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2034: Union Church, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Union Church, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Union Church, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Denomination: Interdenominational. Union Church was founded in 1917 by a merger of two congregations, Methodist and Presbyterian.
The building: A modern structure resembling an oversized concrete tent. The exterior is a bit tattered, like most of San Juan, but the interior is bright and open, with pointed arches supporting a ribbed ceiling and frosted glass windows letting in plenty of light. Potted plants adorn the window sills. The floor is covered in white tiles, with red carpeting in the aisles and sanctuary. A simple wooden altar held two candles plus the accoutrements of communion. Behind the altar is a brick inlay on which a large gold cross is hung. The organ console is to the left, choir seating to the right.
The church: Union Church ministers to an English-speaking congregation on this primarily Spanish-speaking island, and conducts a special outreach to tourists as well as ex-pats from the mainland United States. They sponsor dozens of activities, all listed in detail on their website. Of special note are their free classes in English; outside the main tourist areas and even inside of them, those Puerto Ricans who know English are reluctant to speak it.
The neighborhood: Union Church is located just east of the Condado district of San Juan and west of the Isla Verde suburb, in a posh residential area of gated streets lined with single family homes and apartment buildings. It is an area of contrast – on the north is the Atlantic Ocean with its beautiful sandy beaches; to the east and west are the upscale tourist hotels, restaurants and night clubs of the Condado and Isla Verde; but to the south is the sprawling Luis Llorens Torres public housing project (what the British call council estates), Puerto Rico's largest.
The cast: The Revd Elí Maldonado, pastor, assisted by Jean Cornelius, liturgist. Andrés Mojica, music director, presided at the organ and conducted the choir.
The date & time: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2010, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Worship Service.

How full was the building?
I counted room for about 350; the building was about half full. Lots of families with children, young people, and adults of all ages.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived early. Feeling a bit bedraggled from the tropical heat and humidity, I settled in a wicker chair on the covered patio between the church and a memorial garden. Several people came up to me, introduced themselves, and wished me welcome. As I entered the church, a lady smiled, said "Good morning. Welcome." and gave me a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The wooden pews had red upholstered cushions and were quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was quite a bit of visiting out on the patio and at the rear of the church, but people settled into their pews quietly for the most part. A young girl wearing a surplice and little else lit the candles. The organist struck up a prelude, Bach's "Little" G Minor Fugue, which I thought could have stood a bit more practice, especially the pedal line. Call me spoiled, but I once heard the late great Virgil Fox dash off that piece, his feet prancing over the pedals like a stallion on parade.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Please stand and join me in the call to worship." This by the liturgist. We then sang "The God of Abraham Praise", with the pastor on trumpet augmenting the organ.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service leaflet, the United Methodist Hymnal, and two versions of the Bible: New Revised Standard Version and New International Version.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, a large four-manual electronic instrument with very good sound. Oh, and the pastor's aforementioned trumpet. There was also a mixed choir of eight voices that sang with a high level of professionalism and great blending.

Union Church, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Did anything distract you?
An elderly lady impeccably dressed in a green sequined gown kept fanning herself with an old-fashioned hand fan. One of the families with children arranged their brood in descending heights the length of the pew; I was reminded of a Russian babushka doll.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
For the most part, it followed the traditional Western order of service. The pastor was vested in alb, amice, and a red stole (although the lectern and pulpit hangings were green). The hymns were all traditional; some people raised their hands while singing. Some of the pastor's remarks struck me as bordering on the charismatic, e.g. "I'm always so glad to be in church. The Holy Spirit works anew in me every day." Communion featured a full-blown eucharistic prayer, Episcopal style, and was brought to us in the pews, with the ushers distributing small cubes of bread and tiny plastic thimbles of grape juice.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes (children's); 14 minutes (adults').

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Friendly, relatively chatty style, as if he were engaging us in conversation. A few too many personal anecdotes, though, especially one that rambled on and on about a friend whose wedding he had attended.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
(Children's): There is always someone to help us when we need it. God will help us because he wants us to be happy. Don't be afraid to ask for help. (Adults'): Preachers never tire of encouraging the faithful to be ready for the Second Coming. But even if the Second Coming never comes, Jesus comes to our hearts today! God has a place in every aspect of our lives. We must prioritize. If God is our priority, then we are ready! We will be called to account for how we prioritized our lives. We are called to give the best of ourselves to God. God will use us regardless of who we are.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir was magnificent! I've heard choirs three times their size that sounded amateurish because they didn't know how to blend. These eight voices blended perfectly together and sounded like a much larger group.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Little girl lighting the candles: Surplices are worn over cassocks, dear. You can't wear a surplice over short shorts. It looks like you've grown out of your nightgown!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the blessing, the organist struck up another Bach piece, this time with much better pedal technique. The congregation sat and listened, then applauded and left. I shook the pastor's hand and let the choir know how much I enjoyed their singing.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee, fruit punch, sandwiches and cookies were served out on the patio. I didn't need coffee with all that heat and humidity, but the fruit punch was cold and tasty. I passed the sandwiches and cookies by, as I am still dieting. There was quite a bit of visiting, but no one said anything to me.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I liked the friendly pre-service greeting, and could probably have stirred up some after-service greetings too were I feeling a bit less bedraggled. The music was top-notch, and the liturgy was conducted with dignity considering the church's denominational roots.

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 excellent choir. The final hymn was "Sent Forth by God's Blessing", and I left humming the tune!
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