Black church studies a changed South LA



Second Baptist in South Los Angeles, one of the oldest black churches in Southern California, commissioned a neighborhood report to figure out how it can expand its mission of social justice to a community that looks very different than its congregation.

“This church [has] become a transitional Hispanic community,” said Pastor William Epps.

In the last few decades, South Los Angeles has shifted from a predominately black community to a majority Latino community. Latinos make up 88 percent of a community where streets are named after civil rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Most people in the area are immigrant Latino, with African-Americans making up only 11 percent of the neighborhood.

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The stories of black and brown conflict, surfacing over cultural differences or perceived job competition, have often defined what this community has become.

Even the church has felt the challenges. It was once home to the civil rights movement on the West Coast. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke from the pulpit and the church helped fund legal briefs for the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of education, which paved the way for desegregation in schools.

“People used to walk to church,” said Epps. Now, most congregants commute to the church, often keeping it out-of-touch with the needs of the neighborhood.

Pastor Epps realized the difficulty continuing a social justice mission in a changed community when he took his job in 1987.

“I dubbed my years the ‘challenging years’ because it would be hard to maintain a viable congregation in a changing neighborhood,” said Epps, “and at the same time keep congregants excited about doing ministry that may not always benefit them personally.”

But as Second Baptist marks its 125th year in the community, the church is wondering how a congregation of commuters can spread its social justice ministry to a transformed neighborhood.

The church received a grant and commissioned USC’s Center for Immigrant Integration and Esperanza Community Housing to study the neighborhood, its needs and figure out ways the church might help.

“This is one of those neighborhoods where immigration is an issue, the environment is an issue and it all comes together, and it’s right there,” said Vanessa Carter, a researcher on the project.

The researchers looked at census data, environmental data, and surveyed more than 500 residents about living conditions in the area. The report, which was published earlier this fall, shows grim conditions in South Los Angeles.

The community is very poor, with families often living in overcrowded homes. The median household income in the Second Baptist neighborhood is $29,164, compared to the LA Metro figure at $54,993.

Heavy traffic from nearby freeways makes the area environmentally toxic. Residents are also mostly newcomers, often isolated from the rest of Los Angeles.

On average, residents are younger in this community compared to the rest of LA. They are also more mobile, only 7 percent of the people surveyed had lived in the community for more than 20 years. Most lived there ten years or less.

There are challenges to creating relationships with this community. Many don’t speak English and families often leave before reaching five years in the neighborhood. But the researchers on the project note similar experiences between the Black and Latino communities, where the church could build common ground.

“The way that incarceration affects the Black community and makes it hard to have a good paying job and pulls apart families, is the same way that deportation can affect a Latino family,” sais Carter. “They are different issues, but they have similar effects.”

While Pastor Epps finds the detailed statistics about the community revealing, the battles the neighborhood faces now, with poverty, poor housing and education, are not new to the church.

“The plight of Hispanics seeking full citizenship is similar to the plight of African Americans in the 60s. You can see a lot of the parallels,” said Epps.

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The report recommended ways the church could serve the community. The church owns property in the area and the report suggested the church could work with other community groups and find ways to utilize the property for childcare or affordable housing.

“Anybody who cares about making the society right, making the society a place where everyone can progress, regardless of their ethnicity or immigration status, has to worry about the unity of Blacks and Latinos as we move forward,” said Manuel Pastor, director of Center for Immigrant Integration.

Second Baptist hasn’t made any concrete plans on how they will use the data to expand their mission of social justice. But, those on the project say, understanding the new neighborhood is good place to start.

“I think that the church has the political will and the moral will to work with other groups of like mind and like mission so that we can we advance the cause and make this community better than what it is,” said Pastor Epps.

Timeline of the Second Baptist Church:

Graphs courtesy of University of Southern California’s Center for Immigrant Integration

Churches join together to host fall festival



The Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are co-sponsoring a fall festival and gospel music festival on October 23 and 24 at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church near Vernon and Central.

Volunteers from both churches work together under a coalition called One Heart Many Hands L.A. 

The coalition was spearheaded by Dr. Albert Nicholas, the Senior Pastor at the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, and Robert Keeler, the president of the Santa Monica Stake of the Latter-Day Saints Church.  It seeks to host joint community service, musical and multi-faith events.

