On a spur-of-the-moment visit several years ago to Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose in Long Beach, the Rev. Frederick K. C. Price had a vision.
"When we walked in that building to see the airplane, I said, 'This is what we need,' " Price recalled in a recent interview.
Price immediately scrapped earlier construction plans and decided instead to build a domed church modeled after the building that houses the enormous wooden seaplane.
On Sunday, the nation's largest house of worship--a "FaithDome" with seating for 10,145 worshipers--will open for regular services in South-Central Los Angeles.
"They always say we can't do it, and we can--right in the ghetto," said church member Jannette Fant, referring to skepticism about the grandiose project she said she encountered from her white co-workers at a local aerospace company.
The $9-million geodesic structure at the old Pepperdine University campus on Vermont Avenue was built for what may be the largest predominantly black church in the country, Crenshaw Christian Center. The still-growing congregation of more than 16,000 people already is the largest Protestant church in Southern California.
The gleaming church-in-the-round throws an unaccustomed spotlight on Pastor Fred Price and his high-energy, tightly run minis try--despite his shunning of publicity and his policy of keeping out of community issues.
Price has quietly carved out both a successful nationwide television ministry, and has built a well-to-do church--with an annual budget between $16 million and $20 million--that sets him apart from nearly all other inner-city congregations.
The generosity of Price's flock amazes church leaders. Crenshaw Christian Center paid the balance owed on the $14-million campus last May, years ahead of schedule.
When Price leads churchgoers into the FaithDome at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, there will be only $2 million left to pay on the $9-million building.
Price's low profile apparently has spared him criticism over that much money going into property and buildings rather than social programs, which are limited at the church to a day-care facility and a weekly drug and alcohol recovery program.
The Rev. William R. Johnson, a Compton pastor who co-chairs the South Central Organizing Committee, said: "I have not heard one fellow pastor speak critically or positively of Fred Price."
Ills of Society Stressed
However, Johnson stressed that churches "have to be actively involved in correcting the ills of our society. I don't think we can isolate ourselves spiritually. We cannot just close our eyes."
Price says he simply tries to do what God calls on him to do. "The Bible tells us to pray and honor those who are in authority. I encourage my people to vote; we're very strong on that. The changes in the cities are going to happen with what people do, not by me getting involved," he said.
Said church member Barbara Crump: "The dome is not just a place for show; it's to change people's lives."
The white aluminum dome--located at the west end of the 28-acre church complex and visible from the Harbor Freeway--will likely join Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral, pastored by the Rev. Robert Schuller, as a tourist sight. As striking as that glass church is, however, the Crystal Cathedral seats only 3,000 people. Only a couple of other Southern California churches seat 4,000.
Most Spacious Church
The FaithDome's 10,145 seats tops the nation's previously most-spacious churches--the 10,000-seat Assembly of God facilities in Lakeland, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., according to John N. Vaughan, a "mega-church" researcher at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo.
When empty, the floor of the 320-foot-wide FaithDome resembles a huge, shallow pool. Blue, theater-style seats and carpeting fan out in a gentle upward slope from the central pulpit area. The center of the dome is about 75 feet high. A "sound cloud" device is suspended from the roof to absorb exterior noise, especially from airplanes approaching Los Angeles International Airport.
Crenshaw Christian Center bought the Pepperdine site in 1981, when the then-11,000-member congregation was outgrowing its Inglewood church. While the dome was being built, Price has led three services each Sunday morning in a renovated auditorium on the old campus, averaging a total of 4,500 worshipers.
Single Service Preferred
"Multiple services are horrendous," Price said. "The purpose of the building is to have one service. And if I can get 10,100 people into one service, that's more than we're doing now."
Would-be churchgoers said long lines and poor seating at the smaller auditorium discouraged them from attending Sunday services, Price said.
