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3294: Unity of Phoenix Spiritual Center, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Unity Spiritual Center, Phoenix, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Unity of Phoenix Spiritual Center, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Unity Worldwide Ministries. Founded in 1889, the denomination is a descendant of the New Thought movement, which in turn arose out of transcendentalism and was an influencing factor on Mary Baker Eddy in the development of Christian Science. The Unity Church is only loosely Trinitarian – i.e., they believe that God is not a being, but rather spiritual energy that exists everywhere; that Jesus was divine only inasmuch as all persons share a divine potential; and that the Holy Spirit exists in everyone and manifests itself by a denial of the ego. They regard the Bible as a metaphysical aid to spiritual awakening – a refreshing respite, actually, from the inerrantly-dictated-by-God crowd. Noted members of Unity Church include actresses Betty White, Eleanor Powell and Barbara Billingsley (the mother in the TV series Leave It to Beaver); and Wally Amos (creator of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies). The controversial retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong has embraced many of the tenets of Unity Church.
The building: One enters a large parking lot to find two cubist-looking structures: a classroom building and the sanctuary. Between the two is a courtyard with a nicely landscaped picnic area that affords a lovely view of the Lookout Mountain Preserve. Inside the sanctuary, one finds a large room with grey walls and blue-grey carpet outfitted with purple chairs. Up front is a stage with lectern; musical instruments are off to the left.
The church: They sponsor a number of classes in prayer basics, meditation and healing, and qi gong (a Chinese holistic system of posture, movement and breathing said to promote health). For those less mystically inclined, they also organize game nights and shopping excursions. Pastoral visits and spiritual counseling are also offered. For children, there is a youth and family ministry where (quoting from their website) “kids create and explore their personal relationship with God in an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance.” There are two Sunday services (called “Soul Celebrations”) and a Wednesday evening service.
The neighborhood: They are located on North 16th Street just south of Bell Road in the neighborhood known as Moon Valley. That section of Bell Road primarily features strip malls and fast food eateries; off 16th Street one finds clean scrubbed working class residential enclaves.
The cast: The Revd Richard Maraj, senior minister, looking resplendent in a multi-colored striped shirt with frilly cuffs.
The date & time: Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018, 9.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Soul Celebration.

How full was the building?
It was a large room and I couldn’t count the chairs. I’d say it was about 90 per cent full. A mixed crowd, all smartly dressed.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not at the door. Inside, an usher shook my hand and said, “Good morning.” A woman who wore a name tag that read “Rev. Lori” (she is not identified on their website) was working the room; she shook my hand and said, “Good morning. Good to see you.” No one else paid me any attention, though.

Was your pew comfortable?
The purple chair was OK.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of visiting, hugging, kissing, talking, but none directed at me. The pianist struck up a jazzy version of “Over the Rainbow” followed by “More.” Not exactly “All glory, laud and honor” but what the hey. He was applauded – as was everything else (read on!).

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The choir processed down the aisle singing a mantra-like chant: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (applause). They took up positions in front of the stage and then sang “Hosanna to the Son of David” (more applause). Then we all joined them in the opening hymn, “My soul is welcome here” (still more applause).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None.

What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, digital keyboard, guitar, drums (behind the obligatory Plexiglas shield). There was a choir of about 35 people. A guest soloist, Charity Lockhart, sang two numbers backed by the choir.

Did anything distract you?
The grand piano cover was only partially opened, and the dust cover was left on. One of the choir members could pass as the twin brother of Santa Claus in civvies. Out on the patio after the service, a little old lady helping herself to some cookies gave evidence with her gaunt, wrinkled, tattooed hands that women who tattoo themselves are going to look very funny when they become little old ladies. The amount of applause was also a major distraction – and you haven’t read anything yet!

Unity Spiritual Center, Phoenix, AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very upbeat and happy-clappy. There was a meet and greet, where we were told to “greet your neighbor with a hug and a smile” while we sang “This little light of mine” to much clapping and arm-waving (and applause). First time visitors were asked to stand and were applauded (I remained seated). We then sang “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place,” again with much clapping and arm-waving – followed, of course, by applause. There was a meditation (miraculously, no applause) followed by the Malotte setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” (simply beautiful!). The guest soloist, Charity Lockhart, then performed a jazzy, gospely rendition of “I pray for you, you pray for me” (applause and a standing ovation). The sermon followed (it, too, was applauded). The service concluded with announcements, more singing, a mini children’s pageant (see below), of course more applause, and a final blessing of sorts.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The Revd Maraj spoke with an intimate, matter-of-fact tone that was easy to follow and listen to. He began with a rather good joke about a man explaining to a traffic cop why he was speeding (he was trying to get away from the cop because the week before, his wife had run off with a cop, and he thought the traffic cop was him and was trying to give her back).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We all have things we want to escape from, situations we’d rather avoid than face. That’s the fight/flight instinct in us. But we can override that instinct if we want to. Handling situations instead of fleeing from them can bring fulfillment. Jesus entered Jerusalem to much acclaim from the people, but with full knowledge of what was about to happen to him and that he would overcome it all by rising from the dead. He knew that his trials would lead to fulfillment. We should know that too about our own trials. Jesus prayed that “this cup might pass” from him, but ultimately submitted himself to the Father’s will. We, too, should be willing to open up our lives to God – not to close down, but to act in the spirit of God. We must not waste our lives – Jesus certainly didn’t waste his! (Followed by – wait for it – applause!)

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The spirit of joy and happiness that permeated the room was infectious. These people clearly loved being there and doing what they were doing.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But oh, that applause! To traditional old Miss Amanda, it wasn’t like being in church at all!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service concluded (it being Palm Sunday, after all) with a group of children marching up the aisle waving green paper palm fronds, followed by a little boy in a brown robe who ran a gauntlet between their lines. Thankfully no one was dressed in a donkey costume. On that insufferable cuteness I beat a hasty exit just as the Revd Maraj was giving his “blessing”: “Thank you for coming; see you again.”

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was served out on the patio – strong and hot, just the way I like it. There were also cupcakes, cookies, and little bags of popcorn. The cupcakes were delicious – I helped myself to two! Tables were set up with various trinkets for sale and pamphlets and brochures describing the church’s ministries. People were milling about visiting but no one spoke to me.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – I was carried away by the joy and exuberance, but as I said, with all that applause it felt more like a variety show than a worship service. Their Wednesday evening service includes holy communion (that is the term they use), and I’m tempted to stop in some Wednesday to see how they handle it. But I won’t be back on a Sunday.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I am glad to be a Christian, but this service didn’t contribute to it.

Unity Spiritual Center, Phoenix, AZ (Patio)

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