Metropolitan Community Church, Hillcrest

"I was at Shadow Mountain for 17 years, from the time I was 19," said Metropolitan Community Church congregant (and choir member) Kelly Holmes when I spoke with him. "I was gay the whole time. Eventually, I said, 'I can't do this. I need to be congruent in all areas of my life.'" So, he came here. "It really freaked me out at first. That's a very dramatic way of putting it, but I say it because it was hard for me to figure out how to put God and my sexuality together." MCC holds its services in the barrel-roofed, butter-yellow (trimmed with pistachio and terra cotta) auditorium at The Center in Hillcrest. Black banners lined the walls, bearing faux-stained-glass images of crowns, doves, butterflies, and other Christian symbols, each accompanied by phrases rendered in artful gold lettering: "The Heart of Worship," "Love of my Soul," "Draw Me Close to You," etc. Risers stood in front of the stage; on the stage stood altars both high and low, draped in heavy red fabric trimmed with gold. On the altars: a book on a stand, candles, a chalice, a cloth cover for the ciborium -- all the elements for Mass. And above it all, white lilies -- traditionally associated with the upcoming celebration of Easter -- framed by great fans of palm fronds, denoting the day's celebration of Palm Sunday.

"We have come to this place to open ourselves to your power," prayed Lyn Malone. "Help us to hear again familiar words...that they might be written anew in our hearts." With that, the choir, bearing palms and singing, processed in and mounted the risers. "As Christ came into Jerusalem so many years ago," prayed Pastor John Gill, "so may Christ come into our heart, mind, soul, and spirit today." Then the choir took over, presenting "The Sacrifice," a "sermon in music" on the Passion of Jesus.

"Unchanging/ Eternal/ Forever, you will be/ Unending/ Immortal/ Messiah king of kings," boomed the choir over the taped music of horns, strings, and dramatic percussion. The song was a long way from the intimate, personal expressions of spirituality that had come before. This was music about Heavenly Glory -- theatrical, powerful, full of tight harmonies, frequent modulations, and dramatic resolutions.

Choir members portraying various figures from the Passion cried out: "He is the God in the flesh!" "The king of Israel!" "He is my Lord!" Only Caiaphas demurred, sneering, "He was not a prophet, even if they called him one." But he was overridden: "The same God who delivered our people out of Egypt, and has been faithful to us this day! His love never changes!" And that led to the next song: "Great is your faithfulness/ You never change/ You never fail, O God..."

The Passion narrative played out without a narrator; instead, we heard comments from the familiar figures: the centurion ("This is not just a man"); Pilate ("I had no choice!"); and Peter ("I can't believe that I denied knowing Him"). The choir served as backup for solos about the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and grace (the last a show-stopping number that brought a rain of applause). They also performed as the People, singing praises to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, then calling for His crucifixion, then repenting and gathering steam with "Nothing but the Blood of Jesus" before exploding into the finale: "Jesus! You're my master and my king/ Jesus! You're my lord, my everything/ Jesus! It's your blood that made me clean/ Alleluia! Alleluia!"

But before the final song, a menacing bassoon kicked in for Caiaphas's explanation of his importance in presiding over Passover: "Our salvation depended on the blood of an unblemished lamb. We reenact this every year.... That's why we were in such a hurry to end our problem with Jesus: I had to slay the lamb." Jesus' mother Mary drove it home: "This year...the chief priest didn't just reenact the delivery of God's people; he was the instrument of their delivery. I believe he was used by God to son Jesus, so that we could be saved for all time."

After the choir had left the risers, Lyn Malone and Lee Bowman ascended to the altar to lead an informal Communion service. They didn't uncover the ciborium, etc., but simply lifted the bread and cup during the (slightly adjusted) words of consecration: "Take this and eat it; this is my being," and "Take and drink of this cup...for this is my life, given for you." "O loving, forgiving Father God," said Malone, "we pray for these elements to become for us those things which we need them to be." "This Palm Sunday and every Sunday," said Bowman, "we offer an open Communion. That means that these gifts of wafer and juice are open and available to everyone -- just like God."

What happens when we die?

"Life eternal," said Gill.

Denomination: Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches

Address: The Center, 3909 Centre Street, Hillcrest, 619-521-2222

Founded locally: 1970

Senior pastor: John Gill (interim pastor)

Congregation size: 300

Staff size: 7

Sunday school enrollment: 12

Annual budget: under $400,000

Weekly giving: around $7500

Singles program: no

Dress: semiformal to casual

Diversity: majority Caucasian, but diverse

Sunday worship: 9 a.m., 11 a.m. (special service times at Easter: 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m.)

Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 10 minutes


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