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March 29, 2018


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There's a marked difference between old religious congregations and the new ones that pop up on the growth edge of the metroplex. The former are organic, the latter intentional. One is as beautiful as an antique, the other as soulless as a new car.

If you drive up Central a few miles, you can find one of the original megachurches in Phoenix, North Phoenix Baptist. It was designed by the noted Ralph Haver and took the place of a glorious estate at Bethany Home Rd. It's a huge eyesore of a God complex but it met all the lifestyle needs of modern Phoenix. There were clubs for singles, hikers, bowlers, and teenagers. It had a huge congregation back in the 1970s, over 10,000. Today, it hovers at around 3,000. Even in the realm of the eternal, demographics drive market share.

I don't blame anyone for finding spiritual refuge in tradition and beauty. If I could find a way to reconcile my brain with my heart, I might go there myself. But you can't put new wine in old wineskins without injuring truth itself. I mourn all our losses, particularly the planet's biosphere we're irreparably damaging. Right now, the blessings we need to count rest less on faith and more on conscious and deliberate action.

Soleri-If Paul and the Apostles had thought about the "right now" we would never have had a Christian faith.They were all crucified or killed for their beliefs and teachings.While I agree with most of your post,the "right now" part is what the new churches you denegrate is using to attract new converts, unfortunately.

While I am not religious at all, I can empathize with your your pain and wistfulness in what you have written here.

I grieve for Jon and many others that share his beliefs that were shaped by old time religious services. I identify with these quotes from Jon’s piece.

“My mother had a glorious contralto and, a child prodigy trained as a concert pianist, sometimes played the immense pipe organ, with its 4 divisions, 28 stops, and 41 registers. In the 1960s, it was common for each service to see a thousand people or more, filling the sanctuary and its three balconies. Central was a prime posting for veteran ministers — only doctors of divinity reached the senior rank — and the choir was superb. I was confirmed there, age 13.
But the music program was very strong under Don Morse. The core, including the corps of ushers, was committed. Important for us, Central still offered a traditional service, with the wonderful Methodist hymns. Christmas Eve could see five services in the soaring sanctuary, with luminarias in the courtyard. Central Methodist is the oldest Protestant church in Phoenix, founded in 1872. An adobe structure was followed by a brick church at Central and Monroe. In 1926, the church moved a few blocks north, to a handsome building at Pierce Street. It completed its present home in 1950.
Central, although overshadowed by wealthy First Methodist at Missouri, is the "Mother of Methodism" in the Salt River Valley (and, along with a church in Prescott, in Arizona). Among the churches it seeded were Bethel, CrossRoads, Calvary, and Paradise Valley United Methodist, where I sang in the choir during high school. It founded Deaconess Hospital, the future Good Samaritan, and the United Methodist Outreach Ministries (UMOM), an important social service provider. Bethel is now gone.
When I was a child, we walked to church when my grandmother's knees would allow it. Although people came there from throughout the city, Central was very embedded in the neighborhood. I'm told Central's "Jesus, Java, and Jazz" non-traditional service is popular. But I want the great hymns, the prayer of forgiveness, the Apostles Creed, traditional communion — that sense I am worshipping with some continuity going back to my forebears, some rock in this world of hyperspeed fads. But I don't want hip. My soul thirsts for what he dismissively called the liturgical string. But the news of Central is a stone around my heart and I fear for the other stones that might drop. For Phoenix, it is an incalculable loss. ”

Some of my best but also some of my worst memories are tied to Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic churches both rural and in towns. I was baptized three times before I was 15.Tent Evangelists were strong when I was a child in Iowa. A number of times after the tents came down and left, local women, children and money went missing.

Regarding the Baptist Church at Central and Missouri, it seemed more evangelistic than the traditional churches I attended. I was curious about its origin and if it originated from a small town in Texas and if it might have something in common with “The Baptist Foundation” as exposed by Reporter Terry Greene Stewart.

Last year I attended a Catholic Mass in Spanish by a priest, that appeared to be of German origin, in the little Yaqui Community of Guadalupe after attending a Yaqui ceremony.

