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UM Church Becomes 1st Church Of "Homo Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll (and HIV Infection)", Bishop Gives Big "OK"


Pop Go the Pews

 A church bolsters its congregation by trading hymns for Broadway tunes.


Five show people, some of them able to reel off stage credits from as far back as the '50s, meet for a rehearsal in West Hollywood. Laurie Franks, with her silver pageboy and rosy cheeks, strolls through the room singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." She played small parts in big New York productions, starting with "Mame" in 1966, when Angela Lansbury was the star.

Don Potter, in his late 60s, could still play the springy beagle he was in the original "Snoopy!!!" He tries out a torch song--"You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You." Such a huge voice from such an elfin actor defies physics.

Franks wears a flamboyant bracelet of buttons and safety pins that she borrowed for a party. David Nash is accompanied by a bright blue bird in a purple cage. A singer and dancer, he started the day at a retirement home where he and his English budgie entertain residents. In most of the houses these musicians have played, no one would give a second glance to the bracelet or the bird. But the troupe looks slightly out of place in this white-washed sanctuary with stained-glass windows. And their performances might raise a few eyebrows: Their renditions of classic love songs will be the sacred music for the Sunday morning worship service at Crescent Heights United Methodist Church.

In May, hymns and homilies exited stage left, and Broadway show tunes and torch ballads moved to center stage at the church. Pastor John Griffin says he made the switch because Sunday services should relate to the rest of life. "People back me against a wall and ask, 'How's this got anything to do with religion?"' says Griffin, 37, who has reduced his homily to a series of pointed questions between songs. "I respond, 'If you are sitting in church for an hour, reciting words and singing hymns you hardly know, what's that got to do with religion?"'

A dainty, white clapboard building, Crescent Heights United Methodist is a Hollywood version of a small-town house of worship.

Built in the '20s, it holds only 99 people. When Griffin took over as pastor two years ago, it bothered him that few of the professional actors, musicians and dancers living in the neighborhood ever saw the inside of the church.

That began to change when Sunday services went from traditional Methodist prayers to an hour of popular hits. By now, word is out. Just about anybody is likely to drop by for a sing-along to "The Wizard of Oz," "The Sound of Music," or an instrumental medley by some of the city's working musicians.

It was Broadway or a breakdown for the church, Griffin says. In July 1999 when he took the pulpit, there were five people in the room. Franks was one of them. She played the organ and led the singing. Griffin spent his free time walking the neighborhoods, looking at the locals, asking himself what would attract them to his church services.

The church building itself had long been a center of community activity. In recent years it has opened its doors to 64 recovery programs--for everything from alcoholism to sexual addiction--that meet in the community rooms. Weekdays, an alternative school for teens at risk, a project of the L.A. Unified School District, uses the church.

Five years ago, the church also was used briefly as a distribution center by members of Cannabis, a group that made marijuana available as a painkiller for AIDS and cancer patients. All of this helped Griffin decide that Crescent Heights was the church for him. "I like to be on the edge," he says. Born in Kansas, he came to California to attend the Claremont School of Theology. Three years ago, he tested positive for the AIDS virus.

"I went to the bishop and said I needed to be in a place where it makes a difference that the pastor is HIV-positive," Griffin says.

By the time the West Hollywood job opened up, he had come through chemotherapy for Karposi's sarcoma and recovered his strength. His health remains good--he has no symptoms of the disease. He got the job.

"Showtunes Sundays" have brought attention to Crescent Heights. So has Griffin's willingness to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies, a stand that has helped place his congregation at the center of a larger controversy within the Methodist church.

"What I do here wouldn't work at any other church," says Griffin, whose last assignment was with a middle-class congregation near San Diego. Warm and energetic, he has a boyish manner and a low-key charisma.

Some groups thrive on old-time religion. Not this one. "The strategy is to come in on Sunday and get energized and connect with a community. The go-deep experience is something we'll develop in small groups that meet during the week."

He mentions Bible study, a book club and an anti-death-penalty group that is planned for this fall.

Griffin says he is just doing what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, did in the 18th century. "There is a sense people have that church is irrelevant," Griffin says.

"But church gets reinvigorated when people take the popular culture and bring it inside. Wesley brought in tavern songs. His response to critics was, 'Why should the devil get all the good music?"'

Franks has been living the Wesley challenge since Griffin arrived at the church. "It didn't occur to us before John came," she says. "He was relaxed about us trying new things, and we all wanted to find ways to draw people in."

With 200 musical performances to her credit, counting summer stock and dinner theater, Franks has a phone book filled with numbers for the show people she got to know over the years.

"I invite people to the church," she says. "They come to see what we're doing, and they say they'd like to be a part of it." That's how she got Potter involved.

A Sunday Theme of Love Songs

This particular week, the Sunday morning theme is love songs. Cabaret singers Irene Soderberg, Michael Benbrook and Susie Stillwell have a number. Nash, the bird-loving singer-dancer, has a duet with Franks and another with Potter. The Broadway music was his idea.

