Thursday, July 28, 2011


We made our way successfully through the throng of outstretched hands and earth tone henley’s, which showed my wife and I, the H-ROCK rookies, a style of greet-efficiency that would have put any major stadium security or Ritz Carlton concierge to shame.  
When you enter H-ROCK, it feels special. 

You’re not at church. The ceiling disappears as you walk through the corridors and into an aisle. It sounds creepy, but there is darkness and holy music everywhere. A gentle sensory overload that just feels right. You’re enveloped in whatever H-ROCK is.

I instantly made sure my wife was still beside me and squinted to make out the aisle, ensuring we didn't trip on anything. Check and check. This aisle, by the way, is sloped so sharply that you can’t help feel that maybe when the resurrection comes, it isn’t going to pull us up. It may just pull us all down. You fall into H-ROCK, and with that kind of slant, your pace unintentionally speeds up. Every fresh attendee looks like they cannot wait to join the morning service. 
The shift in atmosphere is breathtaking, and it is natural to hastily remind yourself of the many normal things you already did this morning, to assure yourself you’re in the right place. You totally remembered to brush your teeth, you were listening to Car Talk on NPR five minutes ago, and you wore the thick socks that feel good with these shoes. Those all seem like they happened yesterday, now that you're in H-ROCK. 

The music that surrounds you is so well-mixed that you feel like someone slipped on an invisible pair of Bose headphones without you noticing. It was probably that last greeter. He was too happy. 
I was too overwhelmed to find us seats. My wife dibbed us spots, and I don’t remember that part. It wasn’t packed, there were plenty of empty spaces, it just takes a moment to believe you’re not in some freaky movie theater. No one was sitting yet, so there we stood, humming along to the music instinctively before we had opened our programs or spotted the lyrics on the projection screen. We did not know the particular tune, but there they were, and it was as if your mother sang you to sleep with them as a child. 
And it sinks in. You’re inside H-ROCK. You feel bad about calling it huhrock and balking at the gaudy banners. You hope no one knew you thought that in the first place. This is the real deal. The lighting matches the music. It’s spectacular. It moves and changes in what I can only call a heavenly display. You don’t consider the monetary cost of that until much later in the service. The contrast between the raised, fully lit stage and the smoky shadows of faceless wailers in the audience is surreal. You immediately reference the last big concert you attended. The National playing at The Wiltern, man. I was back there, drunk, except it was Sunday morning, and much more comfortable. The air was the perfect temperature. There wasn’t the sense of an A/C duct blowing anywhere near us, it was a breeze. I still don’t know how they pulled that off. 
The songs weep and moan with fervor. They’re familiar, yet I’ve never heard them before. All the fundamental instruments are present, though it took me a bit to take inventory of what was actually going on up there. 
The H-ROCK performers guiding our worship were larger than life, and they were all the right ones. 

In the middle was the leader. Think Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray. Not like him, him. Down to the hair (head, face, and chest), the fancy, ripped jeans, the untucked, worn, collared shirt with one less button buttoned, and a sweet acoustic guitar. Perfect. If God created man in His image, this guy would be anyone's casting pic for Adam in the movie. 

The leader was flanked on his left by a tall, gorgeous, black man. He was flanked on his right by what non-believers would refer to as a smokin’ hot Armenian girl. Both of them were dressed stylishly and conservatively. They all looked like they could be anywhere between 23 and 29, but with their facial and body structures combined with the lighting effects, I have no idea. Think Tyrese Gibson and the younger Kardashian sister. I’m serious, they were beautiful. They were placed far enough on the stage that you didn’t think they were sleeping together - Please, it was two uncommonly pretty people, you’d think the same thing. They were singing their hearts out to our God, in perfect harmony (Tyrese was handling the extra trailing runs towards the end of the verses, and he was damn good at it, pulling the mic away for the loudest parts and all). 
The backing band as a whole was even more picturesque. Two black-clad, slightly chubby Asian girls, possibly sisters, passionately played violin and keyboard with inhuman synchronicity, solemnly staring in each other’s faces at many points. The drummer was an older white guy with a propensity for big drum intros, and spot-on beats. He was kept at bay with that horrible plexiglass perimeter many churches use, though this one just seemed cleaner and clearer. The white, style-challenged bass player and lead guitarist were both on small raised columns towards the back, the effect of which was camoflauged by the clever lighting (no one wants a spot-lit rhythm section). They were easily forgotten, but if you chose to focus on them at any one moment, they were talented, rocking out, and loving it. 

As a centerpiece, there was also a grand piano (on wheels) in the middle of the stage. It went unused and seemed out of place, until a deep song transition when Sugar Ray swung his guitar around his back and calmly but confidently sat at the bench. Adjusting the tabletop mic to his mouth, resetting his shoulders and spreading his hands on the keys, he visually reminded the congregation that to really worship, you must use all the gifts He has given you - and oh look, brothers and sisters, here’s a piano. 
If you've ever been retail shopping in Pasadena, then you’d know that the worship band of H-ROCK is a remarkably accurate racial representation of our fair Crown City. 
The thing that surprised me the most about the H-ROCK worship, was that it was an hour long. With the main service beginning at 10:30am (an almost irreverently late start, in my opinion) we didn't meet the pastor until our legs were weak and our heels burned. After the emotionally weighted music, in unison with the lighting, on-stage beauty, between-song spiritual mumblings, and my own need to just partake in a nice worship session, I was drained. They could have told me they had proof Jesus piloted a UFO, Job was a little complainy bitch, and the pastor was stoned. I still would have left thinking that I should probably invite my friends to this church, somehow. 