One Heart Many Hands L.A. has worked extensively in the South Los Angeles community providing tutoring to high school students and college preparation workshops.

Congregants of Nicholas’s church and a single young Mormon branch of the Santa Monica Stake planned the fall festival and concert.

“It’s vital that we reach out to our community and do all we can to lift the people around us,” said Jackie Darby, a member of the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, in a press release.

The fall festival on October 23 will have games, booths and activities, as well as information and workshops regarding health and emergency preparedness. 

The following evening, the Southern California Mormon Choir and the Pilgrim’s Combined Choir will fill the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church with gospel music.

Admission to both events is free. 

“I couldn’t see us leaving the money in the bank when we could use it to help people,” said Bishop Larry Eastland of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

For more information about the fall festival or the One Heart Many Hands L.A. coalition, please visit www.facebook.com/oneheartmanyhandsLA.

Finding identity at the Center of Afrakan Spiritual Science



This project was produced during an Intersections/Metamorphosis community reporting workshop. For more information please email [email protected]

By Maakheru

Visit the KRST Unity Center for Afrakan Spiritual Science at 7825 S. Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90047.

Want to see what participants in our workshops have produced? Check out “From trash to treasure” or visit our “From the Workshop” section.

OPINION: The Prosperity Gospel according to Eddie Long



imageSikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies. Become a fan of Blackfemlens on Facebook.

Who was it who said that it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a filthy rich pastor with a $350,000 Bentley to get into the Kingdom of God? And how long will it be before the Lord, working mysteriously, delivers New Birth Missionary Church Bishop Eddie Long — Bentley ditched for a Pinto — sobbing Jimmy Swaggart cum Ted Haggard-style in a warm lather of repentance on cable TV?

Accused of sexually abusing young men in his congregation, arch homophobe and macho man mentor of boys Long would seem to be the devil’s latest casualty.

In a week in which “God” has been routinely invoked to immunize crooks from criminal investigation and social condemnation, the Long allegations are yet another shining example of the sexually, morally and fiscally corrupt business of organized religion.

In the scandal-plagued city of Bell, California an indicted City Council member/pastor trotted out his belief in God as a cover for alleged misconduct. In an investment fraud case reverberating through the Los Angeles Police Department, victims cited the “Christian” orientation of the suspects as the primary motivating factor for their trust. Arguing for clemency, supporters of Virginia Death Row inmate Teresa Lewis piously vouched for her Christian prison “conversion.”

Having learned zero from the global pedophile priest scourge, our stridently Judeo Christian culture still routinely uses the assignation man or woman “of God” to shut down debate or consideration of how religion and religious authority gives license to those who act immorally. Indeed, how many times have we heard that a certain person could not have committed ‘that there’ serial murder because he was a good man of God, a devout Christian and a churchgoer who could regurgitate scripture on demand? And how many times have predators and hardcore career criminals been given a figurative pass or viewed as above suspicion because they were churchgoing Christians doing the Lord’s (dirty) work? Conversely, how many times have we heard the caveat that a certain person could not have committed ‘that there’ serial murder because they were a humanist, atheist or agnostic?

imageThe ATL’s very own ringleader of the prosperity gospel, Long has blazed a trail as an anti-same sex marriage Christian soldier and self-proclaimed “spiritual daddy” to a nationwide army. After the death of Coretta Scott King in 2004, Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes that, “Long’s anti-gay phobia was so virulent that then NAACP president Julian Bond publicly declared he would not attend (her) funeral service at Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.” A prominent supporter of George W. Bush and his anti-gay policies, Long and several other prosperity gospel predators were the subject of a 2007 federal probe on fiscal mismanagement of their tax exempt status. Launched by the U.S. Senate, the investigation was spearheaded by the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit “religious media watchdog” dedicated to exposing fraud and financial improprieties within the billion-dollar megachurch industry.

imageLong’s empire of niche ministries, books, gospel shows and seminars powers a robber baron’s lifestyle of expensive cars, homes and private jets. One of these niche ministries involves spiritual counseling for young men and “delivering” men from homosexuality. According to a former New Birth parishioner, Long evoked themes of hyper-masculinity and required obeisance to himself as divinely ordained patriarch. The trespasses of Long and other good Christian evangelicals was scrutinized in Sarah Posner’s 2008 book God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.

