#TBT South LA: Church mothers, circa 1960

"Church Mothers" stand outside the First AME Church in South LA, circa 1960. | USC Digital Library

“Church Mothers” stand outside the First AME Church in South LA, circa 1960. | USC Digital Library

For many generations, churches have been integral to the character of South Los Angeles. The First African Methodist Episcopal stands as an example.

Dressed in “Sunday best” attire, the 16 women are pictured standing in front of the First AME, or simply “FAME.” The photograph is from the 1960s.

Founded in 1872, FAME is the city’s oldest African-American church. Before the 1970s, the church had a population of 250 congregants. It now boasts a congregation of about 19,000 members and is considered a mega-church with task forces for health, substance abuse and homelessness issues. [Read more…]

OPINION: Atheists support South LA pastor facing “tribunal” for LGBT advocacy

This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches

Pastor Seth Pickens | Aaron Lee Dowell

Pastor Seth Pickens | Aaron Lee Dowell

On Sunday morning I went to a church service for the first time in decades.  

I was there as a community member to support Pastor Seth Pickens of Zion Hill Baptist Church in South Los Angeles. A few days before, I’d received an urgent plea from Teka-Lark Fleming, publisher of the local Morningside Park Chronicle newspaper, encouraging progressive Black folk to show up at Zion Hill in support of Seth’s pro-LGBTQ stance.

After publishing a column entitled “The 10 Reasons I Love LGBTQ folk” in Fleming’s paper, Pickens came under fire from church officials. The controversy erupted on the heels of internal criticism he’d received for performing a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple last year.

See previously from Intersections’ Reporter Corps series: Growing up queer in Watts: What happens when school is still not a safe place [Read more…]

Jason White’s heart of music at West Angeles Church


Los Angeles native Jason White is the minister of music at West Angeles Church of God in Christ in the Crenshaw District, one of the biggest churches in L.A. He began playing the piano by ear at the age of five and hasn’t stopped since. Not only is he a minister, but also White is the music coordinator for shows such as American Idol and X Factor.

White believes that the art of music comes from a heart of worship and commitment to his talent. He says its a gift that God destined him to live out.

Listen to White’s commentary — and his music — in an audio story from Annenberg Radio News:



Some South LA churches support DOMA, Prop 8 rulings

A member of L.A.’s premier Black gay men’s wellness organization “In the Meantime” poses at the X-Homophobia campaign for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in February 2013.


[Read more…]

South L.A. church opens doors to gay community

Reverends Russell Thornhill and Leslie Butke cut the ribbon officially opening the doors of the new home of the Unity Fellowship Church of Christ in South L.A.

Reverends Russell Thornhill and Leslie Butke cut the ribbon officially opening the doors of the new home of the Unity Fellowship Church of Christ in South L.A.

On Sunday, June 2, 2013 Reverends Russell Thornhill and Leslie Butke cut the ribbon officially opening the doors of the new home of the Unity Fellowship Church of Christ (UFC) in South Los Angeles.

The church was founded in 1982 by Archbishop Carl Bean during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  The UFC Movement through the years has grown into a national ministry with the distinction of being known as a spiritual home for the Black same-gender loving and transgender community.

While all are welcome, the UFC has made a point of being the Black church where Black gays can find solace and worship as all of who they are regardless of what they look like or who they love.

Services will be held every Sunday at 11 a.m. at Unity Fellowship mapat 9608 South Figueroa Street in the Vermont Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Visit unityfellowshipchurch.org or call (323) 938-8322.

Black churches in South L.A. facing a Latino demographic shift

black churches

The weekly meeting of The Ladies of the African American Cultural Awareness Ministry of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. Clockwise from left: Monica Lewis, Eva Gallegos, Cathy Brown, Dolores Ricks and April Stone.

“En el nombre del padre del hijo y del espiritu santo,” echoes the congregation gathered at the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. In unison, they touch their foreheads, chest and arms in the sign of the cross.

