It was Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. I hadn't been in a church for quite some time, roughly 30 years, but my girlfriend's sister wanted to go listen to church music on Christmas Eve.
For the record, I'd never been to Los Angeles, either. There was trash everywhere, the air was unbreathable and it seemed dangerous. I loved it.
Anyway, I haven't believed in a benevolent god since I was a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons and those commercials would come on asking for money for the starving kids in Africa. Why, I would ask myself, would a loving god let me be 10 to 15 pounds overweight and the sad-eyed kid on the TV screen can no longer blink to keep the flies off his eyes?
So I'm not a believer.
But I love music, so we were off to the St. Augustine Catholic Church in Culver City, Calif. It's a pretty church right across the street from what was once Columbia Pictures Studio. A 100-foot-high rainbow on the studio lot competed with the steeple on the church for skyline space. Los Angeles is weird.
My companions crossed themselves with holy water as we walked in. I took my hat off. Just because you're an atheist doesn't mean you can't be polite.
Attendance was light, and someone's coughing reverberated throughout the nave.
"See, you didn't burst into flames," my girlfriend's sister whispered as we sat down in the pews.
"I don't believe in any of this shit, so I wasn't worried," I replied. I immediately hoped she didn't hear that.
The smallish choir was situated in a loft at the back of the church, less than 10 people. At 11:30 p.m., they broke into "Come All Ye Faithful." Or was it "Oh Holy Night?" I think it was "Oh Holy Night."
In any case, it was beautiful. I closed my eyes and took it in and ...
A group of people came rumbling through a side door and took a seat in the pew directly in front of mine. They were loud. They took selfies. Who the hell takes a selfie in church? Do you have to prove to your probation officer you showed up for the Midnight Mass?
I'd been successfully ignoring my mood disorder-powered irritability for a couple of days in the interest of enjoying my first LA trip. Count to 10, John. Count to ...
You know what? The people in the choir practiced all year for this, and these jerks can't put their phones away for 30 minutes and listen to the music? They're here on Christmas Eve, so they must be Catholics. I'm only Catholic adjacent. I left my phone in the car and took my hat off. Why am I the one going to hell?
"I'm moving down a couple of pews, because these people are starting to piss me off," I told my girlfriend as I stood up and skulked away.
They followed me, and I sat down, closed my eyes and once again took in the music. It was beautiful.