Not to be confused with the ‘other’ First Church in downtown Phoenix, which is United Methodist. Erected in 1942, First Church UCC is the work of architects Weaver and Drover (now known as DWL Architects & Planners Inc.), who designed many of Phoenix’s iconic buildings, including the Central Library and much of Sky Harbor International Airport. The building could easily be mistaken for a rural colonial church – white clapboard with a neo-classical colonnaded porch and tall steeple. Tonight’s service was held outside in the courtyard – a rectangular space enclosed by the church and administrative/classroom buildings. A small table had been set with candles and a large metal pot; benches and stools were arranged around the table. Another table held a pitcher of water and a basin, a basket of feathers, some small bottles of scented oil, and another basket of candles.
Their website describes the congregation as ‘a room full of human beings seeking a spiritual experience, celebrating together as free thinkers.’ They see themselves as an inclusive community that welcomes all (again quoting from their website) ‘without regard to age, race, ethnicity, or national origin, physical, mental, emotional disability, marital status, gender identity, or sexual orientation, socio-economic background or circumstance, political affiliation or immigration status.’ Their website also lists their many activities and outreaches geared toward social justice, as well as the community groups with which they partner. In addition to the one Sunday service, there is a Wednesday evening ‘spiritual gathering’ as well as Bible study (they call it ‘Lectio Divina’), spiritual development classes, and one-on-one spiritual direction (by appointment and for a fee).
They are located in downtown Phoenix on Second Street just south of McDowell Road, one of the main drags connecting Phoenix with its east-west suburbs. The Phoenix Art Museum, Heard Museum (specializing in American Indian art), Arizona Opera and Arizona State University’s downtown campus are all nearby.
The senior pastor (judging from his photo on their website, as he did not identify himself as such) led the service. He was assisted by another gentleman whose identity I could not ascertain. The senior pastor protected himself against the chill of the evening with a red checkered jacket, cocoa scarf, black slacks, and a black wool cap.
What was the name of the service?Watch Night Service: A Ritual of Letting Go, Cleansing, Intention, and Hope.
How full was the building?
There were 24 of us all snug and cozy on the benches and stools.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady said, ‘There’s a blanket on that bench,’ which I found inviting as the evening had taken on a decided chill. Another gentleman shook my hand and wished me a happy ‘Almost’ New Year. No one else said anything to me.
Was your pew comfortable?
The bench was OK, and I really did appreciate the blanket.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People visited among themselves. It was clear that everyone there except me was a regular member of the congregation and that they all knew each other well.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The senior pastor began with, ‘So let’s do introductions first.’ We took turns introducing ourselves by first name only.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A sheet outlining the various parts of the service, with explanations and prayers.
What musical instruments were played?
None. We sang one song a cappella, as will be mentioned below.
Did anything distract you?
Two cats were prowling about the parking lot sniffing the pavement; I couldn’t tell if they were feral cats or if they belonged to the church. There were quite a few fireworks being set off in nearby neighborhoods. Several helicopters flew overhead at various times, causing the pastor to pause the proceedings until they passed.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was billed as ‘a quiet evening meditation letting go of the old and putting on the new,’ but I thought it was rather jovial and light-hearted, as you would expect from a crowd that knew each other well. We began by reading Ecclesiastes 3:1-14 (‘There is a time for everything …’), after which the pastor invited us to share our thoughts about the passage. Then a brief explanation was given of the origins of the Watch Night tradition and its ties to the Emancipation Proclamation (by which President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in those states that had rebelled against the Union). We then prayed that God would set us free from our old ways. The main portion of the service consisted of four parts: Release (we were given a feather, representing release, which we tossed to the wind); Cleansing (we were invited to dip our hands into a basin of water); Intention (we were given a tiny bottle of scented oil and asked to anoint the person to our right); and Fire (letting go – we wrote things we’d like to let go of on a slip of paper and tossed them into the metal pot resting on the table, where they were set ablaze). Finally, we were given a candle, representing new beginnings, and we prayed that the year 2020 would increase our hope and trust in God.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Well, I thought that the notion of a symbolic letting go of the old and embracing the new was well-intentioned. However …
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
… I didn’t think it was especially well realized. The passage from Ecclesiastes was the only reading from scripture; there were other readings from secular and pagan sources. And, as mentioned above, I thought the atmosphere was a little too jovial and light-hearted for the occasion. During the ceremony with the oil, one woman made a remark that sparked peals of laughter from everyone – unfortunately (or fortunately) I didn’t catch the gist of it. The pastor asked, ‘Did everyone get that? I’m not going to ask her to repeat it.’ This sparked further peals of laughter. And each time we prayed, we were asked to hold hands. I don’t like doing that with strangers – and sometimes not even with people I know. Granted, I was the only stranger in the congregation, and they all seemed comfortable holding hands with each other, but I was not comfortable doing it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We ended the service by singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ as we held our lit candles. The pastor then invited people to talk about what they were thankful for in 2019 and what their hopes were for 2020. About a half dozen people spoke up – including the woman who had made the funny remark during the oil ceremony, at which point I realized from what she was saying that she was transgender. When that was done, we blew out our candles and everyone started talking to each other – except to me, the stranger. I slipped my Mystery Worship Calling Card under the pot on the table (there had been no collection) and left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 — I don’t like downtown Phoenix and go there only when I have to. If I should be downtown some Sunday, I might stop by out of curiosity to see what their regular church service is like. They seemed a friendly, convivial bunch among themselves even if not to me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
‘This Little Light of Mine.’