South L.A. church preaches acceptance for all

imageFabiola Manriquez has attended hundreds of church services at the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in South Los Angeles, but this Sunday is special.

In her 16 years of membership, Manriquez has come to church without the support of her family. Today, for the first Sunday ever, her grandmother sits beside her.

During announcements, Manriquez, overwhelmed by emotion, introduces her grandmother to the congregation. She also adds that the math tutoring she normally provides after the service has been cancelled, but just for today, so she can drive her grandmother home.

Unity Fellowship of Christ is the only church in South Los Angeles that serves primarily lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender African Americans.

Archbishop Carl Bean founded the church in 1982. The idea stemmed from his work with community members who had HIV/AIDS.

The Rev. Pat Trass explained that Bean provided a comforting physical presence for the patients who everyone else was afraid to get near.

“He would go in there and wrap his arms around them, really hug them, when all the doctors would come in wearing masks and gloves.”

Hugging remains a big part of the Unity Fellowship of Christ tradition. Any attempt at a handshake is met with a quizzical look, then a smile, then a drawing in to a warm embrace.

Based on Bean’s work, Minority AIDS Project became the first community outreach program out of Unity Fellowship of Christ Church in South Los Angeles.

Twenty-eight years later, there are 14 other Unity Fellowship of Christ churches around the country, each with dozens of outreach programs of their own. While Bean travels to different congregations each Sunday, the South Los Angeles congregation, dubbed “The Mother Church,” remains the home base of the movement.

Trass estimates their membership in Los Angeles to be around 150, but with most of their attendees being middle-aged or younger, the numbers can rise and fall, depending on who is around on a given weekend.

imageBut Trass is not concerned about numbers or labels. She is about the message. A message, she says, “that is too powerful and too important to be limited to one group of people.”

That message, as anyone at the church will tell you, is love. Specifically, “Love is for everyone.” That mantra is featured prominently around the church.

Trass elaborates, “You know, it’s a stereotype, but lots of gay people have a knack for making other people look beautiful,” Trass elaborated. “I have friends who are welcomed with open arms into a celebrity’s house to do her hair, but that love is conditional. Something like Proposition 8 comes along, and we see that her love isn’t real. In her eyes, we’ve got no rights.”

In Trass’s mind, the best way to combat Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot proposition that defined marriage as between only opposite-sex couples in California, is to encourage people not to be in the closet. She wants young gay people to have access to counseling, another outreach program offered by the church.

Speaking with the members, it is clear that this church is not just a Sunday morning stop-off point.

Orenda Warren, a long-time member of the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, explained, “If you want to know what’s happening in South L.A., you’ve got to know us. We’re happening.”

Warren is an outspoken supporter of all of the church’s outreach programs. Today, she raves with other members about the transgender fashion show that took place the night before. But she also has a soft spot for the work of Neia Smith and Joy Ambeau. The two women have just completed a drive to collect and assemble hygiene kits for kids who are heading back to school this week.

Smith said she is inspired by the people she meets at Unity Fellowship of Christ and wants to give back in a way that “empowers and lifts up young women in the community.”

While the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church aims to reach out to all members of the community, not everyone is ready to embrace them back.

The message of Reverend Leslie Burke’s sermon Sunday was “Don’t just sit there, get up and do something!”

She spoke about the church’s experience the previous week with Inglewood AM radio station, KTYM, which promotes itself as “Powerful Gospel Radio.” According to Burke, the station had verbally agreed to play music from the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, but before they could sign a contract, KTYM backed off, citing fear of losing sponsorship from their more traditional contributors.

The congregation sat rapt as Burke paced the front of the room.

“These are the fundamentalists. Supposed Christians. Yes, I said that.”

Reverend Russell Thornhill took the pulpit next. He encouraged church members to contact the radio station—call, write, even fax, and ask why the church’s music was not on the line up.

image“We can’t just talk about social justice,” he boomed. “We have to be social justice.”

At this point, a man brought an iPad up to the podium, contact information of the station already pulled up and ready to be read aloud.

Speaking after the service, Thornhill said he’s disappointed in his experience with the station, but not discouraged. Members of the church’s broadcast committee are already working on a way to stream their music live from the Internet.

Thornhill believes in his church community. And he believes there’s a reason the church has been working in South Los Angeles for almost 30 years.

Back in the early 1980s, church leadership made a point of locating the church where it is.

“This is where our people are,” Thornhill said. “Not everyone’s going to go north of Wilshire.”

Thornhill, like other members of the clergy, emphasized the church’s openness to absolutely everyone, regardless of color, sexuality, religion, or a lack thereof.

“I don’t care if you smoked crack last night or had a drink this morning.” Thornhill said he does not believe it is the church’s job to judge.

“No fancy hats here, we’re ‘come as you are.’ The only question I’m asking is, ‘Is the heart dressed