Unity Church of San Antonio

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Sunday #33 – Unity Church of San Antonio – 1723 Lawndale, San Antonio

Why this Church?

Shortly before moving to Colorado, my mother and father attended the Unity Church of Beaumont, which I believe is now called the Unity Church of Southeast Texas. This church had a dramatic impact on their lives as I saw my father go from being quite negative to one of the most positive people I knew. So, I wanted people to know a bit more about Unity Churches and what their services are like.

Unfortunately, people will typically go to a church website before visiting a church. When looking up a Unity church, you probably won’t be impressed – at least I wasn’t. I usually get a sense of the whole denomination by Google searching every church across the U.S. through their websites. My research took me to well over 600 websites this past week and sadly, most Unity sites were horrendous in viewer engagement. They all fell basically into three categories:

  1. Websites with the look and feel of the 90s – old and outdated with little useful information.
  2. Websites that were probably sold by one company or given as a template from the Unity headquarters – because they were all alike.
  3. A rare few (mostly from Washington state oddly enough) were well done and provided a progressive feel with engaging content.

Definitely something for the Unity churches to work on, because most people initially judge a company or organization from its website. Employing old technology for communication is like using a horse and buggy to pick up the elderly for church services.

Arrival

photo 2-20   Today, I arrived so early that I had to wait outside the church doors with other early birds. Apparently another meditation service or class was going on before the 11:00 service. Once allowed in, I walked into a room of cushioned chairs located on each side of the main aisle. Two guitarists, a keyboardist and a drummer played on the small stage at front.

A cacophony of sound continued to rise as people came in and greeted one another. I knew from the start that these people were a true and vibrant community. In fact, I’d say that this group rivaled the Congregation Agudas Achim for the happiness award. These people were HAPPY!

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Service Starts

We were asked to stand as the words to a song hit the large overhead screen. Churchgoers immediately began clapping to the music. I guess being happy makes you a bit clappy, because they continued clapping during most of the songs. Kids of all ages added to the sweet sounds as light chatter filled the room.

After that, we were asked to sit. (YAY!) The “Celebration Host” named Pamela walked to the podium that stood at the right of the stage and she led us all in stating the  Vision of the Church from the words on the screen. After that, she introduced Reverend Linda Martella-Whitsett.

Now let me just say that from my initial research, here’s one area where the Unity Church excels – the ordination of women. I found no reference to numbers that the Unity Church ordains more women than other religions, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that of the 600+ websites I perused, most had women as pastors.

After the introduction, Reverend Linda welcomed guests, then opened a book about the history of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore – the founders of the Unity movement. I didn’t know much about these two spiritual leaders before attending, however, I learned today that Myrtle healed her tuberculosis by applying many of the principles she had learned.

My parents used these same manifestation principles years ago. My thoughts immediately went back to proof points from their lives that illustrate how these principles work.

Shortly after my father, a rice and soybean farmer, fell from atop a rice dryer, narrowly escaping a sure death, my mother began prompting him to retire. They had enjoyed their trips to Colorado to see me and my family, so decided they’d buy a second house in Golden, Colorado. Yet, they quickly learned they wouldn’t have nearly enough money to own two homes. So, they decided to return to Texas and sell the farm. The farm consisted of a house built in 1969, a large shop that dwarfed that house, a barn and scads of combines, tractors and trucks surrounded by 90 acres of farm land. Added to that was about 1500 to 2000 more acres of farm land my father either owned or leased.

When they told me they were headed back to sell the farm, I’m not sure what I thought or said at the time, but it was probably something akin to: Yeah, right! Like that will ever happen. Good luck finding that buyer!

Instead, my father began applying those principle he had learned in the Unity Church. He picked up the phone and called a farming acquaintance and said, “Hey, Tommy. I think you should come buy my place. I’m moving to Colorado.” Tommy talked to him a few minutes, came over to see it, agreed to a price and bought it lock, stock and barrel, without doing an inspection and with no Realtor negotiating on either end. AMAZING! Then he called a physician who was investing in farmland and offered his other acreage. The doctor,  in turn, bought that land from my dad. In no time at all, they were headed to Colorado.

Honoring the Youth: the Uni-teens

After the minister talked about the Fillmores, a man came to the podium to introduce a young lady who called for more youth volunteers and then to recognize those kids moving to the next grade level.

Then it was time for another song that we stood for and everyone again clapped to the music.  At the end of that song, we all greeted one another, then sat down for announcements. It was then that I noticed the seat back pockets in the chairs in front of me. As typical, they were filled with church literature, but then I noticed a small pocket filled with Kleenex.

photo 4-13   Oh no, they were ALL filled with Kleenex. I silently hoped this wasn’t a precursor to how the service might go. I hate to cry in public!

Then Rev. Linda shared that the Unity people offer affirmative prayers versus beseeching prayers, so then instructed us to fill out cards in front of us and write our prayer in the affirmative, then pass it to the aisle. The prayers would be picked up and prayed over for the next 30 days. As we passed these cards to the aisle, the band played some beautiful music. In fact, all of their music was serene and beautiful.

Rev. Linda’s Message

Rev. Linda talked about the two major contributions of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore:

  • The guiding principle that “There is only One.” She explained that all of life is thought and that everything begins with thought.
  • The Gift of Healing – Rev. Linda explained that we all need to get in touch with the misconceptions that we hold about ourselves and recognize the reality and truth underneath those misconceptions. Then she used some examples from her own life that touched everyone deeply.

After the message, Rev. Linda led us all in a quiet meditation while the band played softly.

Following the meditation, the Celebration Host returned to the podium and shared a touching story of a tattooed man on prison work release. She had complimented him on his heart and soul, but he couldn’t accept that compliment.

In the end, she told him something we all need to hear: “The problem is not that other people say horrible things to you; the problem is that you choose to believe those things.” No truer words have ever been spoken.

