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A Little Tokyo church finds the answer to its prayers

March 08, 2009|Duke Helfand

For decades, Union Church of Los Angeles attracted overflow Sunday crowds with its blend of Japanese culture and Christian faith.

In recent years, however, many who once filled the pews at the cinder block church in Little Tokyo have moved to the suburbs, leaving a core of aging congregants searching for a solution.

Now, the faithful may have found their answer in a partnership with one of Los Angeles' most prosperous congregations, Bel Air Presbyterian, which once counted former President Reagan among its members.

Bel Air's rescue plan is simple: Use high-energy worship services, complete with ear-thumping Christian rock music, to help Union Church attract the young professionals who populate downtown's lofts and condos.

If successful, the strategy, which also includes financial support from the Bel Air congregation, could be a model for other churches struggling to survive in the midst of demographic change. And it may finally resolve a concern that has weighed for years on 79-year-old Yemiko Endo: "What will happen when we're gone?" she asked.

"We have to join hands and reach out," said Endo, a member of the Little Tokyo church for more than half a century. "Otherwise, we're going to die a slow death."

Yet the fledgling alliance with Bel Air is bittersweet for some of Union Church's graying members. As the church adapts and changes, they worry that it may lose its identity as a longtime fixture for Los Angeles' Japanese American community.

"It's a struggle between the old and the new," said Jim Furuya, 80, who has been going to Union Church for 50 years. "There is tension there."

In five months of worshiping together, however, both sets of church members say they have been surprised and encouraged by their growing cultural fusion -- of old and young, urban and suburban, East and West. Many who might never have crossed paths in the anonymity of Los Angeles say they have found themselves bonding over faith, family and the future.

"While we don't worship God in the same languages all the time, it's still the same God," said Laura Rasmussen, 34, a Bel Air staffer who is taking part in the partnership with Union Church. "It makes it even richer coming from different perspectives."

Still, there are challenges.

"The music is a little loud," said Betty Akagi, 72, cupping one of her ears during a recent Sunday service as Bel Air's band cranked another tune and biblical verses from the books of Isaiah and Romans were projected onto a large screen at the front of the sanctuary. "I can overlook that. It's very Christ-centered."

Akagi is among those at Union Church who see divine intervention in the arrival of the Bel Air newcomers. "I believe God sent them here," she said.

There was a time when such intermingling might have been inconceivable.

For 91 years, Union Church has served as a religious and cultural home to its Japanese American patrons -- in good times and bad. In 1942, for example, community members had to gather at its original site a couple of blocks away to embark on their journeys to World War II internment camps.

At its height, in the late 1970s and '80s, Union was packed each Sunday with about 350 people, including many children and young adults.

But the forces of assimilation and gentrification have taken their toll, with only about 120 total attending separate English and Japanese services on a recent Sunday. Most of them came from communities outside Little Tokyo, including Monterey Park, Torrance and the San Fernando Valley.

It was this steady decline that drove Union's interim pastor, the Rev. Masaya Hibino, to seek the Bel Air partnership.

Hibino was attending a meeting of leaders at the Bel Air church in 2007 when he heard its senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Brewer, describe his vision of turning Los Angeles into "the greatest city for Christ" by, among other steps, connecting churches with one another.

Soon after, Hibino approached one of Bel Air's other pastors, the Rev. Enock De Assis, and broached the idea of an association.

"I could not see a bright future . . . if I didn't do something," said Hibino, 78. "I said, 'We need to change our church to reach out to the people who move into this area. We need to do something to come [up] with [a] new kind of worship.' "

Last October, the two congregations inaugurated joint monthly Sunday night services at Union that are known as "The Bridge."

Encouraged by the budding relationship, leaders from both churches are pressing ahead with plans to go weekly, starting after Easter.

Brewer and two other Bel Air pastors -- the Rev. Roger Dermody and De Assis -- believe they can woo downtown's thirtysomething crowd by arranging children's programs and low-cost child care at Union during the week and by inviting local residents to hear the church band play at an open-air plaza next door. They see an opportunity to bring together the area's young professionals and Japanese residents, as well as the homeless of nearby skid row.

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