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Church Gathers to Mourn Its Loss

Late music director Johnnie Carl's talent, dedication, friendship are remembered at Sunday services at the Crystal Cathedral.

December 20, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, somber during services at the Crystal Cathedral on Sunday, told those gathered that he believed a "cancer of the emotional system" had caused the death of his longtime music director.

It was the church founder's first appearance before the cathedral's congregation since Johnnie Carl, 57, an acclaimed composer who had struggled with mental illness, barricaded himself in his basement office and shot himself early Friday.

"I don't think Johnnie Carl was killed by suicide but by a cancer," Schuller said, noting that the man whom Schuller's wife had hired 30 years ago "fought it bravely for a long time."

Dabbing his tears, Schuller paused to gather himself as he spoke to nearly 3,000 congregants at the 9:30 a.m. service in Garden Grove.

On Sunday, Schuller's wife, Arvella, and their son, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, also talked of Carl's friendship, dedication and musical talents.

Arvella Schuller, in one of the few times she has addressed church members from the podium, called him "our gift from God."

He had a "special connection to God," she said, but he also had been troubled by a bipolar disorder that gave him "tremendous highs and tremendous lows."

The Schullers' son spoke to the congregation about his mixed emotions: "I'm supposed to say 'Merry Christmas,' but it doesn't feel right. It's very difficult for us to stand up here and give a message of hope."

He remarked that Carl's work was evident Sunday.

Carl had arranged three of the songs performed by the cathedral's orchestra and choir. In addition, Carl had arranged an "Away in the Manger" sung by entertainer Ann-Margret.

Carl was among the most prominent arrangers and composers of sacred music. A recent CD with pianist Roger Williams had platinum-level sales, and Carl received a gold record as an arranger-orchestrator on John Tesh's "Live at Red Rocks."

His contributions will be "remembered and appreciated for years," the younger Schuller said to thunderous applause.

The cathedral's 40-acre campus on Chapman Avenue off the Garden Grove Freeway attracts about 8,000 worshipers each weekend. In addition, more than 1 million worldwide watch the services on Schuller's "Hour of Power" television show.

That exposure annually brings half a million visitors to the church, a towering building made of steel and more than 10,000 panes of glass.

Schuller started his Southern California ministry in 1955 at the Orange Drive-In theater. Over the years, he developed it into one of the nation's first mega-churches with upbeat messages that connected the power of positive thinking with Christianity.

Schuller's approach was evident during last week's crisis when police -- with help from him and Carl's wife -- tried to talk Carl into surrendering. While assisting police negotiators, Schuller told The Times that the situation "is under control" and that "no one is in danger."

The nine-hour standoff with police began Thursday night after Carl fired shots inside the cathedral as preparations for the evening's Christmas pageant were taking place.

After the Sunday services, some parishioners praised the Schullers for keeping to their philosophy and offering spiritual guidance during what has been a difficult time.

"The congregation was expecting them to verbalize their emotions, and they did," said Stan Walsh of Rancho Palos Verdes. "I like coming here because after an hour or so, I always feel upbeat."

For Mike Mueller and his wife, Bea, of Dana Point, who have two sons in the military, the service was "very emotional."

"With one son in Iraq, today's sermon had special meaning of hope for us," he said. "We enjoyed what they said, especially the candor of it."

But others said they wanted Schuller to directly address the suicide.

"We respect and admire [Schuller]," said Karen Leko, who was visiting from Indianapolis. "But we hate the sin of suicide. We wanted to hear something more biblically based."

Leko's concern was prompted in part, she said, because she has had to explain Carl's death to her 13-year-old daughter, Jessica.

"Where does she reference her decisions?" Leko said.

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