Tuesday, October 17, 2017

We go to Church before a Tragedy

sign for Sought Church in the Arts District of Las Vegas
Sought Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
When you visit a new church every week, you get a lot of swag. I mean, not Oscar-bag-with-a-pendant-from-Tiffany’s level swag, but swag nonetheless. As visitors, we’ve been given lots of pens (with which we take notes during sermons), a fair deal of coffee mugs and water bottles, candy (4” by 10” chocolate bars are the true “fun size”), even t-shirts with church logos. We’ve received DVDs and CDs of sermons that made for good listening at times and fine coasters at others times. We’ve been given good and lame books. But I think the best greeting gift we’ve received was at Sought Church in Las Vegas.

We were asked to fill out a visitors card with whatever information we were “comfortable in giving.” We wrote what we always write, our names and our e-mail (DeanandMindygotochurch@gmail.com . We got out of the habit of putting down our address last year when we didn’t have an address); and then the pastor making the announcement said that  turning in our card got us this great gift: $5 would be given in our names to Caridad, a Las Vegas ministry to the homeless.

We’d spent part of the day before with our friend Kathleen giving cookie to the homeless (Cookies and Hope) and helping a little with a dinner and worship service for the homeless. It was nice to think that gift might go to people we met the day before.

We’d been looking for place to worship the Sunday morning we were in Las Vegas (actually, we were looking for a second place to worship, since we’d gone to Guardian Angel Cathedral earlier that morning). We liked some of the things we read on Sought Church’s website. “With Sought Church, you don’t have to dress up. We’re not concerned with who you voted for in the last election. And, please, don’t feel the need to pretend about anything. Everyone is welcome here -- to share your story, your questions, your doubts, or struggles -- because all of it is valued. You won’t find canned answers, but you will find genuine conversations. From there, we’ll seek together.”

Sought Church is in the Arts District of Las Vegas, a short walk from the motel where we were staying. The Arts District has galleries and theaters, many in converted warehouse space, containing more subtle art than most of what’s found in the Strip. The church rents space in a small theater, setting up every Sunday for 10:00 am worship. Jake Musselman, the pastor, said they’ve come to love the neighborhood and the unique opportunities for ministry it offers.

There was a guest speaker that morning; Stephen Feith, a pastor friend of Jake’s from Madison, Wisconsin. He talked about the challenge of pastoring in that city, the home of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, where of the sixty attempted church plants since the year 2000, only two are still going. But their church has prospered.

Stephen joked, “Jake said I get twenty minutes to speak. Usually I have thirty-three, so I’ll have to speed up.” (He still went over.) After the sermon, there was time to pray; people were encouraged to pray silently.

Because Jake and the leadership of the church promised an hour-long worship service, they didn’t serve communion (which they would normally do). But after the service, they set a ten minute timer and encouraged people to talk to each other. People were encouraged to talk to someone they’d never talked to before, which was easy for us, of course.

During that time, I talked with Pastor Jake. He’s a Nevada native, but he’s not from Las Vegas originally. He’s been in the city for three years now and thinks the best is yet to come. Besides the worship time, the church meets in small groups in homes, and they also meet in homes for supper clubs. They plan to rent a laundromat soon so they can host a free day there for the community.

That morning of worship was about twelve hours before the shooting in Las Vegas. Since then, we’ve received several emails from Jake with great words of encouragement for the congregation. The city already was a place of unique challenges for ministry, but Sought Church seems ready, with God’s grace, for those challenges.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

We Go to Church on Saturday Night

Salvation Army Chapel, Las Vegas, Nevada
We certainly weren’t needed to help serve the food. There appeared to be a couple of families with parents and children prepared to serve tortillas along with meat, veggies, and salsa.

Our friend Kathleen had asked if we wanted to go to the dinner with her. She usually gets a team of friends together to serve dinner outside one of the chapels at the Lied Social Services campus of the Salvation Army on the third Saturday night of each month, but this was the fourth Saturday. Another team was serving for the evening, so initially, anyway, we just observed.

