Hands fold in stillness, flutter overhead in spontaneous joy, clasp unhesitantly on friend and stranger alike. Waves of hugs embrace the room from the first greetings to the final affirmations. Sound wells up from silence. The 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. services begin with meditation. Rickie Byars Beckwith leads the music, which taxis from a whispering "om" to jet open throttle into jubilation and supplication proclaiming God within and all around.
The Rev. Michael Beckwith, founder of this church congregation, delivers his empowering sermon at full voice, proclaiming everyone's "potentiality" while zipping around the pulpit like a soccer forward. "It's not the Lutheran church where I grew up," says Abby Elliott. "It's never boring or fearful or full of guilt." Agape is a "transdenominational" church of today.
In an era when many claim they are spiritual but not religious and turn away from institutions, authority and text, Agape seems to meet their longing for connection and celebration without fretting over theological niceties or doctrinal demands on faith or practice. There's no talk of damnation here. No yesterday. "We don't believe you are born into sin. We are born into blessings. While some seek salvation, we call it 'self-elevation,'" says Beckwith, acknowledging that Christians might call this blasphemy.
"We're not here to tell God what to do or to ask God for things but to absolutely be available for what God is already doing, to open ourselves up to catch what's already happening," says Beckwith, who calls his church an amalgam of "new thought" and ancient wisdom teachings.
It's a crossroads for myriad spiritual experiences, virtually none of them Christian. At Agape, it is taught that the kingdom of heaven is within everyone already, that Jesus is not the only access to grace. Yet familiar hymns and gospel rhythms weave through several songs, and snippets of Scripture float through Beckwith's sermons.
Six copies of the Bible languish on a bottom shelf in the well-stocked Quiet Mind Book Store amid thousands of books including shelf-loads of pop psychologists, gurus, goddesses, mystics and masters of self-healing, self-love and transformation such as Queen Afua of the Sacred Afrikan Order.
Anyone can sing with the 160-voice choir--if they first give six months of service in one or more of the church's 31 ministries. Just like any Christian church on any corner, there are dozens of ministries for prison outreach, education, music, and support of the ill, the needy and the troubled. Agape has the usual operational groups but takes a creative approach to these as well. The fundraising committee is the "Consciousness of Wealth Ministry." Those who assemble the weekly bulletin are the ministry of "Unfolding While Folding."
More than 7,000 people have joined Beckwith's church since 1985, when he gathered 20 people in his living room and launched his own variation on the half-century-old Religious Science philosophy. It teaches that deep meditation and positive prayer help people discover themselves as instruments of God, capable of love, peace and transformation. Two years ago, Agape outgrew its original Santa Monica location and moved to nearby Culver City, an industrial neighborhood now turning hip, with indie film studios and ad agencies moving in.
Beckwith himself has become a minor celebrity. British television filmed here in August for a documentary on spirituality in Los Angeles. He recently met with the Dalai Lama at an international conference on global new thought in Italy. He has been profiled in Ebony. His name is in the newspapers for officiating at celebrity weddings for Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila, Quincy Jones III, Keenen Ivory Wayans and others. He advised F amily Circle readers on how to visualize and recognize that they already have it.
Check the pews for LeVar Burton, Vanessa Williams, Stevie Wonder, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Christina Applegate and Hilary Swank, or Madonna's backup singers and lesser-known names in entertainment who drop by when they want to pray in L.A. But the stars shine no more than the fervent congregants. Several, like Elliott, find their way here from 12-step groups, looking for the Higher Power as they struggle to transform their lives.
In this respect, Agape is like any Christian church or Jewish synagogue on any corner, a place where a generation is moving through, "checking out the religious possibilities and often simply moving on," says sociologist Wade Clark Roof, chairman of religious studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
Although it might be argued that Agape's message of personal empowerment and individual connection with God would put an institutional church out of business, says Roof, "the church is the medium for the message. It's like a way station in the spiritual journey, a refocusing center where people come when they feel like their personal focus is out of whack or they need to be focused for the first time."
Beckwith recalls, I grew up in the Methodist and the Congregational church, but I left the church at 16 because it just wasn't feeding me. I liked the teachings of Jesus, but I didn't see people practicing what he said."
Like many baby boomers, Beckwith, now 49, was a college student in the '70s when "an inner experience shook my perceptions, starting me on a quest to discern what was happening to me." He joined the river of seekers who flowed through Eastern and Western philosophy and wound up astonished by and committed to teachings of Ernest Holmes, who developed Science of Mind as a spiritual system in the 1940s. Science of Mind (www.scienceofmind.com) magazine now lists Religious Science churches and study groups worldwide, including more than 250 in the USA. "I realized all these historical, cultural and philosophical influences, with silent prayer and meditation, are ways to align with the presence in the universe we call God. This is not new age, this is 'new thought' combined with ancient wisdom."
Yet Beckwith urges people to meditate alone and together, to sing alone and sing along, to pray privately and in crowded pews. However 21st century the philosophy, the need, he says, "to build a beloved community on Earth" is still essential. So he calls Agape by an old, familiar name: church.