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2930: Little Church of the Desert, Twentynine Palms, California, USA
Little Church of the Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: California Dearmer.
The church: Little Church of the Desert, Twentynine Palms, California, USA.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA).
The building: It dates from 1940 and is probably the nicest looking building in the city of Twentynine Palms. The exterior is in the Spanish mission style. The interior features white walls and a wood beam ceiling. On a raised platform sits the communion table, lectern and pulpit. Stained glass windows depict various Bible scenes.
The church: The congregation was founded in 1929 and met first in a schoolhouse, later in the dressing room of a bath house, and finally at the local Roman Catholic church while their church building was under construction. As a token of gratitude, they presented the RC pastor with a key to the new church. Today they say on their website that “everyone is welcomed, wanted and considered family.” They have a Sunday school, a women’s group, and children’s ministries, including Little School of the Desert for pre-school and day care.
The neighborhood: In 1852, while crossing the Mojave Desert, a group of Mormon pilgrims discovered an oasis marked by exactly twenty-nine palm trees. With the establishment of a post office in 1929, the area became popular with veterans of the Great War whose lungs had suffered damage from mustard gas; they found the warm, dry climate beneficial to their breathing. In 1952 the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center was established. Today the Center, which the Marines fondly call Twentynine Stumps, is home to one of the largest combat training programs in the world. Nearby is the Joshua Tree National Forest, home to the plant species Yucca brevifolia, whose branches resemble uplifted arms. The Mormons called it the Joshua tree after the story in Exodus 17 (but surely they were confusing Joshua with Moses?) The Mojave Desert is the only place in the world where the Joshua tree is found. The church is located on Adobe Road, which leads to the main gate of the Marine base and is lined with seedy business establishments catering to the Marine trade: barber shops, tattoo parlors, massage joints, etc. The rest of Twentynine Palms, with the exception of the church, isn’t much different.
The cast: Guest preacher was the Revd Patricia Stout. Kristina Viloria, liturgist, led the service, with Naomi Thomas at the piano. The Revd Les Bishop, pastor, was present but did not participate in the service.
The date & time: Sunday, October 11, 2015, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
MOPS Sunday. MOPS stands for Mothers Of Pre-Schoolers. The service featured a special presentation concerning the MOPS program.

How full was the building?
I counted about 120 chairs and about 50 people – mostly women, mostly middle aged to elderly, although there were some middle aged couples and some families. Lots of small children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman at the door said “Good morning” as she handed me a service leaflet. Once I was seated, several people came up to me, introduced themselves, and said they were glad I had come. One lady gave me a gift bag consisting of a mug, informational pamphlets and a candy bar. The pastor also introduced himself.

Was your pew comfortable?
They were theater-type seats and I wouldn’t say they were particularly comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Small children running about; people visiting. Everything quieted down as the pianist began her prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. This is the day that the Lord has made."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, New International Version, and Hymns for the Family of God were in the pews. We used the hymnal only for one hymn; words to the others (but not the music) were printed in the handout.

What musical instruments were played?
Electronic piano and acoustic guitar. The guitarist was introduced as Elliot.

Did anything distract you?
One tall, lanky gentleman was dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat; at least he had the good grace to remove his hat.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A hymn sandwich. The exchange of peace was the free-for-all type, but at least people limited themselves to saying, “The peace of Christ be with you.” The music was the emotionless, shallow lite-rock stuff with one exception (“Be Thou My Vision”). “Amazing Grace” was sung as a Country & Western number, complete with that apocryphal totally unnecessary B section that is always included by praise groups who think that this fine old hymn can’t stand on its own. The Lord’s Prayer used the debts/debtors language. The lay liturgist led the entire service, including the assurance of pardon. The children’s talk concluded with a military-themed song, “Yes Sir! I’m in the Lord’s Army” sung to the tune of (I’m not making this up) “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be." I’ll have more to say about the music in a moment, as well as one particularly hellish aspect of the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The Revd Mrs Stout chose the title “God’s Special Woman” for her sermon. Oh boy, I thought, we’re going to hear a sermon about the Blessed Mother in a Presbyterian church! But I was wrong. She spoke in a relaxed but in-control manner, making good eye contact with the congregation and using appropriate gestures.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Women are often the brunt of jokes, even in scripture. How can a woman be acceptable to God? But God gives us everything we need. Some women are called to be wives and mothers, which is hard work! Others are not so called, but God has a place for all. Rely on God. Find the place he has prepared for you. Touch others and make them blossom. Accept that you are loved and lovable. Be special!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I really can’t think of anything, except that the pianist played very well and that the tall, lanky cowboy, the guitarist Elliot, and certain others in the congregation were easy to look at.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
A “special music” selection was the wonderful old hymn “It is well with my soul” sung as a duet by two young ladies who were, to put it charitably, untrained. One of the prayers began “Almighty God, hear us if you can.” I was surprised that anyone would think that God can’t hear us. But the most hellish aspect of the service was the MOPS presentation. Each woman involved in the MOPS program got up and spoke about the program; most could not do so without breaking into tears. They droned on and on, giggling when they weren’t crying. Just when I thought I had heard all I could take, one of the husbands got up and he cried too! I would have run screaming from the place had the collection already been taken up and had I already deposited my Mystery Worship calling card.

Little Church of the Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA (Interior)

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The final song was the dreaded “Shine Jesus Shine” and I did indeed run screaming from the place. I’m sure the Ship will forgive me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn’t stay for it.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – No way. They’re a lovely bunch of people, but should I meet with the unfortunate fate of having to live in Twentynine Palms, I would look for a church that had a more formal approach to worship.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. The congregation may have found the "special music" and the MOPS presentations entertaining, since they knew the people involved, but I as a stranger did not. I would have preferred to hear a succinct summary of each woman's take on the value of MOPS, without the giggling, without the interminable rambling on, and certainly without the tears. I would also have preferred to hear "special music" sung by a trained choir or by soloists who could sing on pitch and with good tonal quality.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be."
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