Pastor Reginald Richardson Jr. looks like a cartoon. This cartoon of a clean-cut young man wearing a blue polka-dotted shirt approaches me and waves his cartoon hand, giving me a friendly hello in his real Reginald voice.
The Reginald I can see is an avatar. He is interacting with my somewhat frumpy-looking avatar in the Metaverse. The real Reginald is in his home office in Portland, Oregon. The real me is in my kitchen in Santiago, Chile.
But we arranged to meet in the Metaverse, where Reginald will show me around this virtual world and take me to visit the first Seventh-day Adventist church in the Metaverse: Your Bible Speaks Community Seventh-day Adventist Church—AltSpaceVR Campus.
First, we meet in a generic private meeting room with a screen, a whiteboard, and a big open space. Reginald teaches me how to use the buttons on my keyboard to navigate and move my avatar around, since I don’t have any fancy gaming equipment or an Oculus headset. But even only using my small laptop screen as a portal into this virtual world, without the 3D experience, the view is amazing. I can see my arms and hands in front of me if I point toward something, and my view changes as I turn myself around. I can hear Reginald better as I walk toward him, and the sound fades in. Reginald and I are speaking and interacting in real time, in a virtual world that is open to anyone from anywhere.
I am using AltSpaceVR—a Microsoft program I can use simply by downloading software, creating an account, and logging in.
After gaining a little bit of familiarity in this unfamiliar environment, Reginald gives me a new link, where I find myself inside an urban church building with theater-style seating, a stage with screens and audiovisual equipment, a balcony, and a meeting space in the back.
We walk up and down the aisles, looking at the space, but it isn’t long before Reginald spots a visitor in the corner. His avatar walks over to greet the man, who says his name is William. While some spaces in the Metaverse are private, the church is a public space, open to anyone. Your Bible Speaks hosts a church service every Saturday morning here at 11 a.m., but the virtual building is open all the time, even when nothing is going on.
While William’s avatar looks around the Your Bible Speaks Church VR campus, the real William says he is in Malaysia. He says he is trying to set up a church in the Metaverse and he is checking out churches that are already established. Reginald tells William a little bit about this Adventist church project and they compare notes. They talk about the large amount of Christian content in the Metaverse.
They don’t get far, however, before another visitor arrives in the church vestibule. This man is from Houston and says his name is Mr. P. He tells us he is 81 years old. He says he has been attending a VR church in the Metaverse for about five years—the first one that existed in this virtual world.
William and Mr. P. continue talking, and as they move away from Reginald and me, their voices fade, and they are able to have a separate conversation in another part of the sanctuary.
“From a mission perspective, this is amazing,” Reginald tells me. “We have the chance to reach people never reached before.
“Behind every avatar there is a person whose salvation is at stake. We must do everything we can to reach God’s children.”
As we talk, two or three more people pop into the virtual church. Some say hello and exchange a few words with Reginald. Others leave again as quickly as they appeared.
“This happens all the time,” Reginald says. “People pop in here way more than happens in a real church.”
In some ways, I find this interaction disconcerting. While I can hear Reginald’s real voice, and the voices of the other visitors, all I can see are their self-created avatars. They could be anyone. They could be anywhere. All the visual shortcuts that we humans use to place people (their age, their appearance, their clothing, their hair, their skin color) are gone. While we like to think that we are not judgmental, we can’t help ourselves. We use visual clues to form opinions about the people that we meet. With these clues not available to us in the Metaverse, we are forced to interact in a much more open way.
“Anonymity is possible in the Metaverse,” Reginald says. “We can build on this to create a safe space and not replicate the toxic culture of some churches. We can have safe conversations, without judgment.”
Reginald tells me about a man who attends his virtual Adventist church—the man is not an Adventist but he found Reginald’s church online one Sabbath morning and has been coming every week since. The man shared with Reginald that he has a disability and is not able to attend a brick-and-mortar church. But he has found the Metaverse is a place where his spiritual needs can be met. And in the Metaverse, his disability does not define him. He doesn’t have to tell anyone about his disability if he doesn’t choose to, and here his avatar is treated the same as every other avatar.
