The old Queen of Angels Hospital, a Los Angeles landmark that has loomed for decades high above its ramshackle Echo Park neighborhood, has been quietly taken over by the largest Assembly of God congregation in the nation and converted into a large-scale ministry for the urban poor.
The 14-story building, now owned by a Phoenix megachurch, has become a church and a wide-ranging social service complex over the last two years. The development went largely unnoticed until this week, when the church announced a fund-raising drive.
Under the supervision of the Rev. Tommy Barnett, pastor of the Phoenix First Assembly of God Church, the former hospital now houses a soup kitchen, a group home for runaways, prostitutes and gang members, a job training center and a homeless shelter, and offers sermons that cater to 10 nationalities.
Barnett, 59, launched the satellite ministry, called the Los Angeles International Church, as part of a national Assemblies of God initiative to open new churches in 39 U.S. inner-city neighborhoods.
"Since I was 18, I always wanted to come to Los Angeles and build a church because of the ethnic diversity here," he said. Unlike the 14,000 members of Barnett's Phoenix church, his Los Angeles congregants are mostly impoverished minorities.
Barnett's flamboyance is well-known in Phoenix, where his church has earned national renown for a Christmas pageant featuring live camels and elephants, lasers, flying angels and a 40-piece orchestra.
The movement of a mostly white and conservative denomination into the inner city is an exception to the ongoing trend of such churches seeking growth in the suburbs, said Michael Mata, associate professor at the Claremont School of Theology.
Barnett's 23-year-old son, Matthew, manages the day-to-day operations of the new Los Angeles church while the elder Barnett spends most of his week tending to his Phoenix ministry, the largest Assemblies of God congregation.
Tommy Barnett said the new Los Angeles church has been underwritten by his congregation and other Assemblies of God churches. The Echo Park church is launching a new fund-raising drive, he said, because city building authorities will not allow it to continue operating unless it brings the 71-year-old former hospital up to city code. He said the church needs to raise $2 million to complete the work by mid-February.
The Spanish-style hospital complex was vacated in 1989 when Queen of Angels merged with Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center two miles away. At the time, hospital and city officials were unsure what they would do with the Echo Park buildings; for some years, the complex was used mainly as a movie set.
Now, 700 rooms must be refurbished and equipped with sprinklers and fire alarms, Tommy Barnett said. The building's facade is cracked and peeling and, inside, the plaster is crumbling.
The elder Barnett said he raised almost $4 million to buy the moldering hospital two years ago, traveling the country to solicit donations.
Although launching this massive inner-city outreach escaped the secular news media's attention, Tommy Barnett said it has been featured in numerous Christian publications. He added that for nine months the ministry has been producing its own television show on a local cable station.
One gimmick to raise money for the renovation involves a Phoenix-to-Los Angeles walk, in which the elder Barnett will ask donors to offer a per-step pledge; he estimates there are 700,000 steps in the 400-mile stretch.
While his father deals with the fund-raising, Matthew Barnett meets to discuss outreach strategies with members of the more than 150 smaller ministries that make up the L.A. International Church. Some of the groups are run independently but use the church's facilities in what they say is a common struggle to help the afflicted and spread God's word.
Mata said: "They're going to offer these services, but they're doing so to introduce the Gospel. They are very strong in their mission to reach out and save souls."
Matthew Barnett said the church now reaches an average of 12,000 people every week through its sermons there and its social outreach programs.
But some longtime activists in the inner city, including Mata, who also works in Echo Park, say they have yet to run across the International Church on the streets, and are skeptical of the high numbers of people Barnett's ministry says it has served.
"I'm not denying that they're engaged in projects and programs," Mata said. "But their presence is not being translated into a dramatic, visible impact on the communities."
Yet many residents in the dilapidated neighborhood around the church say it is responsible for the fact that gang crime has dropped, that trash no longer drifts across the eroding asphalt streets and that those who are short on money can head to the church for food.