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A Test of Faith : Provocative Minister, Conservative Congregation Are Learning Tolerance

February 11, 1996|LILY DIZON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO — The minister has something on his mind and warns his congregation that some aren't going to like it. And for those who would agree with him, hold the "amens" and applause--no need to alienate those who might give him the benefit of the doubt.

With those words, the Rev. Julius E. Del Pino leans across his pulpit, looks straight into the eyes of the mostly conservative parishioners at Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church, and launches into his sermon:

Don't be so thoroughly charmed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's "contract with America" that you would forget the poor and their children, the ones who would suffer the most from the so-called Republican revolution. Don't be so settled in your middle-class comfort in South County that you would ignore injustices and inequities around you. And for heaven's sake, don't accept the stereotypes of immigrants and people of color.

"If we don't change directions," the reverend intones, his every word a carefully aimed dart at the conscience of those faces so inscrutable, "we will soon turn America into two nations: one poor and one rich; one white and one of color. We will have lost our soul."

The provocative sermon last month was part of a weeklong celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday sponsored by the church, but it could very well have been Del Pino's preaching on many a Sunday here, where the congregation is more than 90% white. It has been this way since 1993 when Del Pino, an African American, was appointed Shepherd of the Hills' senior pastor by the United Methodist Church.

He is the only African American pastor in the United Methodist Church's Santa Ana district, which covers Orange County and parts of Los Angeles County.

In the three years since he came to Shepherd of the Hills, replacing a beloved white pastor who retired after leading the church for 14 years, Del Pino, 48, has been using the Gospel to lash out against social injustices and encourage understanding of diversity.

Such sermons in the house of the Lord are not uncommon, but when it's a black preacher telling predominantly white congregants to look deep into their souls, well, said the minister, "some people will squirm."

Not all his preaching is related to social issues; many deal with direct readings of the Scriptures.

"Because of that, there are more people readily accepting of his more controversial sermons," said his wife and associate pastor, Demphna Krikorian.

Still, some congregants have registered their displeasure in a dramatic way: They left the church altogether.

When Del Pino arrived in 1993, Shepherd of the Hills had 1,016 active members. Toward the end of last year, it had 925.

Not all left the church because of him, Del Pino said. But many of those who did, he said, explicitly said they did not like his sermons and were uncomfortable with an African American preacher.

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"There has been quite a bit of transition at the church since Julius came," said Charles Earnhart, who chairs an administrative committee of congregants that handles personnel issues. "It is as much because of the theological differences as changes [that came with a new pastor]."

The church and its staff are generally supportive of Del Pino and the changes he brought about, Earnhart said. As for the families who left the church, Earnhart said, the number is relatively few over three years and "I think we've gotten past that."

The pastor is confident that the numbers will increase this year.

"After my first few sermons, some of the staff told me some people weren't pleased with what I had to say and that they were not coming back," said Del Pino, adding that most of the drop-off in membership occurred within his first year. "My response to them was, 'Let them leave, because as they go, others will come.' "

From Day One, he was determined to be true to the word of the Gospel as he sees it. He knew, he said, that his being an African American in a county where African Americans make up a scant 2% of the population, along with his interpretation of the Scriptures and social action doctrine, might not be--to put it mildly--received with open arms here in the most conservative area of the county.

It is not just from behind the lectern that the reverend sermonizes his message of social tolerance. Under his pastorship, Shepherd of the Hills has hosted meetings on affirmative action, fund-raisers for the poor and homeless and the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in South County.

Del Pino has been a pastor at predominantly white churches before--his last, a seven-year stint in Pacific Palisades--before going to the Yale University Divinity School to teach for two years. But because he wanted to preach again, the church assigned him to Shepherd of the Hills. It has taken him time to adjust, he said, from the liberal East Coast community to Orange County.

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