The dinners are served outside the chapel, which is surrounded by Salvation Army apartment buildings and other facilities for those in need. The dinner isn’t just for apartment dwellers, though. It’s for anyone who’s hungry. A long line of people were already waiting when we arrived shortly before the 6:00 pm dinner was served.

Estimating how much dinner to prepare can be a challenge -- after all, nobody RSVPs for the weekly event. Guest volume can be affected by anything from weather to when assistance checks arrive. Kathleen said that on her first night of preparing the meal, she greatly underestimated the number of people coming; even though everyone got something, some people still left hungry. She determined to never let that happen again, and she hasn’t

Over a hundred guests were served the night we visited, and they all seemed to enjoy the dinner. (I overheard a man trying to give pointers on how to fold a tortilla to another diner, and she protested, “I know how to fold a taco! I’ve got plenty of Mexicans in my family!”) There were also plenty of desserts (donated by a local grocer).

Shortly after dinner began, a loud argument began between a man and a woman in the line. Ron, who administers the ministry, quickly calmed the unrest. After getting food, the young, slender woman involved came over to tell Kathleen her story.

She asked Kathleen for a place to stay and money. Kathleen suggested the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, but the woman gave an elaborate story of why that wouldn’t work for her. Kathleen couldn’t give the help the woman wanted, but hoped they’d begun a relationship that might lead to something later.

I asked about the woman’s story, and Kathleen said, “She was lying. I know, because when I was in her place, I was a liar.” She knows from experience that alcoholics and drug users lie. But lives can change.

As diners entered, they were invited to stop by a table full of neatly folded clothes, including a number of coats. Ron urged people to pick out clothes, “Winter is coming! You’ll be needing those jackets!” By the time dinner was done, all of the clothes were gone.

There was another chance for people to get clothes if they needed them -- during the meal, Ron announced, “We have new socks available for everyone who stays for tonight’s worship service!”  Some ministries require people to attend a worship service before the meal is served, but this ministry didn’t operate that way. Still, the offer of new, clean socks was generally a powerful incentive to attend the evening service.

Only twenty-two people stayed for the worship service; most people left immediately after eating. Though there was a preacher for the service, the usual worship team couldn’t make it, so we sang an acapella version of the first verse of “Amazing Grace”.

The speaker that evening, Tae Chu, opened with a golfing joke, then spoke about the Lord’s Prayer, then the story of Joseph from Genesis. He concluded with another joke about a symphony conductor.  Ron came forward and gave short Gospel presentation after Tae finished.

When Ron finished, a woman raised her hand, “Ron, I think you should preach like that when people are here. You should stand on a box while people are waiting in line for food.” Ron chuckled, but not a chuckle that seemed to commit to the idea.

While helping with clean-up, I talked to another volunteer named Mike who told me he had had a gambling addiction, but God had saved him. That is why he wanted to help people dealing with other problems. He hoped his story would help others.

I suppose I should make it clear that though this meal and the worship service were on Salvation Army grounds, it wasn’t a Salvation Army ministry, just a group of people trying to help others. Not a work of a church but rather the work of The Church.

Service Length: 1 hour
Sermon Length: 35 minutes
Our Rough Count: 22
Snacks: meal served before worship service
Musicians: none
Songs:“Amazing Grace”
Distance to Church: 3 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

We go to Mass in Las Vegas

Guardian Angel Cathedral, Las Vegas, Nevada
Guardian Angel Cathedral, Las Vegas, Nevada
There are a lot of ways Las Vegas is different from other big cities in the United States -- not just because of what it has (the casinos and strip clubs), but also because of what it doesn’t have. When you drive down the major streets of most cities, you see churches. Sometimes they're old or even dead churches, but they’re there.

When you drive down the best known street in Las Vegas, the portion of South Las Vegas Boulevard known as “The Strip,” you don’t see churches. Sure, there are wedding chapels -- but anyone who works in one will make it quite clear those chapels are not churches. Many people who visit Las Vegas see only their hotel, some casinos, restaurants, and night clubs. When we visited Las Vegas this time, though, we found a church in the shadow of casinos.

