Dee Perrucci of Meriden prays during a Sunday service at the New Life Church in South Meriden, where parishioners are among the 40 million Christian evangelicals in America. (Mike Ross / Record-Journal) When people suggested it, the Rev. Will Marotti always rejected the idea of becoming a preacher.
"I said, 'You don't understand. It's not part of my plan,'" Marotti told 120 worshipers during a recent Sunday service at the New Life Church in Meriden, where he is pastor. "Pastors are boring, broken-down kind of people and I don't want to do that."
But he is doing it and he isn't boring. Marotti is among the new faces of the Christian right in America, many of whom make up the approximately 40 million people who, like Marotti, define themselves as born-again Christian evangelicals.
And in Connecticut, Marotti's face is being seen a lot more. Just five years after forming the church, Marotti is the statewide coordinator of the National Day of Prayer. He is the organizer of high-profile support-the-troops rallies at the state Capitol and in Meriden, including the one held Saturday. (Please see story on Page D1.)
He is the preacher who invoked the New Testament on the steps of the Capitol in his call for state residents to forgive his scandal-plagued friend, Gov. John G. Rowland; a member of the Governor's Faith-Based Council, the group of clergy that wants to use taxpayer money to provide the homeless and drug addicts with "spiritual development"; the host of religious programs on area radio stations and the face from the pulpit on Meriden's cable access TV station, which broadcasts his sermons on tape.
Marotti is a man who agrees with Gandhi's observation that people who don't believe in mixing religion and politics understand neither. The wall between church and state was designed to prevent the establishment of a national religion and to allow for the freedom to express religion, Marotti said, not to prevent a religious influence on public policy.
If lobbyists can be paid millions to influence policy, Marotti wonders, then "why should people of faith have any less right to try to influence public policy?"
Marotti notes that preachers like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were not criticized when they denounced segregation or the Vietnam War; or when, like the Rev. Al Sharpton, they ran for president.
"Why is it only when conservatives get involved in the political arena that there's all this concern? ... It's hypocritical," Marotti said. "We live in a pluralistic nation and everybody gets a seat at the table except Jesus."
But Marotti said the defense of Rowland was about biblical principle, not politics. Marotti quoted Christ's admonition "that he or she who is without sin should cast the first stone" in calling on lawmakers not to impeach Rowland unless criminal charges were leveled against him. "Certainly, if he's indicted, obviously he needs to step down," Marotti said.
Through his appointment to the council by Rowland, Marotti wants to use federal money to establish a youth mentoring program. Marotti is one of eight clergy members on the council, which also includes representatives from Connecticut's correction and education departments and other agencies. Marotti said his role on the council will be to provide ideas and vision.
While converting non-believers to Christianity is part of his mission, he insists there'll be no proselytizing if he gets the cash. He hasn't calculated how much yet. Marotti said the program may lead some people to the church, but "the guidelines are very clear and we would honor them."
Marotti has the same anti-abortion, anti-gay and pro-school prayer beliefs of fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell - Marotti took courses at Liberty University, Falwell's Lynchburg, Va.-based Bible college and is a Falwell admirer - but minus the fire and brimstone. It's Christian right lite.
A sermon on knowing God's plan for you included references to Marotti's 1967 Camaro, an imitation of God speaking to Jesus, Peter and Paul snoozing instead of praying with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and a "Let's roll" comment by Jesus that apparently never made any versions of the Bible. But mixed in with the humor and self-deprecation were some "teaching moments" when Marotti got serious about his interpretation of God's plan.
His eyes welled with tears as he recounted the near-death of his 5-year-old son William at birth. William, who has Down syndrome, was suffering from congestive heart failure as Marotti frantically drove to Yale-New Haven Hospital. During the drive, Marotti said God spoke to him, saying of William, "He's mine."
"I went through my travail with God. I fought with God, I wrestled with him," said Marotti, who also has a daughter, Andrea, 10. "He gave me the answer. I said, 'All right, I don't understand it, but I'm going to go with it.' Of course, you know the story: God healed William."
But Marotti said God doesn't get involved in more mundane matters like whether to divorce or whom to marry.
"THAT'S NOT GOD!" Marotti bellowed, drawing laughs from parishioners after a perfectly timed pregnant pause in his sermon.
Marotti, who delivers one sermon on Saturday night and two on Sunday, is a showman before his flock. After years of study, he delivers wide-ranging sermons that run nearly an hour, without notes. It wasn't always that way. He honed the technique between 1985 and 1991 as an associate pastor at the Landmark Church in Webster, Mass., where he started off delivering sermons from handwritten notes.
Marotti's outgoing nature was evident the first time he filled in for the Rev. Fred Massie, the pastor of Landmark. Remarking that he always wanted to see what he looked like standing in the pulpit, Marotti pulled out a camera and photographed himself.
"Everybody just cracked up. It was just hilarious," Massie recalled. "That's just who he is. What you see is what you get with him."
Marotti and Massie are disciples of the Rev. Jack Hayford, a Van Nuys, Calif., author and televangelist who speaks in tongues and counsels preachers on how better to deliver sermons. Marotti studies with the charismatic Hayford once a year, and the lessons appear to have paid off.
His style has helped New Life grow from Marotti and his wife conducting services in their living room with three parishioners in 1999 to a total of about 400 worshipers meeting in a 6,000-square-foot former pharmacy on Main Street in South Meriden.
Marotti contrasts the growth of his church with that of traditional churches, many of which have seen declines in parishioners. He attributes that to unqualified preachers. "If we're doing what we're supposed to do, people hear the message of Christ and respond," Marotti said.
