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Membership Grows in Glendora Quarters : New Site Opens Doors for Church

February 19, 1987|DENISE-MARIE SANTIAGO | Times Staff Writer

With basketball hoops hanging overhead and bleachers folded along cement walls, members of the Church of the Open Door prayed for fairness in their legal battles to determine the church's destiny.

They prayed for victory, too.

"I'm going to ask that truth and justice prevail--and that we win," said the Rev. Dale O. Wolery, associate pastor of the Glendora church during a recent Sunday service.

The congregation of about 500 savored with the pastor the prospect of victory in its legal problems, the one problem that could reverse the fortunes of a church reborn.

Full Congregation

Sunday services are filled and Bible classes are overflowing at the church, which moved in 1985 from its landmark building in downtown Los Angeles to 40 acres that formerly were part of the Azusa Pacific University campus.

That alone is testament, church leaders believe, to the wisdom of the congregation's decision to move to a rural setting after 72 years in the same urban neighborhood.

They also cite declining membership, an aging congregation, increasing building maintenance costs and parking rental fees as reasons for uprooting the congregation from its home, a building widely known for its towering sign proclaiming "Jesus Saves."

Although the church lost many members when it moved, it has grown steadily since it opened in the gymnasium, church leaders say. But its continued growth could be stymied.

Challenged by Lawsuit

A lawsuit filed last September by a woman who claims she was a former member of the church challenges the church's right to sell the downtown building.

Television evangelist Gene Scott, who bought the building for $23 million, has made only one payment on a debt that was to have been retired by the end of this year.

Church leaders had thought their problems were solved when Scott agreed last year to buy the building. The money was to have been split between the Church of the Open Door, which owned the 4,000-seat auditorium, and Great Western Hotels, which owned dormitories on both sides of the building.

Scott, who was seeking a hotel and headquarters for his broadcast ministry, made a $6.5-million down payment on the building last year but has made only one payment, $166,000 in August. The Rev. G. Michael Cocoris, senior pastor of the Glendora church, said no payments have been made since then.

Scott now owes $7.5 million in payments on principal and interest, said Edward L. Masry, attorney and chief financial officer for Scott's Westcott Christian Center.

Masry said the payments have not been made since the lawsuit was filed "because we don't know the status of the property."

Church of the Open Door officials had planned to use proceeds from the sale to buy the $6-million property in Glendora and finance construction of new church buildings.

The church has been able to pay only $2 million and the remaining $4 million is due by the end of next year, church officials said.

'We're in Limbo'

"We're just in limbo until we get the money that is owed us," said Raymond Killion, a lifelong member of the church and an elder there for several years. "We don't have the money to build."

Despite the legal entanglements, however, church leaders are enthusiastic about the changes they've witnessed at the church's new address.

"The problems we have now are problems relating to growth," said the Rev. Thomas L. Vangeison, minister of Christian education. "The problem we had before was about decline."

The 29-mile move "was something we had to do," said Killion, who was chairman of the committee in charge of finding a new location. "That building was simply deteriorating. It seemed every Sunday we had leaking pipes or flooded classrooms."

It cost $250,000 a year to maintain the building, and another $41,000 a year to rent parking space, Wolery said.

There were other problems, too.

Denied Day Care Permit

Cocoris said the church applied for a permit to operate a day-are center but was refused because there was no play area outside.

More important, an aging and declining membership blurred the future of the church.

In the downtown church's heyday, as many as 3,500 people filled most of the three-tiered Hope Street auditorium. Over the past 10 to 15 years, however, membership fell and by 1979, when Cocoris became head pastor, the church had only 500 members.

Cocoris said membership had grown to about 800 before the congregation voted in 1983 to move, but "once we decided to move, every time we'd make an announcement about it, we'd lose 50 people."

Historically, the church has consisted mainly of white, middle-class members who commuted to services downtown, Cocoris said.

'Regional Church'

"Churches reflect the community," Cocoris said. "But the Church of the Open Door has always been an exception. We've been more of a regional church."

A member of the staff once counted personal checks from about 30 communities in a single collection, Cocoris said.

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