After 50 years, Grove Avenue Baptist's weekly broadcast has become Sunday morning for 10,000 people. 

Spirit on the Air

Live, from Grove Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond — it's the Victory Hour," the narrator announces — and then his voice speeds up into gibberish.

Media minister Mark Jenkins is doing a test run of the intro sequence to make sure all is ready to go here in the church's studio, 45 minutes before the 11 a.m. service begins. He speaks into his headset microphone, making sure the cameras are in place.

"He will be calling the shots this morning," says Olga Skorackyj, who has been a volunteer behind the scenes of the Victory Hour for 20 years. She's busy pasting scripture from a program called PC Bible into a character generator, which will flash text onto the screen as the pastor speaks. "They say hearing and seeing helps people to retain it," she explains.

Now she's clicking on John 14:1-3 NIV. "Do not let your heart be troubled," it begins — and indeed, although the control room is humming with activity, no one seems worried. No matter what happens, the show will go on, just as it has every Sunday for the past 50 years.

Since Jan. 13, 1952, the church's Sunday service has been on television, making it the longest-running live Christian broadcast in America. It's even a day older than NBC's venerable "Today" show, says Skorackyj. "They started on Monday, we started on Sunday before. Isn't that something?" she says.

First WTVR-TV 6, then WWBT-TV 12, broadcast the service in the Richmond area. The Victory Hour is now shown throughout Virginia on 54 cable stations, reaching 10,000 to 12,000 viewers each week. It's nothing fancy, with no slick side effects. But it's an essential part of Grove Baptist's mission, says Mark Jenkins. The title of media minister has become increasingly common, he says — "The Information Age has come to churches."

That's easy to see in Grove Avenue's high-tech media center, with its monumental mixing board and bank of 12 video monitors. Almost everything has been donated, Jenkins says, which is lucky for the church. "The facility we're running right now — if you had to go out and buy it — let's see…" He pauses for a minute. "I'd say you probably have a quarter-million in video equipment and another $200,000 for the sound equipment. We're probably about a half-million [dollar] media facility here."

Of course, advanced technology doesn't mean everything always goes smoothly. Volunteers now laugh about all the small catastrophes over the decades. Once they lost power. Once a snowstorm kept all but nine people from attending church — and five promptly went to work to get the service on the air. Once, "we had a light bulb explode and catch on fire and come down," recalls Terrie Jenkins, Mark's wife.

"It was like fireworks from heaven," adds Dale Mise. She's been on the camera switcher for 10 years.

They say they hope nothing like that will happen on the 50th anniversary date, Jan. 13, 2002. But all the volunteers are calm. They explain how, after a decade or more of seeing the service through lenses and monitors, you get into the swing, into the rhythm of the work. The camera panning, switching and sound-mixing seems like second nature.

Seven minutes before 11, the room hushes for a moment as Mark Jenkins speaks a prayer. "Help us, Father, as we do our jobs," he asks. After "Amen," it's back to business. The four monitors, one for each camera in the sanctuary, show the white-robed choir members taking their places and the congregation filing in through the doors.

Finally, it's time. "Five, four, three, two, one. Go. Audio. Video," Mark Jenkins says, and the "On Air" monitor shows the intro sequence.

Mark Jenkins gives orders to the four camera operators, as Mise and Skorackyj hum and tap their feet along with the opening hymn. The camera pans over the audience, focusing on a family, an older couple, a young woman, all singing with joyous expressions on their faces.

Do they realize they're being watched by 10,000 others? Not usually, says Charlie Harris, a cameraman for 18 years. "You'll get people who'll sit in certain locations so they won't be on-camera," he explains. It's the volunteers' job to make sure they don't film anyone who's "acting up, sleeping, talking," Harris says. Of course, he says with a laugh, after the camera zooms in inevitably a kid will start picking his nose.

Mistakes do happen, but that doesn't really matter, Harris says. "This is just a good way to reach people with the message of Christ beyond these walls."

Faraway viewers become surprisingly involved, Terrie Jenkins says. When longtime choir members fail to show up some Sundays, people watching the broadcast call in to ask if they're sick. And when she took a group of ministers' and parishioners' kids to visit people confined to their homes, they recognized their visitors from the television. "Although they're not here," Terrie Jenkins says, "we're part of their family."

Recently, in Regency Square Mall, a woman came up to Doris Halenda, 75, who sings soprano in the choir. "I see you on television," she exclaimed. Halenda just smiled. She's been on television since 1957, when the choir used to rush from Grove Avenue to get to the WTVR studio after the morning service. "We hopped in cars and got there as fast as we could," she recalls.

A photograph from the time shows the choir standing before an enormous boxy camera, with prop stained-glass windows behind them. Halenda remembers clearly those days when she first sang as a young bride. "We were so excited and happy to be up there singing," she says. "I did not realize how historic that would be."

Back in the control room, the service has ended and the ending sequence rolled. Channel 12 has switched to football — players tackle each other on-screen as the volunteers bundle up to go home, smiling and chatting.

Do any of them miss seeing the service live, not through lenses? Miss sitting in the pews instead of the media room chairs? Miss hearing the pastor's voice unfiltered by microphones and sound feeds?

No, they say. Harris, the cameraman, explains why. "I can't ever look away," he says, "because if I look away you're going to have a blank screen. … I'm locked in. My focus is there." And so are the eyes of 10,000

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