GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK — Religion may be one of the last things on the minds of the 5 million visitors here annually, but church services representing five different faiths are readily available in the Grand Canyon Village year-round — if you know where to look.
Services for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, El Cristo Rey Catholic Church, Grand Canyon Community Church, Grand Canyon Baptist Church and the Grand Canyon Assembly of God all are held at the Shrine of the Ages multipurpose building.
As one of nature's jaw-dropping wonders, the Grand Canyon may help some foster a belief in God, but the National Park Service is careful not to promote or endorse any particular religion.
"Religious services are offered in the park and surrounding community," the National Park Service's official Grand Canyon guide states. "However, the National Park Service does not endorse any group or message."
Located at parking lot "A" between park headquarters and the village cemetery, along the westbound village route in the Grand Canyon Village, the Shrine is a rock-faced building. Otherwise, it is so plain that it is not likely to be noticed by most visitors. In fact, it is probably better-known as the location for Grand Canyon music festivals than for religious services.
The idea of an interfaith chapel at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was discussed as early as 1917 by the U.S. Forest Service. The idea resurfaced in 1936 as a suggested project for the Civilian Conservation Crops, but still nothing happened.
A Shrine of the Ages Chapel Corp. began in 1952, with the hope of having an interfaith chapel right on the edge of the South Rim, with a window behind the pulpit letting churchgoers gaze out over the immense canyon view.
According to an Internet Grand Canyon history by Mark Neumann, "On the Rim: Looking for the Grand Canyon," a special hydraulic lift in the church was planned to raise three different church altars up to sanctuary level, when needed. There were to be retractable Jewish, Catholic and Protestant altars available.
However, the Sierra Club questioned a church at the Grand Canyon. It feared the building's circular design made it look too much like a spaceship, and that the building on the rim might become a tourist attraction of its own, a distraction for the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon.
Even though the Park Service and Congress favored the shrine on the rim, it was never built.
Instead, various churches combined and, with the help of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, built the current Shrine of the Ages facility in the late 1960s. However, the churches were unable to develop financial support to keep the building going, so the National Park Service took it over and let the churches rent space while also using the facility for other meetings and concerts.
The LDS Church has a 1 to 4 p.m. time for meetings at the Shrine of the Ages, with sacrament meeting first as part of the Grand Canyon Branch.
The other four faiths have Sunday morning meetings and evening services at the Shrine. Catholics also have a 5:30 p.m. Mass. The Grand Canyon Community Church has Bible study on Tuesday evenings at 7:30 p.m., and the Grand Canyon Baptist Church has its Bible study at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays.
There is a permanent population of almost 2,000 people living in the Grand Canyon Village, and that's the backbone for most of these churches.
Alan Keil, president for the Grand Canyon Branch of the LDS Church, said the branch recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It has 65 membership records and averages attendance of about 25 people each Sunday. Keil said one recent summer meeting had 98 in attendance.
The Shrine has a large meeting room that seats about 250 people and a smaller one that seats about 75.
Keil admits five different faiths meeting in the same building does create strict limitations on meetings. However, he said, the local Protestants love to have their meetings in the mornings, so the branch's early afternoon block works well.
Regarding whether the grandeur of the Grand Canyon can foster a belief in a divine creator, Keil said, "I do have an appreciation for God's handiwork, because I do live at the Grand Canyon." However, he said, if he lived in a big city, his appreciation probably wouldn't be a significant factor in his life.
The nearby town of Tusayan also has a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. In addition, there is a Christian Ministry in the National Parks group (www.acmnp.com) active at the South Rim (and many other national parks).
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon has far fewer religious services than the South Rim. There's a seasonal Catholic Mass at the Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim, on Saturday evenings. The Christian Ministry in the National Parks also sponsors an interdenominational service there.