Banda music celebrating Jesus’ ascension into heaven soon fills the large 90-year-old sanctuary adorned with a stained glass window and statues of Black saints.

The music begins to fade upon entering a meeting room next to the main church, located at West 31st Street and Jefferson Boulevard. Inside, members of the African-American Cultural Awareness Ministry begin their weekly meeting.

“We want to help maintain an African-American Catholic identity, not to be divisive, but to worship in a style we’re accustomed to. — in gospel, music and liturgy and bring them to the table,” said Dolores Ricks, a devoted parishioner of 15 years.

“There are two churches in one parish,” said Ricks. “We can’t fight the cultural barrier.”

Within the last decade, the once predominately Black area of South Los Angeles is now two-thirds Hispanic, according to a report by USC, prepared for the Community Coalition. [Read more…]

More African-Americans leaving religious faiths

Black Skeptics of Los Angeles

Members of the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles

African-Americans are significantly more religious compared to the rest of the U.S. population, but a growing community of black atheists, like the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, are steadily increasing each year.

The American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 found that from 1990 to 2008 the number of blacks without any religious affiliation nearly doubled from 6 to 11 percent. Among Americans, that number also jumped to 15 percent from 8 percent in 1990.

“There have always been African-American free thinkers, humanists, agnostics and atheists who have really foregrounded the connection between eschewing religion and the liberation struggle, particularly as it pertains to women and the LGBT community,” said Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles.

Hutchinson is part of a national advertising campaign that was launched this year by the African-Americans for Humanism. Her photo was featured next to writer Zora Neale Hurston on a roadside billboard in Los Angeles with the phrase, “Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.”

“If you have an ethos that says black women should be self-sacrificing, should not question male authority and patriarchy…those kinds of things need to be questioned. In my mind, it does emanate from this biblical context,” said Hutchinson.

Nicome Taylor, member of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, joined the group in September and has seen its membership grow.

Taylor said she recently started a Meet Up group in January from the website meetup.com, and it has now blossomed into 30 members.

“I just feel good about meeting other people that thought like me. I mean kind of going through the whole process makes you feel a little crazy, a little bad after being indoctrinated with [religion] for a while,” said Taylor, who was raised in the church and believed God.

The Inglewood native said she always questioned her faith. It was after she came into contact with people who challenged her beliefs that she started on a quest for more knowledge.

“I had no idea, previously, who wrote the Bible. Even attending bible studies in church, they don’t teach you from a very objective standpoint,” said Taylor.

Through her research, she began to see falsities in the Bible and disagreed with passages on slavery and genocide.

“Without pointing the finger, [the church] is doing it indirectly by saying everyone else is wrong, and Jesus is the only way. There’s other people in the world that are brought up with their belief system as well so what makes us more right than them,” said Taylor.

Before coming out openly about her disbelief, Taylor discussed it with her family and friends. Growing up in a religious family, she said it was difficult for her family to accept the news. Some relatives even stopped talking to her.

“Leaving the faith can be difficult for anybody,” said Taylor. “In the black community, a lot of them don’t want to do that…it’s devastating for some people because it’s all they know,” said Taylor.

Life is a little bit easier for her now because she said her way of thinking has been freed. Yet, Taylor said she still faces challenges because atheists tend to be demonized within the church and among religious groups.

This can be attributed to the overwhelming number of blacks who claim to be religious.

According to figures from the Pew Research Center’s Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African-Americans belong to a religious group, and nearly eight in ten or 79 percent of African-Americans say religion is very important to them compared with 56 percent of adults in the United States.

Out of those figures, 59 percent of African-Americans attend historically black churches like the National Baptist Convention and the American Methodist Episcopal Church.

Pew’s research also found that historically black Protestant groups were among the most religiously observant based on several factors such as frequency of prayers and church attendance.

Jimmy Thompson said his first experience at church was as a child on Easter Sunday. He said he was in church for seven hours and after that day he never went back to church.