We then held our tithes in our hands and offered them up as a blessing, then dropped them into the baskets passed around the congregation.

Finally, we stood to close the service and joined hands to sing “Let there be peace on earth.” This is the same song, and the way we closed every service at Mile Hi Church in Lakewood, CO, so I immediately felt at home. Great way to end a service!

Post Service Thoughts

This service brought back many memories of my mom and dad. Instead of tears, I breathed in their presence and just enjoyed hearing more about what they learned many years ago. I liked this service and the people. I think if I lived closer to this church, it’s definitely one I’d consider, so if you are ever in the area, check this one out.

What’s Next?

I’ll be in Fort Stockton next weekend to see a high school friend get married. Not sure where I’ll be on Sunday. Perhaps I’ll be back in San Antonio. Still have many more churches to visit. Just realized that I’d forgotten about the Seventh Day Adventists, but they worship on Saturday, so that won’t be happening next week. It will just have to be a surprise!

Community Bible Church – (Bible Church) – San Antonio

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Saturday #32 – Community Bible Church, 2477 North Loop 1604, San Antonio

Why this Church?

Plain and simple: they had a Saturday service! By going to this church and then another on Sunday, that puts me back on track for 50 total church services by the end of the year. Also, a friend from my neighborhood book club goes to this church and made the recommendation.

First place I head when deciding upon a church is to its website. This CBC church website is top notch. I chose the “I am new” tab to get a drop down menu where I then chose “Services.” I found that they not only had a 5:00 p.m. Saturday service, but also had a button to invite a friend. After looking at scads of Unity Churches around the country and lamenting the 1990s look and feel of all their websites, this site gave me hope that some churches are making websites more user friendly. However, when I clicked the button to invite a friend, I got an error message that said, “Not Found.”

<big sigh>

If I wanted to invite my book club friend, I’d have to use email, or GASP the telephone! Oh how last century would that be?

Arrival

As I pulled into the large parking lot, I immediately saw signs for Visitor Parking. Must have been a lot of visitors yesterday, because these spots were almost completely filled. However, I found one and then headed toward the large building on foot.

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Upon entering, I noticed that this large mega church is much like the others, but this is the first one with its own café. If I’d had a few more minutes, I would have gone for a Chai Tea Latte!

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I walked straight into the large….and I do mean LARGE sanctuary. I had no idea how many people this place seats, but by the time the service started, it was at least 95 percent filled. Such a dramatic difference between this Saturday service and the one right down the street at Concordia Lutheran where less than 50 had been in attendance the Saturday night I attended.

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As I wondered about the draw of this church, I watched churchgoers of all ages and nationality stroll in wearing in jeans, shorts, capris and all sorts of attire. Now that’s a draw, especially when it hit 101 degrees at 5:00 p.m. yesterday!

Service Begins

As the massive purple velvet curtains part, I see a large choir standing in street clothes and a full symphonic band beneath them. Oh this is going to be fun. I’d been hoping for an orchestra, but to get strings and winds on a Saturday afternoon, YIPEE! Plus, we all remained seated for the first song. This is my kind of place!

As we stood for the second song “You are Good,” I couldn’t pinpoint the lead singer, but perhaps they didn’t have one, because off the 20 or so people standing upfront on stage, the soloists kind of took turns as lead on the microphones.

We remained standing for the third song and sang along as the words appeared on three large projection screens at the front of the sanctuary. Bathed in purple and blue light, the talented singers regaled the crowd as I watched a few people in the crowd and on the stage raise their arms high in praise.

Then one of the ministers asked us to “please be seated.” Three of my favorite words! At that point, a video popped up of an ALS challenge that three church leaders and workers did the previous week that brought a bit of laughter from the audience. Then, the minister asked all first-time teachers in the audience to stand. He recognized those and then he asked all current teachers and administrators to stand. Teachers are very well represented in this church! He then gave a special prayer for all those who stood. While certainly appropriate for the time of the year, I still had no idea what was to come in this service.

We then were asked to stand for the third song. I really don’t mind standing, as long as there are breaks in between the songs, so this was right in line with my comfort level. I took a moment to look around the vast sanctuary and thought: Where do all these people come from? This place was 95 percent filled. In the immediate area, only one seat remained empty, the one next to me.

<I swear I put on deodorant. I really did.>

After the song, another minister came to the center of the stage and gave a very short message about his plane trip from Odessa. He asked if anyone in the audience had been to Odessa. Then he said for those who haven’t, all you’ll find in Odessa is DIRT – some great people, but just a lot of dirt!

Then the minister did something like an altar call where people were asked to make their way to the front if they had something heavy on their hearts that they wanted someone to pray with them over. People came from all over the sanctuary and knelt down. As the music continued to play, the minister walked from one side of the stage to the other with his hand stretched down from above the kneelers as if passing along healing energy. In silent prayer from the stage, he continued to walk as the music played in the background. Some might think this odd but I found it rather touching at that moment.

As the people made their way back to their seats, we stood for a fourth song from the band. Then after another prayer, a short video hit the screens from www.iamsecond.com. I’d never heard of this organization or movement, so this was all new to me. If you are struggling with anything at all – drugs, alcohol, divorce, anger, abortion, sex addictions, disabilities, abuse, cancer – this is a website you want to check out.

Then the minister introduced Gabriel Salazar, who was on the video that we all saw and probably not the one that you’ll see when you open the iamsecond website.

The Message

Gabe Salazar is originally from the south side of San Antonio and is married to a former San Antonio news anchor; they now live in Los Angeles where his wife works and Gabe visits schools and talks to students all across America as his profession. The students identify with Gabe whose mother was a single teen when she gave birth to him; Gabe says he only saw his “DNA dad” one time when he was about four years old. While growing up, Gabe struggled with poverty and gang influence.

