At nearly quarter to three Sunday morning, the griddles at Hamburger City were cooling off and the parking lot at the Page Four Lounge had finally emptied out.
But on the other side of Martin Luther King Boulevard, behind the pulpit of the Bethany Baptist Church of West Los Angeles, the Rev. T. M. Chambers was only beginning to step into high gear.
Exhorting more than 300 worshipers to reach out to the Lord for religious edification, for saintly inspiration and for Christian rejuvenation, Chambers railed mightily against “spiritual snacks and gospel leftovers.”
“You’ve got to be in shape to withstand Satan,” the bearded preacher bellowed, urged on by an Amen chorus. “The train is leaving the station, you’d better get on board.”
Leaping Onto Pews
Then, springing into his summation, Chambers leaped off the altar and vaulted onto the first row of wooden pews.
“S’cuse me,” he shouted, his hands and face tilted toward the heavens. “I’ve got to move upstairs .”
No matter what time of night or day, it’s hard to nod off at Bethany’s annual 24-hour Gospel Marathon, the only one of its kind in Los Angeles.
“I wouldn’t miss this for anything--if I was in traction, I’d make them wheel me in,” enthused one long-time congregant, Norma Washington, as she sipped a cup of tea while awaiting a sermon from a minister who had just driven down from Oakland.
Now in 10th Year
Now in its 10th year, the marathon was conceived by Bethany’s pastor, the Rev. Rocellia Johnson, as a sort of Olympics of prayer, a 7-Eleven approach to fighting sin, a battle of the preachers, an ultimate revival meeting.
As Johnson figured it, too many non-churchgoers have too often used the excuse that they could not find time to attend services. Others said they were just plain turned off to the frequent demands for donations. Johnson’s solution: a free, non-stop 24-hour gospel service.
“We don’t take any offerings,” explained Bethany spokeswoman Gerri Landry. “And over 24 hours, no one has an excuse not to come. If they work the day shift or the night shift, whenever they’re ready we’ll still be open . . . even when the bars have closed for the night.” In addition to fiery sermons, worshipers are regularly treated to gospel performances by an 80-member church choir, a prayer version of the “wave,” personal spiritual counselors, a bacon-and-egg breakfast, a brisket and mashed potatoes lunch and overnight care for toddlers and teen-agers.
This year, an added treat was an eight-member deaf choir, signing rather than singing its way through a version of “Praise Our Jesus.”
In all, more than 300 Bethany members pledged to remain for the entire 24 hours beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday, many sporting buttons that read, “I am committed to stay.”
Among those most readily noticeable were a contingent of nine nurses decked out in gleaming white uniforms. “We’re available if anyone needs first aid or faints, or if there is another earthquake,” said Betty Johnson, a nurse’s aide.
(Last year, a major aftershock momentarily interrupted the marathon. However, there was no damage or injuries, and afterward “people really began to pray,” recalled Pastor Johnson. “We even had a fellow who had ducked out and gone home. He was pulling into his driveway when the earthquake hit--he turned sure around and came back.”)
Also among the all-night worshipers were several reformed drug abusers who received their first exposure to Bethany by stumbling in during previous marathons.
“I used to use cocaine, dope, anything I could get my hands on,” recalled Monique Taylor, a former professional singer garbed in a red and tan Bethany choir robe. “But I decided to try the marathon two years ago. The next thing I knew, I was taking a Bible class and then I joined the choir.”
Indeed, many of the prayers late Saturday were directed specifically toward the issues of drugs and gangs, a crucial issue at Bethany, which is housed in what was formerly a Jewish synagogue at the edge of the narcotic and street gang-infested Baldwin Village neighborhood of Southwest Los Angeles long referred to as “The Jungle.”
“We can get high, we can get real high,” declared Johnson, opening the services before an overflow crowd of almost 1,000. “It doesn’t cost a dime and you won’t come down on Monday. We’re going to prove to Los Angeles that Saturday night does not belong to Michelob. Saturday night does not belong to the devil, to sin and to drug dealers.”
“Pray for Los Angeles. Make the streets safe to walk down again.” As the evening progressed, Johnson was followed to the pulpit by the Rev. R. T. George of Oakland, who urged worshipers to “just call on Dr. Jesus--the Lord will do the impossible.”
Afterwards, George explained to a reporter his reaction to the exuberance of the audience: “I’m turned on like a Christmas tree. I’m all lit up.”
By midnight, dozens of youngsters had fallen asleep in the pews or in an adjoining child care room. But not Robbie Yancy, 10, who flailed away with a pair of drumsticks to the beat of the organ. Yancy’s mother, singer Natalie Cole, regularly sings at the Bethany marathon, but was unable to return in time from Europe this year, where she is in the midst of a series of personal appearances.
At 12:30 a.m., Chambers, pastor of the Greater New Brighter Star Church of Los Angeles, took the pulpit. Yet even at that late hour, the chapel remained nearly full--and was further swelled by a handful of tardy parishioners who continued to drift in.
“I was out at a party, but instead of going home, I’m staying here all night,” explained Alberta Tanner, who arrived at 1:30 a.m. decked out in a short, black cocktail dress. “Everyone parties, everyone has a good time, but this is one time each year where you can cut it short and go and spend the night at church with the Lord.”