Rebuilt After Fire : Baptist Church Rises as Tribute to Generosity

Times Staff Writer

The Good Shepherd Baptist Church, rebuilt after a devastating fire, sits like a sparkling jewel on the corner of Figueroa and 53rd streets in South-Central Los Angeles.

It took five years and nearly $1.5 million to restore the sanctuary and neighboring educational center. The finishing touches remain undone, but Pastor Joseph L. Griffin says the buildings already stand as a testament to generosity and a symbol of hope in an aging neighborhood.

"It means new life for this community," Griffin said. "I think it's going to be an inspiration. I hope it opens the doors to improving the whole community."

Show of Generosity

Members of the congregation contributed large and small amounts. Good Shepherd took out a loan, and businesses and other churches helped out. But it was the generosity of a 98-year-old Beverly Hills woman that was most emphatically applauded by the church.

Pearl Berry Boyd, who never belonged to the church and declined to talk about her donations, has given Good Shepherd $485,000 since 1982, the year of the fire, according to Dan Jones, chairman of the church building fund and Boyd's chauffeur.

Flames tore through the boxy old building that had been Good Shepherd's sanctuary in October, 1982. The partially completed educational center, a two-story building that houses a large hall, offices and classrooms, was also gutted. Griffin said investigators determined that the fire was arson, but no arrests were ever made.

While their church was being rebuilt, the congregation of Good Shepherd, down to 400 from 1,500 when the church prospered in the 1960s, met for services at the nearby Hamilton United Methodist Church and then in the educational building, which was completed in 1986.

Church secretary Thelma Smith said membership has declined steadily as many elderly members have died and others have moved out of the area.

But just about every member of the church showed up last Sunday for the christening of the new sanctuary, which has eight wooden beams spanning its ceiling and organ pipes flowing out of the paneled walls on each side of the pulpit.

The exterior of the new building is modernistic and adorned by two large windows that stretch almost from floor to ceiling.

The church contrasts with the collection of small businesses and aging houses that surround it. It is in an area where gang violence claims young lives and drug trafficking is never far away.

Room for More

The new sanctuary seats about 500 people, while only about 300 could fit into the old one, Griffin said. While the pews of the old building were arranged in straight rows in front of the pulpit, pews in the new building are in a semicircle, affording a better view.

Last Sunday, smartly dressed church members took their places in the new pews and heard some words of caution from Griffin. He warned the congregation not to be overly caught up in the beauty of the structure, to continue their spiritual quest.

"It is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, but ugly people can be in a beautiful building," Griffin said, his voice rising.

The children seemed unaffected by their new surroundings. A girl rested her head on her mother's lap, while another played discreetly with a doll. A mother comforted her young son, who began crying when the preacher raised his voice.

Afterward, church members heaped praise on the new sanctuary and remembered the old one, where many of them had been baptized and later married.

Viole Steptore, 84, brought her 11-year-old grandson, Aron Bullock-Cheathen to the inaugural service. Aron was baptized in the old sanctuary.

"I wish the old one was still here," he said. "It's the one that I was raised in."

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