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Pews Are Full but Coffers Aren't at Church of the Open Door

December 13, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

In the two years since moving from its landmark "Jesus Saves" building in downtown Los Angeles to a gym in the foothills of Glendora, the Church of the Open Door has seen its membership and worship services double.

However, its financial fortunes have plummeted.

9 Layoffs

Nine employees, including three ministers, have been laid off. Legal fees have averaged $25,000 a month for more than a year as the congregation has battled to regain title to and resell the downtown building. Wescott Christian Center, headed by television evangelist Gene Scott, bought the 72-year-old building in 1985, but it was returned to the Church of the Open Door after Wescott defaulted on payments.

Since then, sale of the site to a developer who plans a modern office building has been stalled while the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission studies the possibility of preserving the building.

The building on Hope Street has long been noted for its lighted roof-top "Jesus Saves" sign and Italian Renaissance-Revival facade.

Despite the financial and legal entanglements, Dale O. Wolery, associate pastor and spokesman for the church, said, "God has been good to us. And I think the publicity (surrounding Scott's loss of the downtown building) has been good for us."

Although the evangelistic services have not changed, Wolery said the church has become "virtually a new regional church, with lots of young families that come from all over the San Gabriel Valley."

It is difficult, though, to serve them with a reduced staff, Wolery said. In September, the church laid off its full-time ministers of music and Christian education, a part-time college minister, three full-time secretaries and three custodial workers.

Laymen Fill In

"We try to fill their positions with lay people, but it has been a discouraging thing," Wolery said. "We really miss the professionals we relied on."

Ray Killion, former church board chairman and now a member of the steering committee, said: "We're involving as many lay people as we can, but the trouble is that 75% of them are new to the church. We don't know what their talents are, or who to ask."

Killion said the church cannot afford to rehire its staff until the sale of the Los Angeles property, which is in escrow, is completed.

As the Church of the Open Door awaits completion of the sale, which it hopes will occur early next year, it is too financially strapped to begin construction of an auditorium large enough for a congregation that has swelled from a few hundred people to about 1,000.

Meanwhile, a 1960s-vintage gym serves as a temporary sanctuary at the Glendora site. Since it holds only 600 people, two services are held every Sunday to accommodate worshipers. On one of the gym's walls is a drawing of a master plan for an auditorium that will seat 2,500 and a two-story building with classrooms, offices and another auditorium, which will be built on an adjacent athletic field.

The site, once Azusa Pacific College's hillside campus, is at the end of a narrow road in Glendora's northeast corner. The church still owes the college $4 million of the $6-million sale price, which must be paid by December, 1988.

Wolery described the church as family-oriented, focusing on teaching the Bible, with four full-time ministers. Its $1.4- million annual budget comes from free-will offerings, he said.

The Church of the Open Door bought the Los Angeles building in 1933, and later sold a half-interest to Biola Hotels. By 1985, a congregation that once numbered 3,500 had dropped to about 450, many of them elderly. The old building lacked parking areas and had maintenance problems, Wolery said.

Scott bought the building for $23 million, but after paying $6.5 million in 1986, he stopped making payments. Meanwhile, Scott sought a historic landmark designation that would preserve the building, a move that would prevent demolition by any future buyer.

Facing Challenges

In September, 1986, a woman who claims to have been a member of the Church of the Open Door challenged the church's right to sell the building. Lehua May Garcia contended in her suit that a long-forgotten deed forbids sale of the building.

Wolery said that this and other related lawsuits are pending. James Lucero, a spokesman for the buyer, Ninth and Grand General Partnership, could not be reached for comment.

A stay of demolition that now preserves the building will expire in February, according to Jay Oren, architect for the Cultural Affairs Department. If proponents do not present a concrete plan for preservation, the commission may lift the stay and the Los Angeles City Council would then decide the building's fate, Oren said. So far, no acceptable plan has been submitted, he said.

State of Art Has Improved

As for the sign, it is really two separate signs, facing north and south, Killion said. "The Salvation Army has asked us for them, but I guess it will depend on who wants to pay the expense of taking them down. Those signs are old, and they keep going out. There have been a thousand improvements in lighting since those signs were made."

When the sale is completed, Wolery said, construction will begin in Glendora, and will include new roads and parking areas.

Waving to the narrow winding road that is marked by a small sign, he said: "I can't wait to see what happens when we get a nice entrance. We'll make room for thousands of cars."

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