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Religiously Anti-Establishment : First Unitarian Church Has Championed Liberal Causes for Half a Century

If the Rev. Jerry Falwell ever found himself at a Sunday morning service at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, he might think he had died and gone to hell.

The congregation of the handsome Unitarian Universalist church is made up mostly of secular humanists and even some atheists. And the minister, the Rev. Philip Zwerling, is a card-carrying left-liberal activist who proudly preaches--and religiously practices--a social gospel that is the ideological opposite of the right-wing Republicanism that Falwell propounds.

Zwerling is pro-union, pro-Sandinista, pro-peace, anti-nuclear and anti-Reagan Administration foreign policy. His eloquent Sunday “sermons” on such topics as “Fidel and Religion” and “Secrets, Spies and National Security” usually strike nothing but joy in the hearts of an already converted left-wing congregation that is small in number, poor in pocketbook but active as all get-out.

Hot Spot of Activism

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With its thick gray walls, stately bell tower and mighty wooden front door, the Spanish-style church at 2936 West 8th St. near Vermont looks like just another house of Christian worship. But for more than 50 years, First Church, as its 292 members call it, has been a hot spot of progressive liberal activism in Los Angeles.

Its pulpit has served as a friendly Sunday soapbox for such heroes of the Left as W. E. B. Dubois, Dr. Benjamin Spock and anti-war activists Philip and Rev. Daniel Berrigan. Past guest speakers have included writers Gore Vidal and Harlan Ellison, activist actor Ed Asner and local politicos like Zev Yaroslavsky, Diane Watson and Ira Reiner.

During World War II, its liberal minister counseled conscientious objectors and spoke out strongly against the forced internment of Japanese-Americans.

During the McCarthy Era, when First Church was booming with about 1,000 members, it earned the nickname “The Little Red Church on the Hill,” not for its orangey-red tile roof, but for the warm hospitality it showed to the Hollywood Ten and other blacklistees like Paul Robeson who were invited to defend themselves from its pulpit.

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And during the Vietnam War era the church boiled with anti-war activities, all of which helps to explain why the FBI had First Church under surveillance from 1942 to 1974, as did the LAPD’s now shut-down Public Disorder Intelligence Division from 1975 to 1978.

Zwerling, 39, has not let the progressive tradition lapse in his 10 years as minister. A Harvard Divinity School graduate, he has written a book on Nicaragua and been arrested five times for civil disobedience, most recently in 1984 while protesting the deportation of Central American refugees.

Sanctuary to Refugees

In 1983, Zwerling’s church became the first in Los Angeles to publicly announce that it was giving sanctuary to Central American refugees. About 10% of the congregation is Latino, most of whom attend a 10 a.m. Sunday service in Spanish. During the week First Church space is home to a preschool, a day-care center and a senior lunch program. Chief among the many social good works is the weekly distribution of 100 bags of groceries to the neighborhood’s needy Latinos.

Zwerling conducts weddings, makes sick calls and performs other mainstream ministerial duties. But his most important work is done from the pulpit, he says, and he prints transcripts of his rhetorically well-crafted addresses (and some of his guests’) and puts them on sale for $1 in the patio each Sunday. (They also are taped and broadcast on radio station KPFK-FM (90.7) Tuesday afternoons at 4.)

Attending an 11 a.m. Sunday service at First Church may not be a religious experience but it is always an intensely political one.

On one of the bulletin boards in the shady cool church patio an announcement for a fund-raiser for presidential aspirant the Rev. Jesse Jackson hangs next to a large color picture of Central American soldiers standing near three civilian corpses.

On the Fellowship of Social Justice table nearby are stacks of periodicals and fliers and pamphlets and petitions to sign.

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The United Farm Workers want to mail you the truth about what pesticides do to the health of workers and consumers. The National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee tells you how to stop paying the federal tax on your telephone bills. A petition seeks signatures for an Income and Job Action Act that would legislate every worker’s right to a job at a decent wage.

On a recent Sunday morning at about 10:45 the patio echoes with the sound of Central American folk music. As the faithful arrive, Teresa Sanchez and other members of the Nicaraguan Cultural Alliance are selling Nicaraguan arts and crafts and periodicals to raise money.

