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Wholly L.A. 

Desegregating our diverse houses of worship

Wednesday, May 5 1999
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Art by Loretta Weeks

“The millennium is a state and stage of mental advancement going on since ever time was. Its impetus, accelerated by the advent of Christian Science, is marked, and will increase till all men shall know Him (divine Love) from the least to the greatest, and one God and the brotherhood of man shall be known and acknowledged throughout the Earth.” —Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), Proseworks by Mary Baker Eddy

It’s been 93 years since the Azusa Street Revival took place downtown. L.A.’s population was 228,298, and the "fanatical rites" and "weird babel of tongues" (as the L.A. Times labeled them) of this new sect generated gossip, taunts and even fear in some quarters. Years later the city played host to the petite, honey-tongued evangelist "Sister" Aimee Semple McPherson, who opened a spacious temple on Glendale Boulevard (still standing), preached to thousands here and on the radio, and kept reporters happy with a juicy scandal or two. Saints, charlatans, sects, creeds, you name it — they’ve all graced the City of Angels with their presence at one time or another.

Today, in the waning days of a century of both unimaginable horror and exalting accomplishments, L.A.’s spiritual universe is undeniably robust, with some 600 communities of faith in the city. The once "ideal Christian community" now includes mosques, temples of every conceivable variety, monasteries, synagogues, ashrams, meditation centers, New Age establishments, community worship centers, etc., giving us the distinction of being one of the world’s most religiously diverse metropolitan regions.

"Pluralism is ingrained in the history and character of this city," says Philip Goff, professor of history and religious studies at Cal State L.A. "Everyone likes to think of L.A. as the city of the future, and this holds especially true when it comes to its religious framework."

The paradox inherent in this multiform religious landscape is that while it reflects our virtues as a nation, it also brings the fault lines of social existence into sharp relief. Some argue that the Sabbath day in L.A. is largely a segregated affair, echoing what Martin Luther King Jr. said 30 years ago: that houses of worship are among the most segregated institutions in America. The difference today is that the issue isn’t framed solely in terms of black and white, but involves a range of complexities and complexions.

A study titled Los Angeles Religion: A Civic Profile, published last year by USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, reports that "with relatively few exceptions, ethnic, racial and socioeconomic identities determine the congregational affiliations of the city’s residents. At the present time, Los Angeles’ ethnic/ racial communities prefer religious institutions that minister to their own unique needs and that speak with ethnic/racial voices in the city’s political forums and in the media."

In essence, the picture is one of a religious community that is clearly fragmented, according to Michael Mata, assistant professor of urban ministries at the Claremont School of Theology, who also heads the Urban Leadership Institute. Churches function basically as social institutions. People attend, not only to pray, but to bond and forge relationships. For many, such as the elderly, immigrants and families, being part of a church community is a significant portion of their social sphere; for others, it is the social sphere, providing the only chance for human interaction. Our city’s abundant religious mosaic provides a fertile opportunity for substantive cultural and religious exchange, but is it instead a source of conflict and divisiveness?

"There is still a great deal of ethnic separation among churches and congregations," says Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. "But I would hesitate to say that it’s driven by racial animus. Much of it is the result of demographics. You just aren’t going to see much diversity in areas that are racially homogenous. But by and large, I’ve seen that a number of established churches in town have made outstanding efforts to be more inclusive."

This is a defensible assessment, notwithstanding its simplicity. In low-to-middle-income areas like Pico-Union and Boyle Heights, with dense Latino populations, there will be little diversity in any of the churches, and in all likelihood, services will be conducted in Spanish. The same would apply to churches in areas where African-Americans or Anglos predominate, but even here there are some eye-opening exceptions. The Church of the Harvest â Foursquare is in an area heavily populated by African-Americans, but pass by the church on Adams Boulevard after Sunday services and you’ll see a surprising number of whites and Latinos in the congregation.

Immigration has changed the color and shape of our religious map. L.A.’s sizable Latino presence has secured Catholicism’s place as the city’s predominant religion. It will remain so well into the next century. According to statistics cited in the USC study, there are approximately 4 million Catholics in L.A. County, and of these 70 percent are Latinos, primarily immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Pentecostalism is also surging in the Latino communities; hundreds of small storefront churches dot our central-city landscape, a byproduct of missionaries who went south at the turn of the century. Islam, too, is experiencing dynamic growth; SoCal now has the third largest group of Muslims in the country.

Many churches have successfully accommodated the changing face of their congregations, and in the process, expanded their ministries and established ties with other ethnic groups. For the past five years, Crenshaw Christian Center, whose 18,000-member congregation is composed almost entirely of African-Americans, has provided translation and headphones for its small but growing Latino membership during services, and also sponsors an active Latino ministry.

At First Baptist, which is in an area that is primarily Latino and Korean, Anglos constitute a hefty 44 percent of the membership, with blacks, Latinos and Asians making up the remainder. Services are held with the aid of an unusual system of simultaneous transmission. So far it’s worked well, according to associate pastor Kenneth Kho, "except," he adds with a chuckle, "when the translators pull a no-show."

The case of Immanuel Presbyterian, an enormous cathedral located in the heart of Koreatown, is similar to many inner-city churches, both large and small, in this era of changing demographics. Facilities and expenses are shared among Korean, Ethiopian and Latino congregations, who often hold services at the same time in different parts of the building. "There is a healthy tension that is caused by so many different kinds of people being around," says administrator Rod Sprott, "but the arrangement has been beneficial for everybody."

The ’92 uprising galvanized L.A.’s religious community to seek answers and to establish dialogue with other ethnic and religious groups. It was in this climate of introspection and reconciliation that the InterFaith Coalition To Heal L.A. was founded by Rabbi Harvey Fields. "We did some very successful work in the area of improving relations," he says, pointing out that the group disbanded because there were other qualified organizations, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California, that were working in the same arena. Today there is much more interaction at the grassroots level among and between different religious groups, but, he says, there’s still work to be done. The need now is for a permanently funded entity, particularly in today’s complex environment.

"Worship isn’t about race," muses Reverend Michael Beckwith, founding pastor of the Agape Center for Truth, which boasts a mixed congregation of 5,000, "it’s all about what’s in your heart." Amen.

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