Telling his congregation they seemed "picked out to be picked on," the pastor of a Watts church that was destroyed by a runaway bulldozer urged them in an impassioned Sunday service to keep their spirits up and struggle against strife.
"We will use this stumbling block as a stepping stone," Pastor Welton Pittman told a near-capacity crowd of about 70 faithful who attended the outdoor services, held under a tent in the shadow of the ruined church. "We're not going to let this stop us. We have a dream and we are going to accomplish it."
Early last week, the people of Mount Bethel Baptist Church saw their dreams sidetracked when an errant bulldozer, driven off a nearby construction site by teen-age joy riders, slammed into the one-story church building Monday evening. Days later, a city Building and Safety inspector condemned the structure and told Pittman he would need another place to worship.
Rather than leave the neighborhood, Pittman decided to hold services in the dusty church parking lot. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, the owner of the construction site, donated the big white tent.
"We know our setting is a little different than it was last week," Pittman noted during a sermon sometimes punctuated with humor. "Even though we moved from there to here, we don't want to lose our spirit."
For the next three weeks, all services, missionary meetings and Sunday school will be held in the 40-by-50-foot tent, which seats more people than the church building. It's uncertain where the congregation will be after that, Pittman said.
But if Sunday was any indication, neither the temporary relocation nor the heat could drain the ardor of the small but fiery church group. Using a piano and a borrowed public address system, they sang, danced and rejoiced--the sound of their fellowship echoing through the neighborhood.
The pastor is counting on that spirit to rally his church and encourage support from the community. Although the $77,000 church building was insured, and long-range plans called for a major expansion, Pittman said the church is going to need more money and help with the construction.
In the meantime, parishioners have vowed to make the most of their new accommodations. A few remarked that the tent was cooler in the 90-degree weather than the church building, which was not air conditioned.
Dream of Larger Church
Like many others, church member Myrtlene Moss said she hoped that the group would band together to rebuild and realize the dream of a larger church.
"We were looking forward to having a bigger church anyway," she said. "We're going to try (to rebuild) and with God's help, always with God's help, we think we can do it.
"Still, I'm hoping that the new church will have air conditioning," said Moss, who has attended Mount Bethel services for five years.
Despite the heat, Willie Forest said he liked the outdoor service.
"If we didn't have the tent, we wouldn't have had anything at all," he said. "It seemed like it was just as good or better" in the tent.
Church member Shirley Davis said the location, whether inside or next to the church, didn't make much difference.
"It's really not where you are at, it just matters that you can praise God wherever you are," she said.
During his service, the pastor lauded the congregation for its fortitude.
"I'd like to thank members and friends who stood by our side," he said. "You didn't give up on us, you came here believing we would be here."
Returning to his theme for the afternoon, Pittman expressed hope that the church will "weather the storm."
"We were picked out to be picked on," he declared. "Here we are here on 105th Street and Graham Avenue and how can a bulldozer find its way to our church when there is a big church on the other corner?
"It seems we were picked out to be picked on. We must go on."
But in a strange way, Pittman said, the trouble helped the church. About 20 people, some who had not come to church in months, attended the service Sunday, and neighbors who never knew of the church know it now, Pittman said.
"Picked out to be picked on," Pittman repeated thoughtfully. "I know that's not the case with us. Without a shadow of doubt, this has been a strange blessing."