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.”

Zeichner says he wasn't the only one to see the skateboard ramp activities as a positive element for the church and youths. He says it also created a bridge between generations. “Elders embraced those kids. It took them a while. They said they were noisy. But then they said, 'If we don't do this, who's going to do this?' ”

One such elder, Weeks, is well aware of the rift between Ogbonnaya and Anderson, and the shutting-out of the teens in Pine's youth program. “I'm a little unhappy with both groups — neither one wants to give in to anything,” Weeks says. “But I happen to be on the side of the teens. I have missed their involvement since they all pulled out.”

Farnum believes the pastor and church leaders should focus on what's at stake with the kids, and worry less about protecting church rules and adult egos. “There's always politics in church — that will never change,” he says, “but I question the motivation of the people who want to stop a program that has been really helpful.”

The youth were working on “becoming better human beings and now we want to stifle them,” Farnum says.

The church's treatment of its youth members may eventually blow back on the Venice United Methodist Church in a bigger way.

According to a 2010 Gallup Poll, while 53 percent of self-reporting churchgoers are 65 and older, only 35 percent are in the 18- to 29-year-old demographic.

“If we take the youth out of the church, the church is dead,” Farnum says. “As people age, who's coming behind them?”

The 18-year-old Alvarez strongly agrees. “There are millions of churches that are hurting because they want youth in church — I know this from experience, I've been to churches where there are no youth.”

United Methodist's rigidity has left Pine baffled. “Removing the youth, how could you do that? Don't churches want more youth? This generation — everyone's doing drugs. They don't know who they are yet.”

On Sunday, Dec. 12, Ogbonnaya sounded like a man who believes in understanding, telling his small congregation: “The fact that you messed up is not surprising to God. … I expect divine mercy from God. … God sees what I can become.”

But the young men and boys locked out by Ogbonnaya say the pastor has not treated them with such understanding.

“We can't go back now,” Alvarez says. They'll continue meeting and talking about their faith in the dark parking lot at night.

“Now we're outside the church walls,” Pine says, “praising Jesus, singing songs, reading the Bible. We don't really need the sanctuary. The church is the people. We're the true church.”

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*This version corrects the initial misstating of the time elapsed since the birth of Christ.

LA Weekly