Restructured Church of Holy Spirit, Los Angeles

Restructured Church of the Holy Spirit: Purity, Love and Light, East Los Angeles, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Restructured Church of the Holy Spirit: Purity, Love and Light
Location: East Los Angeles, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 August 2011, 10:00am

The building

A simple stone structure, similar in appearance to the sect's church in Mérida, Yucatán, México. Above a porch with three archways are letters spelling out the church name and framing a representation of "the first seal" as revealed by the Angel Gabriel. Inside is a brightly lit room, in front of which is a raised platform framed by white lace curtains. On the platform are a low altar covered with a red cloth and several chairs upholstered in red with white lace borders. In front of the altar are a red sanctuary lamp and a candelabrum holding 12 white votive candles. Portraits of Roque Rojas and Brother Justo, the sect's founders, hang on either side of the altar, and the United States and Mexican flags stand to the left. In an alcove behind the altar is a pedestal topped by a round stone in which are embedded seven colored stones.

The church

This more or less Trinitarian folk sect of poor working class people traces its origin back to a church founded in Mexico by an ex-seminarian named Roque Jacinto Rojas Esparaza. As the story goes, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Rojas on June 23, 1861 and told him that he had been chosen to accomplish a great mission. Rojas gathered a small band of believers about him, calling his group the Mexican Patriarchal Church of Elijah, or Iglesia Mexicana Patriarca Elías in Spanish. Following Rojas’ death in 1879, his church split into several smaller sects. Around 1950, a certain Brother Justo, who had acquired a reputation for miracle cures and for successfully arguing against Catholic priests, founded the Restructured Church of the Holy Spirit to correct abuses he felt had crept into Rojas’ original teachings, such as the practice of performing healing rituals in exchange for money. The church’s current leadership is descended in a blood line from Brother Justo. The Restructured Church of the Holy Spirit is thought to number only about 1,000 followers, primarily in Mexico, with branches in California, Arizona and Texas. They believe in a fatherly and benevolent God who "hid himself" in the body of Jesus, son of Mary, and who communicates with us through the Holy Spirit. They also believe that they are the only true heirs of the faith of Israel. They do not adhere to a formal theology or define any books as being sacred scripture, although they accept that Moses received 22 commandments from God, of which only 10 survived in stone. Some of the "lost" commandments are rather interesting, e.g. "You shall not gossip about other peoples business," "You shall not mistreat poor people," "You shall not drink alcohol," "You shall not put the well being of your children in anyone else's hands," etc. Church members believe in helping each other, contributing to the church, and bringing the world, especially Israel, back to the true faith which only they possess.

The neighborhood

East Los Angeles is more a cultural term than a political entity, and refers to a collection of largely poor Hispanic communities east of downtown. The area suffers from a somewhat undeserved reputation as a bastion of street gangs and drug-related crimes. In actuality, "Eastlos" (as the residents call it) is rich with throwbacks to a simpler Los Angeles of years gone by: outdoor markets, mom-and-pop bodegas, and tidy bungalows with well-tended gardens out back. The church is located on Goodrich Boulevard, a short but busy street that links the major thoroughfares of Whittier and Olympic Boulevards with the Santa Ana Freeway.

The cast

Pastor Leandro Salazar.

What was the name of the service?

I dont think it had a name, but it was a special healing service.

How full was the building?

I counted room for about 100 people. There were 29 people present, mostly young adults. Church members entered from a door to the right of the altar; visitors from the church's rear door. As people entered, they took holy water in the manner I'll describe in a moment, and then crossed themselves in front of the altar and walked backwards to their seats. Women sat to the right and men to the left. Members wore a white alb-like garment that extended only to the knees, with a yellow cincture around the waist and a yellow ribbon tied in a bow around the neck. In addition, Pastor Salazar wore a white stole.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes indeed! The service time was not posted anywhere, so I chanced it and arrived about 9.30am. I approached a small group of people who were sitting in a little garden by the side entrance and asked them in Spanish what time the service began. "A las diez" (at ten oclock), a gentleman replied, and then asked me in English if this was my first visit to the church. He introduced himself as Leandro Salazar, one of the pastors, and explained that there were seven pastors in all who served on a rotating basis. He said that today's service would be a special silent healing service, but that usually they had prayers and readings. We chatted a bit more, half in English and half in Spanish. As other people approached, he introduced me to them. Finally he said that one of the other pastors, whose name was Roberto Flores but whom everyone called "Bobby", spoke better English than he did and would answer any questions I might have afterward. Then he excused himself to go inside to prepare for the service.

