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Born Again : For Decades They Were Secure in Affluence and Influence : Now Wilshire Boulevard's Old Churches, Suddenly Strangers in Their Own Neighborhood, Struggle to Adapt and Survive.

July 03, 1988|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

They were built as God's mighty fortresses, massive edifices that once housed the biggest, wealthiest, most influential, white Protestant congregations in Los Angeles.

But beneath the soaring steeples that have been neighborhood fixtures for decades, the giant churches on Wilshire Boulevard between Hoover Street and Highland Avenue have undergone a dramatic transformation, swept by the same ethnic and economic forces that are reshaping all of Los Angeles.

In the process, the mid-Wilshire churches have seen their congregations dwindle, sometimes almost to extinction. As their traditional members drifted to the suburbs or advanced into old age, many of the churches found themselves almost-deserted islands in a sea of shifting ethnic neighborhoods. They also have seen their finances and influence diminish.

Only recently have the institutions--among them First Baptist Church of Los Angeles, First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, St. James Episcopal Church, Wilshire Christian Church and Wilshire United Methodist Church--begun to deal with their new sort of mission: a quest for survival.

Today they are trying to attract new members, not just whites but also blacks, Latinos, Koreans and Filipinos. They are trying to reach out to their new neighbors and neighborhoods with child care, English classes, food for the hungry and high-rise housing for the elderly poor. The once-staid churches are tapping technology and embracing innovations they never would have considered before, such as having studios film in their buildings.

"We are never again going to be called a fashionable, wealthy church and I think that's good," said Ruth Beck of Pasadena, who lived near Immanuel Presbyterian when she joined in 1955. "The old times were wonderful, and we couldn't help but enjoy the attitude that prevailed. But whether we were really doing what we should . . . I don't know. . . . We have wonderful memories. But now we have wonderful goals: feeding the hungry, clothing those that don't have clothes and ministering to those in need.

'Strong Missionary Church'

"We have always been a strong missionary church and we have built schools in Egypt and sent missionaries all over the world," Beck said. "But now the world is right at our door."

That new ethnic-international presence is easy to see in the mid-Wilshire churches.

On a recent Sunday at Wilshire United Methodist, for example, Koreans and Latinos conducted separate services in small chapels in the building. At a private grade school on another day in nearby First Congregational, an interracial group of children in a sandbox argued over who was to hold what roles when they played house. At First Baptist on yet another day, Koreans sat in the lobby and read newspapers or studied English in church classrooms, while in another part of the building, Latino gang members rehearsed the ballet "Sleeping Beauty." Such scenes would have been improbable in years past when the mid-Wilshire churches were surrounded by affluence and packed every Sunday.

"When I first came here in 1923, there was nothing but beautiful residences lining Wilshire Boulevard with the tall Washingtonian palms on each side of the street," recalled Odell McConnell, a lawyer who joined Immanuel Presbyterian in 1924. "The Ambassador Hotel was about the only commercial building on Wilshire at that time. . . . There were people of all racial varieties. But there were many prominent people, people of means. It was one of the wealthy neighborhoods of the city."

The affluent also flocked to the area churches. In the early 1940s, First Congregational, at 540 S. Commonwealth Ave., called itself the world's largest Congregational church. Then under the direction of Dr. James W. Fifield Jr., it claimed it had a flock of 5,000. Its members would include actor Charlton Heston and Mayor Norris S. Poulson.

At stately Immanuel Presbyterian, "the sanctuary was full every Sunday," Beck recalled. "Not every seat was occupied, but it was comfortably full and looked like a big crowd. The choir had 75 members. The music program was second to none. . . . On Easter Sunday we'd have to have two services and it would overflow into Chichester Chapel. . . ."

But in the mid-1940s, older, affluent white members slowly began to move from the mid-Wilshire area to the suburbs, where they joined new churches.

The decline of big inner-city institutions like those on mid-Wilshire only hastened in the 1960s, '70s and '80s when the young rebelled against the Establishment, then many worshipers determined that religion was a private matter and did not require them to affiliate with a church, say Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, authors of "American Mainline Religion."

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