Sanchez, 24, says she was initially drawn to First Church because of its long history of working in the Peace Movement, by its strong sense of community, and by Zwerling. Though brought up as a Roman Catholic in Pasadena, she describes herself as not a religious person.

She is “avowedly anti-Reagan” and “glad his reign is coming to an end, although our problems aren’t going to.” It’s true in general that politically the congregation is mostly from the progressive left, she says, but she’s “run into conservatives here, and libertarians. . . .”

Nearby, sitting alone on a bench reading an L.A. Weekly, is Sam Schiffer, 75. The dapper, tough-talking retired engineer and self-described left-winger regularly attends First Church services, he says, but is not an official member.

He comes because he “agrees with the broad policies” of the church. But he is quick to point out that he disagrees strongly with what he calls Zwerling’s “neglect of local issues” and his over-emphasis on history and distant problems. Specifically, Schiffer worries about the damage that will be done to the church’s poverty-pocketed Latino neighborhood by a planned Metro Rail station nearby, which he refers to with biting contempt as “a real-estate scam.”

By 11 a.m. about 160 people occupy about a third of the movie theater-type chairs in Fritchman Auditorium. In keeping with the philosophy of Unitarian Universalism--which eschews dogma or any set creed while stressing the innate dignity and rationality of each person and supporting each individual’s search for religious and ethical answers--the interior of Fritchman is devoid of religious imagery.

No crucifixes. No biblical figures on the stained glass windows. And no pews to kneel on. The only repeating icon in Fritchman is a peace dove, which adorns several First Church banners and flags hanging from the high walls. Songs sung are about social justice and brotherhood and are likely to be written by Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger.

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The Unitarian Universalist sermon is called an “address,” and the words God and Jesus Christ are seldom heard during it or at any other time during a First Church service. The “altar"--with its lectern-pulpit, a large vase of fresh flowers, a single candle and a big black piano--looks more like a stage.

‘Huckleberry Finn’ Reading

After a welcome in English and in Spanish by the bilingual Zwerling, a Ravel piano prelude begins the service. It’s followed by a reading from the book “Huckleberry Finn” (Zwerling’s address will discuss Mark Twain) and a 10-minute “spoken message” on Nicaraguan politics by Marcia Santos Fuchs, a church member just back from a visit to her native country.

As a young boy wearing a Disney sweat shirt quietly rolls around on the carpeted main aisle, the celebrants--predominantly female, Caucasian and well over 40--listen attentively and applaud politely at the end.

More music by pianist Tim Ehlen and a minute of silent meditation precede a few church announcements from Zwerling. Even those who can’t stand his message would concede that Zwerling is an excellent, endearing speaker.

He shares several anecdotes from schoolchildren about how to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey as he segues effortlessly into a Sunday duty that he always seems slightly uncomfortable with--the collection of money, which in the printed order of service is called “The sharing of responsibility.”

Ushers pass the baskets to Mozart’s Adagio in B minor K 540, then Zwerling begins his address, “Mark Twain: Brave and Bitter Humanist.”

Speaking in a strong voice and with a slight sing-song rhythm, but without histrionics, Zwerling lays on the erudition. It’s a coherent, well-structured history lesson, however subjective. He quotes from Twain at length, praising the author’s independent mind and drawing contemporary parallels to Twain’s anti-imperialism, support of women’s rights and his satirical attacks on political corruption, censorship and organized religion.

There is applause when Zwerling repeats Twain’s statement that he “was always on the side of the revolutionists” and when he notes that Twain didn’t believe in the Bible. Louder applause follows a quote from Twain to the effect that if Christ were here on Earth he wouldn’t be a Christian.

Loud, sustained applause follows when Zwerling finishes making his claim on Twain as a philosophical fellow traveler of First Church. He gets a near-unanimous and enthusiastic standing ovation.

As the people exit, Zwerling quickly circles around to greet them at the rear door that feeds into the patio. One of the first to exit is John Day, an 81-year-old veteran of the Spanish Civil War.

