When God told the Rev. Oka Muasau that the home on Farmstead Avenue next to the Pomona Freeway in Hacienda Heights would be a propitious site for a church, he somehow forgot to inform the Samoan preacher of the reception that awaited him.
"We like to talk and laugh and have a good time, but the neighbors didn't understand our culture. They didn't understand our people, and there were many fights," said Muasau, the 44-year-old founder of the First Samoan Assembly of God Church in Hacienda Heights. "But God led me here. He picked this spot out. We would never think of leaving."
Instead, after a five-year feud between the 100-member church and the community carried out in the courts, the regional Planning Commission and the county Board of Supervisors, it is Muasau's neighbors who have pulled up stakes for a quieter version of suburbia.
The neighbors' fight ended in defeat two weeks ago when the Board of Supervisors denied a request by the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn. to revoke a conditional use permit allowing the church to operate in a residential area.
But while refusing to close the church, supervisors agreed with an earlier Planning Commission finding that the church was a nuisance to the 10 surrounding homeowners in the 1300 block of Farmstead Avenue, a narrow and unpaved street that dead-ends at the Pomona Freeway. As a result, the church and its offices, on a small residential lot, must now operate under a formal set of restrictions, including a ban on bingo, rummage sales and daylong celebrations.
Although it appears to be over, the feud has left a residue of bitterness in this unincorporated east San Gabriel Valley community of 60,000. Three families on Farmstead Avenue have moved out in the last several months after complaining for years about noise, access problems and Sunday services at the church that began in the early morning and concluded with a luau at night. In an interview, an attorney representing the church renewed charges that community opposition was fueled by racism. He pointed to the improvement association's recent and bitter fight against the building of a Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights as evidence that the largely white, middle-class population here resents Asians and other ethnic groups moving into the area.
Community leaders angrily deny the charge of racism, while expressing concern that the addition of churches and new businesses has altered the landscape of their once bucolic community.
Muasau, a large man with a deep belly laugh and a wardrobe full of colorful Polynesian-style shirts that he wears whenever he's away from the pulpit, says his new neighbors and the church get along fine. Two homeowners on the block seemed to agree. But Muasau said he is not completely happy with the Board of Supervisors' recent decision either. He believes that the operating restrictions are too severe and infringe on the freedom of parishioners to worship in his church, which is incorporated but not affiliated with other Assembly of God churches.
As an example, the preacher complained about a county-im posed restriction that limits his weeknight religious instruction to fewer than 20 people.
"It really bothers me because I have more than that number who want to attend Bible study," said Muasau, who now lives with his wife and six children in a home purchased from one of his former neighbors. "All our parishioners should be allowed to attend Bible study."
The feud between the church and homeowners began shortly after Muasau, a radio operator for American Samoa before he had a "born again" experience in 1969 and moved to the United States, purchased the small home on Farmstead Avenue in 1979 and began holding services in his living room. Shortly after, the two sides began exchanging heated words. It wasn't long before sheriff's deputies were summoned to mediate disputes, including fisticuffs that broke out between a female parishioner and a female homeowner one Sunday two years ago. The parishioner had dumped some trash in the homeowner's garbage can.
Racial Intolerance Blamed
Donald Schindler, attorney for the church, said he believes that racial prejudice motivated the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn. to oppose the church. Schindler said racial intolerance also sparked the association's opposition to the construction of the $5-million Buddhist temple complex on Hacienda Boulevard. After a year of bickering, in June, 1983, the Board of Supervisors approved the construction of a revised version of the temple, and the site is now being graded.
"This problem really stems from the large influx of different cultures into the Hacienda Heights area," Schindler said. "It was once largely a white, middle- to upper-class community. Like Alhambra and Monterey Park, its whole surface is changing with Hispanics and Orientals moving in. I think the old-line residents are really fighting against this inevitable trend."
Statistics bear out the change.