Angelus Temple, Los Angeles, California, USA

Angelus Temple, Los Angeles, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Angelus Temple
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 December 2008, 10:00am

The building

The Temple is a white stone structure with a semicircular facade resembling a cross between the Colosseum of Rome, New York City's Yankee Stadium, and the space ship from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Inside, one enters a narrow lobby with gray carpeting and red and gray walls. Video monitors show the goings-on inside the auditorium. There is a snack bar, information kiosk, and another kiosk offering books and CDs for sale. There is also an ATM machine and a shoe-shine stand. The auditorium features cream colored walls, red carpeting and dark gray theater seating. Up front is a stage flanked by projection screens, speakers, and eight large stained glass windows depicting the Nativity, Transfiguration, Jesus calming the storm, Jesus' agony in Gethsemane, the Crucifixion and the Ascension. Two of the windows are concealed behind drapes in front of which hang speakers, so I couldn't see what they depicted.

The church

The Angelus Temple was founded in 1923 by Aimee Semple McPherson, an itinerant Pentecostal preacher born in Canada who achieved fame when a number of people appeared to experience miracle cures at her revival meetings. Sister Aimee's flair for drama and publicity attracted thousands of followers, along with their money, and her 5300-seat Temple was filled to capacity at three services every day, seven days a week. But in 1926 she mysteriously disappeared and was believed to have drowned. A funeral in absentia was held at the Temple. About a month later she resurfaced in Arizona, claiming to have been kidnapped and tortured – a story that the police were never able to corroborate. Gossip had it that she had run away for a romantic tryst with the Temple's radio operator, who coincidentally had disappeared at the same time. As folk singer Pete Seeger later put it, "The dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose." She was charged with obstruction of justice but was acquitted at trial. Sister Aimee resumed her work at the Temple, but family infighting over Temple monetary policy, as well as over 50 lawsuits brought by disgruntled followers and employees, including her mother, plagued her for the rest of her career. McPherson died in 1944 from an apparently accidental overdose of barbiturates. Her funeral procession to Los Angeles' rather maudlin Forest Lawn Memorial Park consisted of over 600 cars. It is said (although Forest Lawn denies it) that an active telephone was placed in her casket so that her body may be the first to learn of the resurrection on the last day, although who will phone to tell her is not clear. Today the work of the Temple continues on, and its numerous ministries are well documented on its website. Noteworthy is the Dream Center, a collection of programs geared to helping at-risk youth and low income individuals and families.

The neighborhood

The Temple is located north of the Hollywood Freeway at 1100 Glendale Boulevard in Los Angeles' Echo Park district, a picturesque old neighborhood just northwest of downtown. Once home to an eclectic mixture of Latino families, aging hippies, radicals, intellectuals, bikers and surfers, gentrification has turned Echo Park decidedly upscale. The housing stock has undergone quite a bit of "house flipping," and new nightclubs, boutiques and restaurants can be found everywhere. Across the street from the Temple is a park where homeless people camp out. Dodger Stadium is not far away.

The cast

The Revd Matthew Barnett, pastor. Pastor Barnett looked quite dapper in a black open-neck shirt, black suit, and black shoes in the pointed-toe modern style.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Morning Service.

How full was the building?

Completely full. I counted about 800 chairs downstairs and about 1000 in the first balcony. I did not venture up into the second balcony, but it also looked to contain about 1000 seats. (All in all, a little more than half the Temple's original 5300 seats.) The congregation consisted almost entirely of young people, with a handful of middle aged folks.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two people were stationed at every door. The greeter at my door smiled, wished me a good morning, and handed me an informational brochure.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, the theater seats were quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered as at the movies or a concert – lots of chattering and visiting. Traditional arrangements of some secular Christmas songs ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Jingle Bell Rock," etc.) were playing over the PA system. Just before the show began – oops, I mean the service started – a crowd of young people formed in front of the stage. "A holy mosh pit?" I thought to myself.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Please stand in the Temple with us." The young gentleman who uttered these words went on to harangue the crowd with words such as, "Give a big shout to Jesus!" and "I was so glad when they told me I was going to God's house today!" (the latter being not a bad translation of the beginning of Psalm 122).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. The brochure we received at the door was merely a schedule of upcoming events.

