St Columba, Oakland, California, USA

St Columba, Oakland, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Hart
Church: St Columba
Location: Oakland, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 January 2007, 10:30am

The building

Outside the building were 148 white crosses, one for each Oakland homicide victim in the last year. Apparently, this memorial has made quite an impact on the local community. Inside, the narthex contains a very attractive holy water font in marble, which is also used as the holder of hymn sheets. The marble theme continues with some very well-made stations of the cross. The sanctuary looks a little strange: large, off-white screens have been erected, blocking the view of (I presume) the crucifix and the original altar.

The church

St Columba's is well known among local area church musicians for being the only local Catholic church to do exclusively gospel music. Through studying the bulletin, I discovered they are also involved in AIDS ministry and putting on social events, including an upcoming chili bowl bingo night.

The neighborhood

The church is on the Berkeley/Oakland border, near San Francisco. It's quite a poor area in many ways, but quite a rich one in churches, it seems: there's a Progressive Baptist and an Orthodox Church in America within spitting distance.

The cast

The Revd Jayson Landeza celebrated. Assemblies of God minister Pastor Kecia Sims preached, and Paul Daniels (no, British readers, not the magician and television presenter Paul Daniels) led the music.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Quite full, but it's a reasonably small church. Maybe 200-300.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Someone welcomed me before the mass. Afterwards my pew neighbor welcomed me and we talked for a bit.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was pretty comfortable, as was the kneeler. A shame only two or three people seemed to be making use of the comfortable kneelers during the consecration.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I'm used to hearing choirs practising when I turn up early to Mystery Worship places, but here I came across six teenagers practising a dance routine. A little different, but to their credit they stopped rehearsing in enough time that most people could enter to silence and pray.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning." The pianist opened and gave us a reflection on the readings we were about to hear. We then sang a bit and watched a dance performance before the mass proper started.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

In the pews was a folded sheet giving the words of the hymns, and a seasonal missalette, but woe betide anyone unfamiliar with Catholic worship who was trying to use the missalette to follow the mass, as the liturgy had been badly twisted out of shape. Large, important chunks were missed out, which would have completely foxed a newcomer. How terribly unwelcoming!

What musical instruments were played?

Piano and drums, both very well. Apparently, the church is between choir directors at the moment, but the music was still incredibly good.

Did anything distract you?

I was at first distracted trying to work out who was the priest. While the pianist was giving his reflection, I thought it might be him, and that he was dressed in mufti for no particularly good reason, but would vest during the opening hymn. I later worked out that the man I'd thought was wearing a rather nifty poncho was in fact wearing a completely inappropriate chasuble. Instead of just being green, as it should be in Ordinary Time, it had a very complicated and distracting (and completely non-green) print all over it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Definitely very informal. The congregation sometimes murmured and sometimes shouted "Amen" when they liked something, and they clapped lots.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 – Kecia Sims is certainly an engaging preacher. She was very energetic and passionate-sounding but she never really stayed on the same topic for long enough actually to say anything about it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The problem was the lack of nutshell! She talked about celebration and how God celebrates in truth. She included a little segment on each of the three readings (though not the psalm); talked about how Jesus had displayed virtuous obedience in listening to his mother at the wedding at Cana; reflected on how we're called to be nurturers like Mary, especially those of us who are mothers; talked about drug abuse, racism, sexism and the war in Iraq - and oh yes, her plans for her 12 year-old son's future.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I was expecting good music and I wasn't disappointed – it was amazing. Gospel is a style that lends itself equally well to congregational singing and inspirational solos, and we got both. The congregation were also very warm and welcoming.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The liturgical abuses were scandalous – there's no other word for it. The penitential act was scrapped, as was the creed. The peace was repositioned after the prayers of the faithful. The wine was consecrated in a flagon and then poured into fragile-looking glasses after the consecration. The "deliver us, Lord, from every evil..." was skipped. I could go on. As a Catholic, I was embarrassed that Pentecostal minister Sims had preached on her understanding of obedience as a virtue, but the priest had decided to stick his middle finger up at the Catholic Church with juvenile acts of disobedience at every turn.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

People hung around talking. My pew neighbor explained to me that there was a fish fry after the service in the church hall after the mass.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

More fried and fishy than usual coffee, I imagine. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to stay for lunch.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

1 – I'd gladly go again for a concert. As for worship, I suppose the mass was probably valid, so I'd go if I had absolutely no other option.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Not particularly. I think this is the first report I've written in which I haven't been able to answer this question positively. I actually felt angry that this welcoming congregation with such talented musicians were being subjected to this liturgical mess by their pastor.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

I hope I'll only remember the music and the welcoming congregation. Unfortunately, I'll probably remember this as being the first time I've ever not been able to receive communion at a mass due to being too angry.

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