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At Mount Hollywood Congregational Church, the spirit behooves them

By Nita Lelyveld
Los Angeles Times
LIFE RELIG-QUIRKY-CHURCH 2 LA
Jay L. Clendenin - MCT
Rev. Anne G. Cohen, with her son Peter, 7, prepares for her installment as leader of Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES The tiny congregation in Los Feliz, Calif., looked long and hard for a new pastor – someone joyful and brave, committed and kind, welcoming to all and unwilling to talk down to any.

Pretty much from its founding in 1905, Mount Hollywood Congregational Church has charted its own course: integrating early, protesting injustice often, trying hard to change the world for the better.

Its 50 or so active members, while diverse in age, ethnicity and background, are very much in sync in their spiritual style.

“As one of our members put it, we’re a church of non-churchy people. We don’t stand on ceremony. We stand on the feeling that we have for each other,” said Amy Schloerb, 30, an actress who chaired the search committee.

Naturally, not any pastor could fit right in. Then the Rev. Anne Cohen appeared.

She was an activist who at a previous church declined to marry any couples while same-sex unions were illegal. She adopted a newborn when she was 51. Her style was not to preach at people but to engage them in lively discussion. She was forthright and feisty and fun.

She seemed to be a match made in heaven, and the vote was unanimous.

Had it not been, the bouncy castle would have clinched it.

Cohen was installed in a festive outdoor service. Toward the end, to fulfill a dare, the statuesque 58-year-old, draped in a boa of purple, green and gold feathers, led a procession to the parking lot. She pulled off her boots to expose neon socks – one lime green, the other hot pink.

Then she crawled head-first into the bright blue castle that had been set up in a corner.

In the bouncy house, as children jumped up and down behind them, Cohen and two officials from the regional conference of the United Church of Christ knelt for the final installation prayer and declaration.

Outside, the pastor’s new kingdom cheered and clapped, bedecked in boas and big hats. One hat with gold sequins said “Happy New Year.” Another was elfin, in green felt, with a dangling jingle bell.

Dressing up for the big day had been encouraged, as had bringing cans of tuna for the local food bank and fistfuls of coins to toss into the fountain as an offering.

Cohen kicked off her installation by calling out to the crowd, “If you feel like sitting down, sit down. If you feel like dancing, dance.”

It was all in keeping with the congregation’s irreverent, intimate style.

The church’s pastors all have been pacifists, in pursuit of social justice. In 1941, Mount Hollywood aided a Japanese American congregation – safeguarding the church property and the homes of Hollywood Independent’s members when they were sent to internment camps.

But last year, elevating substance over form, Mount Hollywood gave up its own real estate, selling the sanctuary that had been its home since the 1920s, when it had 600 members.

Cohen doesn’t have a history of settling down. But Mount Hollywood has wrapped its arms around her.

At the end of her installation, so many people crawled into the castle for a celebratory bounce that it tilted, turrets nearly touching the ground.

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