Hope Center Church – (Pentecostal) San Antonio

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Sunday #12 – Hope Center Church, 4545 N. Loop 1604 W., San Antonio, TX

One of the positive sides of visiting 50 churches in one year is that you can wear the same dress every Sunday and know that no one is wondering why you don’t make another trip to the thrift store. I have this one very comfortable dress and prefer to wear it to church. Wouldn’t work if I had to go the same church every week.

Since the start of my church exploration in the same dress, I’ve met many people who are fascinated by the journey. They wonder about their own courage if they were to tackle the same, while others tell me about the churches they’ve visited in the past. Makes for great conversation.

What surprised me the most is to learn of others who have made a similar trek. I met Rebecca about a month ago. She was raised Catholic and had previously taken classes at University of the Incarnate Word. While there, she took an ecumenical course that required her class to visit many different churches. She had visited many of the same faiths that I had and we really enjoyed comparing notes. I quickly wondered if other colleges required the same of their students for certain classes. She said that endeavor really opened her eyes.

After I began my journey, I wanted to see if others had blogged about doing something similar. I fortunately ran across Steve Fuller, who wrote The Church Experiment. A much better writer than I, his 2009 blogging journey intersperses some rip roaring comedy in places.

Another person I met the week after my first foray into church hopping was Lisa, a 39-year-old woman who had answered my Craigslist posting for a free coffee maker. She stopped by to pick it up for her new parish in south San Antonio. I learned that she and her husband started visiting different churches four years ago, but only during the summer when they had off from teaching Sunday School. She and her husband Danny began their summer church journeys to better understand what others believe and how they worship. They then take that information back to their Sunday School children to help them understand and appreciate the differences.

Here’s a short interview I did a few weeks ago.

From where did the idea of visiting churches begin?

When I met my second husband, he wasn’t from here. He wasn’t as church-going as I was, so I thought I’d get him started back to see if it would become a part of his life. He just went along with me, but really got into it.

What did you get out of visiting different churches and parishes?

I have a strong belief that we need to understand different beliefs and cultures. In the Catholic faith, we have people come into the church that are what you would call converts. We like to understand what their previous beliefs have been and what drew them to the Catholic Church.

What have your own children gotten from this endeavor?

My daughter attends a public school and is now almost 12. She comes home with questions all the time about four of her friends who are Mormon. She invites the girls over, but they are never permitted to come for an overnight stay, saying they are not allowed to spend time with their friends in that way. So, I’ve helped her not to judge, but simply to ask questions.

What is your basic philosophy on different religions?

For the most part, everybody has their beliefs and a God they believe in. As long as you are going somewhere and having that connection, that’s the whole thing. We all need faith; we all need peace. No matter what you believe in, we are all human. We need to treat people with a little respect. That generates more peace and love.

Have you ever had anyone look askance at you for “church hopping?”

Funny that you should ask – most remarks come from my family; others come from church friends. I tell those people that I’m firm in my Catholic beliefs. I believe there is nothing wrong in visiting a different religion so you can learn about their beliefs. We always go to a Catholic Mass on the weekend when we visit another church, so we always attend to our faith first. Most people agree with me. If we would all drop our fears and learn about someone else’s faith, we will learn more and have more understanding. Getting to know other people and what they believe is a first step. If people will take that first step, I think our world would be a better place.

 

So now on to the Pentecostal church I will visit today. The 9 am service is one hour and 45 minutes…oh my! But the second one at 11:00 is TWO hours long. I’m headed to the first one. 🙂

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Why This Church?

This week, I needed to stretch my comfort zone and visiting a Pentecostal Church would be a reach. Earlier in the week, I looked up Pentecostal churches in San Antonio. I immediately had a question as to why Assembly of God churches came up in a search for Pentecostal ones, but got that answer today.

Churches are notorious for having lousy websites, but this one stood out above the rest, and the church was nearby.

My Preconceived Ideas of Pentecostal Churches

I only knew one person from my early grade school years that was possibly Pentecostal. She always wore dresses below her knees and never cut her hair, so that’s about the extent of my exposure to anyone who was raised in the Pentecostal church. Based on that, here is what I suspect I’ll find today.

  1. Women wearing longer dresses or skirts – so much for my above the knee dress. Guess today, I’ll pull out the skirt I wore to the Mormon Church.
  2. Women’s tresses will be long or pulled into a bun – not much I can do to fit in other than wearing a wig; I don’t have one.
  3. Pentecostals probably raise their hands in praise to God
  4. Pentecostals likely practice glossolalia – “speaking in tongues.”
  5. Some Pentecostals worship with rattlesnakes, though I think that is relegated to the Pentecostals in Kentucky.

Arrival

Yep….late again. I wrote down 545 N Loop 1604 W instead of 4545, so wound up at the Shrine Center. Only thing going on there was a motorcycle training course. I need to get my motorcycle license, but didn’t have the time today. Besides, the skirt would have been a problem.

I pulled into the church lot and saw a greeter at the door, so I knew I wasn’t too, too late. He greeted me, then once inside, I met Bebe Gonzalez, who told me there wasn’t a program for the service, but to take a seat anywhere and that the first song had almost finished.

