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2009: First Christian and Niles Congregational, Fremont, California, USA
First Christian and Niles Congregational, Fremont, California, USA
Mystery Worshipper: BWA.
The church: First Christian and Niles Congregational, Fremont, California, USA.
Denomination: Currently a joint venture of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Niles Congregational United Church of Christ. Their joint worship services happen at the Niles Congregational Church facilities in Fremont.
The building: The building is diamond-shaped and beige/ivory, with a long salon at the back. The roof follows the angular building theme with two prominent peaks and there is an almost hidden, quite lovely fountain court just big enough for two or three people to visit, to the left of the wooden-doored entryway. The area is under drought restriction, so currently there is a modest collection of shrubs and trees as well as a fake, but convincing, lawn. (I discovered this when I curiously tried to pull a blade of grass out, and ended up lifting a corner of the lawn into the air, like a rug.)
The church: As noted, two local congregations are conducting a unification experiment. A glance at the church's website reveals a strong commitment toward being an inclusive and welcoming congregation – there is even a non-discrimination statement worked into their mission statement. They are participants in the Interfaith Alliance, have been active in ecological issues, have youth members who write fiery letters to the editor of the local paper, and the pastor has been interviewed on a local radio station. (Since my visit, he has launched an affirming message board on his denominational website.)
The neighborhood: Fremont was historically farmland for the San Francisco Bay Area; in recent times, it has become a quite large, laid back suburban development. Niles, a small pioneer town now incorporated into Fremont, was once a small contender for Hollywood's place as a film-making hub – the Essanay Studios thrived there during the silent film era, attracting actor/producers Charlie Chaplin and Bronco Billy Anderson. The current community is diverse – its members include descendants of the Danish dairy farmers who settled here, and a healthy Latino population. The church is located on the very edge of town, so by looking east toward the building, you can forget the houses are there and imagine it a lone outpost set against the rolling hillside.
The cast: The Revd Steve Kindle (Disciples of Christ) officated.
The date & time: May 16, 2010, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Morning Service.

How full was the building?
About a quarter full – the building houses 200; about 50 people were in attendance. (Later, I was told that most of the UCC congregation were involved in a retreat.)

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Starting from the parking lot, we were waved in to the back door by a friendly woman in her 40s who insisted we "take the shortcut". She asked us where we were from, asked how we found our way there, and expressed great delight at our visiting. Once inside the sanctuary, we were greeted again by an older couple who asked us our names and where we were from, and what brought us to Fremont. They were quite chatty and engaging.

Was your pew comfortable?
The wooden pew was reasonably comfortable – handy hymnal rack in front of it, with holders for communion cups.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Pleasant conversation buzzed. Friendly catching-up seemed to be happening all over the church. There were several small children who followed their parents in, wandering around to greet people. (All age groups seemed to be present, but this seems to be a place that attracts young families.)

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to Morning Service. I'm Revd Steve Kindle of the Disciples of Christ, and I'm the scheduled preacher today." [Pause, wry grin at sparse congregation.] "I guess that isn't the draw I was hoping it would be!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We used the New Century Hymnal. The Chalice Hymnal was also available.

What musical instruments were played?
A quality electric keyboard. An acoustic piano was off to the side, but not used.

First Christian and Niles Congregational, Fremont, California, USA

Did anything distract you?
Good distraction: the sanctuary art (see below). Bad distraction: the PowerPoint laptop kept working on its own sweet time, putting up hymns that weren't being sung, hanging on to old liturgy bits that we'd already done.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Casual-formal and upbeat. As noted, the service was made newbie-friendly by having projections in two prominent areas on the wall. The liturgy (printed in the bulletin) seemed to be specifically arranged to make the most of the Scripture themes – thus, the call to worship featured invoking several names (or roles) of God.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Pastor Kindle's love for words and knowledge about the origins of names was contagious – he went through the names of several patriarchs and biblical noteworthies, and the way he connected the etymology with the stories was exciting to hear.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Kindle spoke about how names in the Bible had power, and introduced the persons who gave them. He related this to God's response to Moses – "I am who I am" – and how this response signified God's refusal to be put in a box. Very good sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I mentioned the sanctuary decorations. The Altar Guild had gotten together and made several gorgeous banners and wall-hangings on a butterfly motif – the banners were silk-screened, the wall-hangings embroidered and/or quilted. All these drew the eye toward the altar centerpiece – a large quilted cross, about four feet high, made of pieces of the same material from which the butterflies on the wall had been made. Swirling around this cross were dozens of hand-made tiny cloth butterflies. It just breathed joy and pride and long hours of effort.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During the closing liturgy, a cell phone went off. The owner leapt to his feet and left the sanctuary. Whatever. Stuff happens. Here's the "other place" bit. Behind us:

He: [very loud stage whisper] X's phone rang!
She: What?
He: His phone rang!
She: Oh, for Pete's sake!
He: I know, isn't that awful?
She: Yes, he should know better. [Repeat refrain, six times.]

If I had had a box of popcorn, at this point I would have started tossing it over my shoulder. I went from being annoyed at the phone to feeling sorry for the guy who was getting his symbolic undies run up a flagpole.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were snapped up by the couple who'd greeted us in the pew, and escorted to coffee hour with more conversation about our backgrounds, and about the church. We had been told during announcements about coffee hour, and at that time the minister had mentioned that the kids in the Sunday school had insisted on a renovation of the hospitality room – according to one girl, it really did look like a hospital before. Thus, the room we entered was charmingly decorated with hand-drawn signs displaying various statements of welcome. The whiteboard in the room showed evidence of the brainstorming session that fostered the development of these posters.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was fair, but the cookies were to die for. And there were lots of them, cakes too. Also on offer was a tasty fruity punch, witch paired nicely with a home-made sugar cookie for dunking. We had a nice chat with one of the congregants who filled us in a bit more about the church merger, and let us know that a significant number of the regular church congregation were away on retreat.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Currently, the congregation still seems to be having some growing pains – they are still trying to sort out the logistics of combining two congregations and addressing the needs of the combined communities. Everyone seems quite game to make it work, though.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Y'know…yes. The mentions of biblical "family history" were fortifying, and a reminder that all those names are a part of my spiritual family tree. The congregation pulls off the trick of celebrating Christ while maintaining a wide-open feeling.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Butterflies. Lots of butterflies.
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