A truck driver with the anti-Franco Lincoln Brigade for 17 months in Spain, Day is a jolly soul dressed like a 1988 presidential candidate in blue suit, striped tie and penny loafers. He has been a member of First Church since 1952 and a member of the Communist Party almost all of his life.

“I guess I was born one,” says the Missouri-raised Day, sitting on a bench in the crowded, noisy patio. “My folks were socialists, and when the Socialist Party sold out, we went with the Communists.”

He’s generally pleased with First Church and thinks Zwerling is “tremendous. I don’t agree with him completely. He’s more along the philosophy of (Herbert) Marcuse than he is of Karl Marx. But on the other hand, he’s a very tremendously advanced person. . . .”

At 29, Kerry Thorpe is one of the few young adult faces on the patio. He’s been a member of First Church since he was 2. His father, he says, was a blacklisted teacher at Cal State L.A. and also a member.

Thorpe, who works at the Children’s Museum, is wearing a “We Want Peace” T-shirt. His politics are “pretty leftist, not just liberal. I hate to use the word radical --it sounds so cliched to me--but I’m pretty far left. There’s that catch phrase secular humanist , and I probably use that for myself.”

He is trying to explain why there are so few church members under 40 when a short man wearing a scarf around his neck and a T-shirt that reads “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights” appears and introduces himself.

“I’m Harry Schwartz,” he says, “a person with ARC (AIDS Related Complex).”

Schwartz, 36, says he’s the chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Unitarian Caucus, “a new group at the church, but one that’s growing.” (GLUC has put together a gay-themed service for today with guest speaker Leonard Matlovich, a gay AIDS activist and Air Force veteran of Vietnam who unsuccessfully challenged the military’s bar on homosexuality.)

Schwartz, who lives in the neighborhood, explains why he was drawn to First Church six months ago: “We--my lover and I--feel that it’s the main source of liberal Democratic thinking in L.A. I can think of no other organ that is quite as liberal and that appealed to us, as liberal Democrats.”

Ellen Hays, a former Presbyterian, and her husband Ted, a long-lapsed Roman Catholic, started attending about five years ago after seeing in the paper that Father Daniel Berrigan was speaking at First Church.

“We were so excited by what we found here,” Ellen says, “we said we’ll come again, and we’ve just never stopped coming.”

“We’re not church-going people at all,” explains Ted, 62. Employed in the printing business, he is wearing blue jeans and sneakers. “We found it was a place we could both worship and feel comfortable . . . This church has solidarity with people--it’s the thing I like about it. It is a multicultural, multilingual church and it is connected with the outside world. It doesn’t just have ritual and cant and liturgy.”

Ellen, a paid employee of a peace group, Office of the Americas, is unrestrained in her praise of Zwerling’s sermons and his encouragement of dissent.

“You can stand out here and argue,” she says. “He likes that. He doesn’t expect you to gobble it up and just say, ‘OK, well, that’s it,’ and leave.”

As an example of Zwerling’s sense of fair play, Ted says, he recently invited a local director of B’nai B’rith to debate him after the Jewish organization took issue with a Zwerling address that argued that being anti-Zionist is not being anti-Semitic.

“It was very exciting,” Ellen says. “You don’t have that at a lot of churches.”

By about 2 p.m. the patio is quiet. A Latino boy is riding a skateboard. In Fritchman, about 30 people are attending a memorial service that Zwerling is conducting for a member who died recently.

At one end of Channing Hall, where an inexpensive lunch that includes 50-cent tuna sandwiches and 25-cent pie is a big draw after each service, about 10 people linger at the cafeteria tables. At the other end, Edward Couture, a fully bearded high school French teacher in a rumpled sweater, is packing books into boxes.

A 15-year member, he says he started coming to First Church because he found the people and the program interesting. He volunteers each week to handle the sales of donated used books and periodicals such as Town & Country, People’s Daily Life and Boys Town Quarterly.

Couture’s wife, Marilyn, is the church secretary. They were married at First Church 14 years ago, he says. “We used to come to lectures here--Jane Fonda, Paul Robeson. They used to have a Friday night forum series that was interesting. We found the whole atmosphere intellectually stimulating. They don’t do so much of that anymore.”


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