Tiny Piru church has big history and movie-star looks

By Brett Johnson

The Piru United Methodist Church hangs on, comforted in its old age by an odd combination of colorful history and Hollywood.

It has survived earthquakes, windstorms and a dwindling congregation through its long years.

This holy morning, a large white candle on the altar will be lighted to signify the birth of Jesus Christ, member and church trustee Viola Acosta noted. Led by the Rev. Chuck Mabry, the congregation will follow a book of Methodist worship and sing hymns.

The Christmas morning message, Mabry said, will be one of joy and hope.

“The concept of hope,” he said, “is necessary to help the Piru church keep a sense of possibility and a reason for them to be there.”

Beyond that, similarities to most other churches end.

The church’s sanctuary is a time warp, packing more than 120 years of old school. It was built in 1890 as the linchpin of Piru founder and builder David Caleb Cook’s vision for the town as “a second Garden of Eden.”

It retains its original bell, rung via a rope that hangs behind the front doors and runs through a small hole in the ceiling up to the truncated steeple’s belfry. The original wooden seats — 12 across in eight rows, divided by a center aisle — give it the look of a schoolmarm’s classroom. The stained-glass windows are rife with brilliant yellows, reds, oranges, greens, purples and blues; some are originals and others have the names of Cook and other founding members etched in black ink on the bottom panes.

On cold winter mornings, parishioners wear blankets on their laps and legs during worship, as the sanctuary walls sport only two crude, inadequate heaters.

The pipe organ is rare, said by some to be one of just seven of its kind in the world, and dates back to the Civil War era. Unfortunately, much of it sits in disrepair in large wooden crates in the adjoining social room, still hamstrung from the damage it suffered in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Both the organ and the church are county historic landmarks.

The steeple used to be taller but was lopped off, likely in the late 1920s, for fear that strong Santa Ana winds would topple the spire, noted Floyd Legan Jr., who wrote a history booklet on the place in the 1970s.

Everything is old, even the massive bougainvillea bush outside — a good 10 feet tall, nearly as thick and in bright magenta bloom on a sunny, crisp December morning.

“It’s been there for years,” Acosta said.

Be it ever so crumbled and aging, the small church trundles on, barely.


It’s a tiny congregation. Acosta and others say barely a handful attend services regularly out of a membership that only numbers in the 20s; Piru, several noted, is now a largely Catholic community. Mabry is only a part-time minister.

Still, he talked of the church’s traditional role as a familiar fixture, a connection to the community.

“The number of participants has declined dramatically, but it is still a significant institution in Piru itself, partly because of its history,” Mabry said.

Asked how special the place is to him, the 88-year-old Legan replied simply that “you’ll find that my footprints have walked all over it, in more ways than one” for more than half a century.

“There’s a small group of us trying to keep it up,” Legan added. “It’s a very historic building. It has something to do with the early days, the days of the ranchos.”

Last Sunday, Mabry presided over four worshippers, including Legan. They prayed, made community announcements and sang such familiar hymns as “Joy to the World” and “O, Come All Ye Faithful.”

Maria “Chacha” Troyke stepped up to the altar and lighted the fourth advent candle, a symbol of purity, that day.

“I love it,” Troyke, who has lived in Piru most of her 57 years, said afterward. “It’s a joy to be here — this church and the meaning of coming here. The pastor gives you hope. It helps me with life — and the problems that come with life.”

She said she’s unemployed “like everyone else” — though fortunate that her husband has a job.

For Troyke and the others, the church is temporary refuge from the real world, especially during a season whose meaning is often buried amid Christmas commercialism.

The church, though, is not immune to secular forces: Around here, Hollywood helps pay the bills.

Or as Stephanie Acosta put it, “What really sustains the church is the movie and TV companies.”


Hollywood has fallen in love with the church’s classic look. So much so that Stephanie Acosta, Viola’s daughter and like her mom a church trustee, handles filming requests. The sign out front, right after detailing the church’s regular 9:30 a.m. Sunday services, lists Stephanie’s phone number.

The biggest part of its screen appeal, she said, is that it resembles an old-fashioned church from anywhere in the nation, but especially the South.

Earlier this year, the church stood in as a Texas parochial school for an episode of “Desperate Housewives.” Star Eva Longoria, Acosta said, signed the church’s guest book. HBO’s campy vampire series “True Blood,” set in Louisiana, has come to Piru and used the church to replicate a Bayou State place of worship.

The FX series “Justified,” Acosta noted, has used the church more than once for the show’s town hall meetings, set in Kentucky Appalachia.

This spring, the just-opened Matt Damon-Scarlett Johansson film “We Bought a Zoo” filmed at the church.