Named America’s #1 Latino Youth Speaker by Popular Hispanic Magazine, you quickly understand why. With a rapid fire, comedic delivery, he gave the deaf interpreter standing to the side of the stage a run for her money yesterday. She really got a sign language workout!

When I chose this church service, I had some idea of what to expect, but comedy with a message was not one of those. As Gabe started off telling us about growing up poor, the thought stuck that we all have gifts and this man was using his to its fullest impact. Just made me want to tell everyone: Don’t try to be like someone else. Be yourself. You have such genius within you, so let it out.

While Gabe often toes the line between secular and spiritual as he visits schools, he makes his point about God by asking kids about their dreams. He relayed one story of asking a young man what he wanted to be when he grew up. The young teen said, “a doctor.” Gabe said, “Great! What are you doing right now to make that happen?” The young man didn’t have an answer, so Gabe said, “Man, that’s not a dream; that’s just a wish. There’s a big difference.” Other teens he has asked the question give ridiculous answers about wanting to be dinosaurs, ninja’s or drug dealers. He even relayed one tragic story about a time when he was speaking at a school in Houston.

Gabe interspersed his routine with illustrative bible verses read from an iPad sitting next to him on stage. Additionally, he brought the audience and specifically parents up-to-speed about the drugs that kids are presently using and how they are using them. Probably more information than parents want to know. But, as Gabe shares it’s what parents NEED to know, as surprisingly, parents are the number one supplier of alcohol and prescription drugs to kids who become addicted to these substances.

At the end of the “Stop Wishing. Start Dreaming.” message, Gabe performed a skit that was so impactful that he asked that it not be filmed. After watching him, I understood why.

At the end of the service, all teens were asked to stand up around the sanctuary and a special prayer was said for them as they begin this school year.

Post Service Thoughts

I arrived on time and even wrote out a check in advance this time. Felt so ready for this service and wouldn’t you know….not one basket, bucket or pail was passed for donations. After the service, I went to the lobby hoping to find a place to drop a donation and quickly noticed a kiosk. I stared at it for a few minutes and realized the only way you could donate was by credit card. Really? Am I really THAT antiquated? So as I dusted off my wrinkles, I turned and resolved to buy a stamp and stick the check in the mail. I wonder if they will know what to do with it when it arrives?

In all seriousness, this service was the most impactful that I’ve attended. I love comedy and to hear someone share such a poignant message in comedic fashion was refreshing. It reminded me of listening to Rev. Barry Ebert at Mile Hi Church give the weekly church announcements using his dry wit. Priceless!

What’s Next?

Back at it again tomorrow, so I can officially be caught up in my 50 churches in 50-week journey. Headed to the local Unity church

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Church — a startup church, San Antonio

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Sunday #31 – Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Start-up church meeting inside Faith Presbyterian Church on Blanco, San Antonio

Why this Church?

Proximity and timing! With huge weekend work demands, I needed to find a church nearby, but also one with a service not held on Sunday morning — not an easy task. This start up church meets at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon inside the Faith Presbyterian Church and is less than five miles away. BINGO!

Preconceived Notions about Anglicans

Once again, I have never known anyone who attended an Anglican church, so my knowledge is vastly inadequate. My preconceived notions about the denomination are limited to two:

  1. Anglicans are probably most similar to Catholics and Episcopalians
  2. Most Anglican churchgoers are likely English or descendents from the English

Arrival

Late, late, late – always late. Had to stop for gas before this service, putting me a few minutes behind. Funny, but after visiting 30 churches, I have no uncomfortable feelings about popping into a church a few minutes late, even though I have no clue what will be going on when I arrive. I think the non-denominational and Pentecostal services are designed for those like me — while song after song is sung with people on their feet, latecomers can slip in and quickly blend in. Almost the same held true here, because everyone had just finished a song as I walked through the sanctuary doors and accepted a flyer, as well as a spiral-bound pamphlet (the guide to the service.)

I took a seat on one of the cushioned bench seats. Looking around, I saw people of every age, except small children, which made this service very, very quiet. The worshippers, dressed in everything from jeans and sundresses to sandals and capris seemed like a casual bunch. This wasn’t the smallest church I’ve ever attended with less than 30 in attendance, but close. I think I’d be hard pressed to ever surpass the underwhelming crowds at the Church of Scientology Mission of San Antonio. Weird when you are just one of four – awkward! It wasn’t until the end of the Anglican service that I figured out that most of the congregational responses were derived from the spiral-bound notebook. I kept trying to follow the service from the flyer outlining some of the musical selections of the service. Ooops.

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Service Has Begun

As the crowd sat down, a layman stood to read several pieces of scripture. I fiddled around trying to figure out the order of service , so I don’t remember much of what was read.  Then, we quickly stood for another hymn: Great is Our Faithfulness. I knew this one…YAY!

Then one of the two white-robed men sitting in the first pew benches stood to read the Gospel. I quickly noted his attire as similar to that found in the Episcopal or Presbyterian church – white hooded robe, rope tied around the waist with black and white priest’s collar under the robe.

Then the lead (interim) Rector named Ed rose to give his message. He started by telling a story about people who lived in a valley that had all gone blind. One day a visitor traveled over the mountain and entered their village, but this man had sight. As time went on, the visitor fell in love with a young lady from the village and asked her to marry him. The visitor often walked across the grass instead of taking the pebble paths, so the blind villagers didn’t hear him coming. This upset the villagers and so they called a meeting in their church to discuss what to do about it. As his fate was decided, the villager hid in the balcony to listen in, where he learned that the people intended to cut his eyes out. That way, he’d be blind, too. That fate would take place quickly that night. The visitor ran to his fiancée. He told her of the villager’s plans and told her that they must leave right away, but the young girl refused, instead wishing to stay with her people. In the end, the villager left without his fiancée, but with his sight intact.

