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SPECIAL REPORT: St. Martin's in Compton has long been a haven for black residents. With membership now almost nonexistent . . . : Parishioners Bid Farewell to a Place of Strength

December 06, 1998|KURT STREETER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those who remain--about 15 regulars, all of them black, many of them born around World War I--have watched their church crumble slowly.

Emmett Woodard is the oldest. He was 31 when he moved from the South to Compton in 1943. Compton was different then. Black people were just starting to settle, and for a man like Woodard, with latte skin and silvery eyes, the racism lay thick. "You'd get called a nigger all the time. There were places you couldn't eat, right here in Compton."

Woodard found strength at St. Martin's Episcopal. As is the case today, there were two Anglican churches in Compton. But in that segregated era, St. Martin's, which opened its doors in 1935, was the only church blacks could attend.

Woodard will tell you that one of the high points in his 86 years was helping to build a new St. Martin's in 1954 on a corner lot at Wilmington Avenue and 132nd Street. And he will tell you that one of the low points will come the Sunday after Christmas, when St. Martin's, its membership nearly depleted by age and demographic change, will hold its last service.

St. Martin's has golden-hued, ornate fixtures, walnut pews, a stately pulpit. A sculpture of Martin de Porres, the Peruvian-born black patron saint, is tucked in a nook in the front wall.

But it also has a leaky roof, a broken furnace, and plastic windowpanes painted yellow, red and blue to approximate the effect of stained glass. There's not enough money for basic upkeep.

"We had a real strong membership," said Cora Bruce, 81. "It's just that most of them are now 6 feet under."

Woodard holds tight to his memories, clutching them like a man clings to his hat in a windstorm. "This is where it all took place," he said. Baptisms and confirmations, weddings and funerals. "Can you see why I'm so sad?"

He'll be the first to tell you, it has always been tough for this church with its contemplative, quiet worship, rooted in England, to thrive in this community, where Sundays are an event.

Case in point: Just down the street on Sundays, at Little Zion Missionary Baptist, the congregation shakes loose the binding chains of this painful world and celebrates with spellbinding beat and rhythm. Little Zion's membership is packed to the rafters.

Meanwhile, at St. Martin's, the tiny congregation passively sits in a haze of frankincense and recites hymnals in a cadence from a bygone age: "Oh, come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. . . . Oh, come all ye faithful to Bethlehem!"

Those who still go to St. Martin's like it this way. It's respectful, they say. They've been doing it like this for years.

Almost in spite of its style there was a time, in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when this was as strong and vibrant a church as any. The man who laid the foundation was Father Llewellyn Williams, who died in 1975 after leading the congregation for 20 years. He was "a real go-getter," said Hugh Powell, 78. The inspiring, thoughtful minister built his flock to 400 strong and pushed them to engage in down-to-earth social activism.

Back then it was a charmed place. Those who were there will regale you with stories: how the church got a visit in 1984 from South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, so humble, just hanging out there in the back room, eating doughnuts and answering questions; how the cast of the Broadway show "Sarafina" came one Sunday.

They will tell you, most poignantly, how the church was bursting with what one member calls "the lifeblood": children. In the mid-1960s, St. Martin's operated one of Compton's first Head Start programs, a day-care center, clubs for teenagers, breakfast meetings for their parents.

The church had always pushed hard on its children, urging them to expand their horizons beyond the inner city. It succeeded. Young people moved off to colleges in the South, to jobs and better neighborhoods anywhere but Compton, following a massive shift in which Los Angeles' black population left its once-segregated core as legal and social barriers broke down. "Rialto," 63-year-old Ruthie Leonard said with a sigh, "Riverside, Las Vegas. We lost the young generation to these places."

By the mid-'90s the church faced an ultimatum from the Los Angeles diocese. Grow or you'll have to close, members say they were told. But those remaining simply didn't have the stamina to hit the pavement and bring new members in.

Finally, this summer, the final word came: After Dec. 27, worship Sundays at St. Martin's will end.

The diocese has decided to hold onto the land and buildings and continue a tutorial program it runs for youths each day. It will try to attract organizations to rent the church property. There's talk of a medical clinic.

"At least in some small way we'll still have a mission in this neighborhood. That's the only positive thing we have left," Leonard said.

Where will the faithful go?

Some figure, after decades of Sundays, God has made such a strong imprint that he now lives within, making church unnecessary. Most will find another church, even if it means at 55, 65 or even 85 they'll have to change. The congregation at Holy Communion, a diverse Episcopalian church in Gardena, has opened its arms.

On these last Sundays, Father Brian Johnson, who's been at St. Martin's for two years and happens to be the first white preacher the congregation has had, has preached that life is a cycle carved out by a creator with a plan. Never fear, he tells them, where there are endings, there are also beginnings.

Woodard believes this message, but it hardly soothes. The demise of St. Martin's will tear at his soul.

"I've seen the church go up to the top, now I've seen it go to the bottom," he said, tears in his eyes. "This church, it has been my life."

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