Inner City Ministry Recalled : Lawsuit Over Church Sale Hinges on Forgotten Deed
For Lehua May Garcia, it was a place of magic, this enormous church with its pews stretching into the rafters and red neon sign proclaiming “Jesus Saves” to the lost of Los Angeles.
How else could you explain it, when Roy Rogers and Dale Evans could sing away the hurt of six brothers and sisters waiting at home with no one to look after them? In one of the seats at the back of the 4,000-seat auditorium, then-9-year-old Garcia would listen raptly to the missionaries’ tales of Africa, the pastor’s promise of a heaven somewhere past the tiny, teeming house near Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street.
When the historic Church of the Open Door closed its doors on Hope Street last year, following its congregation into the suburbs, that part of Garcia’s life closed with it. “That is exactly what they were here for, to rescue little things like me,” said Garcia, 39.
Now, a lawsuit by Garcia challenging the sale of the 71-year-old church to flamboyant television preacher Gene Scott as a hotel and headquarters for his broadcast ministry has resurrected a little of the church’s evangelistic past in a controversy that threatens to scuttle the $23-million real estate transaction.
Combing through records that document the church’s development amid a world at war, Garcia and her attorney have uncovered a long-forgotten deed that dedicates the church property to “the promulgation of the eternal trusts of God’s Holy Word,” a document that Garcia claims casts serious doubt on whether the aging institution can ever be sold.
As the case progresses through Los Angeles Superior Court, some of the city’s top attorneys--and Scott himself--now feel she may be right.
“We’re taking it very seriously,” attorney Gregson Bautzer, representing the television evangelist, said of the 1919 deed that pledged that “these buildings are not to be a monument to any man, nor to any set of men,” but dedicated “unto Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood.”
It is not the sort of legal document modern attorneys are accustomed to dealing with.
But Scott’s Wescott Christian Center has used the purported deed restriction as the basis of a suit of its own against the leadership of the Church of the Open Door, seeking to rescind the July, 1986, purchase agreement, which Scott now believes was illegal, and refusing any further payments on the property until the issue of the deed is resolved.
Church of the Open Door, which needs the money from the downtown site to make payments on the church it bought in Glendora, has launched foreclosure proceedings against Wescott and claims that the allegations about the deed are Scott’s attempt to seize the valuable church at a discount.
Behind the controversy is the gradual movement of most of Los Angeles’ large downtown churches into the suburbs. Vice Pastor Dale Wolery said the church’s congregation had dwindled to just 600 during its last years on Hope Street, unable to deal with mounting debts for maintenance, parking and the church’s expensive foreign ministry.
But Garcia says the rush to serve growing outlying communities has ignored the needs of the population the Church of the Open Door was originally intended to serve. “This particular church was put here for little kids like me,” said Garcia, who launched the inquiry into the church’s past when she moved back to Los Angeles from San Diego last year and said she was “devastated” to find the church of her childhood shut down.
“This is where we need help,” said her attorney, Jennifer J. King, “for little kids that live in tenements that can’t live in the suburbs with a $200,000 price tag on a home.”
Scott said he had the same aim when, hearing that the church was to be sold to a Texas developer and demolished, he negotiated to purchase it, in the hope that his national television ministry could help draw people downtown where others had failed.
“I’m simply tired of churches giving up on the city centers,” he said. “I said then, if the racks of a wrecking ball hit ‘Forever O Lord Thy Word Is Settled In Heaven’ (emblazoned on the facade of the church), something will go out of the spiritual life of the city of Los Angeles.”
1915 Fund-Raising Effort
The controversy over the deed grows out of the mammoth fund-raising effort embarked on in 1915 by Lyman Stewart, founder of Union Oil, a leading figure in modern fundamentalism in the United States and the man who conceived the dream of a church and Bible school for “the lost” of the city to be developed with the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now headquartered at Biola College).
Donors, wary during those war-torn days of religious hucksters and false promises, received a solemn pledge that their money would forever be dedicated to the church project by way of the deed restriction.
“Your Gifts for God Insured for Eternity,” pledged one 1921 solicitation. “Bible Institute of Los Angeles Can Never Change Its Bible Doctrine; The Deed to the Property Valued at TWO MILLION DOLLARS Contains Our Doctrinal Statement.”
Asked another ad: “Will a Man Rob God? . . . He most certainly will if he invests his money in channels where the Lord is not strictly honored.”
Hence the deed, which promised that if the newly built Bible Institute were ever to be used for any other purpose, the property would revert to Lyman Stewart or his heirs, to be held in trust for repayment to donors or their heirs.
New Deed Signed in 1923
The current controversy would probably not exist if it were not for a new deed Stewart signed in 1923, just a few months before his death, which removed the original deed restriction, purportedly for ease of administration of the property.
Church of the Open Door leaders say that rescission cleared the way for them to dispose of the property as they wish. But Garcia is claiming that Stewart never had the authority to remove the restriction. That, she says, would have required the authorization of all the donors who had contributed to the church.
Scott says he has concluded that Garcia is right. And if she is, he added, it not only means that the redevelopment of the adjacent Rainbow Hotel, which was to finance a large part of the purchase, cannot go forward but it also that the property cannot be sold at all.
Joel N. Klevens, the attorney representing the Church of the Open Door, dismisses both claims as “frivolous.”
Even if a trust does exist on the property, he said, “what does it mean? Does it mean the church is required to remain in that building forever, until it falls down? The only legitimate question is, Did you sell that building for the best possible price, and did you take it to acquire another building for religious purposes? The answers to both those questions is a resounding yes.”
‘We Pursue What’s Right’
Attorneys for Scott say they will go into court in the next few weeks to have a judge set aside the foreclosure and ask the court, eventually, to decide whether the deed restriction applies--even if it means forfeiting Wescott’s $6.5-million down payment on the property.
“We pursue what’s right,” Scott declared, “and if it costs us, so be it.”
For the leadership of the Church of the Open Door, the issue is more than one of principle: It is survival. Should a court rule that the church is unable to sell its property in downtown Los Angeles, it could be forced to return to a site it can no longer afford to maintain.
The congregation knew that when it voted overwhelmingly--93%--in favor of selling the old church in 1983, before Garcia returned to the church as an adult, said Pastor Wolery.
And with only about 20% of the old congregation now traveling to services in Glendora, he said, it is clear that many church members were voting not for themselves, but for the survival of the Church of the Open Door, he said.
“I think many of them realized that if I vote this way, I know I won’t have a church to go to anymore. But it was the wise thing to do, and so they did it. From the human interest side, it’s been a delightful study in self-sacrifice.”