-and-blood lives.
- Melanie Smith
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