The Rector related this story back to the Gospel by saying that oftentimes we find ourselves in the midst of people who cannot see clearly. If we remain with these people, they will remove our ability to see clearly.

After the Rector’s message, we continued with the Liturgy and stood to “Confess Our Faith.” I noted that some of the words were similar to those heard previously in the University Presbyterian Church, but there were many additional words and sentences. Again, I had not realized that those words were found in the spiral-notebook, so I just listened.

Then another layperson (my word for a person-not-in-collar) stood to “Pray for All People.” This included the bishop, priests, deacons and arch bishop. That gave me a clue that these laypeople were probably deacons instead of just random people being asked to read scripture. I also gleaned something about the religious hierarchy in the denomination.

After that, we “Passed the Peace” where the church goers walked around and said, “Peace be with you.” Less habit-driven than most churches I’ve visited, this portion of the service seemed to last a while and many people nearby came over to say hello, including the Rector.

Then the Rector made some church announcements, followed by the offertory music from a newly formed four person choir and accompanied by a woman on a grand piano. Then as deacons brought the baskets of money they’d just collected to the altar, we all stood to sing the Doxology. I know that one, too! 

From there, we moved into the Lord’s Supper. As the Rector stood to share why we break bread and drink wine in remembrance of Christ, I noted a few things:

  1. Wafers instead of bread – very Episcopalian!
  2. Two heavy wine glasses rimmed in blue –think Margaritas and you get the picture!
  3. One colorful ceramic pitcher that is often found in the San Antonio area depicting its Mexican heritage

Then, as churchgoers silently rose from their pew benches and walked to the front with their hands cupped in front of them, I searched my mind as to whether the website instructed visitors to go up front, or not. Couldn’t remember because I peruse so many church websites. I finally decided to remain seated. However, an older woman came from behind and asked me to join her up front, so I went along. I noticed that many took the wafer and then made the sign of the cross. I quickly decided not to do that because I suddenly didn’t remember whether it is cross right to left or left to right. (Going to a Greek Orthodox Church like St. Sophia, where they do it backward can really mix things up in your mind.) As I approached, the Rector said a few words and placed the wafer in my cupped hands, then I moved to the side where a Deacon held out a glass of wine. I took a sip from the communal glass (I live dangerously) and immediately recognized the taste. Oh my….this heavenly liquid is my favorite kind of wine. So why couldn’t I remember the name of it?

For the next portion of the liturgy, my mind Is searching, as I’m so prone to do in my later years. Why can’t I remember the name of the wine? Okay…it’s a short word. Begins with the letter B or P. What is it? Maybe if I just think of all the wines that begin with B or P, I’ll come up with it.

A few more minutes go by in the service when it finally dawns on me – PORT wine. Ahhh…..delayed mental gratification! 

<< I give an elderly satisfied smirk and think: Not old YET!>> 

Then we had the Processional Hymn and everyone was dismissed.

Post Service Thoughts

If you were raised Catholic or Episcopalian, you’d feel fairly comfortable in the Anglican church. Also, you’d find the liturgy to be similar to that found in Lutheran or Presbyterian services. It was quite interesting attending a start-up church held in a different denominations’ building. After the service, I learned that the church is about four years old and they are looking for another place that will allow for Sunday morning services. For now, I’m glad this one was held on a Sunday afternoon, or I might not have made it to this particular service. And oh by the way….didn’t meet one person who said “BUGGER,” “Bloody Hell,” or hear anyone say “Bloke.” Guess I got that notion wrong!

UPDATE: Rev. John Lohman sent me a YouTube video that gives a fun way to look at the history of the Anglican church. Many of you don’t know that I LOVE CommonCraft videos and this one seems to have been created by CommonCraft.com. LOVE IT!

Thanks, Rev. John!

What’s Next?

I’m hoping my weekend is a bit more free next time. I think the service will be a Unity church or possibly Episcopalian. Or I might even stretch myself and hit a Mission Church with an entirely Spanish service. That will really put pressure on my old brain cells.

 

Lifehouse Church – (A Foursquare Church)

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Sunday #30 – Lifehouse Church – a Foursquare Church, 20825 Wilderness Oak, San Antonio

Why this Church?

I jog past this church every day and had dismissed it as one to visit. Thinking it to be a non-denominational church, I’d ignored it until one run when the subtitle jumped out at me: A Foursquare Church. (It is located on the side of a hill that I run up, so I’ve probably had my head down looking for money, or trying to keep my tongue off the pavement.)

According to Wikipedia, The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel is commonly referred to as the Foursquare Church – a Protestant evangelical Pentecostal Christian denomination.” Although I’ve covered another Pentecostal church (Hope Center Church), I’d never heard of a Foursquare Church, so I was ready to check it out. Okay, well…it’s also the closest church to where I live, so proximity had a bit to do with my decision.

The denomination’s name immediately brings to mind the schoolyard game of the same name. However the religious version refers to the four-fold ministery of Jesus Christ as Savior, Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, Healer and Soon-coming King. It’s founder, Aimee Semple McPherson was a Canadian-American evangelist and media celebrity in the 20s and 30s. So with no prior knowledge I only have one goal – determine the difference between this church and a more traditional Pentecostal service.

Arrival

photo 2-19     I pulled into the Visitors Only spot located within the three-tiered lot on the side of a hill. (SCORE! I like when churches do this.) Once I turned off my engine, I let out a curse word – I’d forgotten my camera. (The photos you find here were taken at the end of the day when I traveled back to snap a few at sundown).

photo 3-17    I stepped down the flight of parking lot stairs to walk into the church’s double doors. As I did, an older gentleman greeter held out his wide arms and grabbed me in a big hug. Well, that was a first! My elder daughter would had been creeped out by such invasion of her personal space, but I take everything in stride and I’m quite happy to hug back…just makes me feel more loved!