Service Begins

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I took a seat mid-way through the rows and rows of chairs. At the start of the service, only about 25-30 people were standing in front of about 450 chairs. But it was the early service, so I expected the crowd to be less. By the end of the service, about 90 people had rolled in, all fairly young to middle-aged (women in dresses and long skirts, men wore everything from suit and tie to jeans).

During the last few stanzas of that song, an older woman with gray hair pulled into a chignon came over, hugged me, then said she was glad I had come to worship with them. Similar to the pastors from Kendall County Cowboy Church and Church Under the Bridge, pastor Nathan Scoggins also came over and introduced himself.

After the small choir, band and worship song leaders finished the first song, to which people sung from words on a large overhead screen, the pastor walked to the pulpit that stood amidst a backdrop of heavy purple velvet curtains, purple lighting and with gold theatre-like drapes hanging on both sides of the stage. He gave details about some church business, including information on what the church would soon be buying, and then about the architect who would be hired to start work on the new sanctuary. Pleased to hear that the church would start this project without going into debt; that told me the church was building from a place of financial strength.

Then came the offering. Earlier than an offering I’ve seen any church have, this one was a bit different. After some kind of quiet blessing up front, the men sauntered around and handed the plate to a few people. Never came by me and they didn’t seem to have any pass-the-plate-down-the-pew structure to the whole process.

Rockin’ and Rollin’ From the Pulpit

Then, Reverend Robert Bayer came to the podium to preach the third in a series of sermons – this one timely titled “A Flood to Remember.” Since the movie Noah hit the big screen this week, churchgoers throughout the nation have been critical of its creative license that expanded upon the biblical story.

Known within the church as being a biblical scholar, Rev. Bayer delivered a sermon based upon the bible, quoting countless versus throughout the Old and New Testament. By far, this sermon had more biblical references than all the other churches I had visited combined. Reverend Bayer heavily sprinkled his delivery with congregation engagement prompts like “Can I hear an Amen?” and “Someone shout HALLELUJAH!”

I’m not one for all the shouting and hollering from the pulpit, but Reverend Bayer is a delightful preacher who sprinkles his heavy-hitting sermon with light-hearted comedic insights that make it more palatable for a spiritual wuss like me. He even used a new reference for people like me in his sermon – “in-and-outers.” That beats “church hopper” or “church whore” as some wisecracking friends call me.

The reverend covered a lot of ground in this sermon. After talking about Noah, he touched on the rapture saying, “It’ll be ‘Halle’ here, then ‘lujah’ there!”

Moving on, he talked about Jesus feeding the masses in the bible, then asked, “What would you do if 5000 people showed up at your house for dinner?” He said, “There’s only so much water that can go into a soup.”

Then, he moved into thoughts around prayer and building an altar for thanks. He said, “First thing people do when they get on their knees is that they suddenly get the ‘gimmes’ instead of offering thanks.”

Guilty!

Then came the part of the service that can often feel uncomfortable for non-Pentecostal folk like me – the call for everyone to come down to the altar. Most everyone in the audience went to the front, sans me. Some laid their bodies across a couple of stairs, others knelt and while others stood behind them, all with arms raised high into the air. I heard a lot of moaning and praising going on. I stayed in my seat – I’m much more comfortable being the observer versus the participant in situations where I’m not entirely comfortable.

At one point during this altar call, the same gray-haired woman came over to me and said again how glad she was that I came, said “God bless you,” and  “I hope you’ll come back some time.” That felt completely genuine and so welcoming. Then the lead pastor dismissed everyone and told the congregation to go greet someone after the service.

Post Service Commentary

All in all, this was a wonderful service. I happen to love the color purple, so the whole environment was soothing to me, minus the go-to-the-front and show how much you love and thank God portion. I liked the fact that this church is very focused on multinational worship. They have a Spanish service and would like to offer other services in different languages.

After the service, I went back to Bebe and learned why a Google search of “Pentecostal throws up hits on “Assembly of God.” She said, “At one time the two faiths were joined, but the Pentecostals split off when a difference in theology occurred, primarily related to baptism.” Assembly of God baptizes in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, whereas the Pentecostals baptize in the name of Jesus, believing that God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus are one.

So, no snakes, no healing demonstrations today, just arm-raising-amen-hallelujah praise of God.

What’s Next?

I’m thinking it might be Scientology next week, but who knows? Any requests? I have committed to worship at a large Methodist Church for Easter, where they have an orchestra. That’ll be awesome.

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Trinity Baptist Church – San Antonio, TX

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Sunday #11 – Trinity Baptist Church, 319 E. Mulberry Ave., San Antonio, TX

Since seeing those beautiful spires atop St. Mary Cathedral in Austin, I’ve been thinking a lot about steeples. Since the name of this blog is Steeple Stretch, you might think I have a fascination for steeples, but no. However, my earliest memory of church is being taught the little hand-play that goes: Here’s the church; here’s the steeple – open the door and see all the people. I loved that little finger manipulation and still enjoy sharing it with any small child that will indulge my silly side.

