GLENDORA — As they sang "Jesus Saves" and watched their mortgage burn on Sunday, hundreds of jubilant members of the Church of the Open Door celebrated victory in a long legal skirmish that came to an abrupt end last week.
In a 24-hour period three days earlier, the church sold its embattled downtown Los Angeles building, noted for the red neon "Jesus Saves" sign on its roof, collected about $10 million and then paid Azusa Pacific University $4.6 million for its new site in Glendora.
"We didn't have a ghost of an idea that we could do this," Assistant Minister Dale O. Wolery said on Sunday as drums rolled, trumpets blared, parishioners cheered and the mortgage for their new church site went up in flames.
It was a long-hoped-for moment for a growing church whose future depended on the sale of the Los Angeles property. But the 72-year-old building had been caught in a highly publicized morass of litigation since 1986, when television evangelist Gene Scott bought it and then defaulted on payments.
For two years the Church of the Open Door has held worship services in a gym in the foothills above Glendora, intending to buy the 40-acre site for a new church. The property was once Azusa Pacific University's Hillside Campus.
While its membership swelled from a few hundred to more than 1,000 since the move to Glendora, the church faced mounting legal fees from the sale of the Los Angeles property. Last year it had to lay off nine employees, including three assistant ministers.
Church officials said the sale of the Los Angeles property came so suddenly that they have not had time to discuss hiring people to fill the vacated positions.
"We've been slugging this out for years, for the privilege of standing on this ground," said the Rev. G. Michael Cocoris, senior pastor, when he handed Azusa Pacific University President Paul Sago the check for $4.6 million.
At Sunday's celebration, church member Dawn Jennings of Covina said: "I'm so excited that this is over and we can get back to church business--which is the Lord's business."
Another church member, Louis Slack of Glendora, said: "Words can't express our feelings of frustration and anxiety every time the church thought it had everything settled and then something else happened."
Dorothy McPheeters of West Covina said she was visiting the Church of the Open Door for the first time, partly out of sympathy for its long legal battle. "I'd read so much about it, I had to hand it to these people for sticking it out," she said.
Two services were held as usual in the gym, where people sat on chairs instead of church pews after parking their cars on a football field.
At the mortgage-burning ceremony, the church members cheered Wolery when he said: "We are free!" and Cocoris when he said: "We are burning the financial obligation of the past."
Ownership of the Los Angeles building changed hands twice Feb. 17 when one developer paid $20 million for it and immediately sold it to another, who plans to replace it with an office tower. The church split the proceeds with Biola Hotel, co-owner of the building.
Officials said the Church of the Open Door has spent an average of $25,000 a month on legal fees for more than a year.
After buying the building in 1986, Scott's company, Wescott Center, made a few payments and then began defaulting. Wescott Center later filed several lawsuits that clouded the building's title. Church of the Open Door officials called the suits frivolous and said that although some are still pending, they would have no effect on last week's sale.
Wescott also sought to have the building on Hope Street designated a historical monument, which would have prevented its demolition. The designation expired last month.
With the sale complete, Wolery said, the church will spend $2 million for roads, parking, sewers and landscaping. Then it plans to spend $3.5 million on a two-story auditorium that will seat 1,200 and a hall where up to 800 people can dine.
Sago said Azusa Pacific University will use the money from the sale to begin construction of a new complex on its campus at Citrus and Alosta avenues. It will include facilities for the university's School of Theology, which is now several blocks away in Azusa, and the School of Music, which now occupies buildings on the Hillside Campus.