Once inside the hall, I witnessed a bunch of smiling faces, children dipping into the sweet bread and people making coffee and tea before the service. I thought about making a cup of hot breakfast tea myself, but didn’t know if I’d be allowed in the auditorium with a beverage, so decided against it and walked into the sanctuary empty handed. <sigh>

I took a seat on a cushioned chair near the back of three sections of chairs and immediately looked up to the black ceiling, then to the heavily lit stage, four large screens and then back to the large control panel for the lights and sound. One thing I saw that I liked a lot – a large curtained window that gave a view from a different room. Though I wasn’t on that side of the room, I think it was a nursery or children’s center. How cool is to let the children and nursery workers listen and watch the service?

A six-member band quickly prepared on stage.

Service Begins

Like every other contemporary service, the jean clad band called us to our feet for the first song, “Rise and Sing.” Ooooohhh….this was a bit harder rock than I’ve heard in church before. It immediately felt more like a rock concert than worship preparation music. Think Van Halen and you have a sense of the young man on one of the guitars that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. He was definitely into the music and probably played in another type of rock band considering his toned down version of Sammy Hagar moves.

The congregants, dressed in casual attire of jeans, shorts, boots and sundresses raised their hands in praise. (Very Pentecostal thing to do!)

Then we continued to stand for the second song. By this time, I’m counting how many songs we’ll hear before I get to sit down. Once that second song finished, Pastor Ryan Coffey made some announcements about the day’s service. He said that he wanted to mix things up a bit and have the congregation receive the elements of communion first. That way, we would go into the service in a state of readiness to receive God’s message. Then the pastor asked us to come to one of the tables to the side of the stage to receive the elements of communion – gluten free crackers and grape juice. From there, we went right into the third song and the fourth song. (Still standing – you guys know how much this thrills my tootsies ro stand for extended periods of time after running my longer mileage earlier in the morning.)

Then a member of the band read the scripture from the screens — everything from Revelations to Deuteronomy to Exodus. (And yes, we are still standing). Then, we go into the oft-heard hymn “Blessed Assurance.” This one I knew, but I’d never heard it played by a rock band before. That was different, but I KNEW THE WORDS! Yay. Finally the music is over, but we still stand as we have a prayer and church announcements, then the greeting of people. FINALLY, I get to sit.

Runners may want to steer clear of contemporary services like this. Only thing worse on the feet are any of the Orthodox churches – especially Russian Orthodox where they never sit down.

Pastor’s Message

The pastor, dressed in jeans with his shirttail out, started his message by talking about his own life as a pastor’s kid and his recent struggle with prayer. At this point, I could sense the sincerity, openness and humbleness of this man who held nothing back about his struggles. In his message “Teach Us to Pray,” Pastor Ryan asked the congregation to pray before every thing we do. Before we get in a car – pray. Before you go to a meeting – pray. Before we send our kids off to school – pray. He virtually said we should bathe every situation in prayer and that prayer should not be the “last resort.” As a result, the church would enter 21 days of prayer and he asked for a commitment from each church member to pray every day and even gave an invitation to join church leadership for an hour every Saturday to pray for one another.

This pastor had a unique delivery style and sprinkled his message with humorous stories from his own life that I found quite endearing.

Following the message, we stood while the church elders passed the offering baskets around. Then the pastor shared a story about the hot San Antonio weather, followed by an announcement that brought smiles to everyone’s face: “As you leave today, we have people right outside the door to hand you a Bahama Bucks snowcone to start your week off right.” 

Sure enough…as I left, I got the best tasting snowcone for my trip home. Hugs and snowcones….can’t ask for a better beginning or end to a church service!

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Post Service Thoughts

While I can’t say I enjoyed all the standing, the message and delivery of the sermon was phenomenal. The main difference between the Hope Center Church and LIfehouse Church is that this time the pastor did not call everyone to the front of the church for prayer and dedication, so I felt much more comfortable at this service.

What’s Next?

Still one service behind, so I’ll consider taking in a Reform Jewish service on Friday, then maybe Unity Church on Sunday. So now it’s your turn. Ever heard of a Foursquare Church before, or am I the only clueless one?

UPDATE: Well, this is a first! Today I received something totally unexpected in the mail from Lifehouse Church — a Valero Gas Gift Card and a handwritten note thanking me for using my gas to come to church at Lifehouse. WOW! And I thought the story about a church giving out homemade pies to all newcomers was cool. I think Lifehouse Church just topped the pie church!

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Congregation Agudas Achim – (Conservative Jewish)

photo 2-18    Friday Service #29 – Congregation Agudas Achim, 16550 Huebner Rd, San Antonio

Why this Synagogue?

I’ve had a few questions as to why I’d not yet headed to a Jewish service. Well, I’ve been holding them in my back pocket for when I had a conflict on a Sunday. No conflict this week, but because I missed two Sundays recently due to travel, I needed to double up for a couple of weeks. I’ll attend another service tomorrow morning.

I also had requests from my friend Kim Bell Thibodeaux who was interested in the Jewish faith and from Mike’s sister, who converted to Judaism. Why I chose this particular service was a no-brainer. I emailed an address on the website and asked about the Friday service versus the Saturday one. I was told that the Friday service was about an hour in length; the Saturday service would be no more than three hours. Well then, that’s settled – Friday it is!

From my sister-in-law, I learned that I could attend several different types of worship services: Conservative, Reform, Orthodox and what someone told me on Friday – Ultra Orthodox. This one is a Conservative congregation; the rest will remain in my back pocket until needed.

