Spiritual Magnets for Ethnic Cultures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you squinted your eyes a bit to block out the palm trees, you might think you were in a lively section of Warsaw.

The crowd of about 200 Polish-speaking people has gathered to hear Sunday Mass in its native language, in a church aglow with dramatic stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Polish history. Later, in the wood-paneled social hall, the worshipers will brunch on kielbasa and sugar-sprinkled angel wings baked by an 87-year-old parishioner.

Yet this is Central Los Angeles--the very non-Polish West Adams district, just south of the Santa Monica Freeway.

Not many of these refugees from hard times and political oppression in Eastern Europe live near this mainly African American and Latino neighborhood. Almost all have driven to Our Lady of the Bright Mount from suburban communities such as Tarzana, Simi Valley and Seal Beach. Many bring their children on Saturdays for Polish-language classes on the church campus.

"If you want to have something that is very dear to you in traditions or customs, you sacrifice some time," said retired architect Kazimierz Cybulski, who regularly drives the half-hour from Alhambra to Our Lady of the Bright Mount. "Especially in Southern California, you sometimes go farther to a restaurant than you go to church."

The willingness to drive long distances shows the powerful draw of churches and temples that embrace ethnic languages, history and cultures. Southern California is home to a dazzling array of them, including the newest Pentecostal storefronts for Salvadoran exiles, a Danish Lutheran church that moved from L.A. to Orange County two years ago, and black Baptist congregations whose founders came from the South a century ago.

Yet ever-shifting demographics and a constant flow of immigration have dissolved some enclaves and created others. Social and economic progress has taken its toll as people assimilate and move away.

Some churches try to stay alive with a far-flung commuter population. Others follow their members to the suburbs. Some attempt to recruit from other ethnic groups that have moved into their neighborhoods. And some just slowly die.

The ethnic churches offer not just spiritual comfort, but a cultural and social home away from home in a confusing metropolis.

They are "a kind of a glue that held these people together in a strange land," said Father Gregory Coiro, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "So even if everything else was foreign to them, their church and religion offered them some familiarity."

As a result, churches and temples "are one of the first things that immigrants establish, and they are often one of the last institutions for retaining cultural identity," said Joel Wurl, curator of the Immigration History Research Center, a think tank at the University of Minnesota.

A new crop of ethnic churches and temples has blossomed recently in Glendale's Armenian community, the Filipino blocks of Echo Park, the boulevards of Koreatown and the Iranian Jewish centers on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley.

In a generation or two, they may face the challenges of changing times seen by an Italian Catholic church in Los Angeles' Chinatown or by Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles in Rosemead.

"Once you get into the third and fourth generations, there is a renewed and growing interest in one's roots," but not a need or desire to live in an enclave, said the Rev. Ken Fong, senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist, which was founded in East Los Angeles by Japanese American immigrants in the 1920s.

Japanese Americans left their old Eastside ghetto as racial bias eased and the post-World War II community prospered. The Evergreen church sold its original building 11 years ago to a Latino Christian fundamentalist congregation and moved to Rosemead in the San Gabriel Valley, which is home to many Asian Americans. At the same time, Evergreen widened its ethnic base, attracting Chinese, Koreans and other Asian Americans from a broad suburban swath. Families of mixed ancestry find it a particularly congenial church.

"People come not as monoethnic," Fong said. "It is multi-Asian" and includes some whites and Latinos.

Before Evergreen Baptist moved to the suburbs, the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Boyle Heights moved 20 years ago to a more central location in downtown Los Angeles. The sanctuary on 3rd Street in Little Tokyo is fronted with carved wood sculptures painted in gold leaf and has incense pots shaped like dragons.

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The temple's priest, Noriaki Ito, said chasing the demographics today would be fruitless because younger Japanese Americans are so mobile. Like the Polish church, Higashi Honganji relies on long-distance commuters.

"Almost all of our members get on the freeway to get here, from Torrance, from Woodland Hills, the San Gabriel Valley," said Ito, whose father was rinban, or minister, of the old Boyle Heights temple.

A big problem for a commuter church, Ito said, is arranging youth activities during the week.

Also, social progress has triggered fears about the temple's future. As discrimination has eased, families have found more choices for their social lives, said member Mickey Okamoto of Gardena.

"We can join golf courses and country clubs," said Okamoto, 41, who owns a Little Tokyo greeting card store. "Before, we could only go to our own community centers or temples."

However, the ethnic pride movements born in the 1960s helped ease the pressure on minorities for quick assimilation, said Donald E. Miller, a USC professor of religion who has studied ethnic churches.

"I think Los Angeles is a phenomenal place because of its variety and our tendency to use the automobile. So if one chooses not to assimilate, it can be easier than other places," Miller said. "We don't have that many clear-cut ethnic neighborhoods like Chicago might. But on the other hand, since we are so used to commuting, it's easy to find an ethnic church with which to identify."

No religious leader wants to repeat the experience of the Breed Street Shul, the derelict relic of the once-thriving Jewish community in Boyle Heights. Its congregation dwindled as Jews moved westward. The temple closed in 1993, and the building's preservation and rightful ownership remain under debate.

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In July, the Los Angeles City Council moved to protect the earthquake-damaged and vandalized synagogue with barricades. One idea calls for moving the shul structure to another part of the city and reopening it as a museum or part of another synagogue.

The Emanuel Danish Lutheran Church took steps to avoid a similar death. A fixture of Leimert Park in Los Angeles since the late 1930s, the church sold its Scandinavian-style building in 1993 to the Victory Christian Center Church of God, a primarily African American congregation. The Danish Americans built a church in Yorba Linda in 1995, using the old wooden altar.