What musical instruments were played?

Those you'd expect in a standard rock band. I counted 13 instrumentalists and vocalists on stage – good thing I'm not superstitious! As the offering was taken up, a guest pianist and saxophonist played a jazz arrangement of what I think was a medley of more secular Christmas songs – it's hard to tell with jazz sometimes.

Did anything distract you?

People kept stopping and shaking hands with a gentleman sitting in front of me – I wondered if he was a celebrity of some sort; I didn't recognize him. A young mother in back of me held up her little girl of about one year old so that she was standing on the backrest of the chair next to me. I was dismayed to think that if she brought her to this service every Sunday, the poor little girl would be stone deaf by the time she entered kindergarten. (The music was very, very loud, as will be seen.)

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

Very happy, very clappy, but no speaking in tongues or miracle cures a la Sister Aimee. After the young gentleman's opening remarks, the house went black and the stage was bathed in multicolored lights while the rock band began their eardrum-piercing, rafter-shaking concert, complete with smoke machine and tap dancing! I was glad I had brought my earplugs with me. It occurred to me that the curtains masking two of the stained glass windows might be acoustical baffles to prevent back-blasts from the speakers from shattering the windows. After about 20 minutes of this, the lights came up and the pastor came out to give the opening prayer. There followed a video presentation that can only be classified as previews of coming attractions, after which the pastor talked about more upcoming events, saying that if we didn't attend them it would break his heart – not only his heart, but his wife's heart, and his children's hearts. It started to sound like a sermon. I think the pastor realized this, as he suddenly broke off with, "OK, I'm done." After the offering was received, the pastor delivered his sermon and a closing prayer. The rock band played a final number, with the same lighting effects as before.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

40 minutes.

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

7 – Pastor Barnett spoke very well, glancing down often at notes, but he shouted his entire sermon, which, with amplification, was almost as loud as the band had been. Once again I was thankful for my earplugs.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He spoke on the sin of pride, taking as his text 2 Chronicles 26, the story of King Uzziah. Uzziah sought the Lord, and so God granted him amazing success. If he lived today, you'd see his face in every magazine, on every TV talk show. But he let his pride turn him from God, and that was his downfall. He died a leper, and is remembered not as a mighty king, but as a leper. So many people today are like Uzziah was – they have been so blessed that they no longer have time for the God who blessed them. Pride is a spiritual cancer. Richard Nixon accomplished many great deeds as president, but he is remembered for Watergate. Likewise, Bill Clinton accomplished much, but he is remembered for Monica Lewinsky. The one common ground among all fallen leaders is that they brushed aside accountability. But God does not care about what we're becoming – he cares about what we're doing. Even the church can be arrogant. God doesn't want to see Pastor So-and-So's picture on the cover of Ministry Today – he wants to know how Pastor So-and-So is helping the poor, the homeless, the downtrodden. The humble shall be exalted – so exalted that they won't even notice it!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I liked the sermon very much, and I also liked the stained glass windows.

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

Someone needs to call Sister Aimee on that telephone of hers and let her know what they've done to her beautiful stained glass! And as the pastor was talking about upcoming events, he said he had some tickets to one of the events to give away to eight lucky people if they'd just come up on stage to claim them. (Whereupon eight youngsters bounded up to the stage.) "All you've gotta do to get them," the pastor said, "is to walk the runway." (Whereupon the eight lucky winners strutted their stuff on the runway in a series of provocative poses.) While the pastor is on a roll with the seven deadly sins, perhaps he should talk about vanity next.

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

I knew there'd be a crowd at the loo, so I left in the middle of the band's last number to beat the rush. After that, there was no room to congregate in the lobby, so everyone pretty much left without hanging around.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The snack bar had cappuccino, latte, mocha, espresso, tea and hot chocolate as well as regular coffee at $1.50 and up. Donuts and assorted candies were also on sale. Not wanting to pay those prices, I passed.

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

0 – Not a blessed chance!

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

Yes. The sermon gave me much to think about. I may ask myself more often, when tempted to do something, if God would want me to do it.

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

The stained glass windows. They were really quite nice. Pity that we couldn't see them in the blackened auditorium and that two of the windows were masked.

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