Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: First Congregational
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 July 2010, 11:00am
A striking Gothic Revival church dating from the early 1930s. It is the work of architects James E. and David C. Allison, known for dozens of Los Angeles churches and public buildings. First Congregational is a favorite locale for film and television producers. The tower is reminiscent of that at Oxford University's Magdalen College. The interior is well described on the church's website and is modeled on the great cathedrals of England and France. The communion table stands against the east wall, backed by a dark wood reredos. The quire is traditional looking, with stalls and one of the organ consoles (the other is in the rear gallery). The nave is long and narrow. Organ pipes are everywhere in the quire, in balconies on either side of the nave, and in a rear gallery. The stained glass windows, from the Judson Studios of Los Angeles, depict various biblical scenes.
This is the oldest Protestant church in Los Angeles. They describe themselves as traditional in style but progressive in their beliefs. They offer a number of programs for children and adults and maintain a special relationship with one of the public elementary schools in the area. They support Hollygrove, an agency that helps abused and neglected children; the Downtown Women's Center, offering meals, housing and support to homeless women; and the Union Rescue Mission, which provides a variety of services to persons who find themselves mired in Los Angeles' infamous Skid Row.
First Congregational is located on South Commonwealth Avenue at West Sixth Street, in the Westlake district of Los Angeles. Once famous for its posh hotels and apartment residences, the area went to seed during the latter part of the 20th century, but is trying hard to gentrify itself. Nearby is Lafayette Park, its winding concrete walkways popular with skateboarders.
The Revd Dr Pieter Noomen, minister of visitation, conducted the service. Preaching was the Revd Dr Richard J Bower, associate minister. The Revd Dae Jung, associate minister, pronounced the assurance of pardon and received the offering. Presiding at the organ was Jaebon Hwang, organ scholar in residence. A mixed choir of eight voices was conducted by Steve Blum.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship.
How full was the building?
I counted room for 800; there were about 80 altogether. Most people came in toward the end of the organ recital that preceded the service. It was a middle aged to elderly crowd; I saw very few young adults and no children or teenagers.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Before entering the church, I ducked into the parish hall to find a restroom. One of the deacons came up to me, shook my hand, introduced himself, and asked me where I was from. Dr Bower also shook my hand and introduced himself. Both gentlemen invited me to have a cup of coffee before the service. In the church, ushers in black swallowtail coats and gray striped trousers smiled, said good morning, and handed me the service literature.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes wooden pew with red upholstered cushion.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People entered quietly. One-half hour before the start of the service, the organist, Ms Hwang, played a short recital of patriotic tunes in keeping with the Independence Day holiday. One of these, a set of variations on the National Anthem, was a stunning bravura piece that must have exercised every pipe on the organ. I'll have more to say about it in a moment.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Serve the Lord with gladness; come unto his presence with singing." This by Dr Bower.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns for a Pilgrim People and a service leaflet. The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, was in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The church's several organs, designed by various builders and installed at various times, when taken together are said to comprise the largest musical instrument of any church in the world. Twin consoles in the chancel and gallery, the last work of the venerable Moller company before it closed its doors, are the largest draw-knob organ consoles ever built in the Western Hemisphere. Many of the world's greatest concert organists, including E. Power Biggs, Virgil Fox and Alexander Schreiner, have performed here.
Did anything distract you?
I thought the associate minister, Dr Bower, resembled the late great actor Phil Silvers. One of the organ variations on the National Anthem was set for pedal alone; Ms Hwang walked her feet up and down the pedalboard so vigorously that she had to grip the sides of the bench for support.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A very spiky hymn sandwich. The only things lacking were bells and incense. The altar party processed up the aisle behind a crucifer: a flag bearer, the choir, the church elders, and the ministers. The choir and organist wore cottas over red cassocks. The elders and clergy wore red Geneva gowns and green stoles, except that Pastor Jung's Geneva gown was black and Dr Bower's was white. Dr Bower's stole was also white. Everyone reverenced the communion table whenever they crossed in front of it. The hymns were all traditional and all in keeping with the holiday. The choir sang several anthems, again on patriotic themes, including George Gershwin's Summertime. There was no exchange of peace, and no communion. After the final blessing, the altar party recessed behind the crucifer.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Dr Bower spoke gently and colloquially, with a dry sense of humor. I enjoyed listening to him, but I'm not sure that his message was all that focused.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Dr Bower said he was going to let us in on an ecclesiastical secret "not to leave this room," he warned (to laughter). Ministers don't like to preach on national holidays. We will note, he said, that the senior minister is not here today nor was he here on Memorial Day! (More laughter.) Commemorating national holidays in church raises two problems: the problem of separation of church and state, and that of hegemony ("my country right or wrong," which is a bit prideful). American history is full of mistakes: slavery, no suffrage for women, the Japanese internments during World War II, the wars waged in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, hunger, poverty the list goes on and on. Liberty and justice for all? Well, for some, anyway! But our founding fathers knew that they were embarking upon a novel experiment in government, the success of which they rightly entrusted to God. Liberty and justice are concepts found in all religions. The Bible is full of references to liberty and justice. Jesus preached them. As the playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote: "Liberty will look easy when nobody dies to get it." If I have to be poor, I'd rather be poor in America than in any other place on earth. The price of liberty and justice is enormous. It is not wrong to love one's country we love our country, but we worship God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir sang beautifully and the selections were wonderful. There was the aforementioned Gershwin Summertime, as well as the National Anthem, Simple Gifts, and Irving Berlin's God Bless America, sung with much feeling by soprano Caroline McKenzie. And the service was conducted with great dignity.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was a shame that more people didn't arrive in time to hear the pre-service organ recital. And where were the young people?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Refreshments were served in the courtyard between the church and parish hall, but I couldn't stay, as I had to rush back to check in online for tomorrow's flight while first-class upgrades were still available (I got one).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The pre-service coffee was strong, hot and tasty, and I'm sure the after-service coffee was the same. I'm also sure the crowd was friendly and welcoming, as everyone had been before the service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If I lived in Los Angeles, this would be my church for sure! An active and friendly congregation, a dignified liturgy with just enough ceremony to keep me happy while still being Protestant; an excellent music program; and good preaching – all things I look for in a church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. And Dr Bower's words and the wonderful patriotic music made me glad to be an American.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How strongly Dr Bower resembled Phil Silvers. I kept thinking of the line from the film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum where Phil Silvers' character, the pimp Marcus Lycus, says that he'll be in shortly to lead the girls in noonday prayers. Sacrilegious in this context, I know, but the resemblance was striking.