Next up: The Sermon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

H-ROCK! Part 1

In a prominent mid-century modern hall planted squarely at the peak of Pasadena’s own sinful strip, Colorado Boulevard, there’s a church called H-ROCK. Everything about H-ROCK is carefully designed to be, quite simply, the shit. 
Bright orange banners (we’re talking like 50 feet tall) are installed to fit into the building’s own vertically linear facade. I appreciate that this contemporary addition was designed around the original design, at least. From about a mile away, you can make out the bold font on these loud banners. H-ROCK. Because this church is along my daily drive, I thought the banners were for a new, zealous youth group. I thought it was put together by a college, perhaps nearby Fuller Seminary (no way), or maybe even a more westerly off-shoot of Azusa Pacific University. Surely this firey youth program cannot monopolize this entire building. The building is large and stunning. I don’t know for what purpose it was built, but I would assume it was some sort of meeting or event hall for one of the local museums, colleges, or big corporations. It was obviously built in a time of prosperity during what has become my absolute favorite era of commercial architecture. Think MadMen West. If it was originally built to be a church, it must have been a strong and progressive one. 
H-ROCK was not this church's God-given name. It used to be called “Harvest Rock”. I don’t know when they launched the tangerine-tone campaign, but at some point it was decided H-ROCK was an appropriate improvement. I have a particularly tough time with the revised title, being a more literal reader. I fully understand how you're supposed to say it. H. Rock. I get it, but I always say it in my head as “huhrock”. I end up mouthing it repeatedly to get rid of the hyphen, and you know saying anything over and over makes it sound bizarre and foreign. At that point it just degrades in my head. “Huhrock. harock. crock. crotch.” I can’t help it. Saying “aitch-rock” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. It turns into Russian. Hyello komrades! Plees jyoin me ayt aitch-Яock!
My wife and I made our decided morning voyage to H-ROCK, and were anything but alone. A-frame signs were put out on all the surrounding streets. You couldn’t miss them. They were brand-new and bright white. They were all exactly perpendicular to the street, as if placed by God’s very own parking patrol. The graphic design was startlingly well done. These were the expected yet surprising miniature versions of the towering orange banners looking down onto the San Gabriel Valley. I was unsure if these little signs were set up to actually broadcast the parking instructions, or just to inform the droves of passing cars headed to the nearby Rose Bowl flea market that there was something very big, very orange, very rad going on here. I noticed the “H-ROCK” text was much bigger than the traffic-guiding arrows. 
With all this parking forewarning, we decided it would be best to park in the first space, in the first lot we found. I mean, if the signs are a half-mile away, there’s gotta be a huge jam when we get close by. 

We parked in a near-empty lot, the first we found. The H-ROCK branded sign sat proudly at the entry, greeting us with its stylishly weathered fonts. This was the parking lot belonging to the old Pasadena Moose Lodge.

I feel it went like this: A sleepy pair of H-ROCK youth volunteers brainlessly placed that sign at the lot’s entryway, early in the morning, as instructed. The sign indicated “You’re in H-ROCK’s hood, y’all”. The H-ROCKers were confident that at some point in recent years, H-ROCK’s big cheeses made a handshake deal with the elderly cheeses of Moose Lodge for use of their smoothly-paved and highly-underutilized parking. They had to. There’s just too much H-ROCKing going on across the street. An H-ROCK cannot survive on an H-ROCK lot alone. Looking at the dusty relic that was the grand, colonial Moose Lodge, and seeing the sparse Lincoln Continentals and Buick LeSabre’s parked in the spaces closest to the Moose entry, it just felt disrespectful. This plot of land once supported the hooves and wooden wheels of horses and carriages ridden by Pasadena dignitaries. Though forgotten by present-day passers-by, the Moose lot is meticulously maintained just the same. Now it pragmatically accepts vehicle overflow of a few confused stragglers drawn to an unpronounceable neighbor. 

We entered the stream. We walked the block and a half in the same direction as the scattered, young families and Asian college students. We had no idea where the front door was, but it would be impossible to end up anywhere other than the gates of H-ROCK. As we turned the corner to the front of the building, it became apparent there was in fact no parking shortage, nor was there any traffic jam. This was indicated by a steady and spread-out flow of cars into a huge garage. The kind of flow you'd expect to see in the background of a car commercial with a mod parking garage as the backdrop. H-ROCK’s Public Signage Outreach Program had psyched us out. Oh well. 

We get to the funnel of folks at the building's entry. I do well at this part. I have a marginally cool haircut, two pretty bold tattoos on my forearms, and a cute wife. All this paired with a decent shirt usually gets me through most church crowds with the absolute minimum of obligatory interaction. Tattoos mean: “Oh my, maybe he’s looking for some spiritual guidance”. Being well-dressed with a pretty girl means: “Eh, he’s probably got it figured out, and he’s not gay. I’m gonna get some coffee”. 

H-ROCK does have more truly attentive greeters per square foyer foot than any other church I’ve attended, without a doubt. No matter which type of congregation, be it a church, a bar, a hotel, or a DMV, it’s just awkward guarding a door, any door.  I don’t feel one way or the other about this part of the churchgoing experience. 

It is perfectly fine to trade a name and a nicety as a cover charge at church. It is a small price to pay for entry to a place you didn’t help build, and that you have no commitment to. So I gladly say hello and consider that my rent. And with this, we got through the name-tagged turnstile of anxious H-ROCK greeters. 

Next up: ENTER THE H.