The five Sunday services at West Angeles Church in the Crenshaw district are so packed that hundreds of worshipers hear the sermon via satellite in an old theater across the street. Church regulars say that to get a good seat in the sanctuary, they must show up at least an hour early.
That's why the groundbreaking for the massive West Angeles Cathedral on Sunday was so important to the members of this congregation of the Church of God in Christ. Funded largely by the 17,000 congregants, the planned $50-million structure is the sort of grand, roomy home that church leaders have long sought.
"We need a new house. We've outgrown our old house, and we need to build a new one," said Phil Hart, project manager of the new cathedral. "Tomorrow we start."
The church's thousands of members dominate this neighborhood each Sunday. Flooding out of the cramped 1,200-seat church, the well-dressed worshipers in Sunday clothes clog the sidewalks and nearby restaurants. Street vendors set up shop on the weekends, catering to the crowds.
To house his massive congregation, Bishop Charles E. Blake, the church's leader, envisions a gleaming campus of natural stone, concrete and glass. If all goes as planned, the compound will include a Bible college, counseling center, large dining room, administrative offices, bookstore and an arts center.
"This means more than the building of something spectacular in an underprivileged area that's never seen anything like this," said Sunny Njeri, the director of fund-raising. "The bishop is putting together more then just a building."
Blake wants his church to serve as the spiritual, social and economic heart of the community. Suggestions that the $50 million needed to build the structure might be better used elsewhere don't go over well.
Blake told the assembled dignitaries and worshipers Sunday that he is "incensed" that while the casinos of Las Vegas are tolerated, "when we prepare to invest millions in God's place, there are those that would criticize us."
Church leaders say the construction will bring $100 million to the economically depressed Crenshaw corridor. They also cite their use of minority-owned architecture and contracting firms.
But there's no question that those eventual benefits require a serious sacrifice. Celebrity church members Denzel Washington and Earvin "Magic" Johnson have each contributed $5 million to the capital campaign. The average member has donated about $20 a week for the last two years.
Church leaders are convinced that it is worth the cost.
"Why should we skimp on God's house and spend billions on museums and millions on ballparks?" Njeri asked. "We believe that structures that are committed to God need to be beautiful and people need to be proud to go there."
By 2000, God's new house on Crenshaw should be ready. The first phase of construction, which includes the main sanctuary and parking, begins today. Funding for the about $30-million portion of the project is "96% secured." The balance, which is needed to complete the campus, still needs to be found.
The thousands gathered at the festive groundbreaking Sunday were confident that would happen.
"It shall be done, it shall be done, it shall be done in the name of Jesus," sang the choir and the crowd, as a troupe dressed in white and gold danced to the music of a backing band. The jubilant mood was hardly tempered by the realization of the long road to completion.
"This is a great day, it's a day to celebrate," Washington said as crowd members surged forward to get a better look at the Hollywood star. "Pat yourself on the back today, and reach into your wallets tomorrow."