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Inner City Ministry Recalled : Lawsuit Over Church Sale Hinges on Forgotten Deed

November 22, 1986|KIM MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

For Lehua May Garcia, it was a place of magic, this enormous church with its pews stretching into the rafters and red neon sign proclaiming "Jesus Saves" to the lost of Los Angeles.

How else could you explain it, when Roy Rogers and Dale Evans could sing away the hurt of six brothers and sisters waiting at home with no one to look after them? In one of the seats at the back of the 4,000-seat auditorium, then-9-year-old Garcia would listen raptly to the missionaries' tales of Africa, the pastor's promise of a heaven somewhere past the tiny, teeming house near Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street.

When the historic Church of the Open Door closed its doors on Hope Street last year, following its congregation into the suburbs, that part of Garcia's life closed with it. "That is exactly what they were here for, to rescue little things like me," said Garcia, 39.

Now, a lawsuit by Garcia challenging the sale of the 71-year-old church to flamboyant television preacher Gene Scott as a hotel and headquarters for his broadcast ministry has resurrected a little of the church's evangelistic past in a controversy that threatens to scuttle the $23-million real estate transaction.

Combing through records that document the church's development amid a world at war, Garcia and her attorney have uncovered a long-forgotten deed that dedicates the church property to "the promulgation of the eternal trusts of God's Holy Word," a document that Garcia claims casts serious doubt on whether the aging institution can ever be sold.

As the case progresses through Los Angeles Superior Court, some of the city's top attorneys--and Scott himself--now feel she may be right.

"We're taking it very seriously," attorney Gregson Bautzer, representing the television evangelist, said of the 1919 deed that pledged that "these buildings are not to be a monument to any man, nor to any set of men," but dedicated "unto Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood."

It is not the sort of legal document modern attorneys are accustomed to dealing with.

But Scott's Wescott Christian Center has used the purported deed restriction as the basis of a suit of its own against the leadership of the Church of the Open Door, seeking to rescind the July, 1986, purchase agreement, which Scott now believes was illegal, and refusing any further payments on the property until the issue of the deed is resolved.

Church of the Open Door, which needs the money from the downtown site to make payments on the church it bought in Glendora, has launched foreclosure proceedings against Wescott and claims that the allegations about the deed are Scott's attempt to seize the valuable church at a discount.

Congregation Dwindled

Behind the controversy is the gradual movement of most of Los Angeles' large downtown churches into the suburbs. Vice Pastor Dale Wolery said the church's congregation had dwindled to just 600 during its last years on Hope Street, unable to deal with mounting debts for maintenance, parking and the church's expensive foreign ministry.

But Garcia says the rush to serve growing outlying communities has ignored the needs of the population the Church of the Open Door was originally intended to serve. "This particular church was put here for little kids like me," said Garcia, who launched the inquiry into the church's past when she moved back to Los Angeles from San Diego last year and said she was "devastated" to find the church of her childhood shut down.

"This is where we need help," said her attorney, Jennifer J. King, "for little kids that live in tenements that can't live in the suburbs with a $200,000 price tag on a home."

Scott said he had the same aim when, hearing that the church was to be sold to a Texas developer and demolished, he negotiated to purchase it, in the hope that his national television ministry could help draw people downtown where others had failed.

"I'm simply tired of churches giving up on the city centers," he said. "I said then, if the racks of a wrecking ball hit 'Forever O Lord Thy Word Is Settled In Heaven' (emblazoned on the facade of the church), something will go out of the spiritual life of the city of Los Angeles."

1915 Fund-Raising Effort

The controversy over the deed grows out of the mammoth fund-raising effort embarked on in 1915 by Lyman Stewart, founder of Union Oil, a leading figure in modern fundamentalism in the United States and the man who conceived the dream of a church and Bible school for "the lost" of the city to be developed with the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now headquartered at Biola College).

Donors, wary during those war-torn days of religious hucksters and false promises, received a solemn pledge that their money would forever be dedicated to the church project by way of the deed restriction.

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