Before the move, Sunday service attendance had dropped to about 30 as older members died, others moved away and some complained about car break-ins near the church, which had no parking lot. The new setting, with parking, has boosted attendance to about 100 worshipers from San Diego, Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties, members say. Especially popular is the monthly Danish-language service.

Kate Nielsen, a 73-year-old council member of the church, drives 45 minutes from her Torrance home for an experience she says she can get no place else in the Southland. "It's almost like you've been spending a day with relatives," she said. "It's kind of cozy. People feel they belong."

The easing of some racial barriers has allowed African Americans to move westward and southward from the Central Avenue neighborhood near downtown. Second Baptist Church is a 112-year-old congregation that remains housed there in a 1925 yellow-brick landmark of black history. Now, fewer than 20% of its members live close by, said Pastor William Epps. That part of Central Avenue, once the West Coast's showplace for black culture, is now mainly Latino.

Churchgoers drive in from Ladera Heights, Pasadena, Van Nuys and Pomona. There are other black Baptist churches closer to them, but they pass them by for what they say is Second Baptist's special blend of heritage, music, ministry and activism. Particularly in the 1960s and '70s, the church was a center of the civil rights movement and protests against police brutality. In the 1940s and '50s, the church served as a forum for such controversial figures as singer Paul Robeson.

"The other churches don't have the history we have," said longtime member Jeanne Coleman, who lives in the West Adams area.

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Even though the neighborhood has changed, the church provides a sense of continuity in a city "where landmarks may be gone tomorrow," Epps said. Yet to make activities more convenient to members, Second Baptist sponsors midweek Bible classes in people's homes on the Westside and in the San Gabriel Valley.

For several years in the '80s, Second Baptist helped run a Spanish-speaking sister congregation, but that effort did not survive the illness of a Latino pastor.

"It's challenging, it's very challenging," Epps said of such cross-ethnic experiences. "You have many things mitigating against it--language barriers, cultural barriers."

Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Epps and other religious leaders point out that church services remain "the most segregated hour of the week in America," whether by race or by economic status. So Second Baptist will remain African American. "That's who we are," the pastor said. And the church is staying put for now at Griffith Avenue and 24th Street, although its leaders say the day may come when they commission a feasibility study about moving.

Our Lady of the Bright Mount has seen congregants move so far from original Polish settlements in the Mid-Wilshire district, Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles that its priests reverse-commute once a month to Camarillo and Long Beach to offer Mass. Yet officials say an influx of young families during Poland's 1980s martial law period invigorated the parish.

In 1944, the Polish community purchased the elegant mansion on West Adams, replacing an earlier center closer to downtown. For about a decade, Mass was celebrated in the large wood-paneled parlor until a modern church was built on the front lawn in 1956. With adjacent social hall, classrooms and retirement home, a Polish island exists for the 1,500 member families throughout the region.

A separate Polish center has opened in Yorba Linda. Still, the West Adams campus remains the main spiritual and cultural home, where polka groups rehearse and Polish literary salons are held. On Saturdays, American-born children of 1980s emigres learn to converse on international phone lines with Polish-speaking grandparents.

"For us, it's really important, a thing we feel obligated to do because they are Polish by blood," said Joanna Wyskowski, who brings her two sons every week from Tarzana. "Maybe they would rather play baseball, but we don't care. And I think they are enjoying this too."

Such a routine requires more effort than in Chicago, where altar boys can walk by themselves to church, said Father Edward Mroczynski, pastor of Our Lady of the Bright Mount. At a past assignment in a small Canadian city, he could visit most sick parishioners at the same hospital, not at medical centers across three counties.

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The Polish church in Los Angeles, he said, helps people with their adjustment to American life. But what about the American-born youngsters, particularly if they marry people who are not Polish? Will they still want to drive from the suburbs? How long can the church last? "At least another 20 or 30 years, and then we will see," Mroczynski said.

That sense of changing times and neighborhoods is strong at St. Peter's Italian Church on North Broadway near Dodger Stadium. A plaque above the front door of Casa Italiana, the parish social hall, proclaims: "The Italians, A people of Poets and Artists, of Heroes and Saints, of Thinkers and Scientists, of Migrants and Navigators." Many other signs in the area are in Chinese, reflecting the expansion of Chinatown.

Until the 1960s, the area had a strong Italian presence, with delis and bakeries, and the Roman Catholic parish recorded as many as 6,000 members. Now it has about 1,500 and hardly any live nearby. Many come only a few times a year for special feasts and holidays.

For the Mardi Gras Mass and the annual selection of the parish queen, about 400 people drove in from all over Southern California.

It was a warm atmosphere, nurtured by the pastor, Father Angelo Bordignon, and by parish administrator Donna Angiuli. "It's just a feeling of home, that's what it is," said Angiuli, of Alhambra.

But there are fears that the extended family is not sticking together as it used to. Even though more than 30 Italian American organizations hold meetings at the hall, church attendance has slipped in recent years, members say. Many younger Italian Americans have married non-Italians and live in the suburbs. So they feel less of a need to attend the Sunday 11 a.m. Italian-language Mass.

A nearby Chinese Catholic congregation is cramped for space and has made overtures about sharing St. Peter's. No such arrangement has been made, yet some Italian Americans believe their church may be Chinese-oriented within a generation. "It's going to happen one day. And everybody will be learning to face it," said Carrie Uva of Downey. "I'd say 10 to 15 years."

Meanwhile, as a positive vote for the future, Angiuli continues to take wedding and baptism reservations in the church office. "We are going to hold onto our Italian parish as long as we can," she said. "It is the one thing that holds us all together."

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