“This space meets a need,” Reginald says. “People can be themselves. We don’t see a wheelchair, scars, or whatever it is. People with social anxiety can stay behind their avatar.”
Reginald will be launching a weekly hour-long Bible study session. In this small group, he is hoping to create more of a community. “In some ways, it is more possible to be honest with an avatar,” he says. “There is no judgment on the basis of skin color, sexual orientation, age, or ability. . . . The gospel is for everyone.”
Reginald Richardson Jr. (outside of the Metaverse).
Reginald has some experience with disability. While studying at Oakwood University, he led a student association for students with disabilities. And before attending Oakwood, he was a student at Walla Walla University for a year until he was asked to leave. “My grades were not great,” Reginald says. “I was struggling with dyslexia and not getting the support that I needed. I can admit that I was not mature enough at that time in my life to take full opportunity of my Walla Walla experience. I was a community leader. However, the university policy at that time didn't do much in the way of grace for students with high potential. But Oakwood University gave me an opportunity to not only mature but to develop my calling and my gifts. It was the second chance that I needed to be who I am today.”
Reginald graduated from Oakwood University in the class of 2020 with a focus in theology—virtually, rather than on campus, because of the pandemic.
“This is partly why technology is so important for me,” he says. “It is a quality-of-life tool. In recent years, technology has done so much for people with dyslexia.”
For example, Reginald says, the ability on iOS devices to have text messages and other content highlighted and then read out loud to you, as well as the increased functionality of text-to-speech on Google Docs and on the iPhone, are incredibly helpful. And now the ability with the latest iPhones to highlight text and pictures and ask them to be read to you—these types of features are game changers.
Reginald Richardson has been pastoring two churches in Portland, Oregon, since June 2020: Your Bible Speaks Community Church and University Park Church, both with about 50 regular attendees each week. Except for a two-month church internship at the Sharon Seventh-day Adventist Church in Portland each summer starting in 2018, and serving as the head intern of the Oakwood University Church, this is his first pastoral job and his first full-time, lead pastor assignment.
Besides working as lead pastor for these two churches, Reginald is also working on his fourth unit of clinical pastoral education and serves as an on-call chaplain for Adventist Health Portland. He hopes to attend Oakwood University to pursue his master's and is planning his wedding in June.
In addition to his very busy daily schedule, Reginald is spending a lot of time and energy trying to pull not only his churches into greater use of the Metaverse but the broader Adventist Church as well. He hopes to work with his conference leadership and help other Adventist churches extend their footprints into the Metaverse.
And it isn’t only the Metaverse. Reginald streams his church services on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Be.Live. His churches have as many or more weekly viewers as in-person attendees. Some viewers are sick; some are far away. He has viewers from Russia, India, the Philippines, Canada, and across the United States.
Reginald asserts that not only are tithes and offerings consistent, but in fact, they are increasing. Messages and checks come from around the country.
Reginald’s congregation has caught his vision. His church has allocated $500 a month toward the broadcasting of the weekly services. His church has approved discretionary funds to purchase new equipment. The church has plans to buy more Oculus headsets.
“Now we are shooting for the Metaverse,” Reginald says. “This is a chance to be ahead of the game. Often the Adventist Church is slow in advancing technology. On this, I am a little ahead of the church manual! We are where we are now because COVID forced us. The Metaverse is a chance for us to lay claim and be an early adopter. There is very fertile ground there for us to reach. When it comes to the Metaverse, I will go!”
Editor's Note: As this story was being prepared for publication, Microsoft announced it will be sunsetting the AltSpaceVR platform in March 2023. Pastor Reginald Richardson is confident his virtual church will find a new home in the Metaverse, on an alternative platform. He has begun the search process.
Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.
Images courtesy of Reginald Richardson Jr.
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