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Where God's House Is for Rent

Faithful Central is still wrestling with growing pains going into its second year as owner of the Forum.

January 26, 2002|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a church takes over one of Southern California's biggest entertainment venues, some things take awhile to translate.

Just ask the leaders of Faithful Central Bible Church, the owners of the Great Western Forum, about the time they let the "Pledge Allegiance" music tour rent the arena last year.

In retrospect, says Gerard McCallum, executive vice president for the church's Forum Enterprises Inc., his first question "should have been, 'You pledge allegiance to what?' "

McCallum walked into the Forum the night of the concert and realized he'd rented the hall to rock bands seeped in the death-and-despair-laden "Goth" style. "Makeup. Dark portrayals. Everyone was dressed really dark," he said. "Some had horns. I said, Oooo-K.' "

This is the learning curve McCallum and Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer have been following in the 12 months since their 10,000-member congregation bought the former home of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings for $22.5 million from L.A. Arena Co., which also owns Staples Center.

The move put Faithful Central's Sunday services--which had been held in three shifts in its old Inglewood location--into one of the largest houses of worship (17,505 seats) in the country. And it won the primarily African American church new attention in the ranks of mega-churches that are trying to blend spirituality with economic development in minority communities.

More Icons of Lakers

Than Those of the Bible

Walk into the Forum and you are more likely to see icons of its Laker days than icons of the Bible. The only stained glass comes from a projection on two white screens. Championship banners and the retired jerseys of such Laker legends as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still adorn the rafters.

"We did not buy this place to put a cross on the top and install stained glass," said Ulmer, a charismatic, exuberant man who took over Faithful Central in 1982, when its congregation numbered 200.

"There is a passage in the Bible where Jesus said, 'Do business until I return.' We see that building as part of that mandate."

Business has included renting out the Forum for concerts by the likes of Elton John, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel. Madonna has used it for a rehearsal. The USC basketball team plays four games there this season. Disney On Ice and Ringling Bros. have held performances there.

The booking business requires the congregation to move back to its former Inglewood address, a converted warehouse on North Eucalyptus Street, four times a year: Ice shows simply leave the venue too cold to have church there the same day, and circus animals present odor issues.

By keeping the Forum as an entertainment venue, the church creates jobs, as many as 600 for some events, Ulmer said. Eventually, a hotel, a conference center and restaurants will be built adjoining the Forum, he said.

The Lakers and Kings left the Forum when Staples Center opened in 1999. At one point, a major housing developer proposed buying and razing the building.

"Many businesses around the Forum, before we moved in, their business was down," said parishioner Jack Lightsy, 50, of Carson. "Now every Sunday, there's 6-, 8-, 9,000 people through supporting those businesses."

In the meantime, the pastors, the church's business minds and parishioners adapt to a building designed without the traditional church demographic in mind.

"There's not enough women's bathrooms," McCallum said. And the Forum's many stairs and steep aisles make navigating it difficult for some older parishioners.

Challenge Remains to

Keep Services Intimate

Ulmer, 54, still finds himself wrestling with the best way to make the services more intimate in such a large venue. Rather than remain fixed at the pulpit, he strides through the aisles while preaching, sometimes walking upstairs to the higher-level seats.

"Everybody's settled in but me, I'm still freaking out," he said jokingly. "Music, anything that promotes contact and participation, is done more intentionally here."

Since July, more than 1,500 new members have joined Faithful Central. Every Sunday, "altar calls" near the end of services invite new members into the flock. These calls routinely result in more than 100 new members a week.

"It's a concern and a challenge," Ulmer said. The theme of change, which is invoked in scriptures, has become a common sermon topic. The church is about to divide the congregation into 12 groups--"tribes," Ulmer said--to better carry out the teaching, outreach and social programs of Faithful Central. Members will be organized by the month of their birth, with a parishioner put in charge of each.

Some members, disenchanted with the idea of worshiping at the impersonal Forum, have left. One pastor and several hundred members left to start their own church.

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