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A soaking for the spirit

A Pentecostal congregation draws many to a South L.A. street for a richly symbolic street baptism by fire hose, probably a first for California.

February 05, 2007|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

As water from a fire hose blasted down on her in the middle of Vernon Avenue in South Los Angeles on Sunday, Pearl Fuquay lifted her face to receive it.

All around her, as brass bands played, hundreds of other worshippers dressed in filmy, white, sopping-wet clothing danced, sobbed and exulted in what they said was the city's first baptism by fire hose.

For Fuquay, the event was more than an unusual rite for members of her own congregation, the United House of Prayer.

"It's baptizing the city of Los Angeles," said the mother of four, who lost one son to an early death and is trying to raise another in a gang-racked neighborhood known as the Jungle. "It's a cleaning of the city."

The street around her church is testament to the needs of the area. The stuccoed walls of nearby businesses are layered with graffiti from warring gangs. Less than half a block from the church, a young man was shot to death last week. When the sidewalk was cleaned in front of the church, a dark mixture of blood and water ran down the gutter.

But on Sunday, church members said the water in the street was holy, a symbol of faith and rebirth.

The predominantly African American church held the mass baptism as part of its 80th annual Holy Convocation. Fire hoses were used in the street, said Pastor Wilbert Swaringer, because Los Angeles does not have access to the river Jordan, where the faithful believe Jesus was baptized. When asked about the Los Angeles River, Swaringer looked alarmed and said he had not considered that.

Swaringer said church leaders found resonance in the symbolism of the hoses. During the civil rights era, hoses were used "to fight people." But now, he said, "we are using the hose for healing." All members of the church were encouraged to take part, even those who had already been baptized. Community members were also invited, as were members from congregations around the country.

"It's spiritual healing," said Renico Smith, 34. He came from San Diego, where he serves in the Navy, and said he had dedicated his prayers Sunday to fellow soldiers serving in Iraq.

"They're fighting a very dangerous battle," he said. "They need the prayers so they come home safely to their mothers and fathers."

The United House of Prayer is a nondenominational Pentecostal church founded in 1919 in Wareham, Mass., by Bishop Charles M. "Sweet Daddy" Grace and incorporated in 1927. The church is known for its brass bands, ecstatic worship and exultation of its bishops, who are known by the title "Sweet Daddy."

The 3-million-member organization has held outdoor baptisms with fire hoses in Eastern cities such as New York and Philadelphia. In North Carolina last year, one reportedly drew 2,500 people.

But this was the first street baptism for California, according to church officials.

It took a surprising amount of organization -- including getting the church's water meter hooked up to a fire hydrant so the water department would know how much to charge.

By early Sunday morning, all the preparations were in place. Hoses had been rented. Traffic officers had closed the block of Vernon Avenue in front of the church. Massive white armchairs for the visiting clergy -- out of range of the hoses -- had been set up on the church steps.

Hot dogs were cooking on a grill in the parking lot and musicians in brass bands visiting from Virginia and North Carolina were setting up chairs, cleaning horns and mopping their foreheads in the unseasonable heat.

All morning, men, women and children dressed all in white streamed into the church. Some brought shower caps or towels to protect their hair from the onslaught of healing water.

Shortly after 11 a.m., they began gathering in the middle of the street.

"Father, we ask you to drive away the violence," called Apostle C.M. Gibbs, who came from Baltimore. "This city needs a healing."

Parishioners clapped in response.

About noon, the current bishop, S.C. Madison, known as Daddy Madison, arrived from his hotel. He's 85 and came only for the end of the service.

As he climbed the steps of the church, a little boy whispered to his mother: "Mommy, I want to get baptized."

A few seconds later, the hoses were turned on. The brass bands seemed to play louder as two church elders each held a hose and began to spray in the air.

Within minutes, everyone was soaked. For more than 10 minutes, they danced in the spray of falling water.

Then the hoses were turned off, the street was reopened to traffic, and church members were urged to go home, get changed and return in the evening for another service.

As she walked toward the parking lot with her son, Renard Myers, 10, Fuquay broke into a smile.

"I feel blessed," she said.

jessica.garrison@latimes.com

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