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COVER STORY

Extraordinary Person, Ordinary Personage

Bishop Charles E. Blake Preaches Five Times on Sunday, Ministers to 18,000 People and Runs One of the City's Largest Religious Institutions. He's Now About to Build a Church Larger Than the New Roman Catholic Cathedral.

June 20, 1999|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe's last story for the magazine was a parody on the revival of the Hollywood entertainment district

"He is one of only a very, very few ministers in our community who can convene a meeting of other clergy across denominational lines and they will all respond [and] focus on the issue and achieve a cooperative type of action," says John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "Not many others can do that because of rivalries and ego-tripping."

James Thomas, who served as Blake's community relations director from 1993 to 1995, recalls that after the Northridge earthquake, Blake persuaded the Salvation Army to distribute food and supplies to 17,000 residents of South-Central, which had suffered more damage than was commonly realized. After the riots, when Blake was trying to curtail the re-proliferation of liquor stores in the Crenshaw district, his letter to a state assemblyman resulted in the reversal of a new law that liberalized their zoning, says Thomas, now regional organizer for Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy group for the poor.

Blake's ability to call together top African American leaders stems partly from his position as chairman of the Los Angeles Ecumenical Congress, a confederacy of about 30 predominantly African American denominations that gather sporadically to discuss social and political issues with community leaders. Blake formed the council seven years ago when he noticed that he and his fellow black clergymen were being summoned to several meetings a week to discuss similar topics; it was essentially a time-management strategy, and Blake insists that the council has no particular agenda. "I'm not the leader of it, I'm just the convener," he says.

His most publicized foray into public affairs came with his impassioned defense of former L.A. Police Chief Willie Williams. Blake had been on the committee that selected Williams, and he felt that the besieged chief, who had become a member of his church, had not had a chance to prove himself.

Blake's relations with Riordan were initially clouded by his support of Michael Woo, Riordan's opponent during his first mayoral run. When I asked whom he'd supported the second time around, Blake paused as if praying for a bout of selective amnesia. "He and I have such positive relations now that I would not try to remember how I voted."

But Blake is clearly not a believer in Realpolitik. During Riordan's first campaign, "Most of the other people went over on the basis of 'He's not our cup of tea but he's going to win,' " Bakewell says. "I remember us laughing over that in a troubled sort of way. You can always be assured that he is not going to switch based on what is expedient."

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Weird Babel of Tongues

New Sect of Fanatics is Breaking Loose

Wild Scene Last Night on Azusa Street

Gurgle of Wordless Talk by a Sister

--Los Angeles Times, April 18, 1906

*

The cradle of Charles Blake's particular brand of Christianity can be found in Los Angeles at 214 N. Bonnie Brae St., a house now owned and under restoration by West Angeles. It was here that an itinerant black preacher named William Joseph Seymour set off a spiritual earthquake. He embraced the new "Pentecostal theology" that had begun circulating the country during the 1890s. Its chief doctrine holds that speaking in tongues, also known as glossolalia, is, according to the Bible, direct evidence of the "baptism in the Holy Spirit."

Visiting Los Angeles in the spring of 1906, the impoverished Seymour accepted an invitation to stay at the Bonnie Brae house, where he began holding prayer services. Seymour himself had not yet received the gift of tongues. But on the night of April 9, 1906, he and seven others suddenly fell to the floor in a religious ecstasy and began speaking in tongues. The spontaneous revival began to attract such large crowds that Seymour moved it to an abandoned African Methodist Episcopal Church building at 312 Azusa St. (the structure was razed in the 1931).

What would become known as the Azusa Street Revival would continue unabated for 31/2 years and make national headlines. It also became the cornerstone of the Church of God in Christ, which had been founded in Memphis in 1897 but radically redefined itself after a founder returned east to spread the word.

From the beginning, the Pentecostal form of worship has been controversial among Christians and the object of scorn among skeptics. Traditional worshipers find its emotionalism unsettling while adherents are electrified by its vitality.

Indeed, a visitor to West Angeles is apt to find the experience intense. However, newcomers, be they curiosity seekers or prospective members, are exuberantly welcomed, and it requires quite a feat of stubbornness to stand apart with arms folded as a cool observer amid the hugs, hand-holding and group chants.

"Are you a Christian?" I was frequently asked, to which I would stammer something about being a devout lapsed Catholic, imagining how the pastor of the church I grew up in would likely have called the state police had the congregation actually gotten this excited about Jesus.

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