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2198: Union Church, Los Angeles, California, USA
Union Church Los Angeles (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Union Church, Los Angeles, California, USA.
Denomination: United Church of Christ.
The building: A modern cinderblock structure replacing an earlier neoclassical temple a few blocks away that now serves as a performance venue. In 1942 the original church was used as a staging area for Japanese-Americans who were being sent to the infamous internment camps of World War II. Ground was broken for the present structure in 1975, and it was dedicated a year later. The mortgage was retired in 1983. The English language service I attended was held in the church hall, a plain utilitarian room with a small stage at one end backed by a stained glass panel of the Good Shepherd taken from the old church. The simultaneous Japanese service took place in the sanctuary.
The church: The congregation was founded in 1918 by a merger of three churches that ministered to the Japanese-American community: two Congregational and one Presbyterian. Today they continue their ministry to Japanese-Americans but extend a welcome to all persons. They sponsor a Parkinson’s disease support group, a meal program for the homeless, and several missions. They also offer classes in English as a second language. There are services each Sunday in English and Japanese, both traditional and a contemporary service called the Bridge, which is held in partnership with the Bel Air Presbyterian Church.
The neighborhood: Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo is centered around First and San Pedro Streets, just east of City Hall. The area is full of Japanese restaurants and specialty shops, as well as new apartment buildings and hotels that cater to Japanese tourists and business travelers. There is an active night life, especially on weekends. Union Church is located at Third and San Pedro Streets, at the southern end of the district.
The cast: The Revd Timothy Yee, pastor, and a gentleman identified only as "Paul" led the service. The guest preacher was the Revd Dr Mark Brewer, pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church.
The date & time: Sunday, June 26, 2011, 9.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Traditional Service (English).

How full was the building?
I counted about 100 chairs and they were all occupied. A mixture of elderly Japanese people and young WASP couples who, I understand, were mostly visitors from Bel Air Presbyterian Church.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
One or two people said hello. The exchange of peace was quite lively, and several people shook my hand and welcomed me during that. One young gentleman, though, bumped into me on his way to shake someone else's hand and only gave me an "Excuse me."

Was your pew comfortable?
Metal folding chairs – as comfortable as one would expect.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of talking and visiting. Quiet background music was playing over the PA system. An elderly lady who looked like the Japanese version of George Washington was walking around giving blank names tags to people she spotted as visitors; I managed to escape her notice. People were fawning over a young couple seated in the congregation – their identity was to become clear later on.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, members and friends, and welcome to Union Church." This by a gentleman identified only as "Dan" who provided the music. He then played a saxophone solo, "How Great Thou Art."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service leaflet and a hardbound hymnal entitled Worship His Majesty. The preface to the hymnal described it as "a carefully collected treasure of worship resources" and that’s pretty much what it was – strictly traditional hymns. The Holy Bible, New International Version, was also available for those who wanted a copy.

What musical instruments were played?
An upright piano and the aforementioned saxophone.

Did anything distract you?
Occasionally some music wafted in from the Japanese service taking place in the sanctuary. The young couple whom everyone had been fawning over were introduced as church members who had gone to live in Japan and were back visiting. The young man spoke at length of his adventures in Japan; he had a habit of clapping his hands together as he spoke. During the singalong an elderly gent near me (bless his soul) sang very badly off key.

Union Church Los Angeles (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy and light-hearted, but with restraint. The obligatory rock concert that begins most modern worship services was replaced with an obligatory revival-camp-meeting style singalong of traditional numbers. The rest of the music was strictly traditional ("What a friend we have in Jesus" and the like). There was a call to worship, announcements, exchange of peace, prayers, scripture readings, sermon, offertory and benediction. The eucharist is celebrated once each month, but today wasn’t that day.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Brewer spoke in a very intimate and conversational style, breaking his message now and then to interject some light-hearted humor. Speaking of the hymn "What a friend we have in Jesus," for example, he said that once a pastor had announced to his congregation that he would be leaving, that Jesus had called him away to another church, whereupon the choir sang out "What a friend we have in Jesus!"

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor’s text was Acts 2:42-47 (the apostles continue to meet, break bread and preach). The book of Acts can be summed up in four themes: Jesus went up, the Spirit came down, the church got together, and the people went out. No one knows when Jesus will return – only God the Father knows. Meanwhile, we are called to live ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. God loves community – he comes to us when we’re assembled together. The Holy Spirit has empowered each of us, but we are not free to pick and choose the gifts we want as if ordering from a catalog. Sometimes God calls us to do things we don’t want to do. We must be open to God’s will. The gospel is unstoppable – Jesus makes it happen. Mission is loving people so much that they begin to ask why, and the answer always is: "Because the Savior loves me." On judgment day God will ask us what we have done to merit glory, and the answer is: "Nothing; you have done it all for me." But God will then ask: "And how much did you let me do?"

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the offering we sang the Doxology to the familiar Old Hundredth tune, but all on quarter-notes, not substituting half-notes for the last three syllables of each line. I haven’t sung it like that since grade school! I really liked Pastor Brewer’s sermon for its style as well as its message.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The young gentleman from Japan who spoke at the beginning about his adventures rambled on and on. Also, it’s OK to be on a strictly first-name basis among people who know each other, but visitors might like to know a little more about "Paul" or "Dan" than just their first names. And at the offertory, the lady passing the plate apparently didn’t notice me, although I had my hand stretched out ready to put my offering in.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the benediction, we adjourned to the back of the room, where refreshments had been spread out. I shook Pastor Brewer’s hand and told him I liked his sermon. Pastor Yee said hello but didn’t engage me as a visitor. I spotted "Paul" and hoped he’d stand still long enough for me to read his last name on his name tag – he did; it’s Kusonoki. For the most part, though, people pretty much ignored me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee, tea, fresh fruit, and assorted cookies and cakes were available. I threw dietary caution to the winds and helped myself to a creme-filled chocolate cupcake and enjoyed every last morsel of it! The coffee was adequate.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – They seemed to be a very lively and together congregation and I liked the traditional music, but I prefer a more liturgical style.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How much have I let God do through me?
 
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