Sermon on the Track

Written by Niki D'Andrea Category: History Issue: March 2015
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A Phoenix church has conducted Easter sunrise services at Turf Paradise horse racetrack for the past 53 years.

On Easter morning in Phoenix, Jesus is off to the races, where his biblical resurrection is celebrated every year at a sunrise service at the Turf Paradise horse racetrack.

People familiar with the Bible might get a mental image of an angry Jesus overturning tables of money in the temple courts from the book of Matthew, but the intersection of god and gambling has been a peaceful one since the sunrise services started at the track 53 years ago. “The sunrise service is a celebration, and the racetrack – even though we are a business that makes our money by gambling – we celebrate that,” Turf Paradise general manager Vincent Francia says. “It's good for us.”

The services are conducted by The Lutheran Church of the Master, which was founded in 1962 and held its first Easter sunrise service at Turf Paradise that same year. Nobody remembers who exactly initially suggested having the service at the track. “I read somewhere that [the sunrise service] was a noble thought on my part, because so many came to our church that we decided to find a place where we could have more, but that's not really so,” says John Kuntz, who was pastor of the church at the time. “Somebody working at the track – I'm going to assume it was a Christian person who had a concern for the church – called our church and said there was a possibility that such a thing could happen at Turf Paradise racetrack, and so we called the racetrack and asked if that was so, and they said yes. So then we followed through with it.”

Turf Paradise opened in 1956 at 19th Avenue and Bell Road, and at the time, the 1,400 acres it sat on were in the middle of nowhere. “The only thing out here... was Turf Paradise. That was it. Everything else was desert. Bell Road was a dirt road. There wasn't anything on Bell Road,” Francia says. “It's hard to imagine, because we all grew up in a busy metropolis... but at the time, it was just the racetrack.”

Charter members of the church describe the first Easter sunrise service at Turf Paradise like an adventure of a traveling theater troupe. They borrowed a semi-truck flatbed to serve as their stage, and drove it onto the track, parking it front-and-center of the grandstand. A tall white cross – constructed from lumber, framed with chicken wire, and covered in white tissue – was fastened to the back of the flatbed. “We rented an organ and put it on the raised portion of the flatbed, and then we had a little podium for the speaker, and we also had room on that flatbed for the choir, and we used the track's sound system,” Kuntz recalls. “This was the most fun for us, because we got to control everything from the booth upstairs, just like we were announcing something.”

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 Despite the unconventional setting – or maybe because of it – the Easter sunrise services at Turf Paradise quickly grew in attendance. Kuntz estimates the first service drew a couple hundred people; services in recent years easily bring a thousand. “I've been to a couple of the services, just to make sure they went OK, but I was very touched. At one I was at, there were like 1,500 people. It draws a crowd,” Francia says. “People come to this from different Christian denominations. They're not all Lutheran. It's a very well-attended service.”  

And on a non-race day like Easter, the track provides a bucolic backdrop for preaching, praise and pageantry. “You're on the outside balcony of Turf Paradise, and it has this wonderful view of not only the race course and the three lakes, but the surrounding mountains. So you have a sunrise service in this very idyllic kind of setting,” Francia says.

Francia says the track is closed for training on Easter Sundays, and trainers are asked not to bring horses onto the track until the conclusion of the sunrise service at 7 a.m. That's been largely observed for the past several years, but in the early years of the service, there was the occasional equestrian outlier. “Normally, the riders would warm up their horses by riding them around the track in the morning, but they didn't do it on Easter Sunday morning, except for one guy – in the middle of the service, forgetting about things – all of a sudden rode around the track in the middle of the service,” Kuntz recalls. “I don't know if it was a surprise to him or not, but it was just sort of comic relief for him to do that.”

But it's not just horses making animal cameos at the Easter service. Because the grounds of Turf Paradise include three lakes, “Anything that can fly can be a part of our worship service, whether we want it or not,” says Lutheran Church of the Master member John Draftz. “There are some water fowl that take advantage of the lakes out in back and the center of the track, so you'll see ducks landing and taking off, occasionally geese landing and taking off.”

Don Pine was a charter member of the church who sang in the choir with his wife. He recalls one year, church members found their service interrupted by a boisterous mallard courtship. “During a sermon one Easter Sunday... they had two mallards, a male and a female, and the male was chasing the female, just squawking and squawking and flying around that little pond out there. Right in the middle of the sermon,” Pine says. “People were kind of giggling about that. I think that proves God has a sense of humor.”

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 As the Easter sunrise services grew, so did Turf Paradise. Following renovations and expansions in 1980, 2000 and 2003, the property now includes a state-of-the-art equine pool, bars and restaurants, a family picnic area, its own Turf Paradise Marketplace with a Super Wal-Mart and a Sam's Club, and even a chapel. Running from October to May, the race season at Turf Paradise is one of the longest in the country, and during the season, Francia says, the track is home to around 2,500 riders, trainers, groomers and other workers. “We're this community that goes on for seven and a half months,” he says, adding that hosting an Easter service and having a chapel on the grounds year-round “to tend to the spiritual needs of the racetrack” isn't unusual.
“Every day before the races, the chaplain goes into the jockeys' room, and the jockeys assemble, and he gives a talk. He'll go to the Bible and take a passage out of the Bible and talk about that, and then a prayer will be said for the safety of the riders that day,” Francia says. “It's hard to imagine a spiritual element to a gambling institution, I know, and I don't want to overstate it – but I don't want to understate it, either. So something like the sunrise service really fits into our spiritual [aspect]... as a community within a larger community, this sunrise service is important to us.”

Francia says the majority of racetrack employees attend the annual sunrise service, and the tradition “will continue as long as the Church of the Master wants to continue it.”

That looks to be a long time. Though Lutheran Church of the Master has occupied the same church at 23rd Avenue and Cactus Road since its inception (where they hold a standard Easter service following the sunrise service), the congregation today consists of only about 60 people. But the sunrise service at Turf Paradise continues to draw 10 times that audience.

“To paraphrase the movie [Field of Dreams], ‘If you build it, they will come.’ The fact that people show up says there is a need,” Draftz says. “People want to hear the good news of the Easter story – the death and the resurrection – and as long as there are people to hear the story, we’re more than happy to tell it.”