Nothing's Sacred in a Cellular World


In a cemetery outside of Tel Aviv, Rabbi David Eliezrie chanted the traditional prayer that begins a reinterment service.

"Oh, God, full of compassion . . . ," he sang out in Hebrew in a service that was the final wish of an Orange County couple who wanted to be buried together in the Holy Land.

Just then: brrrrrrrriiinnnngg. A cell phone.

An Israeli, who with one hand clutched a corner of the cot that held the dead man, reached into his pocket, withdrew his cell phone, flipped it open and launched into conversation.

"I was astonished," the Yorba Linda rabbi said. "I gave him a hard glance that said, 'If you don't get off the phone, I'm digging a third grave to bury you in.' He terminated the call."

If you find them annoying at restaurants and in movie theaters, imagine the irritation of a ringing cell phone inside a sanctuary during a moment of prayer, a wedding or a funeral.

"That has to be the ultimate no-no: dissing God," said Jodi R.R. Smith, owner of Boston-based Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "You shouldn't be bringing a phone into a religious sanctuary anyway."

Religious leaders throughout Southern California are battling the reverence-shattering problem of their congregants' "cell-vation." Their major weapons: signs outside the sanctuary, pre-service announcements, gentle humor and plenty of grace.

Sometimes, the problem starts with the clergy themselves.

During one of the Rev. Mark Whitlock's sermons, another preacher's phone rang.

"I quickly responded by saying, 'If that is Jesus, tell him that his Father is on the mainline!' " said Whitlock, the pastor of Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal in Irvine. "The congregation immediately stood up and praised the Lord! Cell phones and pagers are standard gear. The 21st century church must work with technology, not against it."

At a picturesque church near Victorville in June, the bride and groom were standing before the Catholic priest when his cell phone went off.

"At first, I thought maybe it was some kind of joke," said Mary Lou Fulton of Long Beach, whose cousin was getting married. "You know, the pope's on the phone. The priest opened it up, started mumbling a bit and put it back into his robe."

The phone rang three more times during the ceremony.

"I felt so bad," she said. "He looked like he didn't know how to use the cell phone. It was quite a culture clash--the ancient rites of marriage and someone fumbling with a cell phone."

Even at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, professors quickly have to impress upon pastors-to-be the value of silence.

"We are told that phones going off in class can result in grade reductions," student Ric Olsen said.

This isn't just an only-in-California trend. At historic Westminster Abbey in London, an announcement is made before each service to silence wireless phones.

And perhaps the most famous breach of cell phone-church etiquette happened at the Vatican in May when 155 Roman Catholic cardinals bowed in prayer during a rare meeting called by Pope John Paul II. A cell phone went off and kept ringing until one very embarrassed cardinal--his face undoubtedly matching his scarlet cap--reached into his black cassock and silenced the phone.

When Hussam Ayloush leads Friday prayer services at mosques in Southern California, he follows the introductory prayer with a plea to make sure phones are turned off. During the Islamic service, no one but the khateeb, the man who gives the sermon, is allowed to talk.

"Because of that, a cell phone becomes even more offensive," said Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Southern California. "I changed my phone to one that vibrates just for that reason, in case I forget to turn it off."

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, an announcement also is made before services, especially during the High Holy Days that draw newcomers to the synagogue. Leaders of other faiths also report increases in ringing cell phones during special services, whether they are holidays, weddings or funerals.

"The cell phone is a great convenience to modern man, woman and child," said Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel. "But there's a big downside. We're in a holy place, and [a ringing phone is] not conducive to Shabbat."

Rosove, like most of his peers, simply ignores the ringing, saying there's little he can do.

"The person's profoundly embarrassed already," he said.

"It's always rather amusing to witness eight to ten people reach for their waist or their handbags when that familiar 'beep-beep-beep' chimes out," said Graylon A. Freeman, evangelist of the Church of Christ in Cypress. "The same question that the apostles asked the Lord on the night of his betrayal can be heard echoing throughout the sanctuary: 'Lord, is it I?' "

Pastor Doug Webster of Mountain View Church in Mission Viejo warns his congregation that the next time a cell phone rings, he's going to answer it by saying, "Hello, this is Pastor Doug. I'm here in church. Where are you?"

He also has learned to harness cellular technology for the forces of good. He used a mobile phone during a service last spring to get an update on the birth of his worship leader's son.

"The congregation could hear him clearly as he shared with us the vital signs of his son's birth," Webster said. "The birth was literally only minutes prior. Just then baby, Noah, cried much to the delight of the entire congregation. Sighs and tears filled the crowd. An illustration of new birth will never be as vivid as that Sunday."

The Sprint PCS wireless phone company has retained the services of Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, to help create rules for cell-phone etiquette. To avoid being "extremely rude" inside a sanctuary, Whitmore says people who absolutely need to carry phones should have them on vibrate mode and sit near the back for an unnoticed exit.

"What people have to do is become more savvy with technology and use it with consideration," Whitmore said. "It's just a matter of education."

For Rabbi Mark Miller, the occasional ringing of a cell phone is music to his ears compared to the flushing of toilets that could be heard throughout the sanctuary at Temple Bat Yahm's previous building.

"At the most dramatic moment, as I concluded my sermon, my biblical allusions would be accompanied by the flush of water," the Newport Beach rabbi said. "My favorite sermon ending became a verse from the Prophet Amos: 'Let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream!' "

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