“I don’t talk about [religion] with people because I know people hold their beliefs very true to their heart, and it could turn into a vicious conversation because you challenge their belief,” said Thompson.

See a video of this story:

He said religion was never discussed in his family and the only time they went to church was on holidays like Easter and Christmas.

For Daniel Myatt, a self-proclaimed skeptic who revealed he is one sermon away from being a minister had a very different upbringing.

“To say I embraced religion or the faith would be an understatement. It was just a part of me from my existence as far back as I remember,” said Myatt.

Myatt said he was raised in Chicago in a neighborhood where every corner had a Baptist church. His sisters are missionaries and their husbands are ministers.

Growing up, Myatt said his family would pray every Wednesday and teach them regular bible studies and lessons.

“I remember saying in my Sunday School class that I wanted to be a scientist so I can really prove God,” said Myatt.

He remembers that one of the first things he did after moving to California was watch Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a film that his minister banned the congregation from watching. After the film, he worried God would carry out retribution on him.

“If I drive back to my city and my car stops my first thought would be God is punishing me for something I did wrong,” said Myatt.

Yet, living in California made him think in a different way. He said it was the first time he saw black people who did not go to church, which was unheard of in Chicago.

“My parents used to say Sunday morning you have to be in church, anybody’s church,” said Myatt.

He began to ask questions like why God’s word must be filtered through a pastor who is just a man, and why his marriage had to first be approved by a pastor who was divorced several times.

According to Myatt, it has been difficult for him to depart from his religious background and become comfortable with being a skeptic. The rest of his family knows he does not go to church or believe in God, but his father still does not know.

“It’s a revolutionary act to say I’m not going to church or I’m not a believer. I think a lot of people play the game and stay in it…because it’s socially safer to do so…culturally it’s expected,” said Myatt.

Religion and black churches play a pivotal role in the black community. Their prominence has become so well-known that it is even a frequent conversation piece in films like those by Tyler Perry. Even the preaching style of black pastors is caricatured in popular culture.

Javon Johnson, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Southern California’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, pointed out that the black church has played a historically vital role.

“On the one hand Christianity was certainly used to justify slavery, but on the other hand Christianity was also used to sort of move away…from slavery. It’s a double edge sword…but I also think it allowed political access that was denied by legitimate means,” said Johnson.

He attributes the possible growth of black skeptics to a changing political landscape. The way blacks were fighting for equality 100 years ago is drastically different than now, and it may also have something to do with the ebb and flow of history.

“Leaving the black church could be seen as deviant by many, but I think history has shown us that…what constitutes deviant changes over time depends on the cultural milieu at the particular moment,” said Johnson. “If history is indicating that it’s more and more OK for folks to speak out against the church, even in this god fearing country it’s safe to say that, it might become more pronounced over time.”

Pastor Seth Pickens of Zion Hill Baptist Church said he has noticed people moving away from the church but has seen more individuals claim that they are spiritual instead of religious.

“They’re very turned off by the church. Some of the politics and some of the scandals and everything that happens in the church, it turns people off,” said Pickens.

He said it should be a concern for pastors because it tells them what they are doing wrong. In order to remedy the situation, Pickens proposes that the core teachings of Christ, like love and self-control, should be taught.

In the three years he has been a pastor at Zion Hill, the congregation has grown from 87 members to over a couple hundred. He said the favorite part of his job is making the Bible more understandable to his congregation.

In February, Pickens and members of the Black Skeptics group held a roundtable at the church to discuss African-American humanism.

According to Pickens, many Christians are unwilling to engage with atheists in a civil way and have a dialogue, but the event revealed that many of them actually share one belief and that was building up the community.

“Whether you believe in God, whether you confess Christ or not if you see someone hungry you should feed them and many of the black atheists feel the same way. So, I don’t see why we can’t work together,” said Pickens.