I find the history of steeples incredibly interesting, and also find it ironic that many church leaders bristle when the steeple’s supposed origin is discussed. Church steeples can be traced back thousands of years to Egypt and pagan worship of phallic obelisks for promises of fertility. Yet, as present day culture is so prone to do, we twist these facts around to suit or own view of things. Yet, should an element once applied to pagan purposes remain marked by its pagan meaning today? Some churches and faiths have sought to answer that and thus church steeples have been removed or never placed in many houses of worship.

Guess that answers that question.

I kind of like these spires on churches, and my view aligns similarly with the viewpoint of today’s culture – steeples are simply a visual testimony that points to Heaven and a reminder to all those who walk within its shadow of God’s calling to love one another. These religious markers that often rise above a town square raise many questions, for which I’ll share a few answers with you now.

Why are steeples mainly white?

In Colonial days, metal was expensive and hard to obtain, so townspeople made them from wood. Of course, anything made of wood was usually whitewashed. If a church had the funds for copper, then it was used; ultimately becoming self-weathering. Since copper has a life expectancy of 70-100 years, maintenance was not an issue, because it simply turned to a green patina. Good news for janitors and church repair budgets.

Why are bells often located in the church steeple?

The height of the steeple helped the sound of bells to travel the greatest distance throughout the community, thus reaching far and wide.

When are church bells rung?

Calls to worship, to mark the time of day, as a wedding peal and occasionally as a solemn funeral rite to mark the passing of a cherished church member.

Why don’t all churches have bells in their steeple?

Electronic carillons have lately been replacing traditional bells previously used by churches. They can digitally recreate the sounds of cast bells.

Some steeples have things on top. Why?

Some churches put crosses, weathervanes or decorative finials atop their steeples. Many of these are for aesthetic reasons, but some also serve as lightening terminals to direct a lightening strike safely to the ground below.

Now on to the real reason for blogging…

Why This Church?

I’m sure you can guess that I did an online search for the San Antonio church with the highest steeple. In doing so, I ran across this article about the restoration of the church’s most recognizable feature from fellow journalist Abe Levy of San Antonio Express News.

It intrigued me, so I decided this is the Baptist church that I would visit. From the website, visitors will see that the church offers both a traditional and a contemporary service in two different locations, but I wanted the more traditional one so I could see the steeple and snap a photo.

Luckily for me, I chose this Sunday, because in today’s service I learned that the congregation would begin remodeling of the church sanctuary this very week.

What I already know about Baptist Churches

After spending 20+ years in the Baptist Church, I know a fair amount, so not much will be new.

Arrival

Yes, I was running late again. With just two minutes to spare as I turned off Highway 281 onto East Mulberry, I hoped that a new visitor parking spot might be available like it had been at the Crossbridge Church on the start of this SteepleStretch journey. Two blocks later I not only found a visitor parking spot, I found a whole parking lot for visitors. It was my lucky day!

Even though I was a bit rushed to make my way into the sanctuary, roughly three to four people warmly greeted me.  I wound my way from the front entrance to enter the sanctuary and take a seat in the most comfortable pews I’ve ever had the pleasure to rest my backside.

Service Begins

From the moment the service began, it was a rather surreal experience for me. The colors, the sanctuary setup and the music flooded me with memories of First Baptist Church of China, First Baptist Church of Nome, First Baptist Church of Beaumont, and First Baptist Church of Corpus Christi – all places where I grew up and spent Sundays worshipping God, via messages delivered from Southern Baptist Ministers. 

Unlike those previous churches that I hadn’t stepped into since the early 80s, this one had two overhead camera screens, or more and cameras (okay, well First Baptist Church of Beaumont had cameras and a control room).  This church was also much larger. With five sections of pews and a large balcony, this church dwarfed all the Baptist Churches I’d been in previously. However, this one was only about halfway full. Most of the people were in the 40-70 age range with a few young families in the service. I’d say that 95 percent of today’s attendance was Caucasian, but I did see a few African Americans and Hispanics sprinkled around. Most of the men wore suits and ties or dress slacks and shirts. Women ran the gamut from dresses to nicer pantsuits. All in all, a much more dressy crowd, though they don’t hold a candle to Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church.

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A teal-blue robed choir sang traditional music from the front of the sanctuary, with a large 9-foot piano just in front of the choir. The pulpit stood squarely in the center of the stage, which seems to be the same location in all Baptist churches. One thing I noted a bit different from most churches – the American flag to the left of the stage and a Christian flag (Rev. Bobby Martin, help me out with this one. It is a Christian flag, right? And not the Texas flag?)  Seeing those flags flooded me with memories of Vacation Bible School at FBC of Nome when the flags would be marched in and crossed before Vacation Bible School began. We were likely singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” while this transpired. 

Unlike times past, hymnals are not required, even though they can be located in the back of the pews. Now, technology makes it possible to project the words right onto the screen. How on earth do you hit the right pitch without reading music though? 

