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Religiously Anti-Establishment : First Unitarian Church Has Championed Liberal Causes for Half a Century

December 13, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD

If the Rev. Jerry Falwell ever found himself at a Sunday morning service at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, he might think he had died and gone to hell.

The congregation of the handsome Unitarian Universalist church is made up mostly of secular humanists and even some atheists. And the minister, the Rev. Philip Zwerling, is a card-carrying left-liberal activist who proudly preaches--and religiously practices--a social gospel that is the ideological opposite of the right-wing Republicanism that Falwell propounds.

Zwerling is pro-union, pro-Sandinista, pro-peace, anti-nuclear and anti-Reagan Administration foreign policy. His eloquent Sunday "sermons" on such topics as "Fidel and Religion" and "Secrets, Spies and National Security" usually strike nothing but joy in the hearts of an already converted left-wing congregation that is small in number, poor in pocketbook but active as all get-out.

Hot Spot of Activism

With its thick gray walls, stately bell tower and mighty wooden front door, the Spanish-style church at 2936 West 8th St. near Vermont looks like just another house of Christian worship. But for more than 50 years, First Church, as its 292 members call it, has been a hot spot of progressive liberal activism in Los Angeles.

Its pulpit has served as a friendly Sunday soapbox for such heroes of the Left as W. E. B. Dubois, Dr. Benjamin Spock and anti-war activists Philip and Rev. Daniel Berrigan. Past guest speakers have included writers Gore Vidal and Harlan Ellison, activist actor Ed Asner and local politicos like Zev Yaroslavsky, Diane Watson and Ira Reiner.

During World War II, its liberal minister counseled conscientious objectors and spoke out strongly against the forced internment of Japanese-Americans.

During the McCarthy Era, when First Church was booming with about 1,000 members, it earned the nickname "The Little Red Church on the Hill," not for its orangey-red tile roof, but for the warm hospitality it showed to the Hollywood Ten and other blacklistees like Paul Robeson who were invited to defend themselves from its pulpit.

And during the Vietnam War era the church boiled with anti-war activities, all of which helps to explain why the FBI had First Church under surveillance from 1942 to 1974, as did the LAPD's now shut-down Public Disorder Intelligence Division from 1975 to 1978.

Zwerling, 39, has not let the progressive tradition lapse in his 10 years as minister. A Harvard Divinity School graduate, he has written a book on Nicaragua and been arrested five times for civil disobedience, most recently in 1984 while protesting the deportation of Central American refugees.

Sanctuary to Refugees

In 1983, Zwerling's church became the first in Los Angeles to publicly announce that it was giving sanctuary to Central American refugees. About 10% of the congregation is Latino, most of whom attend a 10 a.m. Sunday service in Spanish. During the week First Church space is home to a preschool, a day-care center and a senior lunch program. Chief among the many social good works is the weekly distribution of 100 bags of groceries to the neighborhood's needy Latinos.

Zwerling conducts weddings, makes sick calls and performs other mainstream ministerial duties. But his most important work is done from the pulpit, he says, and he prints transcripts of his rhetorically well-crafted addresses (and some of his guests') and puts them on sale for $1 in the patio each Sunday. (They also are taped and broadcast on radio station KPFK-FM (90.7) Tuesday afternoons at 4.)

Attending an 11 a.m. Sunday service at First Church may not be a religious experience but it is always an intensely political one.

On one of the bulletin boards in the shady cool church patio an announcement for a fund-raiser for presidential aspirant the Rev. Jesse Jackson hangs next to a large color picture of Central American soldiers standing near three civilian corpses.

On the Fellowship of Social Justice table nearby are stacks of periodicals and fliers and pamphlets and petitions to sign.

The United Farm Workers want to mail you the truth about what pesticides do to the health of workers and consumers. The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee tells you how to stop paying the federal tax on your telephone bills. A petition seeks signatures for an Income and Job Action Act that would legislate every worker's right to a job at a decent wage.

On a recent Sunday morning at about 10:45 the patio echoes with the sound of Central American folk music. As the faithful arrive, Teresa Sanchez and other members of the Nicaraguan Cultural Alliance are selling Nicaraguan arts and crafts and periodicals to raise money.

Sanchez, 24, says she was initially drawn to First Church because of its long history of working in the Peace Movement, by its strong sense of community, and by Zwerling. Though brought up as a Roman Catholic in Pasadena, she describes herself as not a religious person.

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