Church-goers and skeptics meet for ‘interfaith’ dialogue

imageCongregants of Zion Hill Baptist Church in South Los Angeles probably thought Pastor Seth Pickens was certifiable when he proposed a community dialogue with the L.A. Black Skeptics Group. Founded in March of last year, the group provides a safe real time space for atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and skeptics of African descent. As the group’s organizer, I had been in conversation with Seth about a forum for several months after interviewing him for my new book Moral Combat. A thirty-something, literary Morehouse College graduate from the East Coast, he was open to the idea of an “interfaith” dialogue from the beginning. As the pastor of Zion Hill since 2009, he seemed deeply concerned about the ongoing national critique of the Black Church’s waning influence (see, for example, Princeton religion professor Eddie Glaude’s widely circulated Huffington Post piece “The Black Church is Dead.”).

The Zion Hill church building itself is a sprawling beacon of provincial beauty. About forty participants of all ages and beliefs gathered in one of the churches’ smaller sanctuaries to hear the panel. In my opening comments I framed black secular humanist traditions within the prism of black liberation struggle and cultural politics. Far from being marginal to black social thought and activism, secular humanism and social justice were deeply intertwined in the work of leading black thinkers like A. Philip Randolph, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston.

imageHowever, analysis of 21st century black religiosity should be situated within the context of deepening social, political, and economic crisis. Faced with double digit unemployment and skyrocketing rates of homelessness, the American dream is even more of a brutal sham for African Americans. In the wake of Obama’s election it is no accident that reactionary forces seek to dismantle what little remains of the American social welfare safety net. Indeed, the decades’ long Religious Right backlash against civil rights, women’s rights, and gay liberation is exemplified by the ascent of Tea Party-style white nationalism. Consequently, to paraphrase panelist Carol Pierce, the Black Church is still something of a “refuge” in a hyper-segregated nation.

So why did the panelists become atheists or agnostics? Jim Pierce, a retired engineer, expressed his dissatisfaction with the church’s sexist treatment of women. Thamani Delgardo, a health care professional who described herself as a “former holy roller,” became disillusioned after repeatedly seeing innocent babies die despite prayer. Jeffery “Atheist Walking” Mitchell found Christian explanations for the creation of the universe absurd. Discussing the real life stigma black non-believers face, We Are All Africans author Kwadwo Obeng expressed his contempt for comedian Steve Harvey, who smeared atheists as having no moral compass in a now infamous 2009 interview. Obeng also condemned racist characterizations of the 2010 Haitian earthquake as an example of God’s wrath (due to Haitians’ blasphemous worship of Voudoun). Delgardo argued forcefully against the benefits of prayer as an antidote to pain and suffering. Predictably, monotheism itself came in for a vigorous beating. Both Obeng and Mitchell unpacked the illogic of thousands of competing religious truth claims; each faith’s loyalists insisting that their particular view of divinity, morality, righteousness, and the god(s) concept be privileged by the masses. Obeng articulated a radical African critical consciousness, arguing that European colonialism and white supremacy wiped out indigenous African belief systems amongst enslaved Africans in the so-called New World. Hence, all Abrahamic religions legitimized a kind of mental slavery, fatally undermining black self-love and self knowledge for both African Americans and Africans.

imageIn response, one audience member complained that it was easy to “poke holes” in scripture and Christian belief. But at the end of the day you had to believe in something. Secular humanists believe that faith in supernatural puppet masters are dangerous because we only have one life to live. Feminist atheists believe that social justice based on the universal moral value of women’s right to self-determination (rather than self-sacrifice, domestication, submission, and sexual degradation) is certainly not found in the Bible or the Koran. It is for this reason that the heterosexist, patriarchal hierarchies of Abrahamic religions are especially insidious for black women and LGBT people of African descent.

