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189: Arneson River Theater, San Antonio, Texas
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Arneson River Theater, San Antonio
Mystery Worshipper: Judith S. Carryout.
The church: Arneson River Theater, San Antonio, Texas, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The Arneson River Theater is located out of doors on the Riverwalk, the prettiest urban river in America. The stage resembles an old limestone mission, complete with bells. An arched stone bridge connects the stage with the seating across the San Antonio river, where grassy stone benches rise like giant steps.
The neighbourhood: The Riverwalk winds through downtown San Antonio like a long garden. It is heavily planted with flowering trees and shrubs and lined with shops, restaurants and hotels. The Arneson River Theater spans the river, next to the Little Rhein Steak House and La Villita, the city's oldest quarter and now a cute shopping/restaurant neighborhood, and also the site of the first mass celebrated in the city, in the 17th century. A few steps farther one finds bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
The cast: Rev Jerry Brown, Rector-Elect of Assumption Seminary, assisted by a very large supporting cast.
What was the name of the service?
The 24th Annual Folklife Mass, sponsored by the Texas Catholic Conference on Community Ethnic Affairs.

How full was the building?
As predicted by the book of Acts, "together the crowd numbered about 120 persons". The theater area itself was about one quarter full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, the usher who gave me a program said hello.

Was your pew comfortable?
No pews here – just stone-and-grass risers, which felt like... stone and grass. Let's just say that nature can be a cruel master. A number of people had plastic garbage bags to sit on, which seemed like an excellent idea to protect from dampness.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived just as the service was starting. The people seemed friendly but respectful, and there was a certain amount of bustling about with the costumed participants.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None, just the service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
Many and varied. A small orchestra included violins and flutes and so forth; there were also bagpipes and recorded music.

Did anything distract you?
Oh yes. Occasionally a boatload of tourists would pass between the congregation and the celebrants; at one point the priest invited the passengers to pray with us. Also there was a brief splash of rain, which failed to dampen anyone's spirits.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Casual and eclectic. About as eclectic as it's possible to get, in fact, and deliberately so since that was the whole point of the Mass. The service is an annual event in conjunction with the Texas Folklife Festival, which I'd visited the night before. Service participants included the Holy Redeemer liturgical dancers, the Santo Nino de Cebu choir, the Vietnamese Martyrs Center choir, and representatives from nearly 30 ethnic groups, including Canary Islanders and Alsatians, who all wore native costumes and brought their national flags up to the stage to open the service. The Native Americans brought a crooked stick wrapped in feathers. Languages used included Spanish, Gaelic, Czech, German, French, Tagalog, Flemish, and English.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
The sermon gets a 10 because it was exactly right for the occasion. It drifted a bit, including some reminiscences about the presider's mother, but kept coming back to the central point.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Although we come from many places and are different, in God we are all one." The priest noted that the reading (from Mark) calls us to proclaim the gospel to every creature. "We can't be lazy, and more than talking is needed. We must live what we proclaim," he said.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Holding hands during the Lord's prayer. I had a Vietnamese man on my left and a woman in a dirndl on my right. This simple gesture emphasized the whole spirit of the service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The weather. The American Civil War general Philip Sheridan observed, "If I owned hell and Texas, I'd rent out Texas and live in hell." (A local newspaper responded by praising Sheridan's loyalty to his place of origin.) I've never been to hell (yet) but the climatic similarities are obvious.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing – I smiled at a few people and left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee? A hot beverage? Are you out of your mind? Anyway, there was no official post-service fellowship. But a large vanilla/mango ice-cream cone from Haagen-Dazs solved the refreshment problem nicely. Mmmmm.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Since the service takes place only once a year, this is not possible. But I'd come back eagerly, especially if they held it someplace cooler, so I guess 10 in principle.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not just glad to be a Christian, but glad to be an American. Our coins bear the motto E pluribus unum, or "from many into one". For an hour and a half that motto was made real – we were one nation made of many peoples. This service celebrates the American ideal, which is that very different people from all over the world can come together and form a community.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The liturgical dancers censing the altar before the service. I'll also remember the birds twittering during the consecration. One doesn't often hear birds in church.
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