By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It's a long way from Bethlehem, homie. More than two thousand years* after the birth of Jesus, and at least 7,500 miles away in Venice, Calif., you're more likely to find God in a museum than under a steeple.
Yet the faithful still exist in Venice.
Scott Pine is one. He is a smart, insightful 18-year-old decked out in emblems of his generation: baggy black shorts, a black-and-white-banded hoodie and Vans kicks. And he carries God with him.
Of the days before he joined the Venice United Methodist Church, he now says, "I believed the world revolved around me, which is pretty common for high schoolers." Today, he says, "The spirit of God that lives in your heart is greater than any obstacle in the world and is greater than I am in the world."
Pine was introduced to the church during seventh grade through friends who played sports at Mark Twain Middle School. First he joined the church youth group, then he became an active member of the congregation and even attended decision-making meetings with the adults.
But on Christmas, if Pine prays on church grounds at all, it's likely to be in the parking lot.
The church's new pastor, A. Okechukwu Ogbonnaya, who was appointed in June and moved here from the Chicago area, abruptly ended the youth group's active participation in Sunday morning services, which had included performing raps and poems to the full congregation about their spiritual journeys.
Then Ogbonnaya, a fiery preacher during his Sunday sermons, forbade the kids from conducting their own service in the sanctuary.
Finally, the pastor locked the youth group out of its nighttime meeting room in the church complex.
Pine says he and other members of the youth group are still gathering, praying and talking — in the darkened Venice church parking lot twice a week.
"To be locked out from a place that I love to go, it felt like getting kicked out of my own home," says Robert Alvarez, 18, who prays alongside Pine.
"It doesn't sound terribly Christian to me," says Bill Farnum, who used to play keyboards for the youth group ensemble's religiously themed raps and skits — a staple under the church's former pastor, the Rev. Thomas Ziegert.
Farnum isn't the only adult who's distressed.
A church attendee for 50 years, 85-year-old Bernard Weeks echoes the frustration of teens and young adults born decades after him. "They were useful, and they felt useful," Weeks says. "They contributed to the church. Along comes a new minister — and cuts them off from everything."
Ogbonnaya's supervisor, the United Methodist Church's Los Angeles district superintendent, the Rev. Dr. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth, says he sympathizes with the young church members, but he believes the dispute is really a mundane employer-employee disagreement: an argument over who is in charge of the kids' church activities, Ogbonnaya or the youth group's director, Aaron Anderson.
"I think it's great to have the youth involved in the church, but that doesn't mean they get to run amok, nor does the staff get to run amok," Bridgeforth says. "You still have employers that you have to report to. Is it the church's youth ministry, or a youth ministry that's functioning on its own?"
Anderson, Pine and others see it very differently.
"We wanted to work with him," Anderson says of the new pastor. "I offered to him, why don't we have a staff Bible study so we can understand where you're coming from. And he said, 'We're not going to do it like that.' "
Pine says the newly arrived pastor never directly reached out to the youth group after he arrived. Instead, kids who had been responsible participants were barred from adult-led church planning meetings.
Ogbonnaya did not respond to L.A. Weekly's messages seeking comment. And two church trustees, Patty Delli-Bovi and Toby Tittle, refused to discuss the halting of rap and poetry performances by the youths during Sunday services, or the shuttering of their youth-group meeting room.
Ogbonnaya also has clashed with a second youthful constituency: the users of the popular skate ramp installed in the church parking lot under Ogbonnaya's predecessor, Ziegert, which has become an iconic neighborhood landmark.
Ziegert saw the skate ramp as a way to draw in the at-risk kids — not to convert them but to provide a sanctuary from gangs or other troubles, which he saw as ministering to them. The popular Ziegert thought all people who entered the church grounds should be respected, even if they were not pursuing a traditional religious track.
But Heidi Lemmon, head of SkatePark Association USA, which owns the ramp and is a tenant in the church's community building, says Ogbonnaya sees the skateboarders as a detriment — and is demanding that Lemmon remove the ramp.
While Bridgeforth, Ogbonnaya's boss, talks of youth running amok at the church site, other experts on youth disagree. Jonathan Zeichner, the former executive director of Inside Out, which helps troubled youths, says the skate ramp gatherings prompted constructive activities.
"Once the kids were there, they could get involved in any number of [positive] things. I don't think that it always worked perfectly, but it had value," he says. "There were kids who came and hung out there, who I saw out on the streets getting into trouble when they weren't on the skateboard ramp."
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