New Life worshippers are diverse, but most have one thing in common: They were disenchanted with the way their clergy presented religion to them. But parishioners say Marotti preaches to his congregation rather than at it.
"He goes from his experience in his life and he brings it down to a level that you can understand," said parishioner Dorene Robles, who worships with her daughters Janessa, 16, and Kayla, 13. "He's speaking in a 'today' voice and what he's saying can reach people of all ages ... The Bible's been around since the beginning of time, but there's always something that he says that you can connect."
Besides having an effect on his flock, Marotti's energy and perpetually upbeat nature impress fellow evangelical preachers like the Rev. Joel Rissinger, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Meriden. "He has a certain fearlessness. He says, 'This is good and I'm going to do it and it doesn't matter if people disagree with me,'" Rissinger said.
Marotti's own path to being born again began in an unlikely place: Fort Lauderdale, Fla., during spring break of 1982. It should've been a blast for the then-23-year-old Marotti, who said he liked to do a lot of drinking, pot smoking and other drugs in those days.
Instead, the experience was "very, very empty, very hollow," Marotti recalled. He had grown up in Meriden on Hawthorne Terrace, a happy, secure kid who loved cars, girls and sports. Marotti was on the football and track teams at Maloney High School, from which he graduated in 1977. But as he entered his twenties, Marotti said, he became selfish and lacked direction. Religion had little meaning
After spring break, the lapsed Catholic returned to his hometown of Meriden and while out jogging, took a break and had his first serious conversation with God while sitting on a curb. "I told him I didn't like the way my life was going and was willing to try it his way," Marotti said.
While undergoing a spiritual conversion, Marotti, who said he doesn't keep a résumé, worked a succession of jobs including financial consultant and service manager at Barberino Pontiac-Nissan-Kia from 1996 to 2000. He said that taking flak from irritated customers helped him learn how to better deal with people as a preacher.
When he opened the church, Marotti was warned he would go broke by not having collection plates passed around during services. But Marotti said donation pressures are one of the biggest turnoffs for parishioners. New Life is, after all, the church that bills itself as "the church for people who don't like going to church." Those who want to contribute can use the envelopes that are left by lock boxes around the church.
Contributions have been so good that a 1,900-square-foot youth center is scheduled to open this summer adjacent to the church, Marotti said. The center is part of continuing efforts to be family friendly and have family values.
Those values include a belief in the infallibility of the Bible, which is one of the primary things that separates evangelicals from other Christians, who have a looser interpretation.
Evangelicals also believe in the rapture: Christ will return and they'll go up to heaven while everyone else who hasn't been converted to Christianity will burn in hell.
"At the end, everyone will experience bodily resurrection and the judgement," reads New Life's Statement of Faith. "Those forgiven through Christ will enjoy eternal fellowship with God."
Evangelicals differ on just how and when this will occur, with some prophesying an "end of days" scenario involving a holy war and Jesus returning to Jerusalem.
"Jesus is going to return to the earth someday. That's about all I'm willing to bank on," Marotti said of the scenario, which he termed "speculative."
Massie said the "end times" prophecy was one of the few things the two disagreed on. Massie said he argued that Christians will disappear at the start of the holy Armageddon, while Marotti believed it would be halfway through.
Marotti draws concentric circles on a yellow legal pad to explain his interpretation of the Bible. The center circle represents absolutes like the Virgin Birth while the next circle out represents interpretations like baptism and communion. The third circle represents deductions. Everything outside of the circles is personal preference.
"When I say I have a strict interpretation of the Bible, I do," Marotti said. "But I'm very careful to try to recognize what are absolutes and what are interpretations and what are deductions and what are personal preferences."
Absolutes, for Marotti, include the belief that abortion and homosexuality are sins. "Anything outside of God's plan would be considered immoral," Marotti said of homosexuality.
While sympathetic to women who have abortions, Marotti contends an embryo has the same rights as a human being. "Even though they're unborn, it doesn't reduce their significance as a human," said Marotti, who'd like to see abortions made illegal.
Those beliefs need to change if Marotti and other evangelicals want to see their congregations continue to grow, contends the Rev. John Clarke, pastor of the First Congregational Church, which is a Protestant denomination. "They're going to start to have to deal with inclusive language and homosexuality and abortion and other things," Clarke said.
Clarke and Rabbi Gloria Rubin of Temple B'Nai Abraham resent the National Day of Prayer being represented as a multi-denominational event in Meriden and nationally when it is almost exclusively an evangelical event. Rubin said Marotti has been considerate of people of other faiths, but "it's helpful to label a service that is going to be a Christian service as a Christian observance of the National Day of Prayer."
Clarke, a Vietnam combat veteran, and the Rev. Willie Young, pastor of the Mt. Hebron Baptist Church, are also critical of Marotti's sponsorship of the troop rallies, believing he is giving a religious endorsement to war. Marotti supported the invasion of Iraq, even citing a now-discredited intelligence report that linked 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta to Iraq as justification, but he insists the rallies are politically neutral.
"We may not agree with the war, but we must support the troops," Marotti told some 120 worshipers during a ceremony at Washington Middle School that was part of the May 7 National Day of Prayer. Seconds earlier, images played of troops mixed with angelic music, the American flag and people praying, in a video produced by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, the conservative Christian group that sponsored the day.
While the subliminal message may have been "Onward Christian Soldiers," Marotti doesn't see the conflict as a holy crusade to convert non-believers to Christianity. He said he doesn't believe in "forcing things down people's throats or beating them over the head with the Bible."
Marotti believes the best route to converting non-believers is to apply biblical lessons to their everyday lives.
"If they can't use it this week, it's not worth it."