Many people have been introduced to Price's church through television. His weekly televised program now has the ninth-largest audience--430,000 viewers--among nationally syndicated religious shows monitored by Arbitron, a television rating company. The show is seen in the Los Angeles area at 8:30 a.m. Sunday on Channel 11.
The 57-year-old minister is an independent pastor in the charismatic, or Pentecostal, movement. His theological kinship is closest to the faith-healing, tongues-speaking ministries of Oral Roberts and Kenneth Copeland. Virtually everything bad that happens can be blamed on Satan and everything good can be attributed to God and faith.
Like those Bible Belt preachers who befriended him years ago, Price receives criticism from some evangelicals for espousing a "prosperity gospel"--that in return for faith and generous giving, God will reward believers with an "abundant life."
William Pannell, an evangelism professor at Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary, said Price's theology "would not play well" in most departments of the mainstream evangelical seminary. "But he impresses me as being very astute," Pannell said.
"Price has demonstrated that a significant percentage of black people want to be taught, not preached at. A lot of young adults want to know what the Bible says and how it applies to one's life," said Pannell, who directs Fuller's masters' program for black pastors.
Price's hourlong Sunday sermon, which is taped for his "Ever-Increasing Faith" television program, most resembles a lesson by a popular, humorous Sunday school teacher. Rather than standing at a pulpit, Price roams the front of the sanctuary, bantering with people in the pews as he cites Bible verses to make his points.
"He talks like he would if you were on the street with him . . . everyday conversation . . . but from the point of view of God and the Bible," said longtime member LeRoy Jeffries, a retired marketing consultant.
Unaffiliated with any denomination, Price is the biblical authority for his church. No cross adorns a building in the Crenshaw Christian complex, nor are any crosses sold in the church bookstore. "If Jesus stayed in the grave, he was a man just like any other man. The victory is in the Resurrection," Price said.
One member characterized Price as "a perfectionist who is extremely consistent" on biblical interpretation. With the spontaneity characteristic of a Pentecostal church, Price's congregation had sometimes applauded God as a way to express appreciation for something good that happened. "But we stopped clapping recently because he said the Bible does not mention applause as a way to praise God," the member said.
Drives a Rolls-Royce
Price is sometimes criticized by outsiders for his expensive clothes and rich tastes. The Rolls-Royce that Price drives was a gift from members a few years ago. "We knew he had a desire to have one," said the church member, who lauded Price's integrity but did not want to be identified.
The pastor said his church and TV ministry barely felt any side effects from the 1987-88 televangelist scandals. The only complaints he received within the church during that period, Price said, were legitimate questions raised about "premature" spending on a cafeteria, grammar school and a school of ministry. "I didn't realize we were starting them by using our reserve funds rather than making them pay for themselves," he said.
But Price admitted he does not want evangelical watchdogs poking into his books. Crenshaw Christian Center early this year decided to drop out of both the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and the National Religious Broadcasters. Both groups have tightened their requirements for financial standards in light of the scandals.
None of Their Business
"They started asking for stuff we felt wasn't any of their business," Price said. "They wanted to know how much we pay people and all that."
His church's steady growth has given Price confidence that he's on the right track, but he betrays a defensiveness at times.
He used a series of sermons last year to answer a letter writer who challenged his call for members to pray that rain wouldn't fall and slow work on the FaithDome's parking lot.
Not denying that the rest of the city could use occasional rain, Price added, "It would be fine if it just rains across the street."
Justifying his position with an array of biblical quotes and interpretations, he brought cheers from his congregation when he also tossed in a love-me-or-leave-me argument:
"It is God's will that we build that sanctuary. I'm convinced of that. . . . You don't want to cooperate? Hit the street! Go someplace where they don't pray against the rain. It's not your ministry. God told me to start this ministry before you ever got here. Get on, get out or get run over, 'cause we're going through!"
Later in the sermon, musing over other misunderstandings, Price exclaimed in mock astonishment, "Can't you figure out anything for yourself? Good thing God sent me here!"