Sharing the Faith : It’s partly economic. It’s partly a common interest in social issues. Mainline churches are opening worship space to other denominations.


It’s not smart for members of the Palms Westminster Presbyterian Church to oversleep Sunday mornings.

At 10:30 a.m., the quaint brick chapel echoes the sounds of a traditional Protestant service, but arrive 90 minutes later and it sounds more like Seoul as the Korean Evangelical Heaven Gate congregation gathers for noon worship in their native language.

Three hours later, First African Methodist Episcopal Mission Church members fill the space for their service, wrapping up a day of worship that began at 6 a.m. when the congregants of St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church prayed in Geez.


The church is indeed eclectic, but by no means is it the only one of its kind. Dozens of mainline churches in Southern California are now sharing their space with other denominations. In many cases, they are playing landlord to an international tenant list.

“It’s like going to a different country every Sunday morning,” says Sylvia Roodselaar, facilities manager for Palms Presbyterian. “You meet people you probably would never meet if you didn’t go to church.”

Indeed, along with a different religious tradition, the newcomers in Southern California usually bring their own culture and the practice of worshiping in their native language--Tagalog, Amharic and Chinese among them.

Space sharing speaks to a basic instinct: survival.

Often, the new congregants can’t afford a church of their own, and the old-line churches need the cash.

“At this point, the rent money is tempting to our members,” says the Rev. Bill Johnson of Palms Presbyterian, just off Robertson Boulevard near the Santa Monica Freeway. The church’s operating costs are from $7,000 to $10,000 per month; renters cover about half of that, says Blanche Van de Streek, financial secretary and a member of the church for almost 40 years.

Declining membership is another contributing factor in the need to share space.

Between 1970 and 1990, combined losses among the mainline Protestant churches in the United States totaled close to 5 million, according to David Roozen, director for the Center for Social and Religious Research in Hartford, Conn. He compiled the figures as part of a study on church growth--or lack of it.


Like most endangered species, these numbers started slipping before people even noticed. Johnson blames it on changing tastes in worship styles and says Presbyterians haven’t kept up.

“As a denomination we have forgotten how to express our feelings,” he says. “We’re very good at intellectualizing, but those churches that are growing have contemporary music and sermons on contemporary issues. Most other pastors are in a mold from 50 years ago.”

Donald Miller, a religion professor at USC, is studying Los Angeles city churches that share space.

“We run into the phenomenon in neighborhoods experiencing ethnic transition,” he says. Among them is the Wilshire corridor area, where once wealthy congregations built cathedral-like structures.

Their survival now depends on a gray-haired faithful remnant. “They are not maintaining their younger members,” says Miller.

The baby-boom generation tends to prefer new, interdenominational churches, with a cafeteria-style approach to tradition, Miller finds. Recent immigrants to the area don’t have the same hang-ups. They just want an affordable house of worship.


“We’re not seeing a decline in church attendance. But there is a shift in the ecology,” Miller says. “We are seeing a difference in the inhabitants of these older, traditional structures.”

Cohabitation can lead to marital bliss, especially for housemates willing to bend the old rules.

“Tradition can be paralyzing,” says the Rev. Huw Anwyl, a United Church of Christ minister based in Laguna Niguel. He says firmly held beliefs on matters such as the right time to worship or the right way to worship, can present problems.

Over the years Anwyl has taken in Catholics, Jews, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ. He’s been landlord to seven denominations that eventually went off to form churches of their own. (His current tenant is the Faith Community Episcopal Church.)

In addition, his own UCC church recently merged with a Disciples of Christ congregation to form a new parish. They all share Bible study, youth ministry and community outreach programs. The very way Anwyl answers the church telephone reflects his open attitude.

“When people call and ask, I say, ‘This is the Shepherd of the Hills Faith Center. There’s a service at 9 a.m. and at 10:15. Do what works for you.’ ”


Anwyl’s way is not all that uncommon, according to Wade Clark Roof, a religion sociologist at UC Santa Barbara. Two years ago, Roof identified this unorthodox approach to religious practice by boomers in his book, “A Generation of Seekers” (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993). He is working on a sequel.

While observing the changes in mainline denominations--such as sharing space--Roof has been tracking the shift in attitude behind it. “There is a new religious mood,” he says. “It puts the focus on commonalities rather than differences.”

He believes that society’s concerns about violence, gangs and child welfare are causing us to pull together. We’re willing to accommodate a wider range of faith traditions.

“In this context, creeds and other religious differences get played down,” Roof says. “Transcending them all is the Rodney King question: Can’t we get along?”


Getting along wasn’t always easy for Rabbi Bernie King and members of his synagogue.

“My experience was bittersweet,” says King, who moved his Temple Shri Ha-Ma’alot--a Reform Jewish congregation--into St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach 17 years ago. After joint education programs, interfaith services on Thanksgiving Day and the growth of a pluralistic preschool, the two communities agreed to put up a new building and split the costs.

St. Mark’s attracted new numbers while Temple Shri Ha-Ma’alot lost members to a nearby temple. “The competition became pretty fierce for our survival,” King says.


His congregation’s need for more flexible scheduling and the wish to start a Hebrew preschool presented problems. But he felt he couldn’t push too hard for change since St. Mark’s owned the property. Then came a proposal to remodel the worship space they had all built together.

“St. Mark’s wanted it. Our congregation was divided about it,” says King. “We didn’t own the land, they did, so we felt like renters. We started dragging our feet. Finally they exercised their option, and asked us to leave.”

“It was like sharing a home,” recalls the Rev. Robert Steward, associate pastor of St. Mark’s, about the experience. “We had to be careful not to step on each others’ toes. And of course we did, once in awhile.”

King compares it to a marriage. “If both sides want it, it works easily. But if not, it’s easy to make that happen, too.” He recommends starting from the ground up, purchasing land together, putting up a building together as equal partners.

Even then, when diverse ethnic and religious traditions come together under one roof, changes are inevitable. Four months ago, the Rev. Frank Alton moved from his missionary post in Mexico to become pastor of the Emanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. This fall, the church will add an ethnic concert series to the traditional baroque music series it is known for.

Alton envisions a Los Angeles that will someday offer multilingual, interfaith church services. Headphones will be handed out at the door and everything will be simultaneously translated. Participants will turn a dial to the language of their choice. In Alton’s church, the language dial could already offer English, Spanish, Korean and Tagalog.


“This is the future of the church, and the world,” says Alton. “How to make it work, at this point, is a question of trial and error.”

Johnson, new to Palms Presbyterian this summer from a church in El Cajon, is prepared to start small: “Imagine the ethnic food potluck suppers.”

Beyond that, several of his congregants attend Ethiopian Orthodox services for the annual feast of St. Mary. And there was a combined Christmas service with the Korean Evangelicals.

The Rev. Lois Woodard of the First AME church recalls the annual Pentecost Sunday service, where all four congregations at the Palms Presbyterian gathered to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s apostles. Members of each congregation read from the New Testament story in their native language.

“This is the modern religion story,” says Roof. “Obviously there are some economic factors at work, to survive. Yet, I sense a growing celebration of diversity. It’s not surprising that it takes a while to recognize one another. With hundreds of religious groups and new religious traditions being assimilated in Los Angeles, the process won’t occur overnight.”