A lively exchange on biblical literalism versus liberal Christian theology ensued when I quoted several misogynistic passages from scripture. Pastor Seth took exception with the notion that Christianity prescribed misogyny, citing a passage in the New Testament which he interpreted to suggest equality between men and women.

Pondering the question of evil and free will, a younger parishioner contended that God didn’t micro-manage people’s lives, implicitly rejecting Epicurus’ caveat about God’s impotence if he didn’t intervene against evil. Speaking from the audience, my father, author and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, concluded the discussion with a spirited defense of “Christian” precepts of charity and forgiveness, whilst acknowledging the pernicious acts of some true believers. When I was growing up, our household was perhaps the only one in the neighborhood where secular humanism was the rule (my mother Yvonne still considers herself a secular humanist). So my father’s newfound belief in God and self-proclaimed “spiritual” humanism has been interesting to watch.

In the end, odysseys in belief, like family politics and intimate relationships, are complicated. Yet what is not in question is the need for a paradigm shift around social justice in black communities. So the atheists and the Baptists pledged to meet again, in the spirit of shared struggle.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Zen meditation, a cure for unhappiness in South LA

Hindu meditation

Hindu statue (Photo by mara~earth light~/Flickr)

As you read this article your mind is likely to wander off onto other thoughts; trouble at work, your evening plans, a mounting to-do list… and you might be all the more unhappy in life as a result of such distracted thinking.

According to a recent study in the November issue of Science Magazine, whether and where people’s minds wander is a better predictor of happiness than what they are doing. The study included more than 2,200 people around the world who agreed to use an iphone app called trackyourhappiness.

A team of Harvard psychologists contacted the participants at random intervals to ask how them how they were feeling, what they were doing and what they were thinking. The team received a quarter-million responses. When the replies were analyzed, researchers found that no matter what people were doing, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else.
Kelly “Doman” Stevens, an American monk who lives and practices at the Hazy Moon Zen Center of South Central Los Angeles, said that this study simply corroborates what Buddhists across the globe have known all along. In fact, the ancient East Asian religion is even one step ahead of the Harvard researchers and their iphones. Monks found Zen Meditation to be a cure for said “monkey mind” (a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled”) centuries ago. And now one group of monks is spreading their knowledge to those in need of a little clarity in the South Central Los Angeles community.

image“We’re always in motion like a jar of mud and water. When you sit the jar down, the mud settles and the water becomes crystal clear. The same is true of our minds,” said Stevens, who goes by his Dharma name of Doman.

Zen meditation has historically been religious in nature, but is increasingly a popular secular practice amongst those looking to treat medical ailments or find clarity in their lives. The Hazy Moon Zen Center in South Central Los Angeles now offers local community members a beginner’s Zen meditation class every Saturday, and a more in depth beginner’s retreat called Sesshin, four Sundays a year.

Sesshin which means “to unite the mind and heart,” is meant to be an overnight retreat, consisting of two to ten days of seated meditations and services. But one beginner’s day-long Sesshin is more than enough to learn the basics of Zen meditation.

“It’s our form of outreach,” said 45-year-old Doman who often co-teaches the beginner’s classes. “We’re not proselytizers particularly, but since the Buddhist religion began it was sort of like, if you’re interested, this is our take on what the problem in life is and this is our solution if you’d like to try it for yourself.”

The problem according to Buddhist literature is that our minds are addicted to wandering, judging people and judging ourselves. “Meditation is a gentle process of breaking addiction, said Doman.” “There are a lot of people looking for something different, looking to change their lives.”

The goal of Zen meditation is to achieve a state of non-distracted enlightenment that you can apply to your life and exist in at all times. “It’s being really engaged in your life moment to moment. Crying when it’s appropriate to cry, and then leaving that moment and moving on, the same applies to laughing and working,” Doman added.

This basic concept of achieving a state of non-distracted enlightenment is the central goal of the beginner’s meditation classes and retreats. While the classes usually attract between five and fifteen participants from the area, the November beginner’s Sesshin fell on a gloomy Sunday, and rain kept most of those who were scheduled to come at home.

