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PALM LATITUDES

STATE OF MIND : Strength in (Small) Numbers

August 01, 1993|R. Daniel Foster

In Southern California, the land of the superchurch, many ministries pack services with twice as many worshipers as the national average. Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana is so popular, it has to use the Pacific Ocean to baptize members into its fold of about 20,000.

Yet at least a third of local churches carry their strength in their familial feel, not their freeway accessibility or status symbolism. Tucked away in garages and storefronts or housed in large churches they can no longer fill, hundreds of congregations have fewer than 100 members.

"Here, people feel they're needed, and if they don't show up, folks notice," says Stuart Collins, pastor of South Hollywood Presbyterian Church, founded in 1913. As with other urban churches, South Hollywood's congregation dwindled with the advent of freeways and urban flight. Attendance at Sunday services, once 1,000, now averages about 50.

"Memories and old stories we pass down are what keep us here," says Katherine Borkgren, who joined the church with her husband, Bill, in 1938. "Our daughter was married here and our son was buried here. You go somewhere else big and no one would know you had a son."

This familial closeness can be hard on newcomers, however; a small church's tight circle of worshipers can be difficult to break into. "Sometimes you just have to be around long enough until other members adopt you," Collins says.

And smaller congregations are often more vigilant correctors of sinful ways. "In a large church, it's easy to wear a facade and become invisible," says the Rev. James Mitchell, who began his Church at Ft. Noah in San Fernando a decade ago. "Hypocrites and pretenders don't last long here because there's no place to hide." With a congregation of about 35, Mitchell says members "all help each other out in following the righteous path."

From a battered, two-bedroom house topped by a gnarled wooden cross, Mitchell's Bible-based ministry also works with local gangs. "They trust us because we're small and at hand," says Mitchell. "We're able to stop trouble before it happens."

Storefront churches "just get in there and solve problems," says the Rev. Ernest Woods of Ebony Missionary Baptist Church in South-Central L.A. After the 1992 riots, Woods' 100-member congregation fed about 200 families daily for eight months.

"A church should be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Woods, leaning against a chipped pulpit in his South Figueroa Street chapel. "It's a misuse of property to have a $3-million dollar building that's closed most of the week. It's just not right to stash God away like that."

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