Good Shepherd Praised as Flock Changes to Black
Percia Hutcherson remembers the day 28 years ago when she and her husband, having just moved with their children from Minnesota to a Crenshaw District neighborhood of Los Angeles, found a new “home” in a year-old church called Christ the Good Shepherd.
As blacks settling into what was then the predominantly white Leimert Park neighborhood, Hutcherson said her family felt a little unsure about how well they would be accepted until they visited the 250-member Episcopal Church.
“We felt wanted and like we were a part of the family. There was never any uncomfortable feeling,” Hutcherson, 66, recalled. “There was a real spirit at work in that place.”
Today, that spirit of acceptance and community lives on, said Hutcherson, a physical therapist who watched her church change with its community, becoming fully integrated, then nearly all black. All the while, it has maintained an unusually strong tradition of community service, church and black community leaders say.
Black community leaders, who watched many urban churches close their doors or follow their white congregants to the suburbs, praised Good Shepherd for being an exception to the rule.
“The fact that it remained in the community even through changes is one of the most important things to point to” when evaluating the role of Good Shepherd, said the Rev. Thomas Kilgore, retired pastor of the Second Baptist Church and a member of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. “The church must be an instrument that looks beyond race and income in serving the community and Good Shepherd has been particularly successful in that.”
For the Episcopal Church, which has worked to overcome an image that its members are mostly affluent whites, Good Shepherd is a source of great pride.
“I think in the past the Episcopal Church has been identified as being overrepresentative of a certain socioeconomic group. But it has also worked to reach out and expand its ministry,” said the Rev. Philip Lance, the Episcopal diocesan associate for urban ministry.
“Good Shepherd is an example we often cite when we are working with other parishes--in Hollywood, for example, and in Hispanic communities--to strengthen their ministries,” Lance said. Good Shepherd is also one of four designated parishes in the Los Angeles area the national Episcopal leadership has cited for recognizing the needs of the poor and the oppressed.
“One of the things churches are faced with is the changing ethnic neighborhoods in the city. If churches don’t change they will become isolated and out of touch. Good Shepherd is a successful example of a church changing with its community, someplace that the diocese can point to,” Lance said. “There were people there early on with that vision.”
Indeed, the church, where the number of congregants has remained at 250, has surprised many with the ambition and success of its community programs. Community leaders point to Good Shepherd as an example of what a small congregation with limited resources can accomplish.
“It has been central in terms of its sensitivity to the community,” said Bishop H.H. Brookins, a prominent black community leader and a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “It is recognized throughout the city for its deeds.”
Among those deeds are:
- Housing and an “independent living center” for the disabled.
- Apartments for the elderly.
- A hospice program of volunteers to help the terminally ill and their families.
- A summer day camp for Skid Row children.
- A Sunday morning “farmer’s market,” which sells fresh produce at discount.
- A yearly food distribution campaign.
- Youth education and counseling programs.
- Trips for area youths to black colleges throughout the country.
On the drawing boards are a program to provide medical care to the homeless and expansion of the hospice project.
Much of the money for the projects comes from the congregation. This year, members pledged $104,694 to run the church and its programs, according to Aylene Moore, a member of the 13-person vestry, a group elected by church members to oversee its affairs.
About 35% of the church’s annual budget is used for outreach programs, Moore said. The church occasionally receives money from the national and local dioceses for projects as well as from private groups and companies. The Brotherhood Crusade, for example, an activist group in South-Central Los Angeles, has contributed to the hospice program.
The church also received federal loans to build senior citizen housing.
Decisions on how to spend the money and what projects the church will undertake are made by the vestry, which sets up a committee to make progress reports to the rest of the congregation.
Moore said about 25% of the parish’s members do volunteer work in one or more of the church’s projects.
Ideas for projects often come from congregation members. For example, the church’s Center for Independent Living was born from Hutcherson’s experiences of trying to help one of her patients, a quadriplegic man who became an inspiration for the parish.
After long and frustrating efforts to find care and housing for the man and his seven children, several members decided that “we could help others in the same condition,” Hutcherson said.
They discovered that problems typical of the inner city were compounded for the handicapped. Most did not know what services they were entitled to, and there was no agency in the area to address their social, economic and spiritual needs.
The parish voted $1,500 to begin a handicapped program in 1974. And in 1976, the Good Shepherd Center for Independent Living--professionally staffed and offering counseling, transportation and tutoring services--was created. The center, a couple of blocks from the church and now subsidized by the city, attracts disabled people from throughout South-Central Los Angeles.
Projects like these have earned the church admiration from within the Episcopal hierarchy.
Bob Williams, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese, said: “Many parishes twice or three times the size of Good Shepherd have not had the impact it has had. Some of the projects it has championed are unique in the diocese.”
The Rev. Kenneth Higginbotham, the Good Shepherd rector who arrived in 1979 from a post as assistant to the bishop in Washington, said: “It is the most loving congregation I’ve ever been involved with.
“I chose the church because I had heard it had so few members yet was doing so much in the community.”
The tradition began early. The church was formed in 1959, the result of a merger between Christ Chapel, Good Shepherd, and St. Andrews, and news accounts of the merger mention one of the parish’s first acts: its children bringing gifts for the approximately 95 children of Venetie, Alaska, a small Indian village in the northern part of the state.
Farm Worker Ministry
In the years since, the church has been involved in many causes--in the 1960s, for example, it supported an active farm worker ministry, and many of its members were involved in the civil rights movement.
Moore, a member of the church since 1970, said the parish then was dominated by the well-to-do and middle-classes, white and black: “Then it was judges, lawyers and doctors--the majority of parishioners were more comfortable than they are now. Now we still have doctors and lawyers, but we also have many more seniors on fixed incomes and people with limited incomes or no incomes. It makes the church more interesting to me because of the wide range of people.”
Martha Siegel, a white member of the parish for more than 20 years before being ordained an Episcopal priest in 1987 and taking up a post at a Westside church, said her Good Shepherd experiences are a source of deep personal enrichment.
“I bridged a time when the community was fairly integrated until it was almost entirely black,” Siegel said. “I found it was a tremendous learning experience. I lived in the community and developed relationships that will exist for the rest of my life.”
Siegel recalled being stopped on her way to church one morning after the 1965 Watts riots. National Guardsmen were trying to keep “outsiders” from entering black neighborhoods and had set up checkpoints in the then-transitional Crenshaw area. “I told them it was my church and I was going to attend,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the congregation has put its community projects ahead of church maintenance and only now is the building getting a much-needed face-lift.
But parishioners say that they would not have had it any other way.
“When I think about this church I think about how God has used it as a tool,” Hutcherson said. “Help has come from sources that you least expected. There has always been somebody waiting to pick up the mantle.”