Guardian Angel Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Church, is just off South Las Vegas Blvd. You walk out the front door and look straight out at Trump Tower. Like other buildings in the neighborhood, the architecture of Guardian Angel isn’t subtle. The A frame is large, but the cross-topped tower is even taller, with a statue of the Holy Family beneath it. Inside the cathedral, the stained glass windows are elaborate and quite beautiful.

Catholics definitely have an advantage over Protestants when they go to church in a new place. They can go anywhere in the world, and most of the worship service will be what they’re used to. The rituals of the liturgical year will be the same. For those of us who aren’t Catholics, we’re confused. We have to watch other people to know when to sit, when to kneel, when to stand, and what page to turn to in that little paperback book on the back of the pew. By now, Mindy and I have visited enough Catholic churches to get some of it right, but I always wonder what it’s like for visitors with no prior church experience.  

Even among Catholic churches, though, there are differences. A couple hundred people showed up for the 8:00 am Mass at Guardian Angel (You see lots of people on the streets in the afternoon, evening and even 2:00 am Sunday morning, but not so much at breakfast time. Apart from worship services, it’s a rather quiet time around town). This service had a fair deal of singing and the woman leading the singing (the cantor) had a very nice voice.

A part of worship in the Roman Catholic church that can throw some Protestants off is the two offering thing. The first offering goes to who knows what, but then the priest or a deacon up front says, “This morning’s second offering goes to …” some very cool ministry, perhaps to homeless in the neighborhood or hurricane victims or starving people in Africa. As an unprepared visitor, you already put the money you brought into the first offering. It’s frustrating.

The Gospel reading at Guardian Angel that morning (as at Catholic churches throughout the world) was from Matthew 21: 28 - 32, the story of the two brothers. In the story, the father asks the sons to do some work. One says he won’t, but then goes and does the work. The other brother says he will do the work, but then he doesn’t. The priest pointed out that God cares more about what we do than what we say.

Another strange thing is noticing who doesn’t go forward for communion. I don’t go, because I know that in the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is for Catholics who are in good standing. So I stay seated. But I observed people near me who knew when to sit and when to stand and when to kneel and to kick up the kneelers (which makes quite the simultaneous clunking sound), remain in their place rather than going forward. I know why I shouldn’t go, but I always wonder why that person doesn’t go forward.

There are moments during Mass when I feel like an outsider, but when Scripture is read, songs are sung, and even when people are shaking hands around me, I feel like I’m in the catholic Church, Christ’s Church encompassing all who believe in Him.

I hope that particularly this week, when so many in Las Vegas are suffering, grieving, questioning, and seeking, they can find hope in this church.

Service Length: 52 minutes
Sermon Length: 7 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Near the end of the service, the priest welcomed visitors and invited them to return next time they were in Las Vegas
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 220
Snacks: none
Musicians: organ (woman)
Vocals (cantor, woman)
Songs: “Crown Him with Many Crowns”
“Glory to God in the Highest”
“Remember Your Mercies, O Lord”
“Lord, This Time, Change our Hearts”
“Here I am, Lord”
“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God, Almighty”
“Save us, Save us, Savior of the World”
“Amen, Amen, Amen”
“Lamb of God”
“Teach us, O God, to Follow Your Ways”
“Amazing Grace”
“They’ll Know we are Christians by our Love”
Distance to Church: 3 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: at least 3 (all the ushers wore suits)
Church Website: gaclv.org

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

We go to an Experience

Compassion Experience, Fashion Fair Mall, Fresno, California
I really need to get my passport renewed. Not that I have any place to go right now, but if something should come up, I’d like to be ready. Still, I didn’t need it to go to the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Uganda earlier this month. For that, we only had to go to the Fashion Fair mall’s parking lot.

Compassion International, a charity that allows people to sponsor poor children in other nations, hosted the four day event. Through this multi-media, immersive presentation, people to take a virtual tour of the life of a child in another part of the world. Compassion sends specially equipped trailers throughout the country to raise awareness of the needs of children in impoverished portions of the world. This trailer was open for Fresno-area people to visit from Friday through Monday.

