Born Again : For Decades They Were Secure in Affluence and Influence : Now Wilshire Boulevard's Old Churches, Suddenly Strangers in Their Own Neighborhood, Struggle to Adapt and Survive.

Times Staff Writer

They were built as God's mighty fortresses, massive edifices that once housed the biggest, wealthiest, most influential, white Protestant congregations in Los Angeles.

But beneath the soaring steeples that have been neighborhood fixtures for decades, the giant churches on Wilshire Boulevard between Hoover Street and Highland Avenue have undergone a dramatic transformation, swept by the same ethnic and economic forces that are reshaping all of Los Angeles.

In the process, the mid-Wilshire churches have seen their congregations dwindle, sometimes almost to extinction. As their traditional members drifted to the suburbs or advanced into old age, many of the churches found themselves almost-deserted islands in a sea of shifting ethnic neighborhoods. They also have seen their finances and influence diminish.

Only recently have the institutions--among them First Baptist Church of Los Angeles, First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, St. James Episcopal Church, Wilshire Christian Church and Wilshire United Methodist Church--begun to deal with their new sort of mission: a quest for survival.

Today they are trying to attract new members, not just whites but also blacks, Latinos, Koreans and Filipinos. They are trying to reach out to their new neighbors and neighborhoods with child care, English classes, food for the hungry and high-rise housing for the elderly poor. The once-staid churches are tapping technology and embracing innovations they never would have considered before, such as having studios film in their buildings.

"We are never again going to be called a fashionable, wealthy church and I think that's good," said Ruth Beck of Pasadena, who lived near Immanuel Presbyterian when she joined in 1955. "The old times were wonderful, and we couldn't help but enjoy the attitude that prevailed. But whether we were really doing what we should . . . I don't know. . . . We have wonderful memories. But now we have wonderful goals: feeding the hungry, clothing those that don't have clothes and ministering to those in need.

'Strong Missionary Church'

"We have always been a strong missionary church and we have built schools in Egypt and sent missionaries all over the world," Beck said. "But now the world is right at our door."

That new ethnic-international presence is easy to see in the mid-Wilshire churches.

On a recent Sunday at Wilshire United Methodist, for example, Koreans and Latinos conducted separate services in small chapels in the building. At a private grade school on another day in nearby First Congregational, an interracial group of children in a sandbox argued over who was to hold what roles when they played house. At First Baptist on yet another day, Koreans sat in the lobby and read newspapers or studied English in church classrooms, while in another part of the building, Latino gang members rehearsed the ballet "Sleeping Beauty." Such scenes would have been improbable in years past when the mid-Wilshire churches were surrounded by affluence and packed every Sunday.

"When I first came here in 1923, there was nothing but beautiful residences lining Wilshire Boulevard with the tall Washingtonian palms on each side of the street," recalled Odell McConnell, a lawyer who joined Immanuel Presbyterian in 1924. "The Ambassador Hotel was about the only commercial building on Wilshire at that time. . . . There were people of all racial varieties. But there were many prominent people, people of means. It was one of the wealthy neighborhoods of the city."

The affluent also flocked to the area churches. In the early 1940s, First Congregational, at 540 S. Commonwealth Ave., called itself the world's largest Congregational church. Then under the direction of Dr. James W. Fifield Jr., it claimed it had a flock of 5,000. Its members would include actor Charlton Heston and Mayor Norris S. Poulson.

At stately Immanuel Presbyterian, "the sanctuary was full every Sunday," Beck recalled. "Not every seat was occupied, but it was comfortably full and looked like a big crowd. The choir had 75 members. The music program was second to none. . . . On Easter Sunday we'd have to have two services and it would overflow into Chichester Chapel. . . ."

But in the mid-1940s, older, affluent white members slowly began to move from the mid-Wilshire area to the suburbs, where they joined new churches.

The decline of big inner-city institutions like those on mid-Wilshire only hastened in the 1960s, '70s and '80s when the young rebelled against the Establishment, then many worshipers determined that religion was a private matter and did not require them to affiliate with a church, say Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, authors of "American Mainline Religion."

By the time the Rev. Dr. Gary A. Wilburn arrived last Christmas to head Immanuel Presbyterian, the membership at the imposing Gothic cathedral at Wilshire Boulevard and Berendo Street had declined to 800 from its 1943 high of 4,300; attendance at Sunday services in the church's 2,000-seat sanctuary had dwindled to about 250.

The congregation also was aging rapidly: 70% of its members were older than 60. "There was a lot of white hair," Wilburn said. "There were wonderful people, many who had been here 50 or 60 years. . . . It had just about reached its bottom. . . . All the (membership) charts had been pointing downward for 40 years."

While he sees signs for optimism--an increase in pledges for a church fund-raiser and an upswing in first-time visitors, now about 20 a week--Wilburn does not believe that Immanuel Presbyterian will recapture its glory days.

"Now we're starting to come back up," he said. "I don't anticipate us being a church of 4,300. I do anticipate us being a church that is part of the city."

The slice of Los Angeles shared by Immanuel Presbyterian and other mid-Wilshire churches no longer is exclusively residential. It is filled with offices, restaurants and shopping malls. The area, which demographers report has a median household income of $18,992, has its share of the hungry and poor.

Increasingly, the neighborhood also is home to minorities. National Planning Data Corp., a New York demographics firm, estimates the mid-Wilshire area has a 42.5% Latino and 8.7% black population based on figures from the 1980 Census. (The firm did not have figures for Asians.)

