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128: First Presbyterian, Hollywood, California
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First Presbyterian, Hollywood
Mystery Worshipper: The Traveler.
The church: First Presbyterian, Hollywood, California, USA.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church USA.
The building: An American Gothic brick tower with an impressive view of the famous Hollywood sign. The inside was described by my seatmate as "the best Dickensian vibe in town" – gray stone, exposed beams, dark carved wood, candles, wreaths and fat red ribbons. The works.
The neighbourhood: Aimee Semple McPherson meets Sodom West. Church and redemption as far as the eye can see. But if you'd rather get drunk, tattooed, and lie in the gutter, there's lots of opportunities for that, too.
The cast: Dr Alan Meenan, Senior Pastor, Rev. Scott Erdman and Albert Gillin, Pastors.
What was the name of the service?
Christmas Eve 1999, 11 p.m. Festival of Lessons and Carols.

How full was the building?
Half full. And this service had something for everyone, too: an impressive musical performance and (for the name-droppers among us) even a few celebrities doing the readings. To be sure, we didn't have anyone really fancy like the Queen or Tony Blair, but we had Nicholas Worth (Swamp Thing, Action Jackson and Hell Comes to Frogtown among his credits) reading from Isaiah. I kept thinking of the depressing statistics on declining membership, posted on the Presbyterian Church USA's website.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Expecting a large crowd, we arrived very early. A friendly teen in tie-dye found his key and obligingly let us in.

Was your pew comfortable?
We sat in the graduated balcony section that extends three-quarters of the way around the sanctuary. The pews were ornately carved (by American Gothic standards), well-cushioned and very comfy. We could see everything and everybody.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir and musicians warmed up as people trickled in. Someone finally came by and handed out programs.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Heavenly Father, how we thank you for this very special evening." The invocation came after a Britten harp interlude and a Choral Adoration.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the program, which contained all the words for the congregation's sing-along. Our sections were all standards – "Silent Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful," etc.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano, flute and harp.

Did anything distract you?
I had to try hard not to laugh at a little boy who kept putting pennies over his eyes and making faces at his mother.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Dignified and beautiful. It felt more like a performance than a worship service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
30 minutes on the dot, plus 3 minutes for a prayer.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
The preacher told a story about Samuel and Avner, two shepherds just minding their sheep in Judea, the one full of hope, the other full of despair. I don't like homespun tales, especially in sermons, unless they are wildly humorous. Also, the face of Mr. Kravitz, the resigned and skeptical neighbor on the old television show Bewitched came to mind each time the preacher said the name Avner (which was lots).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
God brings light into our darkness and speaks a ray of hope. We need to embrace the Christ in Christmas, and to realize that only in Christ can Christmas be merry.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The feeling of being lofted into the rafters by my favorite carol, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," magnificently sung by the church's Cathedral Choir.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The pastor had the congregation hold hands for what seemed an uncomfortably long time. But, perversely, it amused me to see two men whom I know aren't that fond of each other gamely holding hands.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I couldn’t. Some friends scooped me up and propelled me out the door.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any. We went for coffee at Cantor's on Fairfax, and ate kosher.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6-ish. I like the Presbyterians, very sensible bunch. But rustic stories would send me running for the street.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I contemplated how different I felt attending Christmas services as a non-Christian years ago. Now the words mean something vital and precious to me, they aren't just sounds.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I still can't get Avner (and his whining wife Gladys) out of my head!
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