My favorite part of the service was the children’s portion. One lady brought out King Tut – a 14-pound cat that had lost weight and also served God by ministering to the elderly at nursing homes. Go, King TUT! More people should be visiting the elderly, because I’ll be elderly some day.

Dr. Les Hollon, the pastor of Trinity Baptist had just flown in from Greece and had only three hours of sleep, but the audience could not have guessed, if he had not said so. I knew I was in the right place this morning, when he suddenly started talking about the church’s steeple.

Really? How did he know I had written that whole intro on steeples before I got there? 

I don’t remember too much of his sermon about “Ephesus: Building People that Last.” Not a fault of his though. I think I was too captivated by past memories. I marveled at how he delivered his entire sermon holding a big thick Bible. I remembered seeing that before from other Baptist ministers, but not in other denominations.

Must be a class required by Southern Baptist Theological Seminaries: Pulpit Preaching without Dropping Your Bible: 101 

Celebration of the Lord’s Supper

After the sermon came the Lord’s Supper. Churches should really help visitors learn the differences in how the Lord’s Supper is administered. I noticed that the Baptists pass out the bread and you are supposed to hold it in your hands until the deacons come back to the front and the pastor repeats Christ’s words: Take this in remembrance of me. I asked my friend and business partner about that difference since he was also Baptist. He just said, “Our bread has preservatives; it lasts longer.” Right! I guess the grape juice has preservatives, too, because you wait on drinking that, as well. So since no one else will tell you this inside stuff, now you know. Hold the bread, until Simon says….uh, I mean the pastor says so.

And like all Baptist churches, the offering came at the end of the service instead of mid-way. Then we all said ‘good morning’ to each other, held hands, sang a few verses to some hymns, while a good many people snuck out early. (This surprised me because this was the first service that not only ended in only one hour, but had ended one minute before that hour. These Baptists really need to go worship with the Buddhists for two and a half hours or with Cornerstone Church for an hour and a half. One hour feels like a few minutes after those marathon services.

Post Service Commentary

In some ways, this whole service made me sad. Not that my time within the Baptist Church was unhappy, it’s just that those years were spent with family and close friends that I dearly miss. It’s hard to go back into an environment that brings back so many memories. Hopefully for others, that won’t be the case.

What’s Next?

I’ve gotten entirely too comfortable in the past three weeks. First, worshipping with the Presbyterians, then from the comfort of my office chair at VirtualChurch.com, then with the Baptists – I really need to break out of my comfort zone and shake things up a bit. It might be at a Mosque on their Friday Holy Day, because I understand I need to dress modestly, which means covering my whole body from the neck down. I need to do this before the sweltering heat of San Antonio makes me sweat from every pore. But this Friday may be packed, so it might be Pentecostal or Quaker next week. One thing is certain – it’ll be out of my comfort zone next week.

Sunday #10 VirtualChurch.com

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Why this Church?

I had planned to head downtown to Trinity Baptist Church today, but an overwhelming load of deadlines left me without even one hour to spare. So, last night, I logged onto VirtualChurch.com and virtually attended church.

What I know about Virtual Churches

Nada, zip, nary a thing! I’d heard about this unique form of worship through another blog, so I thought I’d try it out.

When you log onto VirtualChurch.com, you’ll immediately be instructed to pray for the unique service that will allow God to touch your heart. With more than 365 billion service option possibilities, only could be God that would get you there — the odds are just too astronomical for you to pick it out. As you’ll see below, getting to that service will also require divine tech intervention.

I first clicked on the “1st Time Visitors” button to figure out the nuts and bolts of attending a Virtual Church. I had some crazy idea that I’d choose the scripture, hymns or songs that I wanted to hear, then the message that fit those choices would appear, but no; my preconceived ideas failed again. This is just a completely random service.

Using my Mac, I clicked the “Start Service” button. Wouldn’t you know…that page said my Mac didn’t have up-to-date Media Player software. Clicked on the link provided to get that update and wouldn’t you know…again that took me to a defunct Microsoft page.

Convinced that I could make this work, I swiveled my office chair to the desktop PC sitting behind me. Logged on and got the same devilish error message. At that point, my patience ran thin. My patience often runs thin, so that’s probably the service God had in mind for me. However, some computer poltergeist intervened to keep God and me disconnected on that possible patience message. I piddled around with other things and suddenly the website started working; the Virtual Church commercial began. That just made me laugh. It’s one you must hear, so sign on just to catch the commercial, if nothing else.

Service Begins

After a prayer boomed over the computer speakers, the pastor (sorry…didn’t catch his name) went on to read a passage from 2nd Corinthians.

Following that, the service began with a great gospel song that quickly turned into some kind of Christian rap song. Is it just me, or do you feel odd hearing rap songs in church? I’m not much on hymns, but at least I can read the words to those hymns. Wish I could have seen the video of that rap song, but in my virtual church service, I had only audio, with some psychedelic colored wave pattern thingy going on in front of my eyes. Then came the “Jesus is Lord; bow a knee and get blessed song.” I will say that all this music had quite the beat. By the third song, which I didn’t care for, I discovered the first drawback to Virtual Church. When my interest waned in this less than satisfying song, I found myself pivoting back to my Mac to check proofread a press release.

