It was a perfect Sunday afternoon in Simi Valley. Clear skies, sunshine and cool breezes lured hundreds of residents into back yards, parks and golf courses.
But at a tiny black church at the west end of the city, a few dozen parishioners were content to stay indoors.
As the afternoon light filtered through simple pane glass windows, the congregation of True Spirit Community Church sang, prayed, socialized and dined on steak and fruit juice in celebration of 17 years of building community.
"Our job is to love everybody," said the Rev. Curry McKinney, co-founder and pastor of True Spirit, a nondenominational church. "To learn to see past the color of somebody's skin, to get rid of the hatred, that's been my job for 17 years and more."
The task is not always easy in a city with an African-American population of less than 2% and a name that, for many, brings to mind the Rodney G. King beating trial that acquitted four police officers of using excessive force against King.
"Everyone is welcomed at True Spirit, but you can't get away from the fact that the racism is out there," said McKinney, who is also vice president of the Ventura County chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
These days, McKinney said, apathy is a far greater curse.
One of four black churches in Simi Valley, McKinney has seen the congregation at the modest former schoolhouse on Sinaloa Street shrink from 150 to 40. He attributes the drop to a lack of interest in religion among young people.
"We used to have 40 or 50 young people in here every week, it was a real gathering place," he said. "But now they have other interests or they've moved away and we've had a difficult time drawing others in."
Those who do attend True Spirit seem deeply committed to their church, traveling from Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and as far away as Oxnard to attend Sunday services.
They give McKinney much of the credit for keeping the church going.
"There are times when it must be hard to look out onto such a small congregation," one church member said. "I think a lot of other people would have given up a long time ago."
Sixty-year-old McKinney, who towers well above six feet tall and speaks in a deep, commanding voice, shrugs off such praise.
"It's really about the people who come here, week after week, month after month, year after year," he said. "That is what this place is about."
At 91, Alberta Whitfield is the oldest member of the church. She began attending after she moved to Simi Valley more than a decade ago to live with her daughter and never misses a Sunday.
"I'm going to find a church no matter where I am," Whitfield said. "I liked this place from the first moment I stepped inside."
Theo Green, 18, said he comes to church about once a month, when he can get time off from his job as a grocery store checker.
"There used to be a lot of kids my age around," he said. "But really not too much anymore."
Theo's mother, Jacqueline, a Moorpark resident who has been attending True Spirit with her husband for nine years, said the church offers her a kind of support she would not otherwise have.
"We chose to move here from Los Angeles because we did not want to expose our children to all the crime and gangs down there," Green said. "The trade-off is you go to a place where there is a lot of racism, but then you find a place like True Spirit, where you can get the strength you need to go on and live your life."
For Margaret Busch, a Thousand Oaks resident who has been attending the church for seven years, the sense of community at True Spirit is especially important.
"We go to the service and then we sit around for two or three hours just talking and having a good time," Busch said. "We may be a small church but we are a friendly, caring church."
Attendance on Sunday was bolstered by a busload of visitors from St. Andrews Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where McKinney served before coming to Simi Valley.
Visits to and from other churches are an integral part of the worshiping experience at True Spirit. On this day, the St. Andrews Choir, clad in flowing white robes, was scheduled to make a guest appearance.
Keeping step with a rousing piano accompaniment, the choir swayed into the small church, where the audience jumped up from the wooden pews to clap and sing along to an old Baptist hymn.
\o7 "We are often tossed and driven on the restless sea of time, somber skies and howling tempests often succeed a bright sunshine. In that land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away, we will understand it better by and by."