California Mystery Worship One: Hollywood UMC

California Mystery Worship One: Hollywood UMC July 25, 2014

“Good Heavens! Do you know what the land under this parking lot is worth?” That reaction came from the mouth of my friend, a real estate professional, when we found the parking lot of Hollywood United Methodist Church, right in the middle of . . . yes, indeed, Hollywood. As in Los Angeles. As in sidewalks with stars on them and grungy-looking stores and famous landmarks. And a place where parking is nearly impossible to find.

I am in Southern California for several weeks and she and I had made a long drive in order to attend this church, known for creative worship and active ministry in the film community.  Thomas P. Barber was the ecclesiastical architect for the exquisitely lovely structure, finished in 1934. His inspiration was Westminster Abbey in London, and it is easy to see the English Gothic Revival style permeating the lovely building. Stone arches abound and the eye is pulled upward by the high pillars, those soaring arches and the beauty of massive stained glass windows.

The builders did face significant construction challenges. It turns out that the sanctuary was about to be situated on a plot of soft, unstable ground. The engineers remedied the problem by digging massive pits, filling them with enough concrete to equal 15 railroad freight cars. It may be the most earthquake-proof building in earthquake-prone Los Angeles.

One particularly notable item on the building is the very large red ribbon mounted on the tall bell tower of the church. From the church website, we learn this:  “In 1986, Lyle Loder, an active member of the congregation shared that he was living with AIDS. In 1987, Lyle was the first of the HUMC family to die of complications of this disease, and 32 others have followed him.”

We entered the spacious sanctuary to the sounds of quiet organ music–and to  the sight of multiple fans lining both side aisles. Keeping cool enough in the summers (and adequately warm in winters) apparently is a major issue here as there is neither heating nor air conditioning. The dark-wood divided-seat pews had deep red cushions and were quite comfortable. I noted that the only hymnbook available was the traditional one. Apparently, this congregation has not gone for the more modern, easier to sing music.

Ten minutes before the service began, a woman dressed in dark street clothes seated herself behind the ornate pulpit. The large worship space, easily seating 500,  filled to around ⅔ capacity. Just before the service began, fourteen casually dressed people filed into the choir loft and precisely at 11, a magnificent organ offered the prelude of Suite gothique: Prière à notre dame by Leon Boellman. Following this, that small choir burst into huge song with an expert a cappella rendering of “My Spirit is One With You” a Lakota prayer put to music by John West.

What followed then was a traditional, technologically smooth and richly spiritual worship service that included a children’s time, with Sunday School for them afterward.

In line with their location in the historic heart of the film industry, the pastor, The Rev. Kathy Cooper-Ledesma, creates summer preaching series using recent films as the topic area. This summer, the worship team picked Saving Mr. Banks, Her, Man of Steel, Philomena, and Fruitville Station. This past Sunday, Dallas Buyers Club was the featured offering. Rev. Cooper-Ledesma skillfully wove selected (and cleaned up!) film clips into the Gospel of Matthew passages about leaving worry behind, reminding us that we cannot serve both God and money, and the goal of seeking first the Kingdom of Heaven.

The service ended with a rousing rendition of “Do, Lord, Remember Me,” a glorious organ Postlude, and an invitation for those who wished to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion to make their way to the front for a brief service. The Associate Pastor, Rev. Mark Stambough, offered anointing and prayer for all who wished to receive it on the way out. I did wish it and appreciated the touch.

We joined many of the congregation afterward for cookies and coffee afterward in the lovely garden area between the Sanctuary and the education building. Among others, I spoke with a Chinese woman whose preacher father had been imprisoned in China for proclaiming the gospel, and a family from Ethiopia.

“It was delightful” was the cogent summary statement by my companion. We both sensed the power of the physical space set the scene that permitted hearts to open to the presence of God. The use of a traditional worship liturgy did not seem to be a deterrent to the many ethnically diverse young adults who filled the space. The church clearly serves as a welcoming presence for a large predominantly male gay population, as well multiple couples with children. I am glad I went.

Note: this article was first published in the July 25, 2014 print edition of the Denton Record Chronicle.

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