Arrival

I walked from the lot through two doors that had been rolled back for those entering, I noticed that the doors could also be locked into place. My thoughts took me back to the Al-Madinah Mosque I’d recently attended and how similar both seemed to be in the way of a compound feel versus a stand alone worship building.

photo 1-18          I walked straight through to a courtyard and then through more double doors, where I found the place of worship. Two people stood handing out flyers outside the doors. Instead of an “order of service” bulletin, these gave information about things going on in the synagogue during the week. The woman told me that it would be easy to follow along. (Well, that was partially true. Would have been a lot easier if I read and understood Hebrew.) I don’t.

As I entered the large worship area with a three-sided balcony above, I saw a group of people sitting in several rows of cushioned pews deep in conversation. I just marched myself around the side and sat next to them, knowing that I might be asking a lot of questions during the service.

Though I didn’t hear exactly what the group spoke about, I did hear the words “ISIS,” “Afghanistan,” and “Iraq.” My eyes fell on an elderly woman with a cane, I noted her most unusual neck-to-toe dress made of silky material. The white and blue striped fabric had Stars of David running between the stripes and all over the dress. She was definitely proud of her Jewish heritage and it’s likely the others probably had explained that she’d stick out like a sore thumb in other those parts of the world.

After introducing myself to Marilyn seated next to me, I grabbed the blue, hardbound Siddur Hadash from the back of the pew and opened it. No, I don’t know what Siddur Hadash means, but I do know it’s something between a prayer book and a hymnal.

[ADDED NOTE: The Siddur Hadash means “New Prayerbook.”]

photo 5-4    Only one problem with the Siddur Hadash, it’s read from right to left, so the book is completely backwards to me. It’s weird…when someone tells you to turn to page 20 it’s so ingrained to flip forward instead of backward. Ooops.

[ADDED NOTE: The book moves from right to left because Hebrew is read from right to left.]

I loved watching the men stroll in sporting yamikas in different colors and fabrics.

[ADDED NOTE: The Yiddish word is yarmulke. The Hebrew word is Kippa.]

Some were made of velvet, while others were made of a thin material, while still others were quite ornate. One even looked crudely made with the word D-A-D painted on with fabric paint. Awwwwww. I also saw a few women with small lace pinned to the back of their hair. Forgot to ask about that. Most yamikas are pinned in place, so of course you know I’d develop a nagging question: How do bald men fasten their yamikas? (Sorry, didn’t get the answer on that one.)

[ADDED NOTE from reader: Most balding men would wear a different style of kippah that fits more tightly to the head, called a Bucharian kippah. If we just have a bald spot, we put on a kippah that is larger and fits to the curve of the skull better than the smaller knitted ones. In Conservative and Orthodox shuls, women will cover their hair in some way (although in Conservative shuls it’s usually a token covering as you saw).]

As people streamed in, I focused on the architecture. The backdrop of this Jewish sanctuary had a complete wall of white limestone.

[ADDED NOTE: The Rabbi has since shared that the limestone wall is meant to look like the Western Wall in Jerusalem.]

Large Harry Potter-like chandeliers hung from the wooden ceiling

photo 3-16       and a large, wooden double door decorated with some emblem in brass took prominence in the middle of this stone backdrop.

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I asked about it and was told that’s where they keep the Torah. To the left and right of the stage were an American flag and a Jewish flag. In front of the backdrop of stone stood three podiums – two smaller to each side and one large one in the middle, covered in a drape of crimson velvet fringed in gold.

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham, who had just moved from NY to San Antonio came down the aisle and gave the Shabbat Shalom greeting to everyone before the service began. Seems that everyone gave those same words for “hello” and “goodbye.”

[ADDED NOTE: Shabbat Shalom is said to wish each other a “peaceful Shabbat.” Shabbat is a Hebrew word used for “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” ]

Service Begins

The Rabbi opened the service and we were asked to greet one another by placing our arms around someone’s shoulders nearby for the first (Malachi?) song. This song was my favorite and I was sold on the music immediately. People swayed from side to side to this tune and I immediately felt part of the community. I’d go again if only for the music. A man played on a grand piano while another man sat behind playing a bongo drum. The worship leader, clad in some type of prayer scarf or shawl (sorry, I never asked about his title), had a voice of an opera singer and I was mesmerized by his voice.

[ADDED NOTE: The “song leader” is called a Cantor  (Hazzan in Hebrew) and he is also a clergyman. I’ve changed this reference throughout the remainder of the blog.]

At this point, I noted the happiness of these people. You actually felt the lightness in the room.

Children, even the youngest, took off on scampering feet – one even toddling onto the stage. No one seemed to mind as mother’s got up from their seats to usher them back. At one point, the Rabbi picked up one of the toddlers and my guess is that this was his son. The little boy pulled the Rabbi’s ear as he sucked on his pacifier. Even the smallest boys wore little yamikas in a variety of colors to coordinate with their clothing. The overall dress was business casual, and even though I saw only a few suited men, no one wore jeans or shorts. I even felt a little out of place with my uncovered arms, though I did see a few other women dressed like that. Phewww.

[ADDED NOTE by blog reader: If you go to an Orthodox synagogue, you will need to wear long sleeves, a long skirt (not pants) and cover your hair. Anything less will be considered offensive. Also be aware that Orthodox synagogues usually segregate men and women into two separate sections of the worship area inside the synagogue. An ultra-Orthodox synagogue is one you should only go to if you have a guide who is already a member of the synagogue; their dress requirements for women are even stricter.]

Lots of singing in a Jewish service and the whole Shabbat service follows their prayer book. I followed best I could, because much of it is in Hebrew and sung in the language, but the congregational responses are usually in English.

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A few songs in, everyone sang another one as they turned to face the back of the room. I understood this to be something or other about “meeting the bride.” (I was totally confused by this.) I expected maybe the Torah to be brought to the front by some people, but no one came down the aisle and then we eventually turned back around.

[ADDED NOTE from the Rabbi: Since Judaism focuses on one God, we use visual imagery throughout our prayers, but don’t have actual “characters” so to say come into the service.  That is why we have a prayer where we welcome our Shabbat Bride or Queen but it is meant to be visualized without anyone actually coming in.]

