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Bel-Air Presbyterian to Install New Pastor : Leadership: The Rev. Michael Wenning expects to apply lessons of tolerance from working in his native South Africa.

September 09, 1995|CORD COOPER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It has been a long journey from South Africa to Bel-Air for the Rev. Michael Wenning, but one he feels he has been preparing for all his life.

The journey culminates Sunday, as Bel-Air Presbyterian Church installs the South African-born Wenning as its new senior pastor, replacing the Rev. Donn Moomaw, who led the church from 1964 until his abrupt resignation two years ago.

Now, fortified by lessons they learned in encouraging black and white churchgoers to worship together in South Africa, Wenning and his wife, Freda, welcome the opportunity to minister amid the diversity of Los Angeles.

"You hear the name Bel-Air Presbyterian and you might think 'formal,' 'affluent,' 'stuffy,' " Wenning said. "But this is a commuting church. . . . Most live out of the immediate area [of Bel-Air] and represent the cross-section of L.A."

In South Africa, Wenning was pastor of a Presbyterian church from 1969 to 1976, during a period when the country's right-wing government ordered the church to steer clear of involvement in anti-apartheid politics.

"We sort of told [government officials] to butt out," said Wenning. "We were going to listen to the laws of God, not the laws of man. The church has always been there, pricking the conscience of government."

It was the clergy and congregations across South Africa that formed a unifying force to help bring down apartheid, he said. "Blacks and whites together proved their power in prayer," he said.

And Wenning is looking forward to unleashing that same kind of power in his new assignment. The church, he said, "has got to be a place of hope, a place of tolerance and encouragement, a place of transformation."

Wenning was selected to succeed Moomaw, whose resignation was prompted by his admission that he had "stepped over the line of acceptable behavior" while pastor of the hilltop church on Mulholland Drive that included Ronald and Nancy Reagan among its members.

In March, Presbyterian church officials ended two years of secrecy and announced that Moomaw had engaged in "repeated instances of sexual contact" with five women while pastor of the church, and had been suspended as a clergyman until 1997.

Wenning comes to Bel-Air Presbyterian from Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Hills, where he was senior pastor for nine years. There, his wife, Freda, started the annual Harvest Fair, which raised funds to build and support an orphanage in Seoul. "The first time out we raised $25,000 in one day," she said.

One of the things that attracted them to Bel-Air Presbyterian was the church's involvement in similar kinds of community activities, the Wennings said. The church sponsors food distribution programs, a halfway house for recovering drug addicts and prostitutes, and supports Habitat for Humanity, which helps build homes for low-income families.

During the past five years, Wenning said, he has been offered the senior pastorship of several churches, "but for more than two years, I've had the inescapable feeling that this is where I'm supposed to be." When he was approached by officials of Bel-Air Presbyterian last fall, he said, "that was the confirmation."

Wenning begins his tenure at the church on Sunday with a difficult--and personal--burden: He was recently found to have prostate cancer.

"Fortunately, it's been caught. . . . It's not in an uncontrollable stage," he said. He will probably have to face either surgery or chemotherapy. But, he said, "if you have to have cancer, prostate cancer is one of the better kinds [because] it grows slowly."

The support of the Bel-Air congregation "has been tremendous," said Freda Wenning. "A woman came up to us with tears in her eyes, saying that this more than anything will unify the church behind us."

Michael Wenning says he is convinced that through his personal ordeal, "God will be glorified. This will remind people of the importance of prayer and also that ministers aren't exempt from life's challenges."

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