Nonetheless, Doman was happy to impart his knowledge on the two participants who did show up to the daylong retreat; a young, stay-at-home mom who was suffering from insomnia and hoping to get rid of it through meditation, and a young male special education teacher who felt compelled to try meditation after reading about it in his psychology and quantum physics books.

After taking their shoes off, the two were welcomed into the Hazy Moon Compound, a spiritual oasis in the midst of an urban jungle. Doman then gave the new participants a quick tour as he offered up a wealth of disjointed knowledge about meditation, Buddhism, the center and how he stumbled into the practice at the University of California Irvine in his young twenties.

Barefoot, shaved head and dressed in the traditional long flowing black garb of a monk, Doman is now a living embodiment of the commitment he made to the Dharma when he became an ordained Buddhist priest at the age of 31.

Doman now lives at the Hazy Moon Zen Center with his 60-year-old girlfriend, Sherri MacClelland, who also goes by her Dharma name of “Ento.” The center started in 1997 when a group of Americans who practice Buddhism purchased and moved into the building with their Japanese teacher.

Currently, six people live at the center full time, three of whom are ordained priests. Meanwhile, others come and go, staying in the various bedrooms for extended meditation retreats.

The pair of teachers escorted the two quiet new participants through various communal living spaces in the duplex adorned with East Asian art and artifacts, and up to the meditation room called the “zendo” in the attic. Doman told his pupils that the monks have pleasant relationships with most of their neighbors, but admitted with an understanding laugh that he can’t imagine what they must think when they look in the windows and see a bunch of people in black robes walking around in circles in the attic.

Once in the zendo, the teachers prepared the participants for their first meditation experience.

“I’m just going to throw a lot of stuff at you and don’t worry about memorizing it,” Doman said to the two first time participants. They adjusted themselves on the mats and cushions to find a seated meditation position that they would be able to hold for an extended period. “We want to make you comfortable so you’ll come back and sit with us,” Ento added.

The beginner’s Sesshin consists of 20-minute periods of seated meditation facing a wall, alternating with 10-minute periods of walking meditations, where the group walks one behind the other through the space in a figure-eight pattern. Both are done silently and with eyes open but without eye contact with others, so as to not create “turmoil in the mind”. A gong is rung in between meditation periods to signal when one begins and another ends.

“You’re not trying to develop some odd trance, but to become present and develop an awareness of what’s happening in the moment,” Doman stated. The challenge of keeping a clear mind is a process that some participants often struggle with at first try.

“Spontaneous thoughts occur like bile, it’s a natural part of being an awake person. You don’t have to try to concentrate on suppressing these thoughts, but rather just not attach to them or dwell on them,” Doman explained. “The more frequently one practices meditation, the less likely these spontaneous thoughts are to occur.”

Doman and Ento explained to the class what the researchers at Harvard set out to prove, that our “monkey minds” are always adjusting between thoughts of the past and future, and never settled or at ease in the present moment.

“When you’re driving your car, just drive your car. We’ve got to just live our lives, and when you take care of each moment as they happen, the rest will take care of itself,” said Ento. “It’s amazing how much we cover over and miss our lives because we waste precious moments.”

Ento started Zen meditation in her mid-forties when she felt that her depression following the death of her mother was causing her to waste precious moments of her own life.

“I’ve realized that depression was my own doing and it was my own mind that couldn’t shut up. And by shutting up my mind through meditation, I could change my perspective,” said Ento.

Ento saw improvements in her own outlook on life after her first sitting, and she believes that other wandering minds can start to achieve the same kind of peace after just one beginner’s class at the Hazy Moon Center.

“The key part of the practice is the present moment, and it doesn’t hurt anybody to live in the present moment,” said Ento. “The ultimate goal is to just experience the self without any attachments or entanglements. If you can just come into the moment and take care of you, your life will change.”