The Rabbi’s Message

The Rabbi spoke about the #1 prayer that all Jewish people know — the Shema, or often written Sh’ma.  He wanted to make key points about this prayer, which is typically the first prayer that Jewish children learn:

  1. There is one God.
  2. God is unique.
  3. The Jewish people have a special relationship with God.
  4. With that relationship are commandments and duties they must follow. (I may have gotten that last one wrong.)

Then he made a final point that they should teach these to their children.

Service Continues

One can get completely lost by all the foreign words in this service, but I followed along as best I could. During the next few songs, the congregants bowed while singing at various points. Then at one point, the Rabbi and Cantor turned around, faced the double doors and sang with their back to the congregants.

After that, came yet another song. At one point, the Cantor hits some pretty high notes. Then I see him place his thumb and index finger at each side of the bridge of his nose. At first, I thought maybe he had the start of a bloody nose, or perhaps, a sinus headache. Then I look to my left and see the Rabbi is doing the same thing. Then I notice that all the worshippers were doing the same. Hmmm…..should have asked what that was about, but I didn’t.

[ADDED NOTE: The Shema prayer where this occurs speaks about there being one God, so the Jewish people cover their eyes so that they are only focusing on their one God and nothing else around them.]

Then, guess what came next? BINGO….you got it….more singing. Now the kids were asked to come to the front for a song. Amazing how happy they all seemed to be. One could tell that they weren’t dragged to church; they actually seemed to like being there.

Then some time after the kids participation, the Rabbi asked for names of others that needed prayers of healing, then proceeded to name those and a whole list of others. The list was so long that I began wondering if the three-sided upper balcony would be overflowing, if all these people had their health and had come to the Shabbat service.

Then we rose for another song, in which the Rabbi and Cantor faced the doors at the front and bowed several times. Oddly enough, no offering was taken. Not sure how that works with the Jewish.

[ADDED NOTE by the Rabbi: In Judaism we don’t take any offerings, but we do have specific prayers where we take time to bow to God as if God is the King.]

[ADDED NOTE from blog reader: Why there was no offering: most synagogues are supported by monthly regular pledges from members, or memberships in the temple, which they pay for either monthly or yearly. It is not considered polite to take money during any service at most synagogues.]

After that came a few church announcements and an invitation to go to the Rotunda for something in Hebrew that I can’t remember, but I noted that it looked very much like Communion in a Christian church. Trays of small plastic cups filled with wine and grape juice filled the table and to one end, a basket of bread could be found. I wasn’t sure about the meaning, so I stopped to ask the Rabbi before leaving. Not sure if I’ll repeat this correctly, but the wine represents the fruit of life and the bread has something or other to do with wandering around in the wilderness and what they left behind. After I got that explanation, I went for the wine. Picked a small cup up and drank…ummmm SWEET. I like sweet wine! Oh wait…..oh no….I must have picked up the grape juice. DRATS!

[ADDED NOTE from reader: …you probably did get wine – kosher wines tend to be very, very sweet wines.]

[ADDED NOTE from the Rabbi: The blessing over the wine is called “Kiddish” which means sanctifying the wine.  The wine represents the fruit of life, meaning we celebrate the luxuries in life by blessing God for something sweet like wine. The blessing over the bread is “Hamotzi.”  The bread in Judaism is called “challah.”  We have two loafs of challah at every meal on Shabbat in order to represent the double portion of manna we received in the desert on Shabbat during our 40 years of wandering.]

And then I left, while everyone went in for a potluck supper. I had another errand to run, so I couldn’t join everyone.

Post Service Thoughts

While totally confused and lost have the time, I came away from this service with a better perspective of the Jewish people. At least within this church, you very much feel a sense of community and immense joy and happiness among the people. It’s a delight to see and experience. I’ll be anxious to try the other Jewish services to see if they offer the same feeling.

And all my Jewish friends, please feel free to fill-in-the-blanks on my missing information and clarify anything I didn’t understand. Maybe by the time I make it to a few more, I’ll understand it all a bit better and can choose the right cup of wine!

What’s Next?

Since I’m only one service behind now, I’ll go to a local church nearby on Sunday. It is a Foursquare Church. Not sure what that means, but did look it up. Still don’t know what it means but is some take off of Pentecostal.

San Antonio Mennonite Church

photo 4-10

Sunday #28 – San Antonio Mennonite Church, 1443 South St. Mary’s Street, San Antonio

Why this Church?

When I did a search of “churches in San Antonio,” this is one that came up. Since I’ve never known a Mennonite before, I hadn’t a clue what to expect and neither friends nor family were all that helpful. When I told several people about the next choice of church, the responses were similar: They’re like Amish, right? Can you drive your car there or do you have to arrive by horse and buggy?

While some of the fragmentation and variations of the Mennonites have some loose ties to the Amish, especially those conservative Mennonites in Russia where they do not use motors, paint or compressed air. However, I can assure you that the San Antonio Mennonite Church does use electricity, and my Smart Car was welcomed in the lot.

The Mennonites are a Christian group named after Menno Simons (1496-1561) of Friesland – a former Catholic priest who heard about this movement of people who shunned infant baptism. Menno wrote and articulated many of the teachings of earlier Swiss founders of the movement and hence, I guess that’s why they named the religion after him.

As of 2012, about 1.7 million Mennonites worship worldwide. Not sure why I never ran across one. Now I’ve met at least a few of these 1.7 million.

I also didn’t know something else. According to Wikipedia – my lazy butt option for research — Mennonites have become known as one of the historic peace churches because of their commitment to pacifism. I figured this out real quick during the service.

Arrival

Located within the King William district, this little white church sits among some very old and well-kept homes just south of downtown San Antonio.

