To the skirl of bagpipes, men dressed in kilts walked slowly up the church aisle to the bare altar. There, they took broad pieces of tartan cloth--emblems of their clans--and laid them one after another on the altar, symbolically rededicating themselves and Scots everywhere to God's service.
You would never guess this was Burbank.
But the second annual Kirkin' of the Tartans at the First Presbyterian Church was filled with contrasts and contradictions.
Outside the church the mercury hit 87 degrees, and boys in fluorescent green shorts skateboarded up Olive Avenue. Inside, hundreds of Angelenos sang "God Save the Queen."
Then there was the member of the Gordon clan who hails from Hong Kong. Gordon Ting, whose father was born near the Tibetan border, must be the only Gordon with jet-black hair, almond eyes and a kilt.
Only in America, as they say. What a country. The Kirkin' is a ceremony that is as cultural as it is religious: a chance for those of Scottish descent to praise their Lord and reaffirm their heritage.
"On this Kirkin' of the Tartans, we remember our brothers and sisters in the Church in Scotland," intoned a minister.
It was an eye-opener for those not versed in Scottish history, or those exposed to too many Monty Python skits. The British comedy group treats the kilt-clad Scot as a subject of humor or curiosity, and, in one routine, diabolical space aliens turn Englishmen into Scots.
But inside the First Presbyterian Church, the kilts were beautiful and noble. Men wearing pants felt left out. On the church walls, heraldic shields carried the emblems of each clan: three boars' heads for Gordon, a lion for Wallace, ships for Hamilton, five-pointed stars for Murray.
After about 20 tartans were set on the altar, the bagpipe croaked to a stop and a typical Sunday church ceremony followed. In fact, until the closing hymns, it looked like any other Southern California worship service, except for the men dressed in kilts sitting in front of the choir.
Then for a closing hymn, the congregation rose and, in lyrics seldom heard in a land settled by Franciscan padres, sang, "God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen." After a brief musical bridge, the congregation started up "The Star-Spangled Banner."
In a show of good sportsmanship that resisted reviving the War of 1812, the singers left out references to the rockets' red glare and British bombs bursting in air over American heads. Instead, they sang the rarely heard fourth verse, "Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just. And this be our motto: In God is our trust."
In one sense, it all seemed out of place. "God Save the Queen" in the Valley ? Even the church ceremony, though based on Scottish customs, was an American invention, created by a minister in Washington. Was this really Burbank?
But then the warm, inspiriting sound of "Amazing Grace," played on three bagpipes, filled the church, the congregation humming along.
Throughout, tartans were everywhere--if not on kilts, then on ties, scarfs, pants and sweaters. Everyone seemed at home, comfortable with themselves and with each other. It seemed so logical as the bagpipers paraded out the church door, the worshipers following. It was as natural as, well, Gordon Ting.
Ting, a dentist from Agoura Hills, stood outside the church wearing an open-collared white shirt and the green, blue and yellow tartan kilt of Gordon. His father, Su Ting, left China to study geology in Glasgow, along the Clyde River in Scotland, in the 1930s.
"He was quite taken with that country," said Ting, explaining that his father shared that interest with his family. "He named me Gordon, a good Scottish name." Back in Scotland, the dentist's father was known as MacTing.
Unlike some clans that restrict membership to blood relations, the Gordons are among the families that are open to anyone who swears allegiance to the clan, Ting explained. Other clans have members who do not fit the stereotype of the fair-haired, ruddy-faced Scot.
"Clan MacLeod has an Apache," he said. "I think his wife is a Papago."
Ting and his wife, Sylvia, met in a Scottish dance group. She's an Anderson whose American roots go back to 1747.
The Scots guard their culture carefully, she explained, because they well remember when the English crown repressed Scottish nationalism in the mid-1700s by banning the music, language and dress of the Scots.
"The kilt was banned," she said. The restrictions eventually were lifted, but the Scots have not forgotten and the kilt is a badge of honor.
"It was a way to distinguish ourselves from the English."
For Gordon and Sylvia Ting and their 9-month-old daughter Caitlin, it is clear that cultural identity goes beyond birthplace and ancestry. It is a sense of belonging to, well, the clan.
And as for woodenheaded people who ask why her Chinese husband is wearing a kilt, she always replies, "He's from the Far East of Scotland."