Yesterday I went to church for the first time in about 18 years. I know some of you out there might be reading this making Angry Cat Noise—that low, almost imperceptible throat growl that you’re not really aware that you do when you’re irritated (you do.) Others of you might be reading this thinking something along the lines of “two times to church in 18 years is two times too many.” And still others out there are thinking something like, “why is she still talking about this? Who cares about church?”
Don’t worry third party, I’ll wrap it up. I simply wanted to point out that people can be funny about church. Who goes? Who doesn’t? Which church do you belong to? Who did the reverend save from the pen of angry baboons?!
Oh wait, that was a Simpsons episode
But even outside of the easy lines and primary colors of cartoons the world seems to be lightening up, at least a little, about church these days. More and more churches are popping up that promote acceptance of all religions and beliefs; groups of people that don’t have so much to do with religion as they do with just being together and celebrating the life and love that we all share.
And no, I’m not talking about your bowling team (though as we’ve seen in a previous post
, you really can find spirituality in anything!) I’m talking about places like Unitarian Universalist
churches, meditation or prayer groups, and in particular, the Agape Spiritual Center
. That’s where I went to “church” yesterday.
The reason I say “church” with the air quotes is simply because Agape was like no church I’d ever been to before. From the moment we parked the car in the back of a very large and very full lot, it was clear this was going to be a unique experience. A steady stream of people of all shapes and colors moved toward the building—some wearing dresses and slacks, some in jeans and t-shirts, some in tight leather, mohawks, green basketball jerseys… Basically, if you find yourself in a position to go to Agape and you’re wondering what to wear, whatever you have in mind is just fine. Really.
The one thing everyone I saw had in common, though, was that they were smiling. And no, not the tight, forced smiles that seem to say “I’d rather be cleaning the house with a toothbrush than be here;” those false smiles that I remember being associated with church. No, these people actually seemed happy to be going to church.
And as the morning progressed, it was clear why. By the time we got to the center, a large but very plain and honestly, rather dull-looking building, we were a bit too late to join in the group’s initial half hour meditation, so we milled around outside watching the people, chatting, and ogling the food at the food stand. Oh yes, there was an all organic burger and hotdog stand just outside of the entrance at this church.
Once the meditation was over and we went inside, I was struck first by the size of the space, and quickly thereafter, by how very “un-churchy” it was. There was no crucible hanging over the altar; matter of fact, there was no altar. It was just one very large dimly-lit room, filled with chairs—at least 1,500—all gathered around a stage, lit up with blues, purples, and reds. It looked more like a music venue than a church.
“Good morning, Agape,” the speaker said. “Good morning,” the crowd repeated back to him. And we were off.
There was singing, there was chanting, a band played music so beautiful it moved me to tears. At one point the new people of the group, about sixty or so of us all around the space, were asked to stand up and “look around”, be welcomed. The room fell quiet and then as one, the entire room, hundreds of voices at once, welcomed us to Agape.
After about an hour filled with music and short “commercial breaks,” as I like to think of them—announcements about the center, various events coming up, etc.—the man we’d all been waiting for took to the stage: Michael Bernard Beckwith
. Now I’ll be honest with you, I don’t remember word for word what Dr. Beckwith said while he was up on that stage, but I do know that while he was speaking there was a shift in the room; everyone was suddenly there. Involved. Completely present.
He closed his eyes much of the time, while the words simply poured from his mouth, seemingly unpracticed and completely inspired. All around us people were laughing, crying; people were saying their “mmm hmmmmm’s” and “halleluiahs.” It was New Age meets the South
But unlike your typical Southern Baptist Sunday, Dr. Beckwith didn’t read any verses from the Bible, nor did he preach about sin, temptation, or Heaven and Hell. So what did he talk about? In short: Love. After all, the center is called Agape, the Greek word for “unconditional love.”
And when you take away all the titles—Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist, etc.—that’s really all you’re left with. That’s where they all started. Love. Agape.
So no matter which of the above words you identify with, choose “love” as your religion, as Ziggy Marley so wisely put it. Love.
Have you visited the Agape Spiritual Center in L.A.? What did you think?