As I walked in the old and large wooden front doors, I met three women who immediately introduced themselves.

photo 1-17    I noted a small table in the middle of the room near the front and two rows of pews strategically located at angles to the table. I asked where I should sit and was told that this pew placement facilitates the sharing that goes on around scripture during the service, but they are placed back in line during the rest of the year.

The women asked if I was new to the church and I responded by telling them a bit about my blog. One woman said that visiting churches is something they did as a church recently. Instead of meeting one Sunday, they were all instructed to go to a church they’d never been to before and report back about their experience as a newcomer during the following Sunday service. She said it was very enlightening.

They also told me that this Sunday the youth who had gone on a mission trip to Nicaragua would be giving a presentation about their trip.

I sat down on one of the wooden, and most unforgiving pews near the front, where a lectern had been placed. A Bible had been placed upon it – one I’d never seen before – The Inclusive Bible. Hmmm. Is this a Bible for the LGBT community? Forgot to ask about that one. Guess it’s back to Wikipedia for an explanation.

photo 2-17     Okay, well it looks like this is the first egalitarian translation that attempts to rethink what kind of language has built barriers between the text and its readers. According to Amazon, the translators have sought new and non-sexist ways to express the same ancient truths. So now you and I both know.

Service Begins

As the service begins, I quickly count the number in attendance and that seems to be about 60 men and women, young and old dressed in an assortment of clothing from shorts and sandals, to jeans and dresses. This group is primarily Anglo, but I note a few people that may be of Hispanic decent.

The worship leader directed us to a blue folder where we’d find the first song – Here I am to Worship. I’d not heard of this one before, but enjoyed the music as a single guitar player helped us follow along and nab the right pitch. Then, we had a Call to Worship, followed by a Welcome and Introduction.

Unlike most church services, the introduction included people milling around all over the sanctuary and introducing themselves for several minutes. I, as well as others were introduced by people we’d just met.

After that, a few announcements were made and then an unusual part of the service occurred when the young, tall pastor Rachel Epp Miller stood in a striped t-shirt and black pants to ask for those with birthdays and/or anniversaries to come to the center of worship. Then others who remained in seats were asked to circle around the back of the honored to join in a Prayer of Thanksgiving.

From there, we sang another song in Spanish: Cuando el pobre. 

Then came the offering while we sang a longer song. Unlike most churches where elders or deacons pass the plate, those in attendance came to the middle of the room to drop their offerings into a basket throughout the song. I couldn’t move that fast, so I waited until the end to deposit mine. I’d say this was similar to the Greater Love Missionary Baptist Church, but without the feeling that you had to give something.

During this whole time, young children laughed, crawled down the aisles, pitter pattered around and quietly chattered. It reminded me of the Mormon church at the Stone Oak Ward. A background of children noises prevailed, but no cries of anguish or distress – quite delightful!

Then those cherub faces were asked to come to the front to pick out an instrument from a basket. I think this might have occurred every Sunday, because the kids seemed to know which musical instrument they wanted – maracas, tamborines, drums, etc. Then we all sang a Spanish song – Alabare. Then the children left for Sunday School or nursery care.

Youth Presentation on Nicaragua

Several of the youth came to the front and while a slide show of their photographed adventures played on a large screen, the kids regaled us all with their thoughts and stories.

My favorite centered on their arrival in Nicaragua. The kids had picked up a bag of beans from HEB to give to their hosts, but somewhere in the bag was an errant piece of dried corn. The Nicaraguan authorities apparently don’t like corn, because that one kernel that HEB had mistakenly inserted held the group up for about 30 minutes for questioning.

The first young man said they didn’t have any soul-saving quotas on this trip and he was happy about that, but they did get a crash course in Nicaraguan history. The group seemed most touched by the immense poverty in the country and each shared how this had affected them once back at home. Most Nicaraguan families — and they can be as large as nine in many cases – live on about $2.00 a day.

As the kids talked of their attempts of solidarity with the Nicaraguan people, I began to feel that this service and these people felt very similar to those I met at the Quaker Meeting a few months ago. Sure enough, I find out later they are known to be pacifists.

This became even more clear when the worship leader asked people to share the places in the world where war was going on or where there was strife that needed our prayers. He asked the man who talked about the Russian/Ukranian conflict to stand to one side, a man raised his hand for the Israeli/ Palestinan conflict stood to another side, a woman who stood for the African people suffering from Eboli and finally a man stood for the LGBT communities around the world that are oppressed. Then, we were asked to join the place in the world where our hearts and thoughts often took us in prayer. I went to the man who stood in prayer for the Russian/Ukranian conflict.

This was quite different, but I got a sense of who these people are through this process – all very community minded and reaching out in prayer for peace.

Post Service Thoughts

After dismissal, people thanked me for coming. I dropped my offering in the basket and headed out the front door to take a few pictures of the front of the church. That took a while and still no one ever came out of the front doors. In the end, I didn’t know whether they all stayed for another part of the service, or they were just a friendly group and couldn’t leave each other. Hmmmmm.

This is one of the friendliest and most relaxed group of people I’ve worshipped with in a while. They seemed very “Quaker” for the most part. I’m sure much of what I experienced was out of the norm for this group due to the time of year. Might be fun to go back and see what a Mennonite service is like at other times.

This photo should have given me some clue as to the nature of these people. Missed it as I walked in.

photo 5-3

I also liked the photo below. Gives you a flavor of San Antonio, doesn’t it? Tile roofs and lots of cactus.

photo 3-15

 

What’s Next?

Still have all the Jewish services, Hindu, Religious Science, Unity and Episcopalian. And, I discovered one on my run this morning. I’d been driving by what I thought was a non-denominational church all this time, but discovered it is a FourSquare Church. Had to look that one up, but it seems to be some type of Pentecostal-type church. May have to try that one out if I’m pressed for time next weekend.