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Expanding Church Finds Room to Grow In

The popular congregation has added so many members, it has moved into a 118,000-square-foot warehouse in Gardena.

March 07, 2004|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

An unusual motorcade wound its way through the streets of South Los Angeles on Saturday as more than 2,000 members of the City of Refuge Church celebrated a move intended to help the church absorb its growing membership.

The event was a new twist on an old tradition, according to the Pentecostal church's pastor, Bishop Noel Jones, who said that the congregations of many black churches have historically marked a move from old home to new with a festive march.

But an active membership of almost 10,000, Jones said, coupled with the nearly seven miles separating the church's old location on South Hoover Street and its new sanctuary in unincorporated Gardena, made a march impractical.

Instead, about 500 carloads of churchgoers (and at least one deacon astride a gleaming Harley Davidson hog) festooned their vehicles with blue and white balloons and drove the route, honking their horns and waving to passersby as they cruised south on San Pedro Street.

"No wonder all those people are carrying on like that," said Lawrence Pruitt, 70, who waved at the caravan from in front of his home at 126th Street and San Pedro. Pruitt recalled his own church marching to a new home after a Times reporter explained the purpose of the passing stream of vehicles, escorted by police. "I didn't know what was going on," he said.

Relocating has become almost commonplace for City of Refuge, formerly known as the Greater Bethany Community Church, which since its founding in 1939 has moved five times, always to accommodate more members.

The most recent move, said Jones, 54, became necessary when the church outgrew the 1,200-seat Hoover Street sanctuary, which was purchased in 1979.

By 1994, when Jones, the elder brother of singer Grace Jones, assumed the pastorship, the church had about 3,300 members.

It since has grown by "leaps and bounds," Jones said, and despite his best efforts to accommodate the crush of worshipers, including personally conducting four services every Sunday, he eventually came to grips with the consequences of the church's success.

"We were landlocked," Jones said.

Jones began scouting outlying areas for a building big enough to house his expanding flock, eventually settling on a 118,000-square-foot warehouse in a Gardena industrial park.

Aided by donations from celebrity members, including actors Jada Pinkett Smith and Larenz Tate, comedian Chris Tucker and journalist Tavis Smiley, the church spent $10 million purchasing and refurbishing the warehouse.

According to church spokesperson Dorean Edwards, Tucker donated $500,000, Pinkett Smith $300,000 and Smiley $300,000.

Jones also said he decided to change the church's name after researching the name "Bethany" and discovering it meant "house of poverty."

"That wasn't in keeping with our message of spiritual prosperity," Jones said.

Although City of Refuge began holding services in Gardena in March 2003, the moving ceremony was postponed until "all the glitches could be worked out," Jones said.

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke were among the dignitaries who congratulated Jones on Saturday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new location, and Hahn later took a tour of the sprawling compound, including its 4,500-seat sanctuary.

Jones said that the church has built-in plans for the next expansion, with enough unused room in the rear of the warehouse to double the size of the existing church when and if the need arises.

He is also eyeing properties on either side of the church as potential parking lots, noting that the relocation has allowed him to reduce the number of Sunday services from four to three.

"I've learned," he said, "that it's harder to manage success than it is failure."

The ribbon-cutting was followed by a barbecue, and organizers bought enough food to serve 2,000 people, including Charles Greer, 84, a member of the church since the 1940s and City of Refuge's oldest deacon.

Greer followed the church's second pastor, Elder Irving W. Bell, to Los Angeles from Boston and has been with the church ever since.

While some church members described the move as bittersweet, Greer was not among them.

"It doesn't make any difference to me," he said. "All I want is for the church to be successful. Wherever they move, I'm with them."

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