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O.C. RELIGION | GETTING RELIGION / WILLIAM LOBDELL

'The Sin's the Same'

Pastor From Inglewood Starts Thriving Church in South Orange County

March 04, 2000|WILLIAM LOBDELL

Lance Hardaway couldn't sleep. At midnight his wife finally said, "Get up. The Lord is trying to speak to you."

Hardaway wasn't sure about that. What kept him awake this time was a short conversation he had earlier in the day with an old friend.

Charles Hutchison described to Hardaway the hassle of piling the family into the car on Sunday mornings and driving from Trabuco Canyon to Inglewood--120 miles round trip--to attend an African-American church.

So he asked Hardaway, a pastor at the Inglewood church he attended, if he'd be interested in starting a similar church in South Orange County.

"I don't know if I used the term 'gold mine,' " Hutchison said, "but there was a real need."

Hardaway dismissed the idea politely but quickly. South Orange County, a foreign land, didn't interest him. He dreamed of heading his own church in the inner city, a place he knew well coming from the streets of Philadelphia.

"How could I convince people in Orange County that they need something when they think they have everything?" Hardaway wondered while lying in bed.

He took his wife's advice. He got out of bed and opened his Bible, turning to the Book of Acts. His eyes settled on Chapter 16, verses 9 and 10. That's when he felt God speaking to him:

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel to them.

South Orange County was the new Macedonia.

One year later, in July 1998, 90 people would attend the first service of the Macedonia Christian Fellowship Church in Aliso Viejo. Today, the church has grown to nearly 400 members and has also become an island of African-American culture in a suburban sea, where blacks make up only 2% of the population.

Macedonia is one of a handful of African-American churches in Orange County and the only one south of Irvine.

"This is where I've met the majority of my friends," said Melonie Carnegie, 29, whose company recently transferred her and her husband to Orange County from Texas. "Before that, it was pretty rough."

The two-hour Sunday service at Wood Canyon Elementary School has become a refuge for the mostly affluent congregation, who see few fellow African Americans at work, at the grocery store or at their kids' soccer games in South Orange County.

"If you talk with anyone in the church, six days a week we're in a situation where we are definitely minorities," said Hutchison, now a church elder. "Macedonia is a staple in the black community here. It allows adults and children fellowship where we're not a minority."

Hardaway, 45, takes pride in the church's African American roots, but he also wants his church to be known for its diversity.

"What separates churches is racism, no matter how subtle," said Hardaway, who believes his church can attract a wide variety of congregants because of its loving atmosphere and diversity of worship. "The [nonblacks] who come, the few who come, see the love in our church. And that pleases God."

Diane Smith, who is white and lives in Newport Beach, first heard Hardaway speak at a conference and has become a regular at Macedonia.

"The church has a very warm and inclusive feeling," Smith said. "People have gone out of their way to introduce themselves and make me feel welcome. I find the whole service very energizing--as if I've gone to a pep rally for the week ahead."

Hardaway describes Macedonia's services as charismatic worship mixed with conservative theology.

"There's a lot of liberalism in Christianity," Hardaway said. "We make too many excuses for sin."

The structure is loose, which Hardaway says is a result of being led by the Holy Spirit.

"We just go where God wants us to go," Hardaway said.

*

This means the gospel choir--a dozen or so men and women backed up by a three-piece band--sometimes will sing the entire time, or when the spirit moves him, Hardaway, a gifted orator with a booming baritone voice, will preach the full service.

Going to church at Macedonia means dressing up--suits for the men, Sunday dresses for the women. It also means plenty of "Amens," "Hallelujahs" and "Thank you, Jesuses," which serve as audience-supplied exclamation points during the sermon or songs.

Newcomers are asked to stand up and Hardaway tells them, "Don't sit down until you feel welcome." They're then surrounded by church regulars, who offer handshakes and hugs.

The emotional highlight is often the altar call, where church members with special needs are prayed for by the entire congregation. Tears flow steadily.

Hardaway's vision for his church is ambitious. Macedonia has already established a building fund, and Hardaway predicts the church will find a permanent home within a year. And from there, he wants to start a Christian elementary school.

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