Actively Recruiting Minorities

Many of the mid-Wilshire churches have broken with the past and now actively are trying to recruit minorities. First Baptist, whose members voted in 1951 to bar two black women from integrating its congregation, now has a flock that includes 17% Latinos, 13% Koreans and 10% Filipinos and blacks, said Florence Slade, a black Gardena resident and First Baptist moderator (president).

"The fact that our congregation is interracial and ecumenical is very realistic," she said. "There's a strangeness because of a language barrier and a cultural difference. But I think . . . the groups are getting along well because they realize basically we all want the same things for ourselves."

That is not to say, however, that the church integration has occurred without opposition. "We might as well tell the truth: We've lost members over it," said the Rev. William Boggs of the Wilshire United Methodist. "This kind of multicultural religious experience is not for everyone. We admit that."

And while relationships may be harmonious in church, some clergy say there appears to be little socializing among members outside. "It's a constant agenda item," said the Rev. John Townsend of First Baptist. "When a new member joins, we try to match that person with an old member. Ideally, there is interaction beyond the church's program. I cannot say it's a resounding success. But we work at it. Obviously, language is the biggest barrier."

(That has been less the case at the largest mid-Wilshire Roman Catholic church, St. Basil's, which has an ethnically diverse and growing membership. St. Basil's, which built a 1,000-seat sanctuary 18 years ago to replace a wooden-building half that size, now has a membership that includes about 62% Asians, 11% Latinos and 2% blacks. But the vast majority of the Asians are Filipinos who speak English, said the Rev. Frank Meskill, who noted the church offers seven Masses on Sundays, including a service in Spanish. It now sometimes accommodates as many as 7,000 people a day.)

To help resolve language problems, many mid-Wilshire churches have hired special clergy to act as translators; First Baptist offers its Latino and Korean congregants headsets so they can hear a simultaneous translation of the Sunday service.

The churches, as part of broader efforts to reach and help their new members and neighbors, also offer English classes for adults and nursery or grade school programs for youngsters. First Baptist, Wilshire Christian and St. James Episcopal have helped to build high-rises for low-income senior citizens. Many of the churches have joined programs to feed the hungry and promote literacy.

As a result of their activism, the big church buildings are busy many hours of the day--a situation current members want to maintain.

"We've got this big plant and it should be in use," said Richard Meek, 77, who joined Wilshire Christian at Normandie Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard 32 years ago. Meek, who has been volunteer treasurer since 1963, said some members may believe a church is "only there to promote religion.

"But if the mid-Wilshire churches don't do this work, then who will?" he asked. "As a matter of fact, that's one of my principal reasons for sticking around--doing things that need to be done in the community."

Meantime, the mid-Wilshire churches continue to pursue other efforts to build their congregations and boost their revenues. First Congregational's board has approved spending $100,000 for radio programs to attract members from across Los Angeles, the first time in many years the church has taken to the airwaves on a regular basis, said the Rev. Eric Killinger, minister of evangelism and pastoral care.

Leaders at Immanuel Presbyterian have printed a new brochure to make film and television crews aware of the versatility of the 200-room church for shooting. Film and TV companies, which shot at the church last year, donated $20,000; the church has no set fee schedule for its use.

These and other innovations, along with membership increases, will help the mid-Wilshire churches better cover some of the enormous costs to run their giant buildings.

(Just how big are the churches? Immanuel Presbyterian, for example, occupies half a city block on Wilshire Boulevard and has 200 activity areas, including a weight room; basketball court; two handball courts; art, music and dance studios; seven meeting halls; and a fully maintained restaurant kitchen and a 275-seat dining room that doubles as a theater.)

The 350-member Wilshire Christian spends $300,000 annually to stay open, said the Rev. James W. Pierson, who noted the church raises $150,000 from its Sunday collections and $150,000 from its endowment and programs, such as a preschool-kindergarten.

Wilshire Christian has been forced to pare its expenses sharply; the congregation once was served by three full-time ministers, four custodians and four secretaries but now has one full-time minister, one custodian and two secretaries.

With 1,500 or so members, First Congregational is bigger and even more costly to run than Wilshire Christian. It has budgeted $1.65 million for fiscal 1988-89; its financial plan also includes a projected debt of $227,000.

Roy Nelson, a congregation member who serves as volunteer treasurer, said the church has had balanced budgets for years but will run a deficit in the '88-89 year for a reason: "All the increases are going pretty much into what you would call public relations.

"We feel that if we can engage in some electronic activity (radio broadcasts and television commercials), not only will we minister to the people but may attract some of them into the church itself. Once we attract them, we hope they'll stay. We have a beautiful facility to worship in."

Despite the troubles that beset them, the mid-Wilshire churches will keep the faith, their spiritual leaders say.

"I think the parish made a decision some years ago to stay and embrace the neighborhood and whatever that meant in terms of change," said Father Charles Rowins of St. James Episcopal Church. "Certainly it has proved a wise decision for St. James. I think one of the things that characterizes the parish now is real diversity ethnically and racially. . . . The diversity in part is the thing that is attracting new families to the parish.

"I think our population is growing by about 50 to 100 a year. It's not for everybody. People will grumble. But I see a consensus about the direction the church is moving, of being open to the community and ministering to it. I think there's a real excitement about being an urban church. It's quite an invigorating spirit."

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