Fifteen minutes into the service, I received another error message about some codec requirement from Windows Media Player. Really? Everything went into pause, so I clicked on the link to help me correct the pause problem and wouldn’t you know…an error page shows up again. So I go back to the “ignore” button (that’s my favorite computer button, by the way). That button worked! The audio came back up and then the pastor’s message began: “30 Ways to Live Longer.”

When I heard the title, I just smiled. God must be telling me something, because another article is in line of sight at the computer. Hanging just above the desk is: “Top 10 Fun Ways to Live Longer.” I note a coincidence here and file that synchronicity tidbit away. Changes may be in order to help my body make it through the next couple of decades. Most of the pastor’s “thirty ways to live longer” message involved lowering blood pressure and reducing stress. The premise of this message is based on Biblical principles, but some of these points were quite comical.

1. Stop smoking. Apparently if you take a cigarette drag first thing in the morning, your heart rate increases by at least 10 beats per minute.

2. Try the “alternate nostril breathing” technique. New one on me! To accomplish this, you cover your right nostril and breathe one full breath in through the opposite nostril, then switch sides to breathe out of the one you previously held shut. You do that for 60 seconds. By the end of that time, you should be relaxed.

3. Suck in your gut. This is supposed to help something or other; probably make you look less pudgy. I’ll try that tomorrow.

4. Gnaw on celery. Again, the pastor cited some statistic about reduction in blood pressure.

5. Pray. Citing some study that shows that prayer and meditation can reduce your blood pressure, the pastor said we should do this first thing in the morning and before we go to bed at night.

6. Get your mantra. Pick a mantra and chant it when you have a challenge in your life.

7. Smile. This one is also on my “above the desk” list. I do it often. 🙂

8. Get the unpleasant stuff done now. Oh no. That instruction is probably why this one-in-365-billion sermons showed up for me tonight. I’m so bad at that.

9. Socialize and have a friend. The pastor cited the statistic that married people live longer than single people. 

10. Drink grape juice. Some doctors may disagree on this one, but had something to do with the power of the grape. Well, I do like wine…that’s a grape, right?

11. Drink orange juice. I sure like that advice, but again, doctors might disagree.

12. Can the cola. OH NO! My number one vice is TAB and other diet colas. Again, raises blood pressure. Are you noting a theme here?

13. Drink alcohol only with meals. He pointed to the Europeans who drink consistently, but only with meals.

14. Listen to David’s harp. This is a biblical reference to music and the pastor cites it as another way to lower blood pressure.

15. Get 8 hours sleep. No arguments here; I love to sleep.

16. Do the Saba Sana? Have no idea how to spell that, but it’s a relaxing technique where you lie on the floor and tense all the muscles in your body, then relax them all, then alternate that for a period of time.

17. Get the red out. Watermelon and tomatoes lower your blood pressure, as well.

18. Hug your honey. Studies show that holding hands for 10 minutes followed by hugging your honey will lower your stress level.

19. Avoid salt. How do you do that? Well, the pastor says you should never ingest more milligrams of salt than the number of calories in what you are eating, so if you pick up something with 100 calories, the package should indicate no more than 100 milligrams (or is that micrograms?) of salt.

20. Exercise. It’s a given; he didn’t elaborate. We all know the drill.

21. Do something exciting. Here’s where the list got funny. The pastor gave the example of those churches that use live rattlesnakes in their services. Yes, someone did a study on these people, (beyond their heads) and found that their bodies are less stressed during the week than yours and mine. The pastor’s take on that was, “After you deal with the stress of handling rattlesnakes in church, what can you face during the week that could be worse?” He has a point.

22. Take the TV out of the bedroom. Studies show that it will double the frequency of sex for married couples. 

23. Have more sex. Here’s a study to note: Middle-aged men can reduce their risk of heart attack by as much as 50 percent when they have sex at least three times a week.

24. Do some public speaking. Maybe this one is about combating the number one fear in America.

25. Pray for peace.

26. Get high — not the drug kind. Breathing at a higher altitude is good for you. So get higher, he said.

27. Get a dog or a cat. Guess what that does? Drops your blood pressure.

28. Just say “so what.” My dad had a different word he used — whatever. I think they both work to quell the anxiety people feel in challenging situations.

29. For men only: Don’t look down at your manhood. Pastor says if you look down, it’s gonna look smaller anyway; better to look at it from the side. Now when is the last time you heard advice like that in church?

30. Forgive to live. Learn to forgive in order to live and you’ll be much happier.

Post Service Commentary

Service in a Virtual Church is interesting. Must say that my up-front parking spot was quite nice — leather chair and all. Can’t say I got greeted by many people while there, but the pastor did welcome first-time guests and I was instructed on how to give, if I so desired. I was even asked to become a member of Virtual Church, if I didn’t have a church home. I don’t, but I’ll pass; I need more personal interaction. For those who can’t get to church, I find the whole process fascinating. I just hope those people have a technical type standing by, because it could create frustration instead of peace for some.

