Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: La Luz del Mundo
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 June 2019, 10:00am
Phoenix’s branch of the Church of the Light of the World worships in a building that can only be described as ‘Art Deco meets the Pantheon of Rome.’ Under construction seemingly forever, and still not finished, it is exclusively the work of members of the congregation skilled in the building trades. The colossal domed edifice resembles a mosque, a nuclear power plant, a masterpiece, an eyesore – all in the eye of the beholder, as they say. The inside is not yet ready for occupancy, and so today’s service was held in the basement – a large room with white walls and white tile floor. On a raised platform was a large wooden pulpit, behind which was what could only be described as a throne – a very large chair in blue upholstery (no one sat in it so far as I know). Flowers had been placed at various points on the platform.
The full name of the denomination is Iglesia del Dios Vivo, Columna y Apoyo de la Verdad, la Luz del Mundo (Church of the Living God, Pillar and Upholder of the Truth, the Light of the World) – a mouthful in any language! Founded in Mexico in 1926, the church has congregations throughout Mexico and Central America as well as in the United States, most notably in Arizona, California and Texas. They are not Trinitarian in the classic sense – they believe that Jesus is the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, but that he is not God. He is, however, to be worshipped, for in worshipping the Son we worship the Father. They see themselves as the restoration of primitive Christianity and are ultra-conservative in their beliefs and practices. Their Wikipedia entry is highly instructive. Services are conducted only in Spanish. There are three services every weekday, and a morning and evening service every Sunday.
The Phoenix church is located on Grand Avenue just east of the Interstate 10 freeway. Grand Avenue, also known as US Route 60, is the principal northwesterly highway out of Phoenix to the suburbs. Before the completion of I-10 it was the only way to get from Phoenix to California – recall that in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho Marion Crane was seen making her getaway via Grand Avenue after stealing her employer’s money. Even today it is the route people take to get from Phoenix to Las Vegas, as the long-planned Interstate 11 is still mostly a pipe dream. A short distance along Grand Avenue from the church is Mel’s Diner, whose façade was used in the 1974 movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and the spinoff TV sitcom Alice. Although the interior set was actually built on a Hollywood sound stage, the diner’s iconic sign featuring a tilted cup spilling coffee, and the waitress Alice’s catchphrase ‘Kiss my grits!’ have found a place in the world of kitsch.
A gentleman who I assume was the pastor, wearing a business suit. There was a large mixed choir in brown robes, the women wearing brown mantillas.
What was the name of the service?I wasn’t able to determine if it had a name.
How full was the building?
It was a large room with several hundred chairs. The room was about half full at the start of the service, but people kept coming in as late as 45 minutes into the service. Eventually it was about seven-eighths full. Women sat separately from the men. Everyone was very smartly dressed, the women wearing floor-length dresses and veils on their heads, and most of the men in suits or at least shirt and tie (very few men bother with suits in the scorching heat of a Phoenix summer). I was surprised at how young the crowd was – lots of teenagers and young to middle aged adults.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No sooner had I gotten out of the Amandamobile when a woman came up to me and said, ‘Hello. Is this your first time here?’ She told me that the service was in Spanish but that listening devices were available over which I could hear an English translation. She then handed me off to a young gentleman who she said would guide me through the service, explain the etiquette and customs, and answer any questions I might have.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a folding metal chair and was as comfortable as one might expect. I noted that many of the chairs were wooden, and the choir sat on rather more elaborate plastic chairs. But they were all white.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The gentleman to whom I was handed off obtained a listening device for me and led me to a seat; he remained with me the entire service (and then some – read on!). The choir were singing a selection of hymns in unaccompanied four-part harmony – they were really quite good. People entered quietly and knelt on the floor to pray. I say ‘quietly,’ but after each choir selection people would randomly call out ‘Amen,’ ‘Alleluia’ and ‘Gloria al Señor.’
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Nos presentamos a nuestro Dios' (We present ourselves to our God).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None were provided, but most people had their own Bible and a copy of Light of the World Hymnal either in English or in Spanish. My young gentleman guide had copies of both in English. I couldn’t see which version of the Bible he had, but it was a Gideon Bible. From where he had gotten it I didn’t ask.
What musical instruments were played?
None. This denomination believes that singing should be a cappella. As I mentioned above, the choir were quite good, and everyone sang the hymns with gusto.
Did anything distract you?
Well, the whole service was a distraction! I can understand Spanish when it is spoken by Americans with American accents, but I understand very little of what native speakers say. I really had to concentrate on what was going on. If I wanted to be naughty and perhaps a bit sacrilegious, I would say that I find young Hispanic men attractive and that there was plenty of eye candy to admire.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very happy, but not clappy, although there was one choir anthem where the choir shook their fists as they sang 'Amen, amen, amen!' repeatedly. The English translation listening device I was given was only marginally helpful, and as more people came in, the reception got poorer and poorer until finally it was just all static. I gave up on it. I would say the service was sort of a hymn/prayer/talk sandwich: inspirational talk, followed by everyone getting down on their knees to engage in extemporaneous, stream-of-consciousness prayer, interspersed with hymns. All the time, there was lots of calling out of ‘Amen’ and ‘Gloria al Señor.’
Exactly how long was the sermon?
80 agonizing interminable minutes!
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — My rating is based solely on the clarity of the pastor’s speech and the rapport he developed with his congregation. For my part, I understood little of it. Although he spoke clearly, he was quite dramatic and at times seemed at the point of tears. The congregation were very much into his talk, however, and kept calling out in answer to questions he posed.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
As far as I could gather, he said that we were on a pathway to heaven and that nothing could detour us off it. The Church is the mind of God, and the clear voice of God will guide us along the path. Run to God! There is no confusion in his Word, no question. The word of man is meaningless compared to the Word of God. Lies will destroy us, as will war. But if we follow the Word of God we will never be destroyed.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music was heavenly, as was the attention paid to me by my gentleman guide. He shared his hymnal and Bible with me, pointing to the hymns that were being sung and the passages that were being referenced.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But I felt at times like I was being held captive – the way I was immediately pounced on by the woman in the parking lot, and the way she handed me off to the young gentleman who remained with me throughout. And I really do wish I understood Spanish better.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Well, here’s the interesting part. When the sermon was over – finally – we sang a hymn about being a soldier of Christ. Everyone got up and started marching around the church – a sort of liturgical musical chairs. By that time I was beginning to feel a panic attack coming on, and I told my young guard 'Me gustaría de salir' (I’d like to leave). He said he’d leave with me, and he escorted me out to the Amandamobile.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As we passed through the courtyard, I noticed that refreshments were being set up, but I was in no mood to stay for them. I thanked my young gentleman friend and bade him good-bye, and drove off. I wasn’t even in the mood to stop at Mel’s Diner for lunch. After the panic attack has passed, I pulled into a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way home and enjoyed a finger-lickin’ good repast.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – I really don’t see myself returning. Mind you, I don’t begrudge the young, enthusiastic congregation the worship experience they were obviously enjoying, but I really didn’t fully understand everything that was going on.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I really can’t say it did.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The liturgical musical chairs.