We went to with our niece, Sarah, on Sunday after church. As we went inside, we had to choose the appropriate line: one for people who had signed up online ahead of time, and the other for dropins like us who hadn’t wanted to commit to a time. When it was our turn, we were asked if we had a preference for which experience we’d prefer; we said would take whichever had space available (each experience takes about twenty minutes). A minute or two later, we were sent on the Jonathan path to hear the story of a boy from the Dominican Republic.

On the provided iPod and earphones, we heard a child actor give a first person account of his life. As directed, we went from room to room, starting with the narrator's childhood home. We learned about his growing up, and about how a Compassion Center had been instrumental in his education, his health, and his survival. We learned that this care was made possible financially by a donor in another country. In the final room, the voice of the real Jonathan, now grown, took over for the actor. He told about his current productive life and about how much he owes to the people who gave to him through Compassion.

You know how in an amusement park ride, the ride ends in the gift shop? With The Compassion Experience, you  where end up in a room where you have the opportunity to sponsor a child, choosing from children from a number of countries.

One wall has a large map showing the countries where Compassion cares for children. (One country without Compassion’s work right now is India -- not because there aren’t still many children in great need in that nation, but because the current government of India has closed the country to outside aid.) We were there on the third day, and we were told that of the 150 children up for sponsorship that weekend, only about 50 remained.  

We made a second visit on Monday and took the two other tours, the story of Olivia in Uganda and the story of Kiwi in the Philippines (there are a number of other stories, too, but these three were available in Fresno this time). As we were getting ready to leave, we saw a group of students and teachers who we assume were visiting for a social studies or world geography class.

On our second visit, we noticed that some people working in the trailer were wearing blue shirts and some were wearing green shirts. We learned that the blue shirts (such as Scott, who talked to us in the sponsorship room) are local volunteers. The green shirts are people who work for Compassion and tour with The Compassion Experience (we met workers from Kentucky and Texas who’d been on the road, they said, for four or five months so far this year). This may not have been (strictly speaking) a church service, but many churches (and church people) support this and similar ministries. We wanted to make sure you were aware of this good thing.

Your Turn
We were surprised how connected we felt with the children profiled in the Compassion Experience, just by walking through three rooms, hearing a story, and learning how a relatively small donation could literally change a child’s life for the better, providing education, medical care, and a chance to meet Jesus. Technology can help us communicate and understand each other: how can it be harnessed for the good of these children?

There are many other organizations that have child sponsorship programs: World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Save the Children are well-known. Last year, we visited the annual leadership meeting for Global Fingerprints. An acquaintance involved with their work recently posed this question for those who already sponsor a child with any organization: “What would allow you to feel more involved with your child?”

What suggestions do you have for allowing caring people to become more connected with those -- especially children -- they want to help?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

We go to you for advice

We sent off a proposal for a book about 2016’s adventures (If you’ve forgotten what we did, you can read everything we posted last year on both blogs or just this and this), and we need your help!

The book will be packed with stories of the bars, churches, and other places we visited, and memories of the people we met along the way, but we’re afraid we might forget something important. What places, events, and people do you want to know more about? What were your favorite stories from the trip? And if we get to go on a book tour sometime, where do we need to go?

Thanks for your help! We'll do our best to incorporate your suggestions in the final version of the book. If you want more information about it -- or anything else -- message us.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We go to a Hymn Sing (with snacks!)

Northwest Church, Fresno, California
Something that intrigued us last year when we were visiting churches in every state, was the number of churches that targeted young people, but used hymns in worship. We went to several urban churches with congregations composed primarily of those in their twenties and thirties that used works by Watts and Wesley, along with other hymnists old and new. Often the hymns had new settings, and they weren't accompanied by an organ but rather by a worship band with electric guitars and drums.

We were at Northwest Church’s Primetimers last Saturday afternoon, and Pastor Bob asked the group, “How many of you love the old hymns?” I do believe everyone raised their hands. This wasn’t much of a surprise, because the event was, after all, a hymn sing. We’d heard the event announced at the 11:00 am “Live and Loud” worship service the Sunday before, and we decided we wanted to go. The music at Sunday’s service had not been hymns. As was true of most large churches we’ve visited in the Fresno area (especially those targeting young families), they mainly sang choruses with the worship band’s volume to eleven.