What’s Next?

Had a blog post mostly written about steeples this week and had planned to attend a church with a huge steeple. I know…these decisions are quite bizarre about the churches I pick, but maybe I can carry that out next week. Until then, have a look at VirtualChurch.com and let me know what you think. Maybe God will lead you to some insights about Christian rap music that I didn’t glean this time.

University Presbyterian Church – San Antonio

Sunday #9 – University Presbyterian Church, 300 Bushnell Ave., San Antonio, TX

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Why This Presbyterian Church?

In a word – “inclusive.” Mike’s cousin had invited me to his church a few weeks back and told me about the church’s openness to worshipping with all faiths, ethnicities and gender preferences. Want to know how inclusive this church is? Just have a look at this statement from the church newsletter:

<<Affirming that every person has worth as a unique creation and a child of God, we welcome into full participation people of every age, sex, race, color, ethnicity, culture, immigration status, political affiliation, economic condition, physical and mental ability, marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression.>> 

Also, cousin Larry’s 81st birthday is this week, so I can’t think of any better time to go.

What I already know about Presbyterian Church Services

After spending 12 or so years in the Presbyterian faith, attending First Presbyterian Church of Kingwood, I learned that Presbyterians have strong roots to Scotland. I used to love when the church marked special occasions by including a bagpipe procession. I also know this about the faith:

  • Presbyterian ministers probably spend more time than their counterparts on sermon preparation. The messages given are richly peppered with passages from the Bible and are extremely well researched.
  • Presbyterian’s baptize children as infants.
  • Presbyterian’s have a similar style service to Baptists (my previous background), with a little more ritual thrown in that resembles what you might find in a Catholic church.

So, here I am, worshipping at University Presbyterian Church. For the first time along this journey, I also have the pleasure of hearing a sermon delivered by a female.

Sunday School

I typically haven’t attended a Sunday School class along this journey, but when Larry asked me to join his class, thus explaining it as a series of classes about the criminal justice system, the idea intrigued me. After attending the class facilitated by Pastor Kelly Allen, I realized the class focused more on the criminal injustice system.

Presbyterians are known for developing intellectual thought around such topics. I remember years ago attending a class taught by church friend and NASA consultant Dr. Michael Bodner.  Michael gave a multi-view perspective about education from around the world and how those systems differ from our own U.S. version of education. Fascinating stuff.

In today’s class, the discussion became multi-dimensional with varying perspectives: a gentleman with a San Antonio non-profit organization that ran homes for federal inmates making the transition to non-incarcerated life, an attorney who works to right the wrongs in criminal justice and a medical doctor who works for the Department of Defense and who had worked within the criminal justice system along the Arizona border.

I could go on and on about what I learned, including the surprising key argument made by civil rights lawyer and author Michelle Alexander of  “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” the book being studied for the class. Alexander wrote that there are more African American men incarcerated today than the total number we had in all of slavery. What a sad statement about today’s criminal justice situation.

Service Begins

University Presbyterian is a small church with a utilitarian-like sanctuary. No stained glass, elaborate statues or exceptional architecture, but it does have a pipe organ. The organist plays from a balcony overlooking the sanctuary. Took me a while to figure out where the music originated. Why do disembodied sounds and words disturb me?

Once the Call to Worship was given by the white robed minister, who wears the traditional liturgical vestment (alb) of Presbyterian ministers, the female pastor with decorative stole draped around her neck and rope tied around the waist waited at the front while a procession of children came in from the back. One carried a Bible, another a candle, and yet another held a pitcher of water. This reminded me a bit of St. Mary Cathedral I’d visited the week before.

Unlike Baptist churches, Presbyterians have the choir seated to the left and face right. Hymns are the traditional type of music used in worship and people dress in slacks, dresses, jeans or whatever. As expected from the newsletter statement about inclusion, members comprise all ethnicities and gender preferences. However, this church has an overwhelming number of those in the 60+ age group. Even given that, midway through the service, a time for Children’s Moments was given, which is a short sermon for those in the knee to waist-high group.

An announcement then came for everyone to view the art exhibit on tour in the educational building. All the artwork had come from a former UPC member living in California and spending her last days on this earth following a cancer diagnosis. After that, came the Prayer for Illumination, Scripture Reading and a beautiful acapella solo by a young woman with a angelic-like voice. I admire those who can sing without background music. That’s true talent!

As expected, the well-researched sermon “the Greening Power of God” depicted the wonderful life of Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), who demonstrated the importance of women’s contributions to the intellectual life of the middle Ages. (I took that wording from the Church Bulletin, because I didn’t know anything about her until today. Yes, I’m sadly undereducated about those who lived before the 19th century).

After the sermon came the offering and it happened right where it was supposed to….after the sermon. If you remember, I spoke about this in a previous blog about how it felt wrong for the offering to come before the sermon. Now I realize that perception came from my previous Presbyterian Church influence. I’d been wondering about that. During the offering, I believe the church played a recorded piece of music and I must say, it was absolutely beautiful.

Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

After last week’s service, I appreciate two things about Presbyterians, 1) they make it quite clear for first-time visitors to know what is going on and what is expected during the service – no guessing, and 2) for the first time since this journey, I found a church that serves real home-baked bread with a gluten-free option for those who often must abstain from the Lord’s Supper due to dietary consideration. (Sorry, Catholics….no wine though, only grape juice).

Post Service Commentary

My partiality may show here, but Presbyterians have something that I truly appreciate – an intellectual view of God and the community in which we all live. For those who want to clap, jump from pews and raise your hands in the air, Presbyterian worship probably isn’t your cup of tea. However, I feel like Presbyterian worship falls somewhere in the middle between Baptists and Catholics – a more familiar service to what I expect with a more reverential approach to worshipping God.

Even if you don’t want to tarry into a University Presbyterian service, go to 300 Bushnell Street and spend some time underneath this magnificent oak tree that sits on the church property. I think you’ll be as humbled by its grandeur as I was. I don’t think I even got half of its magnificence in this photo. Needed a wide angle lens.

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What’s Next?

Off to Dallas, or specifically Allen, TX next week. Since I don’t know where I’ll be on Sunday, maybe Dallas, maybe Austin, maybe San Antonio or somewhere on I-35 between, it will be catch-as-catch-can. Maybe it will be a mystery church. Anyone have any ideas? The more bizarre the better, in my book that makes for interesting reading.

St. Mary Cathedral – Austin, TX

Sunday #8 – St. Mary Cathedral, 203 East 10th Street, Austin, TX

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Why This Church?

Last week’s visit to the Church Under the Bridge surprised me. I had not expected to find stained glass in their building. But since then, I’ve learned that churches of all sizes and denominations incorporate narratives from the Bible through the use of stained glass. Since I had to be in Austin this weekend, I set out to find a Catholic church with beautiful stained glass to fuel my ongoing interest in the art.

Mike and I often talked about learning the art of making stained glass. We never did. Yet, we always enjoyed it in whatever form we found it – fake Tiffany lamps, fixtures or nighlights. In fact, at his memorial service, my daughter Barbie told the most heart-warming story that involved his love of stained glass. Over a recent Christmas vacation to Paris, Mike, Barbie and Heather had toured the La Sainte-chapelle.

His mobility, often hampered by painful knees, led him to send the girls on up the winding staircase without him; those stairs would take the girls to the most beautiful view of the chapel’s stained glass from high above the ground floor. Sometime later, the girls heard a noise and with amazement turned to find their dad, huffing, puffing, sweating profusely with tears rolling down his face, as he caught the first sight of the stain glass beauty.  They suddenly realized what Mike had accomplished and asked, “Dad, how did you get up all those winding stairs?” He replied, “I crawled on my hands and knees.” That was such Mike’s way. He wasn’t always sure how to get something done, but he found a way.”

I came to St. Mary Cathedral with that story in mind and in memory of Mike, whose birthday would have been Tuesday this past week. In preparation for the visit, I also learned about another church in America with awesome stained glass — Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. It is known to have one of the most beautiful works of stained glass in America. With having grown up Presbyterian and raised in the Baltimore area, I now wonder whether or not Mike had ever been to that church. Unfortunately, now I’ll never know.

Preconceived Ideas about Catholic Churches

I’ve been to a few Catholic Masses in my life, mainly for weddings. At those times, I felt profoundly out of place with all the kneeling and standing and not knowing when to do what. My knowledge of the Catholic Church is limited, and most of what I learned came from TV episodes of The Flying Nun. Actress Sally Field may not have liked her role as Sister Bertrille, but I sure liked that cornette she used to carry her 90-pound body into the air across Santo Domingo. Here are my general thoughts about the Catholic Church:

  • Extremely reverent with not much ancillary noise
  • Lots of ritual that will probably make me feel like an outsider
  • Uncertainty over communion and whether non-Catholics are supposed to take it at Mass. (I hear they use wine, so I might pretend to be Catholic, considering how much I enjoy wine.)

Much has changed in the Catholic Church from when I was a young girl. Most masses are no longer done in Latin. The Vatican loosened its reigns about eating meat on Friday and even cremation is now permitted. The Catholic Church gave me a serious case of the giggles this week. I picked up a Tom Lehrer CD at the library and ran across a song called “The Vatican Rag” from the once popular satirist. Thought I’d stick it in here to make you smile, too, since a review of my visit to a Catholic Mass will probably be serious.

Arrival

The outside beauty of this church cause many people to stop and take pictures from the Austin streets, but the inside will take your breath away.

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The centerpiece of the church is a large crucifix in the altar area surrounded by more stained glass, angel motifs and large marble columns. Along both sides of the church, you’ll find tall windows of stained glass that when the afternoon sun streams in paints the inner cathedral with a wash of colors.

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Sis and I found a seat on the wooden pews toward the back of the cathedral; we don’t kneel and make the sign of the cross like everyone else did before taking a seat. (Is this learned in Catechism classes, or is this ritual passed down from parent to child? I need to ask someone about that.)