“We had a bear walking around here,” Acosta said matter of factly.

Willie Nelson set foot there several years back for one of the “Dukes of Hazzard” movies. Clint Eastwood filmed a “Space Cowboys” scene there more than a decade ago.

Piru has long been a Hollywood magnet, ever since part of the 1910 silent film “Ramona,” starring Mary Pickford, was shot in the area; filming at the church goes back at least several decades.

Viola Acosta and her sister, Claudina Root, laughed remembering the time Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton came to the church sometime in the 1980s to shoot a Christmas movie — in July. It was a typical summer day in Piru, with the temperature near 100 degrees.

“We were roasting outside,” Root recalled, “and everyone inside the church (for the scene) had to wear these heavy coats and scarves.”

Nevertheless, Root and the Acostas marveled at Hollywood’s ability to make it look like Christmas — with help Continue reading


They Went Before Us to Show Us the Way ~ George Wiltshire in Hell

George Wiltshire in Hell

GEORGE WILTSHIRE, of the Philadelphia Conference, was a naive personality, and was so much beloved as a minister that he became widely known by the affectionate title, “Father Wiltshire.”

The most powerful force on earth is the human soul on fire.

Much of the evangelistic preaching of that day was colored with vivid and elaborate descriptions of hell and its burning lake, coupled with warnings upon the eternal consequences of sin and exhortations to seek salvation without delay. Many of the preachers in their flights of imagination would vie with Dante in picturing the horrors of the nether world. Perhaps there was more of the love of God than the fear of hell in the sermons of the gentle George Wiltshire. Nevertheless, hell was a sulphuric reality to him, and never more so than on his railroad journey back to Philadelphia from Harrisburg, where the Methodist Conference had been held in the spring of 1853.

His brethren in the car were laughing over some funny reminiscences they were exchanging, while he alone in his seat was making an inventory of the treasures in his carpetbag. Whether his conscience was disturbed by the levity of the conversation he overheard or by the pride he was taking in his possessions, that tender Continue reading

United Methodist Women and edification


Here’s a story I love, a kind of pre-Christmas present to you, dear reader.

After World War II, the United Methodist Women’s fund had accumulated to a sizable amount.

The United Methodist Men said, “Let us manage that money for you.”

But the women answered, “No, we have some plans.”

To the astonishment and (to some degree) the horror of the men, the women bought two buildings, one on 1st Avenue in New York, right across from the United Nations construction site, and the other in Washington, D.C., on Maryland Avenue, across Second Street from the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

For 60 years, these two buildings have offered low rent to nonprofit organizations to work for justice and peace at the United Nations and in the halls of Congress. These buildings were a great investment, a great gift to us all.

The other day I was explaining the meaning of the word “edify” to a young friend. I am indeed edified by the United Methodist Women. I’m also edified by the authors of so many profound and loving responses to my last blog on why military spending is bad for the economy. Thank you.

United Methodist Women and edification.

The UMC in the World ~ “I look on all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am …”

… judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation” ~ John Wesley

Deputy Governor donates building to church

It was a roll call of who-is-who in Akwa Ibom State when the Prelate of the Methodist Church Nigeria, Dr. Sunday Ola Makinde dedicated a church building constructed by the Deputy Governor of the state, Nsima Ekere for the church in his village, Ikot Oboroenyin in Ikot Abasi Local Government Area.

Speaking at the dedication service, Ekere, himself an elder of the church, explained that he rebuilt the church in fulfilment of his vow to give back to God if he was victorious in the April 2011 gubernatorial election, with the encouragement of his father, a Knight of the church.

The Deputy Governor stressed that he had every reason to thank God for His mercy and grace in his life, describing his experience with God as worthwhile. He traced his special relationship with the church from birth, disclosing that he was dedicated as an infant in the old church, which he has rebuilt, by the immediate past Prelate, Dr. Sunday Mbang, who incidentally was the first man to see him at birth, 46 years ago.

"I came to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?" ~ John Wesley

Ekere commended Governor Godswill Akpabio for working tirelessly to change the face and fortunes of Akwa Ibom for good in the last four and a half years, reasoning that the success of the governor in this regard had given hope that the whole country could be developed.

