An historic church built on the site of the first Spanish settlement of Los Angeles. The work of late 19th/early 20th century architects Train & Williams, who designed many ornate stately buildings throughout southern California, the church dates from 1925 and is in the Spanish Rococo (Churrigeresque) style. The building next door was originally the headquarters of the Methodist California-Pacific Conference and now houses the Mexican consulate-general. Over the doorway is a stained glass window of a beckoning Christ with the Spanish words Venid a mi (come to me), which is stunningly reflected in a large mirror opposite the door. Inside, the sanctuary slopes down toward a stage on which rest the communion table, lectern, pulpit and chairs. There is a balcony in the rear but it is closed off.
The Methodist Church has maintained an active presence here since 1899, when it first began to offer medical and social outreaches to the poor Hispanic community. On this spot in the year 1918 there was born the charitable organization known as Goodwill Industries. Among the church's activities today are a chapter of Methodist Women and a program that supplies clothing to homeless men - of which, God help them, Los Angeles has more than its share! The church conducts services exclusively in Spanish.
This is the area known as Pueblo de Los Angeles, or Olvera Street. In 1781 Spanish colonists established a settlement nearby, which was shortly thereafter moved to the present location due to flooding. As the city of Los Angeles grew, the old pueblo fell to neglect and can be seen in the 1921 Charlie Chaplin silent movie The Kid as little more than a dingy, dirty alley. Plans for renovation and restoration were proposed in 1926 but didn't get underway until four years later and wouldn't reach fruition until the 1950s. Today Olvera Street is a major tourist attraction of restored or reconstructed buildings and outdoor markets that evokes a sentimental, nostalgic vision of old Mexico.
The Revd Rolando Barrios, pastor, preached and led the prayers. Rubén López presided over the service. Ted Ramírez played piano.
What was the name of the service?Culto de Adoración (Worship Service).
How full was the building?
There was room for 200 but only 12 were present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I arrived, the sexton was just opening the church. He welcomed me and asked me where I was from. Later, inside, a lady came up to me, welcomed me, and said, "I hope you don't mind, but our service is in Spanish." I assured her that I knew some Spanish, and she replied in Spanish that she hoped I would benefit from the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
Sort of. It was a wooden pew with a thin red cushion that kept slipping, but I wouldn't call it uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The few people that were there sat quietly or exchanged some quiet words with each other. A lady went from pew to pew kissing everyone she saw (I only got a "good morning"). The pianist played a medley of the hymns we would be singing.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Muy buenos días" (A very good morning).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service leaflet and a hymnal entitled Mil Voces Para Celebrar: Himnario Metodista (A Thousand Voices to Celebrate: The Methodist Hymnal).
What musical instruments were played?
A grand piano, in tune and sounding great, played with competence by Señor Ramírez.
Did anything distract you?
There was a health fair taking place outside on the plaza, where various health-related organizations had set up booths (I noted that one of them was a prepaid funeral service), and a mariachi band was playing some very loud music that couldn't help but waft into the church.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was all in Spanish, and was a mixture of hymns, prayers, notices and preaching. The lady who had greeted me announced that I was visiting, and so I had to stand up and say hello. There was an exchange of peace where everyone moved about shaking hands with everyone else. The hymns were all traditional and included some of my favorites ("I love to tell the story", "God of our fathers, whose almighty hand", "Amazing grace", etc. but in Spanish!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The pastor spoke eloquently and barely glanced at his notes, but I had a feeling that even though I didn't understand most of what he said (it was all in Spanish, of course), I wouldn't be surprised if he was rambling on to a degree.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was entitled El sumo sacerdote (the high priest). Jesus was not a priest in the sense that "those Catholics down the street" use the term. Jesus encounters us wherever we may be: in the street, at home, at work or at play. He leads us to God the Father. But we must allow him to lead us. We must choose to follow him, leaving behind sin and material temptations. He is the way, as he himself said.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was glorious to be singing all those wonderful old hymns in Spanish.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But I quickly came to the conclusion that I have a long way to go before I can consider myself fluent in Spanish. Also, the service took place down on the floor, not on the stage, where microphones invitingly peered over the pulpit and lectern. Pastor Barrios spoke loudly enough that he could be heard without a microphone (although too rapidly for me to understand everything), but Señor López badly needed a microphone, especially considering the amount of noise that was coming in from outside.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Just about everyone shook my hand and said they hoped I had enjoyed the service.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I liked the friendly spirit of the congregation, but I was saddened by its small size. It didn't appear to me that they are doing anything to increase their ranks, even among the Hispanic community, let alone an outreach to Anglos. There has been an ongoing controversy over whether or not La Plaza Church complies with earthquake code requirements. At one point the City of Los Angeles actually changed the locks on the doors and forcibly removed the pastor from inside the church – relenting only when the Methodist Church threatened to bring legal action against the City. Perhaps the congregation fears that the City will eventually prevail in the struggle and that they will have to abandon this lovely building. One hopes not – a vital historical artifact would be lost.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Singing so many of my favorite hymns in Spanish.