Service Begins

Music from a pipe organ began to fill the cathedral with eerie sounds and a complete reverence came over the crowd of about 75 people in this 300+ seat church. Church bells began ringing. (I suppose that’s to indicate that service had begun). Then a procession of altar boys holding candles, including one boy who held a gilded Bible above his head made their way down the main aisle to the altar, followed by the robed priest.

Then a disembodied voice began the service. I looked around to find out where this voice came from, but never found its origin. Sis, who is always good for comic relief said that it always creeped her out, too, when she’d hear a voice and couldn’t find its source.

Then the service began with a prayer of confession (I don’t think this counted as the “real” confession so you could partake of communion, but I’m not sure.) Then the church attendees began singing a hymn that I knew (Phew, finally felt at home). After the hymn, someone read something from St. Paul, then one of the altar boys grabbed the big gold book, opened it and held it in front of the priest to read from.

At this point, my mind went back to the Buddhist service I recently attended. Many similarities are found between the two. In both the Catholic and Buddhist services, everything seemed directed toward the altar. Many protestant churches feel more like a production with the choir, pastor and announcements made from the middle of the altar presented toward the congregation. In the Catholic and Buddhist services, all focus, prayer and praise is directed toward the altar. Maybe that’s why it seemed so much more reverential.

From a podium on the right, the priest gave the message from Ecclesiastes, but never read from that book in the Bible. Thought that was a bit odd and sis and I talked about that afterward. The priest delivered this message in a monotone voice. Not once did the tone of his voice rise, nor did excessively stress vocally anything about the preparation for the upcoming season of Lent. However, he said that Lent is a time to loosen our grip of things to find freedom and peace. This message was extremely short compared to those in the Protestant churches.

Someone from the audience read a prayer that had the audience completing every sentence with: Lord, Hear our prayer.  Drawing parallels, I guess this audience participation is similar to what the protestant churches do in saying, “Amen” after the pastor makes an important point.

After that, it was time for the offering. Music played while the ushers passed a green velvet lined basket around. I dropped in a check and passed it down the pew. Then came time for the Sacraments and lots of kneeling. This was quite an uncomfortable position. Wasn’t sure if those old pews were just placed too tightly together or if ergonomic design wasn’t important way back when. Commented about it later to my sister who said, “Oh, you have to learn the trick: You kneel down, clasp your hands together in prayer and push your butt back onto the edge of the pew. That way you look like you are still kneeling; it’s very ergonomic.” She said, “I learned that from a nun.” The whole time, I was thinking that Catholics had probably gotten used to the position, much like a well-practiced yoga student.

I’d seen this whole one-cup Sacrament thing previously; Suzanne also helped me figure out what to do and what not to do in letting people out to the aisle. What I didn’t get was the wasted time with all the dish washing up at the front. The priest did more wiping down of the chalice and plates than I do after a night’s dinner!

After all the dishes had been done, the priest instructed us to “Pass the peace.” After a lot of “peace be with you’s” and “also with you’s,” we all said the Lord’s Prayer together. Unlike other churches, Catholics hold their arms up in receptivity during the Lord’s Prayer. I guess this is the Catholic version of worshipping with hands raised in the air like the Pentecostals and Assembly of God folks do. Hadn’t seen that before.

After that came ……another offering? Yep….ding, ding, ding…round two, here there we go again, but I wasn’t sure why. Must have missed that announcement somewhere. Once again, I passed the basket to sis who held it for a few seconds. Later she said she considered rummaging through all those dollar bills to see if they’d put any bread in there for the non-Catholics. She didn’t give the second time either, but if might have if the money went to a dishwasher. They definitely need one in the Catholic church. My sister is such a clown!

After that came the announcements, which were BORING, and finally a hymn; then people began to file out.

One bearded man came up to me at the end of the service. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in a Catholic church who has taken such detailed notes during service,” he said. I explained about writing the blog and then he said he understood. As we walked out toward the front, he said, “You really should come back tomorrow at 3:30 for the service in Latin. Another man asked him if he had been to a Latin service and he said, “Yes, I came to one by accident.” We all laughed at that. He actually meant that he thought he was walking into a regular Mass when it was really a Latin Mass. May have to try that some day.

Post Service Commentary

I completely get the whole Catholic worship thing. Can’t think of any other faith that treats worship with such reverence and silence, giving you space to communicate with God. While the service isn’t very inspiring, the reverence of the people, stained glass and awesome beauty take your breath away, which is in a way, inspiring in and of itself.

What’s Next?

Back in San Antonio next week – thinking I might go to Larry Adamson’s church at University Presbyterian on the Trinity Campus. Larry is Mike’s 80-year-old cousin who invited me to go to his church recently. He’ll be 81 on the 11th of March. Told Larry that I’d only go if he sung, so I’ll have to see if he is singing next Sunday. If not, I might hit the Islamic mosque next week. One of their people emailed me back and said I was welcomed to come on Friday. I need to wear something modest. Had to ask sister Sue what I had that would be modest. I’m fresh out of burkas and have no idea what “modest” means to the Muslims.