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For this Salt Lake City church, it's the beliefs, not the building, that matter

Published May 29, 2013 12:59 pm

Light of the World • Members of this restorative faith flock to historic former Christian Science sanctuary.
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Pastor Ruben Bautista has no particular fondness for the exquisite image of a pastoral Jesus streaming in from the giant stained-glass window in his Salt Lake City church's sanctuary.

Nor does he notice the sloped seating arranged in a kind of oval, purposely designed to produce an intimate feeling.

The Victorian Romanesque building where his band of believers now meets three times a day is suitable for worship services, Bautista says, but the "decorations," as he calls the historic church's interior details, are irrelevant.

Indeed, the only item the Iglesia La Luz del Mundo (or Light of the World Church) at 352 E. 300 South added to the space — which began as a First Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science) — is a large, gold chair.

It symbolizes authority for these Spanish-speaking believers.

The newcomers do, however, like the large white columns, holding up the gallery. The columns' sturdiness represents Christ's apostles, upon which the Christian church was built.

"The household of God … [is] built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone," Bautista says, quoting from the Bible's Book of Ephesians.

Indeed, the notion of apostle is central to the Light of the World Church. Everything else flows from that.

Apostasy and restoration • The church Jesus created was lost after the death of the original apostles, Light of the World believes, and wasn't recovered until a charismatic Mexican, Aaron Joaquin Gonzalez, and his son, Samuel Joaquin Flores, were chosen by God to restore it in Guadalajara, Jalisco, in 1926.

Gonzalez died in 1964, but 76-year-old Samuel Joaquin Flores remains the church's leader and only apostle.

"It is not the people who elect the apostle," Bautista says in Spanish, with his sons, Ruben Jr., 19, and Abdi, 18, as translators. "They are chosen directly by God like St. Paul."

The faith's teachings all come from the Bible, he says, quoting verses from memory.

Light of the World, which claims about 5 million adherents, preaches that there is only one God, and Jesus is his son and savior of this world, rather than part of a Trinity. Jesus will return and promises eternal life to all who believe in him.

Potential converts must believe in Christ and the Bible as the only word of God, Bautista says, then "leave behind the world" and "be baptized [by immersion] in water and in the Holy Spirit."

Members also eschew alcohol and tobacco, he says, because "our body is a temple of God.

(They do "drink lots of coffee," he quipped, unlike Mormons who give up all three, plus tea.)

Though Light of the World members "rejoice in the birth and death of Jesus Christ," Bautista says, they do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, because the traditional commemorations go beyond the Bible.

Their only ritual is a version of Communion, or the Holy Supper, which they celebrate once a year.

On that occasion, thousands gather in Guadalajara for the supper, an event beamed around the world via the Internet for others to participate. Those appointed to officiate are dressed in white to signify holiness and then distribute unleavened bread and unfermented grape juice.

For day-to-day worship, though, members mostly read the Bible and pray.

Pray always • The historic Salt Lake City church opens its doors every morning at 5 for the first of three daily prayer sessions.

The second, at 9 a.m., mostly attracts women, who cover their heads, as the Bible directs, and sit separately from men. It is considered a family prayer time, when talk is mostly of caring for kids and being good. Sometimes women can be heard crying quietly, Bautista says, because of their "deep anguish" as described in 1 Samuel 1:10 ("And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the Lord, and wept sore").

But men are known to sob as well, he adds, "because the soul has no gender."

The day's third prayer service occurs at 6:30 p.m. and opens with songs of gratitude by two men and then two women. The two groups sing separately and unaccompanied.

"The only instrument we need is our heart," Bautista says, "and the spirit of God that reigns in our heart."

On Sundays, Bautista gives a sermon; Tuesday, he leads Bible study and, on Thursdays, he counsels youths. The first Saturday of the month is designated for a kids service, aimed at passing on the faith to the next generation.

At least in the pastor's family of 10 — three boys and five girls — it seems to be working.

When Ruben Jr. was 14, he professed his desire to commit to the church.

"I did it of my own free will," he says. "It was not because of my parents' pressure or anything."

Another congregant, Elisa Meneses, says the church is a "big, big part of my life."

Meneses, a mother of two originally from Chicago, grew up in Light of the World — even met her husband there — and has never thought of leaving.

"We dedicate our whole life around our faith," she says. "It teaches us to be better Christians, better citizens and better people in general."

She finds peace in prayers, grateful to live another day and confident that she can conquer life's challenges.

These are her thoughts each morning as Meneses takes her place in the red-hued church next to the YWCA ­— a place that once housed another group of Bible-believing Christians.

Suits the sanctuary • The Salt Lake City church was designed for Christian Scientists in 1898 by architect Walter Ware, who came to Utah from Denver during a building boom and also drew the plans for the First Presbyterian Church on South Temple.

The style of the former Christian Science church is a combination of Victorian and Romanesque, says Utah architect Allen Roberts, president of Cooper-Roberts-Simonsen Architects in Salt Lake City. "It has a big, arched entry, stone lintels over the windows, strong columns and very delicately carved pieces of sandstone trim — all of that is Romanesque."

But the walls are brick, not stone, says Roberts, an expert in historic preservation, which makes it more Victorian. And the seating is designed for intimacy, he says, so "everyone sees everyone else, and it allows for a sense of spiritual community."

The Christian Scientists moved out in 2002, and for a while it was the home of Anthony's Fine Art and Antiques, which bought and sold high-end furniture.

The Light of the World Church bought it seven years ago, Bautista says, and also the house next door, which became the pastor's residence.

Roberts is pleased to see the space used again for worship, honoring the purpose for which it was created.

It's been a good "temple" or "house of prayer" for the 350 members of the Spanish-speaking Light of the World congregation, Bautista says, but the design is of little consequence.

These believers don't worship "decorations," he says, only God and Jesus.

pstack@sltrib.com

'Where We Worship' series

The Salt Lake Tribune is featuring Utah's sacred spaces this year. To read previous stories in this monthly series, go to http://www.sltrib.com

Today • Salt Lake City's Iglesia La Luz del Mundo (or Light of the World Church) —

About Salt Lake City's Light of the World Church

Location • 352 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Built • 1898

Architect Walter E. Ware

Style • Victorian Romanesque

Features • Arched entry, carved pieces of sandstone trim, red brick exterior, curved pews, white columns supporting the gallery