The best time I ever had In a Church was at the Black Southern Baptist Church in Vicksburg , Mississippi on Mens day in 1996 while Walking across America.

I still enjoy good church music and a rousing sermon.

However I will note that I converted at 14 and at 77 still practice atheism.

On this Easter Day, we still see thru that glass darkly, but with faith, expect to see the face of God someday - at least, I do.
Thanks for your memoir, Jon. My natal church is long gone, but lives in my heart.

This is a wonderful story, Jon. And while it's a cliche, it remains true that the church always resides with the people and it moves around like the wind, not resting with the building or with the congregations that have faded. In a separate thought, I wonder what the right-wingers of today really would have thought of MLK before he was a face safely on a plaque, back when he was dangerous to the prosperous order. Or for that matter, what would they have thought of Jesus? What would WE think of him?

As a lad in the early ‘60s, I often attended Central United with my grandma, who lived near Portland and 7th Ave. sometimes we would walk to church, taking a shortcut across the campus of Kenilworth School, and past a synagogue on 3rd Ave where one of her friends worshipped. The neighborhood, of course, has been obliterated in the name of “progress,” for a freeway.

I used to attend Central, mainly for its singles' program (a very modern idea) and its children's program (I was a single mom). Rev. Henshaw was the minister in those days, and I loved his sermons. That church kept me grounded while I was going through some difficult times, and I will always be grateful.

This was moving to read. I was aware of some of these events and saddened by them. Mainline congregations are getting grayer. I'm afraid that there will be lots of variations on this story.

"United Methodist Church, we trace our roots to John Wesley, an eighteenth century Anglican priest who found a way to blend his traditional high church Anglicanism with an evangelical faith and a warm heart. We stand firmly in this tradition.

The First Church story begins with a series of missionaries sent from California with the goal of starting a Methodist Episcopal Church in the tiny village of Phoenix. The first worship services were held in 1881 in a community meeting place, the local brush arbor. They soon built their first building, a 20 x 40 foot one-room adobe meeting house.


A current sermon:

I can't get over how beautiful those images are of the pipe organ and stained glass and the city, looking south. So much has changed in just the last 20 years. But not for the better.

The brush arbor i loaded was an "example" of church services held in Brush Arbors similar to the Phoenix United Methodist.

Jon, thank you for the very sensitive retrospective of Central.
I'm sure you know how far the influence of its music and ministry extended. It accomplished some great things like the South Phoenix march with Dr. King, and many, many small great things. I went to West High at 19th Ave and Thomas (with Gwen Ragsdale, by the way). I remember how excited several of the West High choir members who were also regulars at Central were because of the several ranks that were being added to the organ at the time. The choir was performing the Hayden Lord Nelson mass in celebration. The whole of Phoenix knew Central Methodist Church.

Years later I joined the Central Methodist choir while Don Morse was there. You might remember me. After you returned to Phoenix, I sang the Tallis "If you love me" or the Lutkin sevenfold Amen, or some other piece by Rutter, et al, to you and Susan from the cross aisle every Sunday we were there. Often I stood directly in front of you. I hope I held the pitch. Such wonderful music, and such good memories. It's heartbreaking that it's gone.

For those of us at Central, the choir and the congregation, music was a gateway to understanding Christ's message. Five centuries of great music puts one in touch with the souls that have gone before. Despite the wars, and hate and bigotry and meanness and selfishness of the world, the message came through in the music. That music is something we need desperately right now.

soleri, thanks for your observations about the "brain eating prion" that says one can't be happy unless others are miserable. I just wonder if the indifference and lack of compassion so many have for their fellow man isn't related to their greed for more, more, more.

I agree with you that these perpetually unhappy people haven't figured out that true happiness comes from within--and that no amount of outside accoutrements (money, property, or other physical possessions) or power will ever be enough.

I think when one learns that true contentment comes from being in touch with one's inner self, and not chasing after what's outside ourselves, they have a chance to experience the kind of deep satisfaction that material things can't get. To get to that "nirvana," one must keep the greed for more under strict control.