Saturday’s Hymn Sing was an event designed for those of retirement age (besides the sound guy, I’d guess we were the youngest in attendance). When we entered, we were greeted by many, and Margaret invited us to sit at her table. In the announcement we’d heard in Sunday’s service, the event was called a dessert potluck. But Pizza Hut was on the table, so we asked about that. “Some people in the group are diabetic,”  Margaret answered, “so we opened it up to finger food.” Mindy and I both regretted having eaten lunch already -- not that it stopped us from filling up our plates. (Mindy brought churro cream puffs with apple pie filling, by the way.)

There was lively conversation around the table. Bill and Kay sat next to me, and Bill mentioned that they too had been to all fifty states. He talked about churches he’d visited in various places. Usually, they’d been greeted warmly (he remembered a Methodist Church with a woman pastor that he’d happily revisit) but one church in their travels was an exception. Everyone treated them cooly, and the only reason they could figure for this was that Kay had been wearing slacks, while all the other women wore dresses.

I asked if Primetimers was the name of a Sunday School class in the church and was told it wasn’t. Primetimers is the name for special events for seniors. Still, most of those at the hymn sing attend the same 9:30 Sunday School class after attending the 8:00 am traditional worship service (with a choir and orchestra and “a mix of classic and contemporary music” according to the church website).

The hymn sing was the fifth of six Primetimers events this year. Several women at the table spoke enthusiastically about the Super Souper, a soup potluck, a challenging event where it’s difficult to try everything. The only remaining gathering this year is a Veteran’s Day event which will feature a Honor Guard.

While we ate, Bob (not Pastor Bob Small who organized the event) played the piano. We were told Bob played the organ at the 8:00 am worship service, and his work was greatly appreciated and admired by the group. Senior pastor Will Stoll wasn’t at the event, but it was obvious that his work was appreciated by the group. Their love for Pastor Bob, whose ministry is to the senior adults, was also very much apparent.

After people had an hour to talk and eat, Pastor Bob went to the stage and thanked Bob for his work on the piano. He passed out the “Red Backed Hymnal” which he described as the go to book for classic hymns -- though it didn’t have all the old classic hymns. It didn’t have “It Is Well With My Soul,” so a printed handout with that hymn was passed out. (The book did have the song, “Tell Mother I’ll be There,” but we didn’t sing that one.) Pastor Bob introduced Virgil, who would be leading the group in singing what Virgil said were “all your favorites.”

We sang “Victory in Jesus” which apparently was a favorite of a former staff member at Northwest and once was quite a favorite in the church. Before singing “It is Well,” Virgil had us read through the lyrics aloud, and Virgil made remarks about the hymn, a short little sermon. “It is well with our souls. The longer we live, the less well it is with our bodies,” he added.

Amazing Grace” was introduced as “America’s Hymn” which I think is an apt description. (I think that’s true even when it is sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” or the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”. Not surprisingly, the original tune was used here.)

We noticed as we sang that one or two people at our table signed along. We learned later that a woman at our table has a son who is deaf, and that Bill taught sign language.  We enjoyed talking about the challenges of translation when the singing was done.

We had a good time with the friendly and welcoming people of the Primetimers. It’s good to hear the “grand old hymns of the faith” kept alive. I’m sure we’ll sing these songs in Heaven along with some Jars of Clay, U2 -- and possibly Stryper.

Service Length: 1 hour 43 minutes (from prayer for the meal to the end of the hymn sing)
“Sermon” Length: 6 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Before we even came in, a woman greeted us. Someone helped us put our dessert on the table, and Margaret invited us to sit at her table. Nobody seemed “assigned” to greet visitors, but quite a few people welcomed us and invited us to come back.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 33
Probable Ushers’ Count: 35
Snacks: Three tables covered with desserts, salads, little sandwiches, and deviled eggs; decaf and water.
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Songs: “Blessed Assurance”
“Power in the Blood”
“At the Cross”
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“Victory in Jesus”
“When we all get to Heaven”
“Just a Little Talk with Jesus”
“Have Thine Own Way, Lord”
“It is Well with my Soul”
“Amazing Grace”
Distance to Church: 5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website: www.nwc.org