Established religious institutions, although more well heeled than storefront houses of worship, may be unprepared to adjust to the fast-changing diversification of religious life. The Jewish Federation, for example, the traditional bulwark of the city's 600,000 Jews, is a diminishing force. Despite the growth of L.A.'s Jewish community in both numbers and wealth, says Rob Eshman, editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, the federation annually raises about the same amount of money as it did a decade ago.
Instead, Eshman says, more Jewish money is flowing to specialized institutions like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance. Fund-raising also is increasingly connected to the region's 30 Hebrew day schools that educate about 10,000 Jewish children, according to the Bureau of Jewish Education. "You have a kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the L.A. Jewish community that's also very dynamic and fragmented," Eshman says. "The overall organization of the community tends to be relatively weak, but the individual synagogues are very strong."
Greater ethnic diversity also has changed the profile of the city's Jewish community. First-generation immigrants and their offspring make up nearly 45% of the L.A. Jewish community. This has led to the establishment of numerous shuls, some of which attempt to maintain Jewish practices that originated in places like Iran and elsewhere in the Near East, where Jewish roots are deeper than in Christian Europe.
Similar patterns are evident in the growth of Christian churches. Largely because of the influx of Latino immigrants, the Catholic Church gained about 1.5 million adherents in the 1990s, a 34% increase over the previous decade. As a result, Catholicism is once again the region's predominant faith.
Although the sexual-abuse scandal has tarnished the reputation of the L.A. archdiocese and threatens to strain church finances, grass-roots Catholic religious life in Los Angeles continues to expand, with virtually all parishes reporting increases in attendance and social activities, according to Kevin O'Connor, director of development for the archdiocese. In much of the city, the church has become increasingly Spanish-speaking, but Mass is also celebrated in at least 30 languages every weekend.
Mainline Protestantism and more traditional fundamentalist groups have not fared as well. Yet, many Protestant groups are expanding their social services and redirecting their ministries to accommodate the region's changing population. The United Methodist Church, which shrank by nearly one-quarter during the 1990s, recently established 12 new ministries, 11 of which target Spanish, Chinese or other non-English-speaking constituencies.
But the most dramatic growth is in religions that historically have been outside the mainstream. The largest number of new building projects is being undertaken by evangelical Christian groups like the Assemblies of God. Pentecostal churches are the fastest-growing of all denominations in terms of membership. Many of these churches, such as the Vineyard in Santa Monica or the Oasis in Mid-Wilshire, are Southern Californian in their lack of traditional focus. Their strong emphasis on music and contemporary sermonizing appeals to a wide range of urbanites, among them singles, divorced parents and others alienated from more traditional churches.
These churches also have expanded their appeal beyond their traditional African American and Anglo congregants to recently arrived Latinos and Asians. For many newcomers, the evangelical message of close communion with God, discipline and self-help is a powerful magnet.
But not all newcomers to L.A., Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are gathering under the tent of evangelism. Faiths once tiny in the area -- Buddhism, Bahai, Islam and Hinduism -- are gaining followers, including converts from other religious communities. The four-county area has more than 100 Bahai centers with more than 10,000 members, and 76 mosques serving about 153,000 Muslims. As many as 40% of the nation's 1.4 million Buddhists live in Southern California.
The upsurge in religious activities may be a better harbinger of L.A.'s arrival as a world city than the newest high-rise office building, museum or sport stadium. Like its population and cultures, L.A.'s religiosity has many faces and speaks in many tongues. Yet, the city is increasingly demonstrating how faith can be a common ground. The greater cooperation among L.A.'s religious congregations serves not only the spiritual but also the physical, emotional and social needs of the city's diverse communities.
These multifaceted religious efforts represent a critical element in the maturation and humanization of our urban society. Religious faith is often banished to the sidelines in our secularized culture; it's expansion may prove the most irreducible asset in helping create a true city of angels.