That, however, is heresy in a capitalistic society where one is taught that "success" is measured by what one possesses--and not how one feels from the inside.

good column Jon (on the front pages)


Thanks so much for this post, Jon.

I am a sucker for pipe organs, and while I enjoy contemporary Christian worship music, I do miss the sound of a grand organ; due to their great cost, they are quite rare in newer churches.

I also enjoy even older forms of musical worship, such as Gregorian chants and unaccompanied singing.

My church recently celebrated 35 years, so although it is much newer than Central, it was still interesting to see all the history talked about.

Of course, a church is a fellowship of believers, not the building in which it meets, but yet we all develop strong attachments to these important places in our lives, just like the old schoolhouse or our childhood home.

And for those church buildings which have decayed or been torn down or sold and developed into bars and restaurants or lofts, it is hoped that memories of their purpose and fellowship live on in the hearts of those who once worshiped there.

I will leave you all with some lovely Scripture about singing worship songs.

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." --Colossians 3:16

thankyou jon;
I attended a mainline down town Methodist church in Rockford, Illinois whose history parallels Central: the spiritual stability, predictability and challenge through the sacred word and glorious music. I moved to Phoenix two years ago and discovered Central. I also realized the decline Central was going through. With the loss of the traditional worship service and elimination of the glorious, inspiring choir I drifted from
Central. As I grieved for the my home town church I grieve with those loyal members of Central whose inner core of their lives have been shaken. Thanks be to God for all we have been given through our worship experiences with traditional "old time Methodism".

I found a drawing by Dobson Pipe Organ for a new instrument for Central. It appears to have been done in 2009. Was the original intention for a new organ? What happened to the old instrument? The pipe organ database says it was relocated.

Thanks, Jon.
We have never touched on the church but, I was raised in the Creighton Methodist church on McDowell (I believe) and then my parents moved and we moved to Bethel. I was married there and my sons were baptised. After a divorce moved north and attended Cross Roads. Then moved on.

I enjoyed the refresher you provided as there were several vague recollections of my past at Central Methodist both in the Monroe as well as the Palm Lane sites. I too sang in the choir (1950's) and then married in 1962. I returned to the valley in 1999 and even though curious about the church, I never set foot in the church again because, even though there were five ministers, not one would come to pray for my dying father because we lived too far away. Our home was at 12th and Indian School. We had been regular weekly attendees from 1945-1961 when my father passed. He had been very active in the church always. My mother was devastated and refused to return to Central Methodist. She was welcomed into the Mormon church along with my little brother where they found the love, support and understanding they needed. Money and politics played a huge role in the church.

What happened to Bethel? I grew up in that church. My mother directed the choir there, just as she did at Trinity Cathedral, earlier.

Behalf on N 7th St/Osborn is now a restraint named Taco Guild

Hi Jon. Small world department here. My dad attended Central at times with a friend during his retirement years in the late 1970s through mid-80s.I remember visiting a time or two during Arizona trips. My memory is that it was quite vibrant. Meanwhile, our hometown Methodist church in a small Minnesota town gave up its historic building earlier this year, unable to pay the bills. The Methodist descent in recent decades is truly stunning. All the best to you. Dave

Great to hear from you, Dave!

Came here to again after reading about the closure of the church on Azcentral today, even though I'm Catholic my heart hurts as some Phoenix dies today. Sorry Jon.

In my youth I attended another "Old Phoenix" church, First Presbyterian in downtown Phoenix. I went there because 1) Some of my best buds went there 2) They had an indoor gym!, "built-in, experienced "coach - Clayton - and a good basketball tradition. Alas,one church team on Osborn/6th St.- regularly kicked our butts in the finals.
They had a ginormous kid who just couldn't be stopped.

Thank you for the article. It sadness me greatly. I too grew up at Central, attending from the early childhood until I left the valley for the military and college in 1969. I have fond memories of the youth choir and MYF both of which I loved being part of.

You mentioned Dr. Kermit Kong--he was the best. I remember Central having up to 6 ministers on staff while I was there and all of them being superb.

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