North Phoenix Baptist Church is a modern megachurch campus located on Phoenix's posh Central Avenue. The main building dates from 1980 and is the work of architect Ralph Burgess Haver, known for his dozens of private homes, schools, churches and commercial buildings in the Phoenix metropolitan area, all in the mid-century modern style. (Alas, many of Haver's most famous structures, including the Capri Cinema, Coronado High School and Kon-Tiki Motel, have been demolished.) The interior was renovated in 2005 by Dick & Fritsche Design Group to provide for video projection and theatrical lighting and to create more of a sense of community within the space. It’s a large, stadium-like interior with theater-type seats. Sections can be closed off via curtains on those occasions that draw a lesser crowd.
Senator McCain’s family have been members of this congregation for over 25 years, although the senator himself was not a baptized member. McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone when it was a US territory. He studied at the United States Naval Academy and served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. He was taken prisoner in Vietnam and, although badly wounded during his capture, was severely tortured and was denied medical treatment – he never again regained full use of his arms. After his release he embarked upon a career in politics that was not free of controversy, but he was always regarded as a fair and honest man who spoke his mind and acted in accordance with his conscience. McCain served as a senator from Arizona from 1987 until his death, and ran for President against Barack Obama in 2008. During the past year he suffered from brain cancer and rarely made an appearance in the Senate.
Central Avenue is Phoenix's main business drag. Its upper reaches are lined with posh homes on large woodsy lots. North Phoenix Baptist Church, at the corner of Central Avenue and Bethany Home Road, has made itself at home among the latter.
The church’s pastor greeted the congregation and gave opening and concluding prayers. There were five guest speakers drawn from the world of politics, business and sports.
What was the name of the service?Memorial Service for Senator John McCain. Today’s service was one of many tributes paid to the senator over the past few days and in the days to come. It is said that Senator McCain planned the entire set of events down to the last detail, including the selection of music and guest speakers. It should be noted that McCain left instructions that neither Donald Trump nor Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, be invited to any of the ceremonies.
How full was the building?
Completely full. It’s a very large megachurch. One thousand tickets had been made available to the general public.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. Admission was by ticket only. I had applied for a ticket early on but apparently not early enough, as I didn’t get one. I watched the service from home on TV. Just as well, as cameras were strictly forbidden – as were guns, although I heard via another source that guns would be permitted inside. Gives a new perspective on the expression my Irish great-grandmother used to like to say: ‘The divil shoot ya!’
Was your pew comfortable?
My reclining chair was very comfortable indeed.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I can’t speak for the atmosphere inside the church. But as the senator’s body was transported by motorcade from the State Capitol, where it had lain in state, to the church, thousands of members of the public lined the streets to pay their last respects.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘On behalf of the McCain family, thank you for being here this morning.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
I don’t know if the congregation had been provided with a program. There was no congregational participation, so texts had not been provided for any prayers, scriptural readings or music.
What musical instruments were played?
Before the service a pianist was playing some tinkly bits on a grand piano – I think I picked out ‘Abide With Me.’ A choral ensemble from a nearby boys preparatory school sang ‘Amazing Grace’ unaccompanied and the Arizona State Anthem accompanied by acoustical guitar. Two musicians played a number on Native American instruments resembling a large flute and a drum. A bagpipe soloist played ‘Going Home.’
Did anything distract you?
The only distraction really was the endless prattle of the TV commentators as the motorcade moved through the streets. Thankfully they fell silent during the service itself.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very somber and dignified. A military honor guard served as pallbearers to bring the senator’s casket into the church. After the pastor’s opening prayer, each guest speaker delivered his remarks. These were interspersed with musical numbers. After a concluding prayer by the pastor, the honor guard escorted the casket out.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Altogether the speakers spoke for a total of one hour and fifteen minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – collectively. Some were better than others. One in particular spoke for three times as long as he probably should have. But they all seemed to speak from the heart and to engage the congregation. All touched upon the experiences Senator McCain had suffered through as a prisoner of war.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
One speaker said that Senator McCain’s life was the embodiment of values we all hope to see in our own lives. Another said that God had put together a human being we’ll be talking about for generations, and that the love of a strong man is hard to come by. Another said that his legacy will continue to inspire us. The fourth speaker said that Senator McCain’s overwhelming desire was to make things turn out worthwhile – that life can be so cruel sometimes that it’s hard to see anything else, but that we should remember how the senator lived, not how he died. The final speaker said that Senator McCain is in heaven now, and more alive than he had ever been.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I found the entire service very moving, especially the speakers. Let me recount one anecdote that one of the speakers told. He said that Senator McCain was often asked about his years of captivity and torture in Vietnam, and if his captors allowed their prisoners to celebrate Christmas and other holidays. One Christmas eve the guards had positioned McCain’s limbs in an especially painful position and tied the restraining ropes extra tight. Later that night a guard came by and loosened the ropes, but came back early Christmas morning to tighten them again lest the deed be discovered. Later on Christmas day, that guard approached McCain again and silently traced a cross in the ground with his sandal.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Aside from the overly long speech by one of the speakers (which is nit-picking because the man was visibly moved and clearly meant everything he was saying), I’m going to have to fault the fact that most of the speeches and the music were applauded. Inappropriate, but times have changed, I guess.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As the casket left the church to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ over the PA system, the TV commentators started up their prattle again and so I turned the set off and began to write my report. Senator McCain’s body was taken to the airport to be flown to Washington, DC, where it will lie in state in the Capitol and will be taken to Washington National Cathedral the next day for a service there.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None. I made a simple lunch of soup for myself.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
N/A – I've attended services at this church before even though I'm not Southern Baptist. I'd gladly attend another memorial service provided I could get a ticket.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The anecdote about Christmas Eve in a prisoner of war camp.