One week he brought in a recording of "The Sound of Music" to church and suggested everyone sing along. Even without a handout of the lyrics, most people knew the words.

On love-songs Sunday, the church starts filling up before the service begins at 11 a.m. Friends of the performers, a couple of West Hollywood street people and regular members of the congregation add up to more than 40 people.

Griffin has changed the look of the church to go with the new style. The heavy velvet curtain is gone, the carpeting is gone. A wooden floor is easier for the performers to dance on. The pews have been cut in half to create a center aisle for grand entrances. And this week, a new sound system is in place, hooked up to wiring that may be as old as the building itself.

There are still reminders that this is a Methodist Sunday service. Pastor Griffin wears his clergyman's collar. The tall white candles are lit. Gospel scenes color the windows. "In a church, you think about God and religion just because you're there," Griffin says.

Instead of a homily, he raises questions before each song. Not to tell people what to think, he says, but to get them thinking.

"Will you ever be too old to fall head over heels in love? Have you ever blocked feelings because you're afraid? And the big question. When you fall in love, will it be forever?"

Irene Soderberg, pixie-sized with platinum hair and thick eyelashes, takes the microphone and sings, "When I Fall in Love." Couples in the room wink and squeeze each other's shoulders.

The mood changes.

"Is it possible to experience love without pain and loss?" Griffin asks. "The last time you had a fight, who won? Love is an emotion that contains many other emotions."

Stillwell, dressed in a black cat suit and gold platform sandals, sings "I Don't Want to Fight Anymore," sounding like Tina Turner. A man in an athletic T-shirt with a tattoo on his arm sits forward and taps his foot.

One visitor, new to the church, shrinks back in his place. He is a friend of the pianist, Paul Romero, and the saxophonist, Dr. Brock Summers, who came to hear their medley from "Phantom of the Opera."

"I guess I'm old-fashioned," he says, a man in his early 30s. "It's kind of strange to hear this kind of music in church." He ducks out after the standing ovation for his friends.

Between songs there are a few salvaged bits of tradition. Griffin works in prayers for people's intentions, for the sick and suffering. He tells a Bible story about the friendship between David and Jonathan, from the book of Samuel. Someone passes the plate to collect contributions.

But most of the morning goes to pop.

The room is mostly filled with men, alone or in couples--most of the congregation's 27 registered members are gay men. Last year, the church had its first ceremony under Griffin's tenure honoring a same-sex union. And that, more than the music, upsets critics. The Rev. John Grenfell Jr. is a Belleville, Mich.-based leader of the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability, an unofficial watchdog group of clergy and lay members.

"A judicial council made a decision that is specific" regarding same-sex unions, Grenfell says. "No one is free to negate or ignore it." The 2000 decision, passed by the General Conference, the main governing body of the church, recognizes the sacred worth of people regardless of sexual orientation but does not condone sexual relations between members of the same sex.

It also states that "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches."

Some congregations that openly disagree with this ruling call themselves "reconciling" churches, and Crescent Heights Methodist is one. The prerecorded message on the office phone says it all: "This church welcomes and embraces all people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight and transgendered."

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, who presides over the Los Angeles area, supports Griffin and his work. "I affirm reconciling churches that are open to all of God's children," she says. "Even the Methodist Book of Discipline says we need to be affirming that everyone is of sacred worth and precious in God's sight. John Griffin's church is ministering to a group that other churches are not."

A Service Interrupted

In Griffin's church, Potter starts singing. And as she does, smoke sharpens the air. Griffin rushes out of the room. Someone pulls the fire extinguisher from the wall.

By the time the fire trucks arrive, the sound system is turned off and the church is half empty. The acid scent of wires burning keeps the firefighters busy figuring out the problem. The new sound system is more than the old wiring can support.

Some long-term members of the congregation say they are still not sure what to make of the church's new music program. "I'm more traditional," says Sarah Wright, who is in her 40s. "I like hymns." She was happy when Griffin announced plans to add a traditional service every Sunday, before the musicales, starting this fall.

Scott Imler, 43, is patient. He has been a leader at Crescent Heights since 1995. "The church was languishing," he says. "The only thing people knew about it was that there were AA meetings." He is open to trying new things. Above all, he says, "I want it known as a safe place for people to come and grow in a faith community."

The threat of fire has all but cleared the room and put a stop to the show. But just as the firefighters are about to leave, Irene Soderberg makes an announcement from the back of the church. "I didn't get a chance to sing this," she says. "I'll sing it for you now."

No accompaniment, no microphone. She takes a breath and begins. "At last," she croons with more passion than most people could muster before noon, "my love has come along."

One of Griffin's basic rules for church building floats past with the music. "We have to speak the language of the community," he says.

with permission: Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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