This Sunday, Brian Leupold will become one of the first people baptized in virtual reality.
In his rural home in Amity, Leupold will slip on his Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, step into the VR Church he helped found, and immerse himself in the digital waters of spiritual renewal.
VR Church exists wholly in the realm of AltSpace, a virtual reality, social media landscape that, as of a year ago, had about 35,000 monthly active users. The tech is in its infancy – cartoonish and occasionally glitchy. But here, Leupold sees the future of an inclusive church community.
During a recent Sunday service at VR Church, Pastor DJ Soto's avatar, or digital persona, arrived as a white, legless, Preacherbot whose disembodied hands bobbed up and down as he gesticulated about God's grace.
About 40 people sat in the pews – though avatars don't exactly "sit" but hover in place. As Soto spoke, emojis of hearts, smiles and clapping hands floated from the heads of his congregants as signs of approval.
Because no architecture exists for a baptismal inside AltSpace, Sunday's baptism will be performed in a virtual swimming pool. Soto will lead the faithful into the water, where he can give an entire sermon on spiritual cleansing without coming up for air.
The road to a virtual reality baptism was a long one for Leupold. After he graduated from Beaverton High School in 1986, his comfortable life spiraled into chaos.
"Without getting too heavily into it, my brother went to Harvard and I was an addict," he said.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Leupold was a homeless heroin user on the streets of Portland. At one point, he said, he slept in the basement of the Multnomah Athletic Club, where his family had a membership. Later, he lived in Forest Park.
"I was the hope-to-die addict that couldn't get clean," he said.
It took relapses, numerous stays in rehab, and the help of medications for chemical dependence, but he's been sober since 2001. Today, he and his wife live in Amity with four biological children, three foster children, and a rotating cast of dogs, goats, pigs and chickens. Leupold works from home reselling tech gadgets on eBay and doing voice acting. (You'll hear his voice if you take the state of Oregon's online alcohol server permit course.)
"I feel so grateful to be here and so grateful that so many people reached out because my path was so dark," he said.
His Christian faith helped Leupold through recovery, and he'd long dabbled in 3D and virtual reality. In 2015, he found a way to marry the two.
With the help of a programmer, Leupold created an app for Google Play called VR Church. It gives users the experience of walking through a steepled, one-room country church in a virtual reality landscape. Inside, users can watch a sermon from Leupold's real-life pastor, Ryan Connor of Amity Christian Church.
The community of Christian virtual reality early adopters is relatively small, so it wasn't long before Leupold met two other men working on similar concepts. Alistair de B Clarkson, based in Australia, was developing a virtual reality Bible app to take users through stories from the Old Testament. DJ Soto was traveling in an RV across the U.S. and giving live sermons in AltSpace.
In May 2017, the three founded VR Church and began holding weekly, non-denominational services in AltSpace.
AltSpace's virtual world had no chapel, so VR Church met in an office building until a member built – that is, programmed – a custom glass cathedral.
That's another benefit of VR Church: low overhead.
Roughly half the people who attend VR Church identify as atheist or agnostic, so Soto's sermons cover Christianity 101. He recently used "Return of the Jedi" and a clip from "Batman v Superman" to explain the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
VR Church has seen its share of trolls. Leupold said a woman once interrupted a service by sending her avatar flying over the chapel and proclaiming Satan's love. But you can block or mute people in AltSpace, and in general, people are kind, he said. Nonbelievers often come to better understand a religion they don't practice.
"It's about loving people, treating people as you want to be treated," Leupold said. "(Soto) is trying to teach people to get along, to love each other, and if we're going to disagree, let's agree to disagree respectfully and part friends, and I see that happen in Virtual Reality Church."
Wearing an Oculus headset, I joined Soto and Leupold in virtual reality for a tour of their church. While we were there, two regulars stopped by: Kevin, a Catholic from Michigan who comes for the faith, and Linda, an atheist from Norway who comes for the music. I heard their voices in real time, emanating from expressionless robot bodies.
AltSpace exists within a juxtaposition of intimacy and anonymity. Because you're talking with people live, using your own voice, I imagine it's more difficult to be cruel here than in an online comments section.
But because your identity is hidden, it's easier to open up and have candid conversations – be they about faith and spirituality, or addiction and mental health. The optimists see VR as the place where we can bring civility to the digital world, and that's part of what inspires the creators of VR Church.
"Yes, there's the cool tech," Leupold said, "but there's people behind all of it."