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A New Beginning, a Solemn End : Shepherd of the Hills Is Reborn, While Church of the Ascension Is Laid to Rest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Standing inside the nearly completed sanctuary of his Shepherd of the Hills Church several weeks ago, the Rev. Jess Moody said he was hoping the congregation’s costly, oft-delayed move from Van Nuys to Chatsworth was about over.

“We got a few bugs to get rid of,” Moody remarked.

Just then, Don Goeschl, the church’s building supervisor, reached down on the carpet and caught a cricket in his hand.

“And there’s one of them!” said the pastor known for his jocular, often flamboyant statements.

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The humor of Moody and his thinning congregation--formerly the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys--have been sorely tested, however, since he announced to members five years ago that they needed to relocate to the “Promised Land” of the west San Fernando Valley in order to keep that area “from Satan’s grip.”

Now, after paying what Moody said were $600,000 in city fees and $2.5 million in construction changes to satisfy building inspectors, the church held its first service Sunday inside the 66,000-square-foot, ranch-style building visible from the Simi Valley Freeway.

“We’re very excited about this lovely building,” Moody said. The structure includes classrooms, a children’s gym and a front lobby with a fireplace and sofas, prompting one church member to quip, “Hmmm, the Shepherd of the Hilton.”

The sanctuary has accounted for $9 million of the relocation’s $15-million cost. While continuing to support more than two dozen overseas missionaries and various Southern Baptist programs with $44,000 so far this year, the congregation’s deficit from unexpected costs has risen to more than $100,000.

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“No church has suffered so greatly to get into a building,” Moody wrote in a recent newsletter to the 1,700 to 1,900 families on the church’s mailing list. “We have more problems than we can solve, and we need every soldier in his place.”

The auditorium-size sanctuary holds up to 2,100 movable seats.

At the moment, however, active membership has suffered. Having sold its Van Nuys church complex in 1988, the congregation has had to content itself with Sunday services at Mason Recreation Center, Chatsworth High School and, in recent months, under a big, yellow tent on the new church’s 14-acre site.

“We’ve had very low attendance lately,” he admitted. “It got up to 106 degrees one day, and that just killed us.”

Moody said that, if everyone who has promised to become active in the church again shows up on coming Sundays, the church will have no problem moving ahead.

The church site is adjacent to that of the large Porter Ranch development project, where up to 3,395 houses and apartments are scheduled to be built in the hills above Chatsworth, giving Shepherd of the Hills an enviable potential for future growth.

In its heyday during the 1950s and early ‘60s, the First Baptist Church of Van Nuys boasted of having 12,000 members. When Moody became pastor in 1976, he claimed to discover that “3,000 members were in the underground church in Forest Lawn"--that is, deceased and not removed from the church rolls.

But a few hundred dissident members broke away in the late 1970s over practical and theological differences, and partly in objection to Moody’s push to link the once-independent Baptist church with the Southern Baptists.

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The church’s name was changed in the late 1980s to obscure its Baptist affiliation, Moody said, because surveys have indicated that many would-be churchgoers prefer a nondenominational approach.

The Texas-born Moody had previously pastored a Southern Baptist church in West Palm Beach, Fla., that eventually grew to 6,000 members. He founded Palm Beach Atlantic College, which remains a Southern Baptist-related school. The church television network he created, however, fell more than $300,000 into debt, and the Van Nuys church assumed that debt when Moody became pastor.

The garrulous Moody remains a popular figure in Southern Baptist circles. He said in August that he would run for president of the denomination at next year’s annual meeting in an effort to reconcile the fundamentalist leaders who have won key posts after years of bitter contention and the moderate factions that have begun a small separatist movement. Most Southern Baptist leaders have given Moody little chance to win, however.

When Moody used a little Baptist rhetoric about saving the West Valley from Satan’s clutches by relocating in Chatsworth, he apparently gave added impetus to the eventually successful fight by homeowners in the exclusive Monteria Estates to bar his purchase of land near their gate on Devonshire Street.

Although a Presbyterian church was already situated on the other side of the Monteria Estates entrance, City Councilman Hal Bernson backed the homeowners’ contention that the addition of Moody’s church would harm the environment, lower property values and clog streets with traffic. Defeated in that move, the congregation forfeited its $50,000 down payment.

“That was the best thing that ever happened to us. The Monteria people did us a favor,” Moody said in a recent interview. “We are visible from the freeway, and we have no immediate neighbors to complain about us. In fact, a homeowners association recently asked us if they could use our building for a meeting place, and we said yes.”

Moody, 66, said he has no immediate plans to retire.

“If my health is good and the people still love me, as I know they do, I’d like to be around another three to five years.

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“I don’t want to go through all this and not enjoy it.”

* WARM WELCOME: The Rev. Robert H. Schuller returns to his Crystal Cathedral pulpit. A3


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