It's 8:20 a.m. on a bright Sunday, and people are streaming from hard-to-find parking spots into a converted office building in a Culver City industrial park. This is the unassuming venue of Agape International Center of Truth, spiritual home to some 10,000 Angelenos. Outside the auditorium, greeters stand ready with programs and a smile, special badges for "new friends."
The service room is massive, big enough to seat 1,100 people in banquet chairs, along with space for the band, the 250-member choir and the stage. The ceiling pipes are exposed, warehouse style, and the art on the wall is abstract Native American.
There are trees and flowers on the stage, and water spills soothingly over an iridescent rock in a tiny pond up front.
Agape has been described as a United Nations, and the surrounding scene lives up to the reputation. There is every shade of white, brown and yellow in the room, an equal number of men and women, evenly split young and old. At the 11 a.m. service later today, a sign-language interpreter will stand on stage.
Before services, members are invited to a half-hour guided meditation. The service, accompanied by a band, starts with a gospel-style anthem, and most people in the room seem to know all the words and the hand motions. For newcomers, the words are in back of the program, so no one is left out.
"Use me, Oh God, I stand for you/And here I'll abide as you show me all that I must do."
There is more music, some readings and prayers by practitioners, those who have completed four years of training at Agape's classes.
But the real show starts when the Rev. Michael Beckwith takes the stage.
Beckwith takes off with a rapid fire assault of words and doesn't pause for a good five minutes. But while the style is fire-and-brimstone, the message is personal inspiration, affirmation. He is talking about taking chances and heeding your intuition, your internal voice of God -- your personal revelation.
"There is a transformation that must occur, a transforming effect of your life. It is an upheaval, it doesn't feel good, the decisions you make from a revelatory state do not seem to be congruent with the way you are living your life," he bellows, enunciating words to give them a musical effect. "Heretofore you may have been living your life having an agreement with mediocrity, or with some kind of agreement with some kind of false sense of security based on your little life you are living. But you know by now that there is no security in anything but the realization of your oneness with God."
His words and thoughts are not simple or overly generalized, yet they somehow touch each person in the room, as nods, shouts and tears affirm that Beckwith is talking about their own lives.
"Our role here is to inspire you to have a revelation to allow that change to take place," he says. And a little later, "The kingdom of God will be achieved when everyone lets themselves be themselves, lets God shine through them."
He takes listeners with him, through passionate and tumultuous diatribes, slows down with the humor and emotion of his own personal anecdotes. Then he takes them back up again, shouting in singsong and hopping all over the stage, then brings them back down through soft, soothing words that feel like a blessing, then calls everyone to join together, with music, in spontaneous prayer.
It is a breathtaking performance, one that makes it obvious why Beckwith is the centerpiece of Agape, the personality that keeps them coming back.
But if Beckwith inspires with his words, that inspiration is quickly given an outlet as the music strikes up again, and everyone joins in to sing "I Had a Revelation," with Rickie Byars, the choir leader who will marry Beckwith this month. Like the opening and closing hymns, everyone knows the words. Most people have their eyes closed, many are crying.
Once a month is choir Sunday, when the performance by the 250-member volunteer choir brings people by the thousands -- literally lining up around the block hours in advance.
That is usually when the celebrities come out, too. Hilary Swank thanked Beckwith when she took home the best actress Oscar at the Academy Awards last March.
But it is not just celebrities who feel welcome. As the services draw near the end, new members are asked to rise. Everyone in the room turns toward a newcomer near them and holds their hands out, palms facing the one standing. Everyone intones together:
"You are the spirit and likeness of God. You are a unique way love intelligence operates on earth. We honor you, we spiritually support you and we thank God for you. Welcome to Agape." Even the collection basket is passed in a way that feels like a spiritual exercise.
"I invite you to share from your heart. Let us turn within and let us begin by giving, let us give thanks for our lives, allow for the consciousness of gratitude and thanksgiving to well up from inside you."
Nearly everyone in the room drops something into the baskets. After services some people go to meet with practitioners for a personal prayer session. Others line up to get a hug a from Beckwith, who stands at the door to personally greet each congregant.
Outside, people meet old and new friends in the crowded book store, or drop by a table advertising a spiritual journey to Bali.
And inside, the hall is already beginning to get crowded for the next service, where Beckwith will turn it on again.
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