Yet while the sex abuse epidemic in the Catholic Church has received much coverage, similar epidemics in Protestant churches have remained underreported. Commenting on the 2008 Chris Brown/Rihanna abuse incident black feminist anti-violence activist Kevin Powell recounted how he’d been approached for advice by a young woman who had been sexually abused by her pastor since she was five years old. Similarly, a young woman of my acquaintance related that she had been repeatedly molested by her pastor after her parents had entrusted her in his care. Clearly, sexual abuse is an endemic social issue that is not peculiar to organized religion. However, the mindset of the religious sexual predator is markedly different from one operating in a secular context because of the presumption of righteous morals and a higher calling. Further, religious hierarchies (be they Muslim, Christian, Mormon, Orthodox Jewish, etc.) delineating masculine roles, responsibilities and privileges perpetuate a culture of patriarchal entitlement and heterosexist control.

The Bible’s sanction of violence against women (e.g., rape and forced marriage) provides theological justification for viewing and treating women like property. If women are deemed to be second class citizens in scripture, and consigned to helpmate roles in the church, why wouldn’t male clergy act with impunity when it comes to sex and power? And if the culture of compulsory heterosexuality demands that men hew to rigid gender norms, it stands to reason that some closeted gay clergy will abuse their power by sexually abusing young male parishioners. Indeed, the heterosexist cult of the exalted pastor is based on the belief that “real men” should be inscrutable in their exercise of power and authority. Thus, the religious sexual predator may rationalize his behavior as being “ordained” by God. God confers him with ultimate authority and moral license. “His” ways are part of a divine moral order that mere laypeople don’t have access to.

From the time African American children become socially aware, the dominant culture reinforces the heterosexist perception of male clergy’s invulnerability and “above the law” status. Preachers are revered as founts of knowledge, wisdom and “reason.” In middle to working class black communities the absence of formal religious training or education is no barrier to having the title “Rev” “Dr.” or even “Reverend Doctor” slapped in front of one’s name. Consequently, the strong preacher (father) figure is one of the most universally respected models of masculinity in African American communities. Available for counsel and succor to male and female parishioners, the “daddy” pastor’s biblically sanctioned faith pimping spiritual ministry translates into emotional manipulation, psychological control, and sexual exploitation.

In America being a macho man and a professional homophobe is big business, one that jeopardizes the lives and mental health and wellness of thousands of gays and lesbians. Regardless of whether the allegations against Long are true or not, his prosperity gospel of gay-bashing and robber baron profiteering at the expense of poor black people is another indictment of the moral injustice that happens on “God’s” watch.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a senior fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies. This article originally appeared here.

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
right?’”

L.A. Catholics welcome new archbishop



Yesterday marked the start of a changing of the guard at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  Current Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has held the position for 25 years, will retire next February at the age of 75, blogdowntown reports. He will turn the country’s biggest Roman Catholic archdiocese over to 58-year-old Jose H. Gomez, who was chosen by the Pope to succeed him.

Gomez, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, previously served five years as the archbishop of San Antonio, Texas.

You can read more about his background in a two-part series put together by the Los Angeles Times.

At a two-hour Mass in front of thousands of worshipers and priests, the two religious leaders exchanged banters and prayers, with Gomez quipping that the audience got “two homilies for the price of one. And it’s free. It’s a good deal.” The Mass was streamed live on the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Web site.

Later, as the Times reports, Mahony told Gomez that “church rules demand that the ceremonial throne for the prelate ‘must be fitting,’” and invited him to try it out.

“A bemused Gomez approached the large wooden chair, began to sit, hesitated, looked askance, then finally plopped down. ‘It’s kind of big,’ he said, ‘but I think I can make it.’”

As archbishop, Gomez will likely have to confront issues regarding immigration policy.  Like his predecessor, he made his stance clear, telling parishioners that God doesn’t see strangers and that “no one is an alien for any of us,” a sentiment he repeated in Spanish.

He praised L.A.‘s diversity, saying, “In the community of cultures here in Los Angeles, we can see what it means to say that our church is ‘catholic,’” – that is, universal.

Gomez will serve with Mahony until Mahony’s retirement.