A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

Finding your jam in a surround-sound world

Finding your jam in a surround-sound world

Despite putting earplugs in before I go to bed most evenings, I am occasionally awoken by the Pentecostals who pray and sing each morning at 5am across the hallway from my room. They're wrapping up 40 straight days of early morning prayer, so ever since I arrived here on January 9, the echoes of "Hallelujah!" and "Gracias Diós!" accompanied by applause have been a part of my morning routine. After their worship session has finished, I conk back out and sleep in until 7:30 or 8, when I get ready for my morning run. As I get out of bed and do some stretching, I often hear the honking bike horns of push-cart vendors or the distant sirens of a police car or fire engine (although I've been told those sirens used to go off far more often around here). 

All of that to say, I am almost always surrounded by some kind of noise here in Santa Ana, and I've found that quiet moments are much more of a rarity than they were back in Des Moines. I sometimes find myself yearning for quiet, when I can put my mind at rest. But the noise isn't always a bad thing. 

One sound that I can't get enough of is the sound of the little youth choir I helped create at the church. The choir is made up of about 10 girls and 2 boys (depending on the day), ranging in age from 6–12. I honestly didn't know if anyone would show up to the first rehearsal. I'm pretty sure if I was a kid (or a parent) and some new person just joined the church and was starting a choir, I would be a little unsure about joining. But lo and behold, a solid little group showed up, and they were ready to sing.

At our first meeting, I ran through some vocal warm-ups with them and just about fell over when half of them said they knew their "Do-Re-Mi's". After that, we did some rhythm exercises, and they nailed those, too. Teaching them was a breeze, and within about 30 minutes, they had a good grasp of a song called No Longer Blind, which I learned at a Church of the Brethren National Youth Conference in 2006. We added some hand motions, came up with coordinated outfits for their first performance (black shirts and blue jeans...at their request) and gave our debut performance at last Tuesday's bible study:

The kids' choir has been my favorite project at the church thus far, and I hope it continues to grow. Ultimately, I want to make sure that if any of these new projects— such as the choir—are successful, that there will be someone to continue them after I leave. Pastor Becky, who works closely with the youth, has told me she's starting to see some of the choir girls open up more, so I think that alone makes it worth continuing. 

Last night, I decided to surround myself with a very different type of worship service. Príncipe de Paz happens to be within walking distance of a new campus of the famous Hillsong Church based in Australia. You may know Hillsong because of their music...and you might even be singing Hillsong music at your church without knowing it. According to the church's website, more than 50 million people sing Hillsong Worship songs in 60 languages each week. And more than 112,000 people attend Hillsong churches weekly in 19 countries. The Santa Ana church is the 8th Hillsong location in the United States. It's housed in a beautiful historic downtown theater called The Yost.

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When I visit a church for the first time, I always give it the "How long until I'm greeted by someone?" test. The church gets an A+ on that front. As I walked under the theater marquee, a tall, 20-something guy with curly blond hair and a jeans jacket shook my hand, welcomed me and asked, "What's your name again?" ... just in case we had already met. I shared my name and that it was my first time here, at which point he enthusiastically proclaimed this news to a group of regulars. They all cheered. Inside, he told an usher that I was a first-timer, so she led me to the third row of seats and placed me right in the center of the row. Talk about V.I.P. treatment. A man sitting next to me, wearing a Patagonia cap and fitting the perfect definition of "California hipster" to a T with his thick-rim glasses and beard, engaged me in conversation before the lights dimmed. A crowd of worshippers formed a mosh pit in front of me, and the guitar riffs kicked in. This was religious rock concert nirvana at its finest:

There's no question that Hillsong music is well-written. It's powerful, catchy and easy to rock to ... everything you want if your goal is to get people pumped about God. And the praise band here is phenomenal. The rest of the service was just as polished, with an easily digestible but inspiring message, a meaningful Black History Month tribute with African-American performers singing "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman, and a convincing call to donate money via text, Paypal, or old-fashioned envelope.

Something felt foreign, though. Maybe it was the fact that I was, for once, among the older demographic in a crowd of about 500 mostly 20-somethings. Maybe it was the fact that, even though I shared the same skin color and privilege level as the majority of worshippers, I couldn't stop thinking that, just a few blocks away, homeless families were simply praying to get through the next day. And maybe it was the commercial for Hillsong senior pastor Brian Houston's new book, which showed him wearing a suit and climbing through a futuristic-looking office building, dropping not-so-subtle touches of prosperity theology that the church has sometimes been criticized for. It was likely a combination of all of that.

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I am not trying to diminish the relevance of the Hillsong church, or any other church, for that matter. I totally get why people choose to come here, and I know that this church has changed lives for the better. In fact, I'm planning to bring some of the Príncipe youth here next Sunday, just so they can experience a new type of worship service. And I have a feeling a lot of them will love it—especially the music. But among countless other options, it's just not my jam. My jam involves singing Brethren hymns in four-part harmony, teaching camp songs to kids who may look different from me, and praising God in the quieter moments.

What's your spiritual jam? Share in the comments below :)

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Los muros caerán — the walls will fall

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