YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

RELIGION / Exploring issues, answers and beliefs

Ablaze With Bishop's Vision

The new $60-million cathedral of the Church of God in Christ rises on a former site of urban decay as a testament to the vibrancy of the black church in L.A.


Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. can be forgiven his enthusiasm as he describes the moment an elderly African American man, pushing a shopping cart, recently paused in front of the huge, soon-to-open cathedral that Blake's church is building in Southwest Los Angeles.

"He stood there for a long time," Blake said. When the passerby resumed his journey, it seemed to Blake that the old man's step was "a little more spry. He walked a little taller."

The account may say more about Blake's vision of the new West Angeles Cathedral--and its significance for the community--than it does about his ability to read the passerby's mind.

But as sparks from welders' torches rain down on the site of the nearly completed $60-million cathedral, Blake has no doubt that it will both serve and inspire the African American community.

The 5,000-seat cathedral is being built on land at Crenshaw and Exposition boulevards that once housed monuments to despair: boarded-up buildings and abandoned auto dealerships, victims of economic bad times and social unrest.

"This is significant in terms of pointing the direction of the future for the community," Blake said. "The area was literally blighted." But, ever the pastor, Blake seamlessly shifts from talking like an urban renewal director to talking like a man of God.

"If God could do this with a dilapidated furniture store, just think what he could do with your life," he said.

When it is finished, West Angeles Cathedral will be the largest church in the nationwide Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African American Pentecostal denomination with 5.5 million members. Blake's 18,000-member congregation, the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, is also one of the denomination's largest. It had just 50 members when Blake became pastor in 1969.

West Angeles Cathedral is one of two cathedrals being built in Los Angeles. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is erecting the $163-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on a downtown site near the Music Center. It is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2002.

If all goes as planned, Blake said, his cathedral will open this spring. It was to have opened two years ago at a cost of $50 million but a delay in financing put the project behind schedule. Construction costs also drove the price up, to $60 million, not counting the $10 million cost of the land.

The church had to significantly scale back its original architectural concept, unveiled in 1996. The plan, inspired by the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, proved too costly.

Nevertheless, West Angeles Cathedral remains an impressive achievement, a sign of the vibrancy of the black church in Los Angeles.

It will seat 2,000 more worshipers than the Catholic edifice. It will be 102,000 square feet and rise eight stories high at the rear elevation; six stories in the front on Crenshaw Boulevard. Its stained glass cross tower will soar 13 stories. The front lobby will stretch 485 feet from one end to the other.

Despite the numbers of worshipers the church can accommodate, the semicircular, amphitheater design preserves an intimate connection between preacher and congregants.

Behind the podium, a choir will stand against a backdrop of mirrored glass tile in an abstract design. Above the choir will be a baptistery in which believers will be immersed. That's a far cry from the early days of his ministry, when the then-small church used a backyard swimming pool for baptisms.

Baptism symbolizes the death, or burial, of the old person and the rising of the new person in Christ. Above the baptistery will be a huge cross.

Just down the block, the church has built a six-story parking garage to accommodate worshipers.

Like Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who frequently visits the construction site of the Catholic cathedral, Blake said it's hard for him to stay away from his future church.

Recently, as he walked through its sanctuary amid the sound of electric saws and hammers, Blake was asked what he thought he would feel the first time he walked in for the first service.

"It's going to be overwhelming," he said.

Even the cross tower speaks to Blake's vision. As the city is known for its cultural and ethnic diversity, the cross tower is ablaze with "multiple colors wrought into a beautiful pattern--a synthesis--which is what we're trying to do with society," Blake said.

Virtually all the money raised for the church--about $30 million in small and large contributions--has come from his own congregation, Blake said. Among the larger member donors are celebrities Denzel Washington, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Stevie Wonder, Akosua Busia, Tommy "Tiny" Lister, Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett, Elaine Reed Hall, Latanya Jackson and Robert Townsend.

The balance of the $60-million cost will come from $35 million in bank loans.

The church is a major center of social and economic outreach in the community. Its Community Development Corp. runs housing and mortgage programs, makes emergency food and shelter donations and offers legal aid.

Blake preaches at five Sunday services because existing facilities across the street from the cathedral cannot accommodate the crowds. The new cathedral will allow him to preach to just as many in only three services.

If membership rises, would Blake be willing to preach more than three times on Sundays?

"I wouldn't mind it," he said, smiling.

Los Angeles Times Articles