The first Chinese-American congregation to build its own church in the San Fernando Valley has begun services at its $1.9-million facility. Before the summer is over, a second Chinese church, costing $1.75 million, also is expected to be ready for occupancy.
The nearly back-to-back church openings in Northridge are partly reflective of an increase in the Chinese-American population, which has more than doubled in many West Valley communities over the last decade, according to census figures. Yet, residents of Chinese descent still make up only 2.2% of Northridge, the highest ratio in the West Valley.
More than anything else, church leaders said, the new buildings are the results of plans laid in the late 1970s by Chinese families who wanted to build an evangelical church within reasonable driving distance and, for years, patiently tolerated rented facilities.
It was a toss-up in recent months as to which congregation would obtain city permits to open first, but it was not a race of rivals. Their target membership and emphases are different:
* The Chinese Christian Alliance Church, which opened its pink-and-plum building at 18827 Roscoe Blvd. the end of June, caters primarily to second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans. Its best-attended service is in English; its next largest is conducted in the Cantonese dialect, and a third group uses Mandarin Chinese.
"This was one of the few churches started basically by American-born Chinese," said Roberta (Bobby) Yook, who with her ophthalmologist husband and three other families founded the congregation.
* The Mandarin Baptist Church of San Fernando Valley, which hopes to begin services next month at its red-and-white building near the southeast corner of the Cal State Northridge campus, conducts its main Sunday service in Mandarin--the dialect most common among immigrant Chinese. The 160-member congregation has been holding services in recent years in an elementary school in Van Nuys. A youth service is in English.
"We have some young college people who attend our services now and a few exchange scholars from China who have come to observe our worship," said Taiwan-born Daniel Hsu, pastor of the congregation since 1984.
Christians are a minority among people of Chinese heritage living in California, church leaders said. Many Chinese-Americans consider themselves either Buddhist or non-religious, according to church leaders.
"The Buddhists are very active in Los Angeles--very different from Buddhists overseas," said Hsu. He said the large Hsi Lai Chinese Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights takes a modern approach to attracting people with retreats, seminars and fellowship meetings. "They even have choirs," Hsu said.
The two new Chinese churches in the Valley belong to denominations that are also evangelistically active, creating or backing hundreds of new ethnic congregations in the multicultural Los Angeles area.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance, a 250,000-member denomination which loaned about $500,000 to the Chinese Christian Alliance Church, has 16 other Chinese churches in Southern California.
The Mandarin Baptist Church is aligned with the Southern Baptists, a 15-million-member denomination which has 32 full-fledged churches and 16 mission churches for Chinese Christians in the state. The Valley congregation formed as a spinoff from a Los Angeles church, but was able to obtain a construction loan of $1.35 million on its own from a bank.
Both Northridge congregations look to expand their facilities later if they continue to grow: The Alliance church would add classrooms in a second phase and the Mandarin church eventually would build a 500-seat sanctuary to replace its current 200-seat worship hall.
Although the two new churches offer Chinese cultural associations, the religious atmosphere is typically Western, conservative evangelical.
At the Alliance church, for example, the Rev. Don McDougall, a professor at The Master's Seminary in Sun Valley, is serving as interim pastor for the English-speaking congregation. One of the church bulletin inserts is from James Dobson's Focus on the Family ministries, which, among other things, asks churchgoers to write members of Congress to oppose a bill favoring abortion rights.
The evangelistic thrust of the Alliance church is not confined to Chinese-Americans. Several young adults will leave in August for short-term missionary work among Navajo Indians in Arizona and four church members have left for Nigeria as part of a medical-dental mission.
But reaching fellow ethnic Chinese is a major concern. Church elder Samuel Cheng, a former professor of dentistry at UCLA, broadcasts a Friday radio program in Cantonese on KKLA, a Christian radio station.
"We get young callers who have never been exposed to Christian ideas before--from restaurant workers to postal letter-sorters," he said.
Moreover, with an attractive building of its own, the church "now will be more appealing to well-educated people," Cheng said.
The Alliance congregation is grateful to Christ Community Church in Winnetka for allowing use of its gymnasium at a token rent during the past 15 years, Cheng said, but folding chairs and basketball hoops did not provide the most appealing setting for church services.