In a goodwill message at the occasion, Akpabio lauded his deputy for building the church which he described as a wonderful seed and a demonstration that Ekere remembered his source. (Read the complete article here)

Hammond awarded Jesse Lee Prize in American Methodist History

 – Manchester, England
Geordan Hammond of Nazarene Theological College, Manchester, England, was recently awarded the Jesse Lee Prize in American Methodist History for his doctoral research. Hammond, who serves NTC as a lecturer in church history and Wesley studies, titled his dissertation “Restoring Primitive Christianity: Continue reading

Criminal Justice: Ministry efforts not limited to people behind bars

       For more than 30 years I have observed the trends and public response to ministry in the criminal justice system. When this area of ministry became more personal and I became directly involved, I began to look more clearly at the impact that Christian faith can have in the lives of people within the system.
       What I found was that in order to respond and share our faith in Christ we must first more clearly identify who is a part of that system.
     Most people hear “criminal justice” and think “prison” but the definition is more far-reaching than the offender. Oftentimes programs are developed by the faith community that direct our energies to the conversion of the incarcerated while other members of society who have been impacted by the stress of the criminal act are left wounded along the road.
       A comprehensive ministry of criminal justice, from a faith-based perspective, requires us to include ministry and outreach to the victims of the offenders where there are victims, the families of those incarcerated, all levels of law enforcement that work within the criminal justice system, the confined prisoner, and the ex-offender as they are reintroduced to the community.
      According to a recent report released by the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, at the start of 2008 there were 2,319,258 adults being held in American prisons or jails. The latest published reports show that in the state of Georgia, the average daily population being held under supervision of the Department Of Corrections was 57,026 in state prisons, 106 percent of capacity.
       These numbers currently put Georgia in the upper fifth of increase in prison population; and among the eight largest correctional programs in the United States. These figures reveal that for the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison — a fact that significantly impacts our state budget without providing a clear benefit on public safety.

Other facts:

  • One in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, that figure is 233% higher for men of color.
  • The female prison population is increasing at a much faster pace than it is for males.
  • One in every 53 adults in their 20s is behind bars (1.89%). InGeorgiathis number is 16,152 or 29. 53% of the total prison population.
  • The majority of all prisoners are held at the state and local level (not federal)
  • World Prison Brief lists prison population rates per 100,000 residents of each country ~ U.S.tops the list with 743 prisoners per 100,000 residents, followed byRwandawith 595, theRussian Federationwith 559.
  • Reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show an estimated 4.3 million violent crimes, 15.6 million property crimes, and 133,000 personal thefts were committed againstU.S.residents age 12 or older in 2009. This equates to more than 20,033,000 victims. **
       Although we can look at statistics and get a glimpse of the tragedy and heartbreak that surrounds our justice system, we are a people called to respond to the hurt and brokenness in the world and in our community. It is important that we note that prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a matching increase in crime, nor is there a corresponding swelling in the nation’s population at large.
       Instead, what we see is that more people are behind bars largely because of a wave of public policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison. In addition, because of popular “three-strikes” measures and other sentencing laws, longer prison stays are being imposed on inmates.
       In some areas lawmakers are experimenting with a range of community punishments that are as effective as incarceration in protecting public safety. These include a mix of community-based programs such as day reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service. In addition, recidivism rates have proven to be positively impacted through faith-based programs.
       During the next few editions of the North Georgia Advocate we will have the opportunity to highlight the various facets of criminal justice ministry and how each of us can make an impact for Christ in these areas.
         In scripture we read, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord  require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” ~ (Micah 6:8)
     In this journey we will look at the many ways people in our churches and in our conference have extended the grace of God by doing justice, loving mercy and walking with God.
By: Rev.Pat

They Went Before Us to Show Us the Way ~ John Wesley’s Bust

John Wesley’s Bust

Croly, the famous artist, was showing Lord Shelburne his collection of busts, and said to him: “My lord, perhaps you have heard of John Wesley?” “Oh, yes,” Lord Shelburne replied, “he – that race of fanatics!” Then Croly related how he had entreated Wesley in vain to permit a bust to be made of him, until one day he offered Wesley ten guineas for a ten-minute sitting. Wesley accepted, and taking off his coat, he lay on the sofa. In eight minutes Croly had “the most perfect bust I had ever taken,” and immediately paid Wesley the ten guineas. Wesley exclaimed: “I never till now earned money so speedily; but what shall I do with it?”

At once Wesley crossed over Westminster Bridge, where a woman and her three children were crying bitterly, because her husband was being dragged off to prison for a debt of eighteen shillings. Wesley’s gift of a guinea solved her problem and saved the family from misery. He then went to Giltspur Street Compter prison and asked the jailer to show him the most miserable person in his charge, who proved to Continue reading

The Way We Might Really Sing Hymns…

Ahhh, those old traditions! We criticize the praise songs of contemporary worship but if we were really being honest, wouldn’t our old, traditional hymns be more like this?

  • I Surrender Some
  • There Shall Be Sprinkles of Blessings
  • Fill My Spoon, Lord
  • Oh, How I Like Jesus
  • He’s Quite a Bit to Me
  • I Love to Talk About Telling the Continue reading