Was your pew comfortable?

Plain wooden pew - I've sat in worse, but I wouldn't exactly call it comfortable. It was OK.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

As I entered, I saw Pastor Salazar in the back of the church burning incense in a thurible. He sprayed water from a spray bottle into my hands - he called it "holy water." He indicated that I should rub my hands together and then rub them over the top of my head and down the entire length of my body. After I had done that, he invited me to sit down. People entered in silence as described above and sat in silence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Pastor Salazar said: "Hermanos" (Brothers) but then I couldnt quite make out the rest of it.

What books did the congregation use during the service?


What musical instruments were played?

None. There was no music.

Did anything distract you?

Trying to take everything in was distraction enough! There was so much tat - symbolic, I'm sure, but of what? I wondered if the seven colored stones embedded in the round stone on top of the pedestal were meant to represent the seven seals of the Apocalypse. The red cloths with white lace borders that covered the altar and the chairs reminded me of valentines.

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

After the pastor's opening remarks, there followed 30 minutes of complete silence, during which the pastor stood facing the altar and the people remained seated, some with outstretched hands. Pastor Salazar had previously told me that people would be silently asking God for healing. Then there came a brief sermon and a final blessing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

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

7 – Pastor Salazar spoke into a microphone and was a bit overamplified. His voice was also a bit hoarse, but his Spanish was clear. I was actually surprised at how much of it I understood.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Today is a special day. We should not think of our infirmities, but rather of our blessings. It is good that we have come to church today. The Holy Spirit will enhance our well-being.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sincerity with which these people had come together to place their cares before God and ask for his healing was, I thought, heavenly.

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

Only that I don't understand Spanish as well as Id like to.

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

We knelt on the floor for a short prayer, after which Pastor Salazar made the Sign of the Cross over us while reciting (if I heard the Spanish correctly) "May almighty God bless you: Father, Son and Holy Spirit." As everyone left, a little old Mexican lady in back of the church gave everyone a small paper cup filled with holy water, which we were expected to drink. Pastor Salazar came up to me and said that Pastor "Bobby" would meet me outside the church to answer questions. The little old Mexican lady invited me to return tomorrow (they have services every day) but I told her I had to go back home to Arizona.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Earlier I had noticed someone carrying in a pitcher of lemonade and a tray of pastries. I had resolved to seek them out, but a young man who seemed to be in his early 20s came rushing up to me and introduced himself as Bobby. I asked him to fill me in on what Pastor Salazar had said at the beginning of the service, but Bobby replied that he had missed it as he had come in a few minutes late (I had seen one or two people arrive late, but I had no idea that one of them was Pastor Bobby). Then I asked him to verify if I had understood the sermon correctly, and I was pleased to learn that I had. We chatted a bit more, and he gave me the phone number of someone affiliated with their church in Arizona. He then thanked me for coming and bade me good-bye. I thought it a bit strange that he kept me outside and didn't offer to take me in for refreshments. I could have used some lemonade. But perhaps the refreshments were for members only.

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

6 – Well, it certainly was different. I liked their friendliness and their simple, honest approach to worship. I'm tempted to call the person whose number Pastor Bobby gave me. I'd like to learn more about the symbolism behind all the tat. And attending this church might help me learn Spanish better.

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

Very much so. I was hesitant to visit this church, as I really didn't know what to expect. Would it be Holy Roller style? Would I understand anything? Would I be welcomed or shunned as an outsider? In the end, I'm glad I went, and I certainly did feel welcome even if I didn't understand everything.

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

Drinking holy water. Also how young Pastor Bobby seemed.

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