Scott to Abandon His Fight to Retain Disputed Church

Times Staff Writers

Expressing a desire to preserve the "Jesus Saves" church, television evangelist Gene Scott told his congregation Sunday that he will abandon his fight with another Christian church to retain possession of the downtown religious landmark.

In a fiery sermon from the building on Hope Street, the controversial preacher said those who want to save the structure from the wrecking ball would have a better chance of persuading the Los Angeles City Council to declare the 72-year-old church a historic landmark if he no longer occupied it.

"So a decision on the historic monument status can be made without me being involved, I'm going to give this baby back to the Church of the Open Door," Scott said.

"I have fought hard in many battles and never back up, but I never fought a church before," Scott added. "I'm going to make the decision to walk away and hold my head high."

Scott's attorney, Edward L. Masry, said he expects to present the keys today to officials of the Church of the Open Door, which regained title to the building in bankruptcy court last week.

Scott announced later Sunday on his television program that he would hold his service next Sunday at the Beverly Theatre in Beverly Hills. Spokesman for the theater could not be reached Sunday.

Despite Scott's decision to leave the building Sunday, the rancorous battle the two groups have waged for weeks in the courts, on television and in City Hall appears a long way from a truce.

Officials with the Glendora-based Church of the Open Door say they have no intention of preserving what Scott referred to Sunday as the "spiritual heart" of the city.

They contend that designating the building a landmark would lower the sales price of the property because buyers would probably want to tear down the building for high-rise development.

Within hours of Scott's sermon, in fact, the Rev. Dale O. Wolery, associate pastor of the Church of the Open Door, and others were negotiating with representatives of Dean Witter Realty to sell the Italian Renaissance building, which is noted for its large "Jesus Saves" sign.

The fundamentalist group wants to sell the church, which is on a prime piece of real estate, to pay its new mortgage. After the congregation dwindled at the longtime downtown home and maintenance costs and parking costs increased, the church moved to a 40-acre site in Glendora.

The Church of the Open Door thought it had sold the building to Scott's Wescott Christian Center for $23 million in January, 1986. But after making more than $6 million in payments, Wescott stopped sending checks in August.

At the time, Scott claimed to have discovered a "historic trust" on the property, a deed restriction imposed by the church's earliest founders pledging that the property would never be sold, but would be preserved "for the holy word of God." The preacher said he was convinced the Glendora congregation lacked authority to sell the church and halted payments.

To stave off foreclosure, Wescott transferred ownership to a corporation headed by Masry, which immediately filed for protection under federal bankruptcy laws.

Last week, however, a federal judged called the maneuver a "reprehensible" abuse of the legal system and threw out the bankruptcy petition.

The next confrontation could take place before the City Council which, in effect, has the power to approve or foil the Glendora church's plans to sell the property to a developer.

Raymond Killion, who is on the Church of the Open Door's negotiating team, said Sunday that the group hopes to sway the City Council by quickly striking a deal.

"Our desire is we can step up before the City Council and say we have a buyer," Killion said. "We're hopeful that will influence, at least have a bearing on, the decision that the City Council makes."

Sunday morning, the Glendora congregation prayed that the council members would leave its downtown property alone.

"We're in a political arena we're not used to and in an arena where we don't have any clout," Wolery said. "It is our prayer that the building will not be placed on the historical registry."

Scott announced his decision Sunday morning in the downtown church at the end of his sermon. He expressed the hope that the church building's new-found public attention will save it.

"At least we made this church the most famous in America," he said. "At least the City Council can make a decision with the knowledge that the citizenry of Los Angeles is aware of what's here."

The 2,500 people who attended the service cheered the evangelist's decision. After Scott bounded off the stage, the band struck up the theme to the movie "An Officer and a Gentleman" and the crowd lingered on its feet for several minutes clapping.

The consensus of church members seemed to be that the building was worth saving, but Scott's religious message is more valuable.

"I don't show up for the building. I show up for the message that is taught," said John Bonham, a 33-year-old computer programmer from Mar Vista.

"He (Scott) could preach on the back of a truck and we'd all be there," said Beverly Footman, a six-year churchgoer from La Mirada.

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