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A tale of two churches — and a persistent racial divide

Religion and BeliefMartin Luther King Jr.Los Angeles Riots (1992)Rodney King

It has been 46 years since Martin Luther King Jr., preaching about race and faith shortly before his death, lamented that "11 o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America."

That phrase has become something of a dusty cliche, easy to dismiss as outdated. But consider these figures: It is estimated that in 9 out of 10 U.S. congregations, more than 80% of the parishioners represent one racial group. And about half of all churches are racially homogenous.

Then spend a little time visiting L.A. churches — or anywhere, really, where faith is celebrated — and soon you'll see how true King's words remain. Americans worship largely within their own silos, cloistered and comfortable, a spiritual style that misses an opportunity to heal divisions.

Which is why I'm writing about a soft-spoken, gray-haired 80-year-old named David Evans. You've almost certainly never heard of him. He has no pulpit. He isn't a religious leader or an activist. He's simply a parishioner living his faith in two worlds — an example of the quiet, steady courage that can lead to profound understanding.

One Sunday you'll find Evans in Westwood, sitting in well-tended pews at a predominantly white parish, listening to a concise sermon, blending in.

The next Sunday he'll be in South L.A., seated in worn pews, listening to a minister uncoil a sermon peppered with the call and response from an African American congregation. Blending in is difficult: Evans is the only white guy in the room.

Westwood Presbyterian is where this Kansas-raised son of a preacher rediscovered his faith in the early 1970s, after becoming a self-described "angry atheist" during the era he wrote for the TV show "The Monkees."

But Evans will tell you that South L.A.'s Westminster Presbyterian — which opened 110 years ago and bills itself as the oldest black Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi — gives him a different kind of spiritual nourishment.

"Westminster is more of a heart church, more of a community," says Evans, who lives in Sherman Oaks with his wife, Sally. "Yes, it's a bit weary.... Yes, there are fewer and fewer in the pews. But the way I have been accepted and loved, the things I have learned about people I didn't know very well before, about black people, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything."

Evans first came to the South L.A. church in the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots. His Westwood parish was one of several white churches that had reached out to black congregations.

Looking back, Evans admits a certain amount of trepidation about venturing into South L.A.

"With all that was going on after the riots, honestly, I wondered if I might be killed," he says. "But then I reminded myself that this is what Jesus would want: a white guy, privileged in our society because of the color of my skin, reaching out to his brothers and sisters, no matter how uncomfortable I may be."

The relationship between Westminster and Westwood started strongly. There was shared worship. There were meetings and retreats. But no matter how well-intentioned, the religious diversity drive foundered.

"When it comes to [such] efforts … there's a real difficulty in sustaining progress," says Dr. Kevin Dougherty, an associate sociology professor at Baylor University who studies segregation and faith. (The figures cited earlier came from a paper he co-wrote.) "Often the difficulty isn't only getting people together, it is getting them together and then having them stay."

Soon the only two whites regularly in the pews at Westminster were Evans and his wife, who came when she could. For years, until age began slowing him, Evans would go to Westwood in the morning, taking in its punctual sermons. Then he'd drive to Westminster, where the preachers went on as long as the spirit moved them — intoning on issues like how to survive in a world where jobs and financial security and peaceful streets cannot be counted on.

The experience changed his life. He says he grew more aware of the chasm of mistrust between wealthy and poor, black and brown and white. He came to feel that whites, having created the racial division in this country, needed to be the first to reach out.

"I grew acutely aware that many black people think this is a racist country, but white people don't feel that way, and I didn't either," he says. "I didn't see it until I heard their stories and felt their pain. People talk about a post-racial society. Well, for the most part, white people say that. Black people know better."

Evans made close friends at Westminster, visiting congregants' homes, dining with them, attending their weddings and funerals. He joined the gospel choir, sometimes belting out solos, swaying among a group of 25 green-robed singers. "He was rocking so much," recalled longtime parishioner Marsha Jones Shoushtari. "You'd look over at him, singing, waving his arms around and you'd kind of chuckle. I mean how many white boys join the gospel choir?"

In Westwood, Evans says, the response to his journey was often quizzical. On occasion he sensed apprehension at the idea of following his lead, traveling to a world so far apart.

The two churches retain a connection — Westwood donates turkey dinners to Westminster during the holidays — but it all feels very arm's-length to Evans. "The big thing I am always asked is this: 'How are you treated there?'" he says. "Fantastically, of course. But people wonder."

In South L.A. he also faced questions. Evans wasn't the first white believer to come to Westminster, but most had stayed for a few sermons and then disappeared. Some in the congregation wondered whether he'd do the same. They were fearful he was just another voyeuristic do-gooder.

Evans felt the skepticism. About a year into his attendance there, a parishioner stopped him during coffee hour and looked into his eyes. "You're here, you're really here, aren't you?" the man said. "And you're not going to leave us."

"No," Evans says he replied. "I'm not leaving. I'm here to stay. This is home."

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Religion and BeliefMartin Luther King Jr.Los Angeles Riots (1992)Rodney King
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