Sunday, January 2, 2005

NEW BALTIMORE, Va. — Dick Wright is a nationally syndicated award-winning cartoonist who isn’t afraid to poke fun at lawmakers and world leaders on the editorial pages of hundreds of newspapers across the country.

But in this rapidly growing community in Fauquier County, Mr. Wright, 60, is known as senior pastor at the interdenominational Community Christian Fellowship, who preaches the word of God in ways his parishioners say they can relate to.

Mr. Wright said his many years of drawing cartoons have helped his preaching. His work has appeared in nearly 400 newspapers.

“I use those creative abilities I’ve got in my messages,” he said. “In a way all these years of drawing cartoons was a form of preparation for producing spiritual messages. … One is political, and one is spiritual, but it’s the same process.”

Members of his congregation say Mr. Wright makes religion easy to understand.

“I can relate to him,” said John Lerch, 45, of Gainesville, Va. “He’s been in the business world all his life. … He talks plainly. He doesn’t talk too theologically. It’s refreshing.”

Mr. Wright, who lives in Warrenton, founded Community Christian Fellowship in 1999, when the church he was attending at the time split. He said one day while sitting at his drawing board, he received a message from God.

“God had more for me to do,” he said.

Mr. Wright, who has drawn cartoons for newspapers since 1974, did not attend a seminary and did not undergo any formal pastoral training. But that really didn’t matter. One by one, the worshippers came.

In the beginning, the church consisted of 19 members who met at a private residence. In the past year, attendance at the two Sunday-morning services has grown from about 125 to more than 400.

The church, at 6317 Vint Hill Road off Route 29, has three pastors and two staff members. Mr. Wright plans to hire another pastor soon. The 12,000-square-foot church building, which sits on five acres, is fairly new. The $830,000 building was constructed 18 months ago.

Mr. Wright believed there were no churches in the county that appealed to those worshippers who wanted less tradition and more vibrancy. He thought he could use his career experience to relate to people’s real-life challenges and talk about Christianity in a “culturally relevant” way.

“Across the country, this isn’t unique,” said John Peterson, the church’s 49-year-old executive pastor, who also has no formal pastoral training. “But in this area, it is unique.”

He said most of the churches in the area have long been denominational.

One of the church’s primary means of proselytizing is direct mailings that feature Mr. Wright’s cartoons. The church has its own printing press, which makes the mailings cost-efficient, he said.

“We really believe in spreading the Gospel, and we do that through direct mail,” he said. “We’ve already put our Gospel message in 300,000 homes. This year, we’re going to try to reach a million homes.”

Over the past three years, the county’s population has grown by almost 11 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Mr. Lerch, who was raised Catholic and had attended Presbyterian and Methodist churches for much of his life, hadn’t gone to church regularly for 10 years until he received a mailing inviting him to stop by Mr. Wright’s church.

Mr. Lerch said he likes Community Christian’s “informality a lot better than the formality of the Catholic religion.”

A grandfather of six, Mr. Wright is young at heart. Sometimes, he talks like a twenty-something, especially when it comes to Mr. Peterson’s musical ability.

“On a regular Sunday, the music is just killer good,” Mr. Wright said. “I mean he can just rock and roll.”

Mr. Wright usually preaches twice on Sundays, delivering 20-minute sermons he says are based only on the Bible, though he frequently mixes religion and politics.

“Politics and faith have a great deal in common,” he said at his new home in Warrenton, where he works out of a second-floor study. “There is a spiritual conflict going on that is translated into politics by politicians.”

During a service last Sunday, Mr. Wright spoke about the debate over some attempts to remove the word “Christmas” from the holiday season. Between 60 and 70 church members, who were white and mostly middle-aged, sat on padded sage green seats and listened to the sermon.

“This is a very sad times in our nation’s history. … Our culture is moving in a direction that is not good,” he said.

“Jesus is significant because in His birth God sent a Savior into the world and that Savior is to help us deal with sin. These poor people who don’t understand this, they not only sin, but they like sinning. It’s fun, you know it is. That’s why we have trouble with it, but it has awful consequences,” he said, standing behind a white wooden pulpit in front of the set for the church’s Christmas play.

“Don’t you feel sorry for these people?” Mr. Wright said of those who want to do away with the word “Christmas.” He said Jesus saves people from sin, gives them joy and removes fear.

“This is what people want to destroy and take away from us, but we should love them anyhow,” he said.

Mr. Wright said his new career path has brought him more fulfillment than drawing cartoons. His cartoons still appear in more than 200 newspapers.

“There’s a constant sense of achievement when you’re doing the things that God wants you to do, because you’re helping others. … I guess what I’m trying to say is that we were created to worship God and serve God and there is a great sense of fulfillment [in this],” he said. “There’s a constant affirming inside of you that you’re doing the right thing.”

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